Star-studded Angels were a puzzle Joe Maddon couldn't solve
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
How can it be that the most interesting team in baseball is also, going off the most recent body of evidence, its worst?
OK, so the Los Angeles Angels aren’t really baseball’s least accomplished squad, despite a 12-game losing streak that culminated in the firing of manager Joe Maddon on Tuesday.
Yet Maddon’s ouster is still a somewhat remarkable development for a club that delivers on every conceivable level apart from the only one that really matters — winning.
In 2011, the Angels gave Mike Trout his Major League Baseball debut. Since then, Trout has been the best player in the sport. Through a career that will land him in the Hall of Fame and has one of his baseball cards valued at $3.84 million, the Angels have made the postseason precisely once and won a sum total of zero playoff games.
Since 2018, Los Angeles has had Shohei Ohtani, perhaps the best thing to happen to MLB in years, with his transcendent ability in all aspects of the game. Last season, Ohtani’s elite pitching and outstanding hitting earned him the American League MVP award in a cakewalk.
But the Angels still can’t win, not in any kind of volume that might reasonably be expected given the star power at their disposal. A strong 27-17 start to the season has been ruined by that 12-game run — oops, now 13 after another late lead was surrendered against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night.
At least in defeat Trout managed to break further clear of his batting slump, which reached 0-for-26 before he snared a hit on Monday. On Tuesday, he homered for the first time since May 28 but then had to leave the game with an apparent groin injury.
Even with an expanded playoff field this season, L.A. is on course to miss out once again. It doesn’t make any sense, but it has been going on so long that it no longer feels unusual. Bizarre yes, but also strangely familiar.
The Angels have taken some notable big swings — the massive 10-year contract given to Albert Pujols in 2011 was more than owner Arte Moreno paid for the entire franchise eight years earlier. Even so, there is nothing to show for it, unless you cast your mind all the way back to the organization’s only World Series triumph, in 2002. Apart from that year, there have been only two other playoff series wins in Angels history.
In an interview with Ken Rosenthal on The Athletic, Maddon alluded to philosophical differences between him and the front office over the use of Sabermetrics, which feels like a conversation more suited to the year 2004.
Why couldn’t Maddon make it work in Anaheim? Now 68, he was hailed as a great innovator with the small-spending Tampa Bay Rays, taking the team to its first AL pennant. He was later the managerial force behind the Chicago Cubs’ first World Series title, busting curses, history and a 3-1 deficit along the way.
Since switching to Southern California, his team was 130-148, and he was unable to end the streak of losing seasons that dates back to 2016.
On the surface, the Angels are free of drama. You don’t hear rumblings about Trout wanting to leave. His $426.5 million contract was done in secret and publicly revealed only once it was completed to avoid the issue being turned into a circus. He is an Angels man, he’s going nowhere, and we can assume with some safety that he’ll be back to strong form soon.
Ohtani also seems content with his surroundings. But what is the next step for the team, which Phil Nevin has taken over on an interim basis?
Maddon wanted to do things his own way and has never been one to be overly delighted about front-office interference, not unlike every manager, ever. He told Rosenthal that he had suggested to general manager Perry Minasian to reduce the amount of statistical information being passed on … and to "really be aware of when it’s time to stay out of the way."
As Orange County Register columnist Jim Alexander pointed out, that’s "easier to sell when you’re 27-17 than when you’re 27-29."
It is a bit of a puzzle. Superstar rosters don’t guarantee you success — there are countless teams (and accountants) across all the major American sports that can tell you that. Rare is it, however, for a team to have a pair of players like Trout and Ohtani only for it to translate into consistent mediocrity.
Things were looking just fine a couple of weeks ago, but the current stretch of form doomed Maddon, an embarrassing streak that seemed to indicate a group painfully low on confidence. The chances of losing 12 games consecutively, assuming a 50-50 matchup, are 1-in-4096. Even considering a tough slate that featured meetings with the surging New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays, something was clearly wrong.
For a while on Tuesday, it looked like things could be looking up. Trout got a pair of hits, Ohtani snagged one and a walk, and the home team held the lead into the seventh inning. For a variety of reasons, led by bullpen inconsistency, it didn’t last. Truth be told, the atmosphere surrounding the team did seem a little lighter, though that shouldn’t be taken as a commentary on Maddon.
Any time there is change it doesn’t take much to spring up some optimism, and that will surely happen at some stage over the coming weeks.
But will it be the start of a fresh dawn in Anaheim, or just another false one?
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.