How the Angels Spent $450 Million and Became 1 of the Worst Teams in Baseball

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How the Angels Spent $450 Million and Became 1 of the Worst Teams in Baseball

The Los Angeles Angels are a mess. Their 29-38 record is the second-worst mark in the American League, and the Texas Rangers and Oakland A's are miles ahead of them in the AL West.

But the Angels aren't just any mess. They're the kind of mess that invites rubbernecking. It's impossible not to see them, slow down and say, "Man, how did that happen?"

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The last couple years have seen the Angels spend roughly $450 million on big-name free agents with the sole purpose in mind to do great things. And after nearly making the playoffs in 2012, they were supposed to get in and go to the World Series this year. The 2013 season was supposed to see them do anything but fall apart at the seams like they have.

How it's all gone downhill is probably already a book-length subject. But since all I've got here is an article, the best I can do is focus on the miscalculations and misfortunes that waylaid the Angels.

The story goes a little something like this...

 

Misstep: The Extension and Subsequent Marginalization of Mike Scioscia

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
"Remember all those teams I won with? This doesn't look anything like those." -Mike Scioscia to Jerry Dipoto, probably.

Let's step into the TARDIS and travel back to January 2009.

At the time, the Angels were fresh off their fourth postseason appearance in five years and had won 194 regular-season games in 2007 and 2008. All under the watchful gaze of Mike Scioscia.

You can't blame Angels owner Arte Moreno for wanting to lock a guy like that up for the long haul. Moreno did that and then some, signing Scioscia to a 10-year contract extension that had the potential to keep him in Anaheim through 2018.

Ten years is a long time to commit to any manager, but the Angels committing that many years to Scioscia felt right. He first came aboard in 2000 and proceeded to make the Angels into a powerhouse by crafting them in his image. The Angels played a unique brand of baseball under him, one characterized by aggressiveness on offense, strong defense and quality relief pitching.

After committing 10 years to Scioscia, you'd think that the Angels would have made it a directive right then and there that the club would continue to be operate in his image. Evidently, that never happened.

Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Hatcher played with Scioscia on the Dodgers and came aboard in Anaheim when Scioscia did. Firing him might have been the right call, but it was definitely a cold call to make.

Since he replaced Tony Reagins in October 2011, general manager Jerry Dipoto has further and further cemented himself as the man in charge in Anaheim, even going so far as to fire hitting coach Mickey Hatcher, one of Scioscia's longtime generals, last May.

According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, Scioscia actually considered stepping down after Hatcher was given the boot. Even now, Rosenthal says that Dipoto and Scioscia have a strained relationship, which is easy to believe.

It's not just that Dipoto has knocked Scioscia from his throne. There's also the reality that the Angels have moved away from Scioscia-ball and more toward the "Moneyball model." They're less about being aggressive and more about powering up.

This is especially true now in 2013. Per FanGraphs, the Angels are ninth in home runs and 21st in stolen bases. Not exactly what you'd expect from a Mike Scioscia team.

Marginalizing Scioscia and doing away with Scioscia-ball could have worked, mind you. Other teams have won with the Moneyball model. The Angels could have, too.

Part of the reason why they're not has to do with bad investments, and you know which one of those stands out the most.

 

Bad Investment: Albert Pujols

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Watching Pujols' contract turn into a nightmare hasn't been the least bit fun.

Albert Pujols suffered through the worst season of his career in 2011. He hit 37 homers, but his .906 OPS was well below the career mark of 1.050 that he bore at the start of the season.

The Angels wanted Pujols anyway, so much so that they signed him to a 10-year, $254 million contract that had the baseball world buzzing.

"Albert's career performance clearly speaks for itself," said Dipoto in a statement, via ESPNLosAngeles.com. "He has proven to be the best player of his generation."

That was the sentiment of the hour when Pujols signed. Sure, he was coming off a down year, but he was Albert freakin' Pujols. He'd figure it out.

Looking back now, however, the warning signs were there.

The big injury Pujols dealt with in 2011 was a fractured wrist that put him on the disabled list, but his Baseball Prospectus injury database also shows a hamstring strain, a wrist contusion, a hand contusion, shoulder soreness and an ankle sprain. These were precisely the kind of nagging injuries that age tends to invite. And at 31, Pujols was no spring chicken in 2011.

There was also Pujols' plate discipline in 2011, which wasn't very Pujols-esque. Per FanGraphs, he saw his BB% tumble below 10 percent for the first time in his career, and he also hacked at more pitches outside the strike zone than ever before.

