ANAHEIM, Calif. — A light-colored cowboy hat sits atop the bat rack in the Los Angeles Angels‘ dugout, a temporary prize for any player who sends a baseball over an outfield fence. The home-run ritual was the brainchild of Tim Buss, a coaching assistant Angels manager Joe Maddon calls his “VP of stuff,” and it has quickly become the team’s most cherished in-game tradition.
The hat — an off-white Cody James model with black trim — was recently outfitted with decals to commemorate every one of these celebrations and is now decorated with 44 of them, representative of the Angels’ major league lead in home runs. Four were added on Tuesday alone, amid a 12-0 rout punctuated by Reid Detmers‘ improbable no-hitter against the visiting Tampa Bay Rays. Mike Trout was graced with the hat upon re-entering Angel Stadium’s third-base dugout after his second-inning home run, then scampered down the steps and bounced through a parade of high-fives. Chad Wallach did the same in the third, then Trout again in the eighth, then Anthony Rendon moments later — while batting left-handed for the first time in his career against soft-tossing outfielder Brett Phillips.
It also seems to represent something else — that maybe this year is different.
It’s early, but the Angels’ success is already notable. They began Monday having won 19 of their first 30 games for the first time since 2004, then ended it having surpassed a plus-30 run-differential after only 31 games for the first time since 1995. When they awoke Wednesday morning, they held a share of the major league lead with 21 victories. By Friday, they’ll have a winning record through the first five weeks for only the second time since Trout’s first full season.
Trout has reached the postseason only once — in 2014, when the Angels were swept out of the first round by the Kansas City Royals — in a career that now spans a dozen years. Shohei Ohtani, the two-way sensation who signed with the Angels in December of 2017, hasn’t even come close. We don’t quite know yet if that will change this year, but we can say this confidently: The Angels are fun, not just because of the outsized talent of their two best players but because they play with a noticeable buoyancy.
It’s what second-year general manager Perry Minasian coveted.
As the son of a longtime clubhouse manager, Minasian has been closely embedded in the fabric of major league teams since he was 7 years old, first as a bat boy, then as a clubbie himself. He’s 41 now, nearing the peak of his profession at a time when the industry is exceedingly more reliant on numbers than ever. But he still places a premium on clubhouse chemistry, even if he, like everyone, struggles to explain how the formula works.
“It’s hard to put a definition on it, or even a one-line sentence to describe it, but I think you have to have a certain balance in the room,” Minasian said. “You want the common theme of everybody enjoying showing up and everybody loving to play. You ask every team, they’d want that. But I think the different personalities help the room. It’s like dating — opposites attract, to a certain extent. So you need a little bit of ‘different.’ And you’d be surprised what type of personalities mesh. We like to have a group where it’s not a lot of cliques — it’s a group.”
Minasian, a lead executive for the Atlanta Braves from 2018 to 2020, navigated this offseason in search of more “edge” for his pitching staff, which led him toward the strong personalities of Noah Syndergaard, Michael Lorenzen, Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera and Archie Bradley. One of his few decisions on the position-player side was to re-sign Kurt Suzuki, 38, as his backup catcher because of the respect he commanded from the established stars in the room.
Minasian can’t be certain this all works. At times, he even wonders if he places too much importance on it. But he has seen chemistry matter.
“This is the thing about [building a team] — there’s no one way,” Minasian said. “And that’s what I love about this game. There’s no blueprint. There’s no one way of doing it, where if you do ‘X’ you’re gonna win.”
The only two universal necessities, Minasian said, are talent and depth. And no team knows that better than these Angels, who have struggled to contend despite employing two of the most transformative talents of this era. At the height of their powers, Trout and Ohtani make up one of the best tandems in baseball history. But they long to display their talents on baseball’s grandest stage, and they can’t get there alone. The stars need help, even with the postseason field expanded. Lots of it.
Below, we identified their most important supporting cast members.
Last November, immediately after the GM meetings in Carlsbad, Calif., Minasian flew across the country to recruit the former New York Mets ace over dinner. Syndergaard underwent Tommy John surgery in March of 2020 and didn’t return to a major league game until the 2021 season was winding down, producing only two innings of work. But Minasian believed the 29-year-old right-hander could be the type of top-flight starting pitcher the Angels had lacked since Jered Weaver was in his prime.
The Angels signed Syndergaard to a one-year, $21 million contract and crossed their fingers. He has pitched to expectations thus far, posting a 2.45 ERA in 29 1/3 innings through his first five starts, but he’s succeeding differently. Syndergaard’s fastball is down from the upper 90s to the mid 90s and he is relying more heavily on his changeup and his sinker, the latter of which has limited opposing hitters to an .088 slugging percentage. He’s striking out fewer batters (his strikeout percentage was 26.3% from 2015 to 2019 and sits at 17.5% this year), but he’s still generating weak contact.
As Syndergaard builds stamina and arm strength after so much time away, the velocity might tick back up along with the strikeouts. But this version of Syndergaard is already far better than any of the bargain free-agent starters the Angels have signed in recent years. The last four were Jose Quintana, Julio Teheran, Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill. They each signed one-year deals totaling less than $40 million and combined for a 6.93 ERA.
