ARLINGTON, Texas – “I need that strike zone!” Carlos Estévez proclaimed to no one in particular.
About three hours before they would play the series finale Wednesday against the Texas Rangers, the Los Angeles Angels trickled into the visiting clubhouse in Arlington to find the Little League World Series on the televisions. It was Cuba vs. Japan, featuring a home plate umpire who, according to Estévez, was calling balls and strikes like he had dinner reservations.
Estévez’s complaint was good-natured, and even the best pitchers can appreciate a generous strike zone. In fact, the righty reliever in his first year with the Angels is a first-time All-Star after emerging this season as the team’s closer. But the comment felt particularly conspicuous coming from a member of a pitching staff that has an MLB-worst 6.16 ERA this month. Estévez himself has blown two saves and seen his ERA nearly double in just over two weeks.
The trade deadline was 6 p.m. ET on Aug. 1, just before that day’s full slate of games got underway. Since then, the Angels have gone 4-11, tied with the Colorado Rockies for the worst record in baseball over that stretch.
Of course, the problem isn’t just the pitching (though it is largely the pitching — by wRC+, the Angels' offense is sixth in baseball this month). In the six games of their recent Texas road trip (four losses), the Angels were outscored 42-13.
After they lost 7-3 on Tuesday, manager Phil Nevin was asked by the team reporter what the offense can do to better support the pitchers, who were going up against the two most potent lineups in the American League in Houston and Arlington.
“Score runs,” Nevin offered.
What else could he say?
Every team has flaws — when do they become fatal?
It can be surprisingly frustrating to try to explicate why a particular team is good or bad. Often, all you can do is narrow the focus — maybe one team wins more than it loses thanks to a lockdown bullpen, while another loses more than it wins because of a failure to come through in the clutch. The why, though, is often unsatisfying.
When a team is good, they chalk it up to platitudes proffered with the best of intentions. They’re probably true, too, but they turn into tautologies when you tease them out. For example, every team is trying to execute clean fundamentals. The ones that do so the best are not wrong when they cite that focus for their success. But does the intent differentiate them? Or just the execution?
When a team is bad, we retroactively identify failures that can be cited as the fork in the road that brought them to this point. And it’s true: A bad draft, lagging player development infrastructure or a large contract that didn’t pan out probably predated this particular fallow period. But every team has flaws. It’s only when the losses start to outnumber the wins that we call them fatal.
Simply put, the Angels’ problem is that, especially lately, they’ve been losing a lot. It’s a problem they share with about half the league at the moment, and frankly, even teams with a tenuous hold on a playoff berth would probably say that their problem is also all those pesky instances of being outscored.
Yet the Angels’ problems, even at their most universal, have a heightened poignancy. Which is why it feels especially stark when Perry Minasian, like any good general manager, deflects inquiries by broadening the scope.
Everybody in baseball is stressed at this point in the season, he says. Sure. But someone is the most stressed, and why wouldn’t it be the man most likely to be held responsible for the final chapter in one of sports’ greatest tragedies of error?
Shohei Ohtani drinks an iced latte with whole milk. Or maybe his interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, does, but I’m pretty sure the one from Starbucks sitting at his locker before games belonged to Ohtani himself. After a week’s worth of Angels games, that’s the only new piece of information I learned about the man whose narrative gravitational pull has made this middling team the center of the baseball universe.
'We let some things get to us today'
At the start of the season, there were two primary storylines swirling around Ohtani — three if you count the ongoing saga of wondering what he’ll do next. First, could the Angels, owners of an eight-year postseason drought, build enough support and depth to allow Ohtani and Mike Trout to play in October? And second, where will Ohtani play next year?
They were always intertwined — almost two years ago, Ohtani made his desire to win explicit after another losing Angels season, kicking off speculation that it was some sort of ultimatum angled at his team. And as the 2023 trade deadline loomed increasingly large, the two storylines coalesced into a single question: Would the Angels trade Ohtani?
Baked into that was a pair of assumptions: that the Angels would miss the playoffs again this year and that Ohtani would not re-sign with such a team, instead departing in free agency and leaving the Angels with nothing but a compensatory draft pick to show for it.
The Angels didn’t wait for the deadline to make their intentions clear. On July 26, then 3.5 games back of the third AL wild card, the Angels indicated that they would not trade Ohtani and would instead pursue avenues to improve the team. “General manager Perry Minasian will focus on adding a starting pitcher and a reliever before the deadline,” Tom Verducci wrote at Sports Illustrated alongside that news.
Hours later, the Angels sent a couple of their top prospects to the Chicago White Sox for Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo López. They made some other trades, too, over the following few days, but the upshot is they didn’t work. The gamble was exciting, the moves savvy, the hopes (or at least sympathetic rubbernecking) of the baseball world with them.