Consider those last two paragraphs together. They should read like a prophesy for what Pujols would become.

Indeed. Once baseball's brightest star, Pujols has only traveled further down the path he began treading in 2011. Good health has continued to elude him, and his plate discipline is still far from what it once was. This year, he's swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone than infamous bad-ball chasers like Ichiro Suzuki and Adrian Beltre (see FanGraphs).

Pujols' deal isn't the only contract the Angels have handed out that's living up to the warning signs. The other big one the Angels handed out during the 2011-2012 offseason is, too.

 

Bad Investment: C.J. Wilson

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Wilson has barely been a league-average pitcher with the Angels.

Contrary to Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson was coming off his best season when the Angels signed him to a five-year, $77.5 million deal.

Wilson had just gone 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA for a Texas Rangers team that made it to within one strike of winning the World Series. On the surface, he looked like just the kind of guy you want at the top of your rotation: talented and a winner.

One thing that didn't make sense about Wilson's 2011 season was his walk rate. After posting a 4.10 BB/9 in 2010, his BB/9 fell to 2.98.

Quite the improvement, but it didn't add up.

Here's a look at Wilson's Zone%'s (that being the percentage of pitches he's thrown in the strike zone) in 2011 as compared to 2010, according to both Baseball Info Solutions and PITCHf/x by way of FanGraphs:

Year BIS Zone% PITCHf/x Zone%
 2010  46.1 50.4
 2011  46.3 50.7

These numbers show a very slight improvement in Wilson's ability to throw strikes. One much more slight than his walk rate would lead one to believe, anyway. 

And there's the problem. Wilson's 2011 walk rate looked like a guarantee that he had sharpened up his command when the subject was, in fact, still up for debate.

A couple years later, Wilson's 2.98 BB/9 from 2011 looks like an obvious outlier. His BB/9 went back up to 4.05 in 2012, and it's at 3.90 this year. Not so coincidentally, he's gone from being a sub-3.00 ERA pitcher to a guy with a 3.88 ERA in an Angels uniform. 

Now, to be fair, it takes a lot more than two bad investments and a disconnect between a GM and a manager to kill a baseball team. These things help, but they can't kill a team quite like Murphy's Law.

The Angels can tell you all about that just from their experiences in 2012.

 

Murphy's Law: The Angels' 2012 Season

Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
If only they had started stronger than 6-14.

It's hard to give the Angels too much guff about what happened in 2012. They won 89 games, after all, and were one of baseball's best teams after Mike Trout came aboard in late April.

That's one thing that went right for the Angels. Everything else, though...

The Angels were expecting huge production out of Pujols. They eventually got it, but not before he slumped to the tune of a .536 OPS through his first 36 games.

The Angels were expecting a big season out of Wilson, too. They only got half of one, as he went from having a 2.43 ERA in the first half to having a 5.54 ERA in the second half.

Elsewhere in the starting rotation, the Angels were expecting big seasons out of Dan Haren and Ervin Santana, who both posted ERAs in the low 3.00s and combined for 27 wins in 2011. The 2012 season saw their ERAs skyrocket, and they both ended up with losing records.

In the bullpen, the Angels were expecting Jordan Walden to follow his All-Star rookie season with an even better sophomore season as the club's closer. He was demoted from the closer's role before April was even over, and the bullpen was thrown into a state of flux for the rest of the season.

Ernesto Frieri eventually stabilized the closer's role, but even he struggled in August when the Angels bullpen lost a staggering seven games (see FanGraphs).

Considering all this, it's actually amazing that the Angels managed to win 89 games. Things could have been a lot worse.

At the same time, it was obvious that things needed to get a lot better. That's where things went wrong the ensuing winter.

 

The Wrong Idea: The Angels' 2012-13 Offseason

Victor Decolongon/Getty Images
Moreno got what he wanted this winter, but not what his club needed.

It wasn't hard to spot the weaknesses that Dipoto needed to address last winter.

Jered Weaver pitched well all season, and Zack Greinke added some stability after he came over from the Milwaukee Brewers at the trade deadline, but the Angels' starting pitching was a weakness in 2012. Combined, their starters posted a mediocre 4.04 ERA. 

The bullpen was worse. Despite Frieri's best efforts, Angels relievers still only managed a 3.97 ERA that ranked 22nd in baseball. Only the Brewers and Colorado Rockies blew more saves.

The Angels' shopping list for the winter should have consisted of the following: pitching, pitching and more pitching—and not just any pitching...the good stuff.

