Can a throwback approach enable the Angels to push forward and finally win?
It was one of the first mottos Angels manager Joe Maddon rolled out this spring, a phrase he’s emphasized time and again during preseason camp.
“Play like it’s 1985.”
It doesn’t mean a total throwback to a time when teams stole bases almost as often as they homered, and formed small-ball identities around sacrifice bunts and hit-and-runs. That’s not how the 2021 Angels are built anyway, with a heavy-hitting lineup led by Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon and a healthy Shohei Ohtani.
Instead, the saying is representative of a certain mindset the Angels are trying to promote this season — an approach that puts fundamentals such as baserunning technique, two-strike approach and steady defense at the forefront as the club tries to snap a six-year postseason drought.
“That’s the push this year,” Maddon said. “When you play like it’s 1985, I want to envision a real assertive, aggressive, attitudinal kind of a game.”
Maddon’s thinking was partially inspired by the less lively balls MLB will use this season, which are expected to travel slightly shorter distances in the air and, in Maddon’s opinion, could incentivize more contact hitting and aggressiveness on the bases.
But Maddon also views these priorities as building blocks for his team, foundational elements that need to be cemented for the Angels to finally maximize their potential.
“I understand where he’s coming from,” first-year general manager Perry Minasian said. “You want to play winning baseball. Hitting home runs is fun — we have plenty of guys on this team that can do that — but I think good teams win games in different ways.”
Nearly every MLB team will fill a portion of its stadium capacity to begin the season, even in Texas where an executive order would allow full capacity.
Winning has proved elusive for the Angels, the only MLB team that has posted a sub-.500 record every year since 2016. They’ve had the best player in the game but some of the worst pitching. After making managerial changes the previous two offseasons, they shook up the front office this winter. They’ve spent a lot of money — the club has ranked top 10 in MLB payroll for most of the last decade — without much success.
They hope this can be the season they finally vault back into contention, that targeted roster moves and a refined mentality in Maddon’s first full season can pay dividends over 162 games.
Most of last year’s lineup remained intact, with Trout hoping to improve upon a slightly down 2020 campaign by his standards (he had a career-low batting average and OPS+ but still finished fifth in MVP voting) and Rendon trying to build upon a strong finish to his debut season with the Angels.
New shortstop José Iglesias has already formed an impressive-looking middle infield duo with second baseman David Fletcher. Jared Walsh appears primed to take over primary playing time at first base from Albert Pujols. And utility man Jose Rojas was the feel-good story of camp, making the MLB roster for the first time as a 28-year-old rookie.
In left and right field, respectively, Justin Upton and Dexter Fowler are targeting bounce-back campaigns, with Juan Lagares serving as the fourth outfielder. Catchers Max Stassi and Kurt Suzuki will split time.
Then there is Ohtani, who excelled in the Cactus League as a two-way player, leading the Angels in home runs at the plate and strikeout rate on the mound.
Limited by injuries to largely hitting-only duties over the past two seasons — his offensive numbers also declined after a 2019 knee operation — Ohtani took advantage of a healthy offseason, rebuilding strength in his lower body and visiting the Driveline training center in Seattle to iron out his throwing motion and swing mechanics.
His performance in camp has reignited the hope he can be a difference maker for the Angels in a seemingly weakened AL West division (computer projections show the Angels at least competing in the wild card race, predicting their win total to be in the mid to upper 80s).
“The mentality is, we’re gonna try to win the division,” Trout said.
Pitching also will be crucial to the pursuit. Dylan Bundy leads a starting rotation bolstered by the acquisition of veterans José Quintana and Alex Cobb, and could use breakthroughs from Ohtani, Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning.
While MLB and its players’ union jockey for leverage ahead of new CBA negotiations, a pitcher is injured trying to bat and the game might suffer.
Raisel Iglesias is the new closer in a bullpen that will also benefit from the experience of additions Alex Claudio and Junior Guerra. Questions, however, remain about the group’s depth — which the club has tried to pad in recent days with the additions of veterans Steve Cishek, Tony Watson, James Hoyt, AJ Ramos and a reunion with Noé Ramirez. Cishek and Watson are certain to be on the opening day roster.
Maddon and Minasian believe the staff has enough talent to improve from last season — the Angels ranked 26th in MLB with a 5.09 team ERA — and identified improving pitch sequencing and command of the strike zone as key.
“For me,” Maddon said, “I love that idea that our guys would be willing to throw any of their arsenal in any count, not be predictable.”
It all feeds into the Angels’ “1985” message — “smaller type things,” as Minasian explained, “that are big things in the big picture.”
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