The Los Angeles Angels' seasonal narratives got to be formulaic during the last decade. Whether it was Mike Trout between 2012 and 2020 or Shohei Ohtani in 2021, they would get a sensational performance from an individual player. But aside from their 98-win campaign in 2014, it would be for naught when they ultimately fell short of the playoffs.
Their 2022 season, then, is not as much a comeback as it is a reboot.
Trout and Ohtani are still doing their thing, but this time there's so much talent around them that the Angels have reached an early stratosphere that they couldn't even get to in 2014. With 20 wins in 31 games, the club is off to its best start since 2004. It's also had sole possession of first place in the American League West since April 27.
The Angels' last two wins have come in thrilling fashion. On Sunday, Ohtani and Anthony Rendon capped a three-run rally to walk off the Washington Nationals. Then in an 11-3 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday, Ohtani went back-to-back with Trout in the fifth and later slammed his first professional grand slam in the seventh:
Is Ohtani having fun? You bet he is.
"I'm definitely having the most fun right now,” the 2021 AL MVP said through his interpreter. “I'm not having the best offensive year right now but the team is winning, which is the most important thing. We're going to try to continue the hot streak."
The bad news for the Angels is that the Houston Astros have won seven straight and are 1.0 game back in the AL West. Further, FanGraphs still pegs the Astros as the favorite to win the division, which tracks with their recent pedigree as four-time division champions and three-time American League World Series representative the last five seasons.
Yet lest anyone doubt the Angels are a real threat to Houston, the list of reasons to believe in them starts with their many offensive layers.
Mike Trout Is All the Way Back, and He's Not Even the Angels' Best Hitter
Not many teams can claim immunity from the offensive dearth—thanks a lot, dead ball—that's defined the 2022 Major League Baseball season so far, but the Angels are one of them.
They lead the league with 150 runs scored, and not just because they're the only team to play in 31 games. They also lead with 40 home runs, and are likewise second in on-base and first in slugging percentage.
There's a lot more to these Angels than Mike Trout, yet the three-time AL MVP's influence can be neither ignored nor denied. After missing all but 36 games due to the world's most frustrating calf strain in 2021, Trout has already played in 26 games and has put up positively Trout-ian numbers with a .319/.441/.659 slash line and six home runs.
- When healthy, Mike Trout hits
- Mike Trout is healthy now
- Therefore, Mike Trout is hitting
But even relative to his usual standards, the 30-year-old is working on a truly special season. He's racking up extra-base hits at the best rate of his career, and his expected slugging percentage suggests it's the real deal.
His latest trick involves an expansion of his plate coverage. Whereas he generally collected his extra-base hits on mistake pitches in the middle of the strike zone between 2012 and 2021, he's been reaching further across the zone for them in 2022:
Not that it was ever easy to pitch to Trout before, but this pretty well makes it impossible. Opposing pitchers would be justified in giving him the Barry Bonds treatment if he keeps this up.
In theory, that is. In reality, that notion is complicated somewhat by the sheer depth of the Angels' lineup. It's so deep, in fact, that neither Trout nor Ohtani is even the team's best hitter right now.
That would be this guy:
Taylor Ward has been especially problematic for the opposition since manager Joe Maddon moved him into the leadoff spot on April 25. In 14 games since then, he's hit at .373/.467/.765 with nine extra-base hits, including five home runs.
Unsustainable? Well, yeah. And yet, maybe not to the degree that you'd think. It was only seven years ago that Ward was a first-round draft pick, and only three years ago that he raked with a 1.011 OPS for Triple-A Salt Lake. His expected stats, meanwhile, include a higher xSLG than noted baseball masher Giancarlo Stanton.
In addition to Trout and Ward, also carrying the Angels offense have been 2021 All-Star Jared Walsh, who also went deep on Monday, and would-be 2022 All-Star Brandon Marsh. They have a .769 OPS between them, well above the league norm of .676.
That Ohtani has generally been struggling is both the bad news and the good news for the Angels. He's been hard to watch at times, yet it's always seemed inevitable that he would bust out and regain the form that led him to 46 home runs in 2021. With seven hits in his last 19 at-bats, that time may be now.
