At one point this season, the Angels were starting Willie Mays in his prime, Ozzie Smith 2.0, and some weird, freaky Carl Yastrzemski/John Smoltz hybrid who could DH or dominate on the mound. Just for good measure, they also had one of baseball’s greatest all-time players setting personal milestones and reminding you of the sport’s history.
On May 23, the Angels were down, 3-1, to the Blue Jays going into the ninth inning. Mike Trout walked and stole second. Shohei Ohtani drove him in with a single, and then he stole second. Andrelton Simmons singled to drive Ohtani home, and suddenly the Angels were winning.
One of the reasons the game was that close in the first place might have been Simmons’ defense.
Albert Pujols didn’t hit a milestone home run, and it wasn’t played in front of a full house in Anaheim, but other than that, this was the game you would show a baseball agnostic. Anyone with even passing curiosity in the sport would understand the appeal. Here is the best defender of a generation doing his thing. Here is the most well-rounded player of his — or possibly any other — generation doing his thing. And here is the most unusual talent baseball has to offer, continuing to surprise and amaze in two wildly different capacities.
The Angels were in a postseason chase, and they might have been the most watchable team of the last 30 years.
Simmons got hurt. Ohtani might be out for the season, unless he’s limited to DH. Trout is playing what might be his best stretch of baseball in a career of playing baseball better than most Hall of Famers, and the Angels are incapable of using this help to win.
The problem, of course, is even when everyone is healthy, baseball isn’t a 3-on-3 game. There are 22 other players to worry about, even when those three players are doing exactly what they’re supposed to. The Angels’ slide from the top of the AL West had already started by that comeback against the Blue Jays, and their struggles have been distributed evenly. Trout might be swallowing his opponents whole, but the Angels also have an impressive armada of miserable disappointments. Martin Maldonado, Pujols, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart, and Luis Valbuena have combined for 1,224 plate appearances, and all of their OBPs are under .300. That’s before you get to Kole Calhoun, who would need to reach base in each of his next 29 PAs to get his OBP to .300.
The rotation is down five starters, which is muting the benefits of Tyler Skaggs’ breakout season. Keynan Middleton started the season as the closer, and he’s out for the year. The locusts came out of nowhere, and they were efficient. The Angels are left with Trout banging his head against the wall, night after night, doing more to help his team win than almost any person has ever helped his team win, and it’s not working.
At this point, it’s fine if you want to daydream about possible solutions. The farm system is improving, but it still isn’t robust, which will make trades difficult. Still, you figure that Trout can help the Angels win more games than they lose until Simmons comes back, and maybe they get good news on Ohtani’s elbow. Then Richards’ hamstring heals up, Cozart comes back, Kinsler snaps out of it, reinforcements arrive at the deadline, and everything works out.
The problem with that is this is the season of the Super Team in the American League. There are four teams on pace for at least 102 wins, and two of them play in the same division as the Angels, who are somehow 7½ games out of the second wild card, despite being five games over .500. They’re further away from a postseason spot than the Padres, for perspective. Even if the ship pulls out of the iceberg with less damage than expected, there’s still a lot of ocean ahead of them.
What the Angels have become, then, is something of a thought experiment.
Would you be satisfied watching one of the greatest seasons in baseball history, even if it was surrounded by the most frustrating overall team performance imaginable?
As a Giants fan during the 2001 and 2004 seasons, I would be quick to suggest that, yes, it is absolutely worth it. Except the Giants buttressed those wasted Barry Bonds seasons with division titles and a pennant. The Angels have one sweep in the 2014 ALDS to show for Trout’s amazing career. The clock isn’t ticking loudly, but it’s still ticking, and the sense of “Can we not waste this, please?” is as strong as it’s ever been. Most of that has to do with the historic talent the team has assembled.
The Angels are suffering through the cursed monkey’s paw of a season, then.
“Give me the greatest season baseball might ever see.”
Yes, good. A finger curls.
“Let Andrelton Simmons become one of the best hitters in baseball to go along with his Hall of Fame defense.”
Sure thing. Another finger curls.
“And, finally, let Shohei Ohtani be as good as everyone says he can be.”
Oh, right away. The last finger curls. The analogy fits even better when you realize that somewhere in a vet’s office, there’s a rally monkey with a bandaged stump who isn’t really interested in helping his old employer right now.
The thought experiment keeps rattling around in my head, though. Is it better to have watched Trout and complained than to never have watched Trout at all?
Of course it is. In some very specific ways, this is still one of the most magical seasons the Angels will ever offer to their fans.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t incredibly, horrifically frustrating to think about what might have been. The Angels started the season with Willie Mays, Ozzie Smith, and Carl Yastrzemski stapled to John Smoltz, and they kept winning at first. Now, though, they might not even sniff the postseason.
It’s more about the journey than the destination, sure, and Angels fans still get to watch our generation’s greatest talent every night. I’m not sure if we’ll ever see a team that’s saddled with more what-ifs than the 2018 Angels, though. They could still turn it around. They still have the world’s greatest consolation prize, which is one of baseball’s most exciting teams when healthy.
But with every miraculous baseball moment that Trout offers up, we’re reminded again and again that there’s something missing with the Angels, and it doesn’t have to show up just because they have some of the game’s most electric players. They’ve gotten half of their wishes, alright. The only problem is the curse that came along with them.