As reports that Angels manager Mike Scioscia will step down at the end of the 2018 season make the rounds, it’s a good time to step back and take a long-view look at what kind of manager the Angels’ long-time skipper has been.
If reports are correct, Mike Scioscia will leave the Angels with over 1600 wins, 18th most on the all-time managerial list. His .537 winning percentage would place him 21st among the top 50 winningest managers. He owns two Manager of the Year awards, six division titles and, of course, the 2002 World Series championship.
He will also leave with just one playoff appearance in his last nine seasons at the helm of the Angels. This season, he saw his squad in first place in mid-May, then go a dismal 30-41 as his bullpen imploded, injuries culled his rotation, and the offense was once again merely mediocre despite being led by the greatest player of his generation. While it’s undoubtedly unfair to blame Scioscia for everything that’s gone wrong over the past decade, he is clearly not blameless in the Angels’ woes. It’s also the case that being blamed for stuff is part of the job description, and after eight playoff-less seasons in nine, there’s plenty of blame to go on Scioscia’s shoulders.
Scioscia’s career can be split very clearly in two halves. When he inherited the Angels in 2000, the franchise was in disarray. The Angels of the early 1990s were perennial afterthoughts, and the late 90’s Angels were characterized by clubhouse in-fighting and front-office disorder under muddled Disney ownership. Scioscia’s hiring changed all of that. His low-key firmness and honesty smothered dissent and won respect in the clubhouse — indeed, harmonious clubhouses would be a hallmark of the Angels for Scioscia’s entire tenure with the team.
Scioscia’s first decade with the team, from 2000 to 2009, dovetailed nicely with the Angels greatest squads as the franchise began its transition from Southern California’s “other” team to perennial payroll superpower. The 2002 World Series team, featuring Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson, Troy Glaus, Jarrod Washburn, David Eckstein, Darin Erstad, Troy Percival, and Troy Glaus, were mostly homegrown, low-priced, and in their prime.
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After the Angels were sold to hungry new owner Arte Moreno and his ready checkbook, the Angels would win five division titles in six seasons on the backs of free agents Vlad Guerrero, Torii Hunter, Bartolo Colon, Kelvim Escobar, and a second wave of organizational talent: John Lackey, Jered Weaver, Chone Figgins, Howie Kendrick, and Francisco Rodriguez.
Over all this talent, Scioscia reigned. With future managers Joe Maddon and Bud Black on his bench, Scioscia’s squads were known for their aggressive base-to-base, ball-in-play style of offense, steady starting pitching, and deep, dominant bullpens. The Angels routinely beat their Pythagorean projections and spat in the face of modern statistical expectations, hitting singles instead of homers and rarely drawing walks.
The second half of Scioscia’s tenure, from 2010 on, is a different story. The farm system, for the most part, simply stopped turning out All Stars. Perhaps it was because Eddie Bane, the Angels’ long-time scouting director, was ejected from the franchise in 2010, or because Moreno’s impatience forced trades of prospects for expensive declining vets. Whatever the reason, the make-up of the franchise changed dramatically. When the Angels next won what would be their last division title under Scioscia in 2014, five of the eight position regulars were free agent acquisitions, as was half the rotation and bullpen. Mike Trout, Garrett Richards, Erick Aybar, and Kole Calhoun were the exceptions; expensive veterans like Albert Pujols, Jeff Hamilton, C.J. Wilson, and Huston Street were the rule. The old vets invariably failed or fell apart, the farm system continued to come up empty, and the team became a expensive annual disappointment, falling ten or more games out of first place six times in nine seasons (including this year).
While the franchise changed, Scioscia did not. He no longer had the everyday talent he had before, the starting rotation produced injury after injury, and the bullpen became a disaster area. Without the talent base, he couldn’t play offense like he wanted to; the Angels had one of the worst offenses in the American League in the previous three seasons. Used to relying on everyday regulars, Scioscia would run out the likes of Johnny Giavotella or Ernesto Frieri or Luis Valbuena on a regular basis in the face of disastrous results. His famous inflexibility when it came to catcher defense forced Mike Napoli out of Anaheim, and his reliance on aging vets meant Vernon Wells and Pujols kept getting run out, come rain or shine. It took a complete failure of the bullpen to pull Scioscia out of his desire for locked bullpen roles.
Many of the problems are not wholly of his doing. Scioscia is not the general manager, nor is he the owner. He doesn’t draft or develop prospects. When the Angels had talent, Scioscia squeezed every extra win out of that squad for a decade, and the Angels played in six postseasons. However, he has been the only owner Arte Moreno has ever owned, and he held enormous sway in organizational decision-making. One could, for example, blame former GM Tony Reagins for the disastrous Vernon Wells trade, but the trade that engineered Napoli’s way out of town had Scioscia’s fingerprints all over it. The one challenger to Scioscia’s power within the organization, Jerry Dipoto, got curb-stomped and lost his GM gig.
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Scioscia’s power within the organization was fearsome — but it was power he earn, along with the astonishing 10-year contract extension that is coming to an end. Had one of the Vlad Guerrero Angel squads won, or even just gotten to, a second World Series, Scioscia would have a strong argument for making the Hall of Fame as a manager. At this point, Scioscia is lumped in with names like Jim Leyland, Lou Piniella, and longtime Angel legend Gene Mauch. Scioscia’s not quite 60 years old, and could manage elsewhere for years. Mike Scioscia could very well end up with a managerial plaque before he’s done.
After 19 seasons, Mike Scioscia IS the Angels, in both style and substance. Moving on from Scioscia will require an exorcism. That will happen at the end of the season. Whether GM Billy Eppler hires a a Scioscia acolyte like Dino Ebel or Darin Erstad, or whether he cleans house completely and goes with someone he’s brought in from outside the organization — hi, Brad Ausmus — will tell us just how far the Angels are going to go to put distance between themselves and the most successful manager in franchise history.