Moreno had other ideas. According to Ken Rosenthal, it was Moreno who spearheaded the club's pursuit of Josh Hamilton, and his signing left little financial wiggle room for Dipoto to rebuild the pitching staff. He was going to have to do what he could.

Gone went Haren, Santana and Greinke, who signed a then-record contract for a right-hander with those blasted Los Angeles Dodgers.

In their place, Dipoto put Jason Vargas, Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton. It only cost Kendrys Morales to get Vargas, Walden to get Hanson, and $15 million over two years to get Blanton. Like that, the club's mediocre rotation was replaced by a thrifty one that promised to be equally mediocre.

Dipoto spent a little more freely on the bullpen, issuing $8 million to Sean Burnett and $3.5 million (guaranteed) to Ryan Madson. The latter was a calculated risk, as Madson was still recovering from Tommy John surgery and would only be able to help the Angels once/if he got healthy.

The pitching staff was retooled, but it was clear all along that much was going to have to go right in order for the retooling effort to pay off. 

It all went down seemingly for the sake of bringing aboard Hamilton, who would surely be able to shore up...

Well, an area that didn't really need to be shored up. After finishing fourth in MLB in runs scored in 2012, the Angels were hardly in dire need of another hitter.

These being the Angels, it's only natural that the hitter they didn't need to spend on has turned out to be another bad investment.

 

Bad Investment: Josh Hamilton

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The scary part: this is year one of five.

With Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, the warning signs were subtle. There, but subtle.

The same can't be said of the warning signs with Hamilton. It was obvious the moment he inked his five-year, $125 million contract that the Angels were going out on a limb.

Hamilton was as hot as Kate Upton at the center of the sun through the first six weeks of the 2012 season, but he hit only .251 with a .325 OBP over his final 116 games. His prolonged slump was characterized by an abundance of strikeouts, and those were no accident.

Hamilton swung at pretty much everything thrown in his general direction in 2012. Per FanGraphs, only Delmon Young hacked at more pitches, and nobody swung at more pitches outside the strike zone. Worse, nobody swung and missed at more pitches than Hamilton did.

The Angels had no choice but to hope that things would change in 2013. Instead, it's been par for the course.

Hamilton is still among the game's most prolific hackers, right up there next to Yuniesky Betancourt and Carlos Gomez (see FanGraphs). He's also still chasing more bad pitches than he should be, and he's is whiffing more often than all but two other players.

For Hamilton's $15 million salary, what the Angels are getting is a .217/.274/.390 slash line. Rather than bolster what was already a strong offense, he's made it weaker.

That's just one of many things that has gone wrong for the Angels in 2013. Murphy's Law is attacking them again.

 

Murphy's Law Again: The Angels' 2013 Season

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Not pictured: guys having fun.

The Angels got off on the right foot this season, winning on Opening Day in Cincinnati in extras by the final of 3-1.

The mess started to materialize soon after.

The three big signings have all been disappointments. We know about Hamilton, and Pujols has been only marginally better with a .757 OPS. Rather than key components of an elite offense, they're just "meh" components of an offense that ranks eighth in the American League in runs scored.

Wilson, meanwhile, has a 4.02 ERA and has had only two starts in which he hasn't walked multiple hitters. He hasn't been horrible, but he's certainly pitched much more like a back-end starter than a front-end starter.

Elsewhere in the starting rotation, only Vargas has turned out to be a reliable producer. Weaver had to go on the DL after his second start of the season and has been hit-or-miss in the starts he has made. Hanson has been limited to seven starts, in which he has an ERA over 4.00. Blanton has an ERA near 6.00 and has already lost 10 games.

The bullpen has been worse off. Madson still hasn't pitched yet, and it's up in the air whether he'll be able to pitch at all in 2013 after suffering a setback in his recovery. Burnett has since joined Madson on the DL with an elbow problem. The relievers who are and have been active have posted a 4.11 ERA that ranks 23rd in MLB.

Put numbers like these together, and there's no way you're ending up with anything other than a rotten team.

The best thing this particular rotten team can do now is serve as a cautionary tale with a number of key lessons:

Lesson 1: Don't make a long-term commitment to a manager only to marginalize him later.

Lesson 2: Don't say "yes" when the warning signs say "no."

Lesson 3: Help your team where it actually needs help.

Lesson 4: Hope like hell that the baseball gods are on your side.

No, there's not a lot teams can do about that last one. But if the Angels are any indication, the baseball gods are going to be a lot nicer if you don't screw up the first three.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted. Salary and contract info courtesy of Cot's Baseball Contracts

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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