One year after introducing a manager they thought might catapult the Angels back into relevance, the Angels on Thursday dusted light cobwebs off their props and unveiled a new jersey for yet another new manager they think might deliver them to the promised land.
And the man who donned the threads expressed conviction that he could indeed be that person.
Eight days after agreeing to an three-year contract that will pay him $12 million to manage the Angels, Joe Maddon stood on a dais in the middle of the diamond at Angel Stadium on Thursday and told the assembled group of former Angels, current players and team employees and sponsors that he did not intend to be idle during future playoffs. The Angels last won a postseason game in 2009 and have only played three meaningful games in October since.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it: . . . My goal is to be playing,” Maddon said of the postseason. “I don’t like watching this crap on TV right now. I don’t like it. It’s much more fun to be involved. Much more fun to be under the scrutiny, much more fun to be second-guessed than to not.”
But the Angels must first field a competitive roster — one that will dramatically improve from the 90 losses in 2019 and make strides to topple the top-heavy American League West. And they must play the style of baseball that made the Angels one of the league’s dominant franchises earlier this century.
Owner Arte Moreno said he would increase the Angels’ payroll beyond their typical range of $175 million to $180 million to accomplish the first goal. Maddon, of course, hopes to make an impact on the latter by drawing inspiration from his past.
“The stuff I’ll bring here,” Maddon said, “is the stuff I learned here.”
Maddon, 65, spent his first 31 years (1975-2005) of professional baseball with the Angels in a variety of minor league and big league roles before leaving to manage the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 2006. He learned during those three decades from the likes of bullpen coach Bob Clear, manager Gene Mauch and pitching guru Marcel Lachemann. He espoused their values at the introductory news conference.
He also put a focus on the aggressive nature with which the Angels played under longtime manager Mike Scioscia. The Angels won the 2002 World Series and 2004 and 2005 American League West titles while Maddon was the bench coach, and they won three more division titles from 2007-2009 with an offensive approach heavy on contact, situational hitting and aggressive baserunning.
Some of that style eluded the Angels in 2019. They ranked last in baseball in sacrifice attempts (eight) and sacrifice hits (four). They stole only 65 bases (league average was 76). Top MVP award candidate Mike Trout, in particular, suffered from pulling back the throttle on the base paths. He made only 13 steal attempts, 11 of which were successful, after swiping at least 20 bases per season from 2016-18.
Neither Moreno nor general manager Billy Eppler said the lack of aggression led to the decision to fire Brad Ausmus after one season. . But Eppler suggested Maddon’s experience combining analytics with his old-school sensibilities — which helped turn the low-budget Rays into perennial postseason contenders and later assisted him in Chicago as he and the Cubs earned postseason berths from 2015-18 and won the 2016 World Series — would be helpful to turning around the Angels.
“There’s a lot of calculus that comes into play,” Eppler said. “One of the things that Joe and I were talking about through the interview process is, ‘Do you think managing a major league baseball game is more like poker, or do you think it’s more like chess?’
“I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer, but we both gave our answers at the same time and we both said poker. We kind of think about it in that vein. You have to understand your hand, have to understand the hand your opponent’s holding. And I think a seasoned manager does that.”
Although major league records were set for home runs and strikeouts again in 2019, Maddon hopes an emphasis on contact, baserunning and defense — and effective pitching — will produce a more exciting brand of baseball.
“I want us to reestablish our identity here,” Maddon said. “While we’re playing the analytical game, I want us also to play the Angels’ game.”