No matter. The results didn’t follow, and pretty soon, the Angels themselves started to wilt under the disappointment.
“There just wasn't anything good about today,” Nevin said after his team lost 12-0 on Monday to open the series against the Rangers.
Max Scherzer, a future Hall of Famer acquired by Texas at the deadline after the Mets were forced to concede the season, started for the Rangers in that game. Eduardo Escobar, an aging infielder who was among the first players the Mets moved back in June, finished the game on the mound for the Angels.
“Not effort, it’s focus,” Nevin said about what his team lacked. “From the first play of the game, that's what I saw. There's a difference between physical errors and what I consider mental parts, and those happened. I’ll just leave it at that. We let it affect us. We let some things get to us today. And that's the first time I've seen that. So disappointed? Absolutely. Mad? Yeah. But I know this group, and they'll rebound and come out tomorrow. It'll be better.”
It took a couple days, but the Angels did salvage a win in Arlington — on a near no-hitter from Reid Detmers and an AL-leading 42nd home run from Ohtani. Enough to likely lighten the mood on the flight home, but far too little, too late to pretend the Angels are still in contention.
Halfway through a demoralizing August, the Angels’ playoff odds are down to 0.8% — lower than those of the Mets, Yankees or Tigers. So now it’s time to untangle the Angels’ conundrum and ask a new question: Can they miss the postseason for the ninth year in a row and still retain Ohtani?
In the business of maximizing future production
Minasian said the team never seriously considered trading Ohtani — “We’ve been contending all year, so …” — and, in fact, the Angels never got to the point of weighing specific offers.
Granted, it’s difficult to fact-check gradations of certainty about something that never came to pass. But if other organizations got the impression that the Angels might’ve been willing to move Ohtani, that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they ended up not doing so. Or, at least, that’s what the Angels have to hope. They didn't move Ohtani in no small part because they don't want him to leave this winter. In the sport of baseball, Ohtani is their biggest asset; in the sport of the soon-to-be Ohtani sweepstakes, a head start and familiarity are their biggest assets.
Detmers got the start Wednesday because Ohtani was feeling fatigue in his pitching arm. He has played in a team-leading 120 of the Angels’ 122 games so far this season, hitting and pitching in 22 of them. His durability cannot be overstated — it can seem like a natural byproduct of his incredible two-way ability, but in fact, it is one of the more remarkable and singular skills he brings to the game.
And so, if Ohtani says in August that he needs to skip a turn through the rotation, the Angels don’t question it — not even when the team is insisting there's still hope for this season, when he’s their ace and when they’re facing division rivals. Many things about the Angels could be considered ripe for rethinking, but their faith in Ohtani is not one of them. Besides, he’s saying it’ll be only this one start.
“That's what he's told me,” Nevin said. “I've always trusted what he's told us about his body and where he's at physically.”
Especially because the Angels, like Ohtani himself, are now in the business of maximizing his future production. With this season a lost cause, it’s possible that for the team, as for Ohtani himself, the scale of that future has shifted to the longer term. Or at least, that’s as much as we can infer. At no point during this road trip did Ohtani address the media. Even if he had, we still wouldn’t know where he’ll play next year.
'Yeah, it's a momentum thing'
Injuries, actually, are probably the best answer to what’s ailing the Angels in 2023. Anyone associated with a baseball team knows to follow any mention of all the injured list stints with how that’s no excuse, but it kind of is. Mike Trout is doing everything he can to return from a fractured hamate as soon as possible, even if he’s slightly diminished by the still-present pain. And he’s just one of the league-leading 17 players the Angels currently have on the IL.
Minasian did his best to fill the space between the team’s two pillars with sufficient support, only to watch them go down one after another. So far in 2023, the Angels have lost 1,191 individual player games to injury, second only to the Dodgers’ tally.
Even as their postseason odds evaporated, the Angels continued to preach hope and high expectations. But in reality, losing can be really demoralizing.
In four starts with the Angels, Giolito has given up at least three runs in each. On Tuesday, with the Rangers leading 1-0 at the time, he gave up a two-run homer to Corey Seager. Maybe it couldn’t have been caught, but center fielder Jordyn Adams made a tremendous effort and came within inches of bringing it back — which would’ve been a highlight of web gems for years to come. And maybe just the jolt the Angels needed?
“I mean, it's a two-run home run, a crooked-number inning, giving up three runs, when the other starter is going good. It's kind of a punch in the gut,” Giolito said postgame. “So yeah, it's a momentum thing. It's, like you said, an emotional thing. But at the end of the day, too, it's keeping the score down so we keep it close.”
Because, ultimately, for all that the Angels’ season feels so full of pathos — a team undone by some sort of innate tragedy — their real problem is just that they’re not winning when they really need to be.