"The last couple of games, I've actually been feeling better," Ohtani said through his interpreter on Sunday. "I've been getting a better angle on the balls that I'm hitting, and they're going in the air. So I think in a few more days, I should be able to get there."
As he was a National League MVP contender and World Series hero as recently as 2019, Rendon's another guy who should have more to give the Angels. For now, the team can hang its hopes on the reality that the veteran's .669 OPS belie his peripherals. His strikeout and walk rates and average exit velocity are all safely better than average.
If Rendon and Ohtani can achieve full function, the immediate future of the Angels offense involves it being at least as good as it is now. If Trout, Ward, Walsh and Marsh avoid lasting slumps, it has far better than a non-zero chance of becoming even more dangerous.
It's Not All About the Bats
The story of why the Angels have made the playoffs only once since Trout first took the league by storm in 2012 contains multitudes. One overarching trend, though, has been pitching that's been at best unspectacular and at worst unwatchable.
Which brings us back to now, wherein the Angels pitching is tracking toward its best ERA+ of the Trout years:
As he efforts to get his bat going, Ohtani is having no such trouble on the mound. He's posted a 3.08 ERA through five starts, with 36 more strikeouts than walks for his 26.1 innings of work.
His most recent outing was impressive, even by his standards. He needed only 99 pitches (81 of them strikes) to punch out 11 over seven innings against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park last Thursday.
As nasty as Ohtani has been this season, left-hander Patrick Sandoval is stealing the show. He's pitched to a 2.03 ERA through five starts, primarily shutting hitters down with a changeup that's quietly in the running for the best pitch in baseball. Hitters are 0-for-30 with 20 strikeouts against it so far.
Rounding out a starting foursome with a collective 2.93 ERA are Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen. Both right-handers have traded in their formerly electric four-seam fastballs for repertoires that revolve around the sinker. They've benefited accordingly with a combined ground-ball rate just south of 50 percent.
While closer Raisel Iglesias has mainly relied on the strikeout in fanning 14 batters in 10.2 innings, fellow late-inning relievers Aaron Loup, Oliver Ortega and Aaron Loup have similarly thrived on pitch-to-contact approaches. Arguably too much, as it's just plain uncomfortable to see a high-leverage relief trio with an aggregate strikeout rate of 7.6 per nine innings.
Then again, why shouldn't Angels pitchers trust the defense that's behind them?
It's the third-most efficient defense in the American League and it also has 13 defensive runs saved. Leading the way in the latter category is Andrew Velazquez, who's making an early case for a Gold Glove:
Clearly, it's no accident that the Angels are allowing their fewest runs per game since 1989. Their pitching and defense would be good things to have in any season, but especially so amid one in which a dead ball is keeping more balls on the playable side of the fence.
Meanwhile, the Astros...
Are still really good.
Not quite as dominant as they were at the best of times between 2017 and 2021, mind you, but really good nonetheless. Particularly on the mound, where their 2.95 ERA is third in baseball behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees.
Really the only worry on that front is that a knee injury and diminished velocity have contributed to a slow start for ace closer Ryan Pressly. The Astros otherwise aren't short on effective hurlers, ranging from a rejuvenated Justin Verlander to fly-ball repellant Framber Valdez to a newly electrified Rafael Montero.
The Astros offense has been relatively slow to come around, most notably in the sense that it doesn't have the lowest strikeout rate in the league for a change. So loaded are they, though, that they're one of only two teams with as many as seven hitters with an OPS+ north of 110.
That's not including Yuli Gurriel, who won the AL batting title in 2021, and barely including Kyle Tucker, who was the best hitter in baseball after May 8 of last year. Houston has also felt no ill effects from the loss of Carlos Correa, thanks to rookie Jeremy Pena, who's pitching in a 135 OPS+ to go with his shutdown defense at shortstop.
Though the Angels got payback against Houston by winning two out of three between April 18-20, the Astros drew first blood by winning three out of four at Angel Stadium of Anaheim to open the season. Their lead in the teams' 19-game season series will stand at least until they meet again at Minute Maid Park on July 1.
But even if this is to say that the Angels' road to their first AL West title still goes through Houston, to call them the underdog doesn't seem quite right. The initial weigh-in makes them look more like a worthy challenger. A Goliath fit to take on another Goliath.
All they have to do now is go win the fight.