The illusion of star power: Why Mike Trout and Bryce Harper can’t carry teams to the playoffs

Zach Crizer
·7-min read

Mike Trout is not going to play in the postseason this year, barring a miracle. Even in a 2020 season where MLB expanded the field from 10 teams to 16, the Los Angeles Angels have not been able to ride the best baseball player in the world into playoff position.

At the helm for five seasons now, Angels GM Billy Eppler has never fielded a team with a winning record despite adding Shohei Ohtani, Justin Upton, Andrelton Simmons and, just this year, Anthony Rendon. The 16-team format seemed like an open invitation to the Angels specifically. And yet, their playoff odds sit at 1.4 percent entering Thursday — requiring a complete meltdown by the Houston Astros — and realistic hopes faded a while ago.

A similar, if less dire, predicament is playing out in Philadelphia, where the Phillies are clawing for a postseason berth. A cavalcade of splashy acquisitions led by Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto is on the outside looking in with three games to play — with interlopers like the San Francisco Giants and Miami Marlins riding in the catbird’s seat.

GM Matt Klentak took over the same year Eppler arrived in L.A., prior to 2016, overseeing a rebuilding effort that soon kicked into win-now mode, luring Harper, Realmuto, Jake Arrieta and Zack Wheeler. That raised expectations, and a coin flip’s chance at being one of the NL’s eight best teams isn’t cutting it.

For better or worse, we are accustomed to baseball operations leaders being pushed out over large investments gone wrong. If 2020 disappointment claims Eppler or Klentak’s jobs, though, that won’t be the logic.

In his new Angels uniform, Rendon remains a perpetual force. Harper’s fame outstrips his production, but he’s been one of the game’s best 25 or so hitters. Wheeler is posting a career-best 2.67 ERA in his first season in Philly, and there is literal clamoring in the streets to keep Realmuto. As for Trout, he of the historic early career and $426.5 million extension, he’s probably only being kept from his perch atop the WAR leaderboard by time limitations.

Instead, the questions hovering over the Phillies and Angels arise from confusion. There are stars. They are performing more or less as expected. There are, as usual, a handful of teams that aren’t even trying right now. How could it be that these star-studded rosters can’t win?

Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout reacts after flying out to Arizona Diamondbacks right fielder Kole Calhoun during the fifth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Three-time MVP Mike Trout is having another stellar season, but will likely miss the postseason for the sixth straight year. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Pitch and catch

The problems holding back the 2020 Angels and Phillies are not confusing, in a vacuum: They can’t pitch and they can’t field.

Los Angeles has two reliable if unspectacular starters and another rounding into form, followed by a spin cycle of horror outings. The Phillies have two starters who will get Cy Young votes, a reasonable back of the rotation, and one of the worst bullpens anyone has ever seen.

Both are bottom five defensive teams by every major metric. The Angels allow the fifth-most runs per game, and the Phillies the seventh-most.

It is possible that in a 162-game season, either team could get over a bout with giving up literally all the runs and storm into contention. The 2019 Nationals, you may recall, were 19-31 after 50 games thanks to a disastrous bullpen. And all those pitchers who make for difficult Sporcle quizzes, they keep coming up when you try to answer the quandary of how stars miss out on October.

Chasms in the win column start out as chasms in dealing with moments. Baseball teams, of course, only get to choose their fighter when they are pitching.

High-leverage situations — at-bats where games have the most potential to shift — offer a revealing if chaotic glimpse into what happens when teams are making their biggest choices. And across baseball, these moments are increasingly handled by relief pitchers. In 2015, the year before Eppler and Klentak took their current posts, starting pitchers still faced 40 percent of high-leverage batters. By 2019, that number was down to 28.5 percent. And this season so far, it’s at 27.5 percent.

So the seemingly fungible, here-today-gone-tomorrow arms who couldn’t possibly be as important as Trout or Harper or Realmuto, they are largely responsible for a huge portion of a team’s season-defining performances. This year, the Phillies are allowing a league-worst .318/.397/.529 slash line in those crucial spots — that’s 43⅔ innings worth. The Angels aren’t doing a whole lot better, .285/.354/.492 in 50 innings. Meanwhile, the nameless Tampa Bay Rays have suffocated opponents with a .171/.256/.257 line.

The difference in Mike Trout making the playoffs and not? It’s in there somewhere, built from an unsatisfying pile of broken bullpen innings.

Philadelphia Phillies' Bryce Harper, left, and J.T. Realmuto, right look on from the dugout during the first inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Sunday, July 26, 2020, in Philadelphia. The Marlins won 11-6. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
Phillies stars Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto are producing as expected, but there is not much they can do to aid a flailing bullpen. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

The anonymous difference-makers

An MLB franchise’s competence just cannot be gleaned from a snapshot of its best players.

This has always been true in baseball, where there are 25 or more players on each team and fundamental rules that spread impact relatively evenly across those players. But even that truth has been exacerbated in recent years, perhaps to the detriment of the game’s narrative potential. And certainly to the disdain of front offices and fans hoping a shiny new star would instantly usher in an era of prosperity.

The Angels and Phillies? Exhibits A and B of how a star’s influence over wins and losses has been dimmed even further by shifts in baseball orthodoxy.

Variance and injury luck shape every baseball season, but the Angels’ continued mediocrity, in particular, seems to highlight a less-than-invigorating truth about what makes winning baseball teams: Having Trout be personally worth one or two more wins than any other individual player is maybe only equally as important as having workable backup plans spring from the woodwork a la the Dodgers and Yankees. Or learning to summon go-to arms from the ether like the Rays or Indians.

Moneyball and fantasy sports and the deluge of publicly available statistics have made it far more common for fans to identify with, root for and discuss GMs. But the successes and failures that swing seasons are descending further below the surface. Even as a state of play that does reward strategy and real talent, it could reasonably be called a concern for MLB. (The league’s proposed or implemented rule changes certainly nod in that direction.)

It makes the standings confounding to casual fans, and the thrust of a team’s fortunes impenetrable to even the most attuned observers.

Why can’t Mike Trout make the playoffs if you say he’s so good? Well, you see ...

The Angels and Phillies, in other words, would be infuriating as TV shows.

The main characters are providing their usual heroics, yet their sides suffer grisly defeats. Because, turns out, the faceless army behind them is 15 percent less effective than the other faceless armies, and that is very important.

With new GMs and revamped personnel and practices behind the scenes, beyond what the eye can see during a game, Trout and Harper may well lead teams to October, and soon. The wins and losses might start to feel like they make sense again.

The changes, should they come to fruition, may even somehow be attributed to the stars. In reality, the supporting cast was the problem and the solution all along.

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