How the Angels’ promising start evaporated in 12 games

The Los Angeles Angels were playing their best baseball since 2015. Blessed by the talents of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, but cursed to never showcase them in October, the Angels have spent years desperately grasping for enough supporting talent to get over the hump and make the playoffs.

This spring, it finally looked like they had done it. Infused with some new blood and a lot of surprise contributions, the Angels started 27-17. It was their best 44-game stretch of any kind since the summer of 2015, the year after their last postseason appearance.

On the morning of May 25, they were one game behind the Houston Astros in the AL West, and firmly atop the AL wild-card hunt — which this season will admit three teams, instead of two, into the decisive tournament. Things have gone abruptly bad since then. That night, they lost to the Texas Rangers, and have yet to return to the win column.

The Angels’ losing streak now stands at 12 games. They lost four more games to the Toronto Blue Jays to close their homestand. They lost every game of a six-day swing through New York and Philadelphia. They lost to the Boston Red Sox on Monday night, in their return home.

Red Sox starter Michael Wacha twirled a three-hit shutout to hand them their latest loss and it is arguably not the best pitching performance they have enabled during the run of futility (Jameson Taillon took a perfect game into the eighth in New York).

Now 27-29, the Angels — and Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani — would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. Their lowest lows are, once again, overpowering the highs.

Mike Trout hits the skids

It feels almost unfair that Trout’s mightiest struggles have a 1:1 correlation with an 0-12 Angels collapse while his perennial excellence has seemed to have no bearing on winning whatsoever, but here we are. Trout has a .409 OPS during the streak, the worst 12-game stretch of his career since his rocky cup of coffee in 2011. He’s batting .114 (5 for 44), with 17 strikeouts and just three walks.

Under the hood, it looks like he could be pressing a bit. He hasn’t abandoned his eye for the strike zone, but he’s swinging a lot more than usual while making less contact. Strikingly, pitchers have been feeding him a steady diet of fastballs, especially up and in, echoing a swing hole he solved earlier in his career.

In the middle of all this, he got called "the worst commissioner in fantasy sports." Tough times.

Most likely, this is a case of needing to make a midseason adjustment. Even with this slump, Trout ranks as … the sixth-best hitter in baseball so far by park-adjusted measures.

As usual, he will probably be fine.

The worst slump of Mike Trout's career has overlapped with a 12-game skid for the Angels. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
The worst slump of Mike Trout's career has overlapped with a 12-game skid for the Angels. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Stars and scrubs, without the stars

The rest of the Angels’ malaise may fairly be described as old problems rearing their ugly heads. A team that is usually too reliant on its headlining acts is once again running into trouble with depth.

Overall this season, the bottom of the Angels' lineup (from sixth to ninth in the batting order) ranks dead last in MLB in offensive production, as measured by park-adjusted wRC+.

As proven over and over, trotting out a stars and scrubs team in baseball is a particularly bad idea for the very simple reason that you can’t just send Trout or Shohei Ohtani to the plate with two on and two out. A lot of times, it’s going to be Andrew Velazquez or Tyler Wade. They have their merits as defenders, but as starters on a supposed contender, they are severely overmatched. From their middle infielders this year, the Angels are squeezing out just a .214/.269/.291 batting line.

The losing streak has unsurprisingly coincided with the top of the order returning to earth. Early season star Taylor Ward was hampered by a variety of knocks and eventually hit the IL on Sunday with a hamstring strain. A lingering wrist issue turned into an IL stint for Anthony Rendon after the second game of the streak. Trout is in his slump.

First baseman Jared Walsh is the only everyday starter who has been hitting during the losing streak, with Ohtani tallying an above average line (for 2022) by continuing to reach base via walks. Hot streaks from Matt Duffy and Max Stassi — which still involve only one homer between them — are not enough to carry a major-league team.

Unreliable starting pitching

Then there’s the pitching, the forever problem in Orange County.

There’s never a good time to have your starting rotation falter, but this is a particularly bad stretch for the Angels. They’re in the midst of 13 games in 13 days against some of MLB’s very best offenses.

Noah Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen have done what the Angels signed them to do. Syndergaard, in particular, took a tough luck loss Monday night when his lineup couldn’t scratch out even a run against Wacha. The two offseason rotation additions have matching 3.69 ERAs so far, with low strikeout rates but high groundball rates. It’s a difficult road, but it’s working OK so far.

But any tough outing quickly snowballs. Shohei Ohtani hit a roadblock against the Yankees. Patrick Sandoval is in a rough patch. And every sixth day, they are trotting out Chase Silseth, an 11th-round pick in the draft less than a year ago who just shouldn’t be expected to handle the Phillies lineup already. It says nothing about him (reaching the majors at all at 22 portends a promising career) and a lot about the dearth of reliable arms in the Angels' organization.

The Angels have used 20 pitchers in these 12 losses, and not many of them have looked strong enough to make you confident they’ll stick around for the next 12 games.

Adding heft to the pitching staff will surely be a focus for GM Perry Minasian at the trade deadline. But this team needs help now.

Seven American League teams now have better odds of making the six-team field, according to FanGraphs. That includes the Red Sox, who have galloped past them during this streak and could extend that lead in a hurry. The Angels have three more games against Boston, followed by series against the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets. The Seattle Mariners, who have started to click, appear on the schedule shortly thereafter, and their playoff odds are creeping up into view.

The .500 mark was the purgatory the Angels had finally escaped. But this is how a long, rigorous season works. It blasts every facet of a team, looking for leaks. Now the Angels find themselves under water again, fighting just to get back to the surface.