The Angels signed Rendon to a seven-year, $245 million contract in December of 2019 hoping he would join forces with Trout and Ohtani to give them one of the best lineups in the sport. But they have yet to receive the full Rendon experience. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the season to 60 games. In 2021, Rendon was limited to roughly that amount because of injury.
Last year, the 31-year-old third baseman suffered a groin strain in April, fouled a ball off his knee in May, landed on the injured list with a hamstring injury in July, then learned he was dealing with an impingement in his right hip that made it difficult for him to properly rotate on his swing and prevented him from sinking into his legs on defense. He underwent season-ending surgery in August.
But during spring training, Angels coaches raved about how much healthier Rendon looked. It hasn’t yet manifested itself in the numbers, but Rendon is hitting the ball hard and isn’t chasing — trends that usually portend good results. Despite batting only .206/.319/.373, Rendon ranks within the top 20% in average exit velocity and boasts the second-lowest chase rate in the majors.
The Angels often note that the team won 77 games last year even though Trout, Ohtani and Rendon were in the same lineup only 17 times. It’s partly a source of pride. A healthy Rendon can have almost as big an impact as Ohtani or Trout. At his best, he is a premium defender and one of the best pure hitters in the sport.
The biggest reason Trout has yet to win a postseason game boils down to what Sandoval embodies: young, talented, effective, affordable starting pitching. It’s the most coveted asset in the industry, the absence of which drove the Angels to draft college pitchers with 19 of their 20 picks last year (the other pick: a high school pitcher).
Sandoval isn’t technically homegrown — he was acquired in a trade that sent veteran catcher Martin Maldonado to the Houston Astros in July of 2018 — but he spent time in the Angels’ system and, most importantly, is providing quality innings before reaching his arbitration years.
Sandoval, 25, didn’t allow an earned run through his first 15 innings and boasts a 2.03 ERA through his first five starts. Some on the Angels believe he might have the best stuff on the staff, Ohtani and Syndergaard included. Hitters are 0-for-30 with 20 strikeouts in at-bats that have ended on his changeup, making it the second-most-valuable changeup among pitchers who have accumulated at least 20 innings. They’re batting just .143/.243/.179 off his slider.
The two pitches come out of the same plane and break in opposite directions at the very end, making it very difficult for hitters to distinguish. This year, Sandoval has also done a better job slowing down his delivery and not opening up his front shoulder, thus making his mechanics more repeatable. Angels starters had the fifth-worst ERA and the second-fewest innings in the sport over the last three years.
The last Angels pitcher to combine at least 150 innings with an ERA under 4.00 in a pre-arbitration season: Matt Shoemaker, famously undrafted, in 2016. Sandoval and Detmers could both conceivably do it this year.
A popular thought surrounding the Angels heading into 2022 was that one of their young corner outfielders needed to emerge. But that thought was centered on Brandon Marsh and Jo Adell; very few outsiders had Ward as their breakout pick heading into his age-28 season. And yet, nearly five weeks in, Ward ranks second only to Manny Machado in batting average and second only to Trout in OPS among major league hitters who have accumulated at least 95 plate appearances. There are 159 players who have come to bat more often than Ward, and yet only three of them have drawn more walks, which is pretty ideal for someone who has settled into the leadoff spot of a lineup featuring Trout, Ohtani, Rendon and Jared Walsh.
Ward, a first-round pick by the Angels out of Fresno State in 2015, couldn’t stick as a professional catcher and struggled with infrequent playing time in the majors, batting .230/.305/.388 in 159 games from 2018 to 2021. But Ward consistently displayed elite power and patience in the upper minor league levels during that stretch, most notably in a 13-game sample in Triple-A last year, when he batted an otherworldly .429/.525/.857. The thought was Ward simply needed consistent playing time to thrive as a major league hitter, a notion he supported with an impressive showing in spring training.
That spark prompted the Angels to release Justin Upton with $28 million remaining on the final year of his contract, paving the way for Ward to take over as the everyday right fielder. It might be the best transaction any team has made this season.
Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera
Remove Raisel Iglesias, and the Angels’ bullpen had a collective 4.83 ERA last year, which would’ve been sixth-highest in the majors. Yes, plenty of bullpens would drop off significantly if you removed their best reliever. But the point here is that the Angels didn’t possess a proper bridge to one of the game’s best closers. That reality coupled with a starting rotation that didn’t absorb enough innings produced a toxic combination.
Bringing Iglesias back on a four-year, $58 million contract was crucial to the Angels’ hopes of contending this season. But so were the other moves Minasian made in the bullpen, namely signing Tepera, a right-hander, and Loup, a lefty, as setup men.
Loup and Tepera, both 34, were drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2009, the same year Minasian joined the organization as a scout. Loup rode a low-90s sinker and a mid-80s cutter from a funky sidearm delivery to dominate for the Mets last year, posting a 0.95 ERA in 56 2/3 innings. Tepera tunneled mostly a low-90s fastball and a mid-80s slider from an over-the-top delivery to post a 2.79 ERA in 61 1/3 innings with the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Cubs in 2021.
The last time the Angels reached the postseason, in 2014, they boasted a dominant back end of the bullpen featuring Kevin Jepsen, Jason Grilli, Joe Smith and Huston Street. If Loup, Tepera and Iglesias can help replicate that, the Angels could be a sustained force.