It is early – just about a fifth of MLB’s 162-game grind has been played – and yet the imagination dances, day-to-day results aside. The Dodgers and Angels are both near the top of their leagues, and is it too much to imagine them sharing a field in late October?
We leaven the daydreaming with the standard disclaimer: A lot can happen between now and then, and the pitching issues suddenly developing with a Dodgers team that until Friday led baseball in staff ERA are a vivid illustration. They’re down two starters following Clayton Kershaw’s move to the injured list on Friday, and Andrew Friedman might be looking for a late-game bullpen piece to make up for Blake Treinen’s extended absence. Meanwhile, four regulars – Gavin Lux, Max Muncy, Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger – entered Saturday with OPS+ figures under 100, the league average.
Yet you can’t look away, even when they fall behind. They trailed the Phillies 7-1 on Thursday night and were within one swing of winning the game in the ninth inning. They were down 2-0 early Friday night but wound up in another slugfest, tying the score 9-9 on Justin Turner’s two-run homer but losing in 10 innings, 12-10, their third straight loss and fourth in five games.
And yet they’re 20-11 going into Saturday’s play. They’re still in first place by percentage points, having led their division all but a handful of days … and with all their star power they might not even be the most compelling team in their own neighborhood.
Really, this may be the capital of fun-to-watch baseball. The Angels were 22-12 after winning the opener of a three-game series Friday night in Oakland. The past week alone featured a walk-off win after being down 4-2 in the ninth, a no-hitter, and a wrong-handed home run by Anthony Rendon, just because.
(Is that a breach of the unwritten rules, a right-handed hitter hitting a homer left-handed in a 10-0 game? If so, who cares?)
The Angels can hit: Tied for first in baseball in runs scored (166, with the Dodgers), second in home runs (46), third in OPS (.744) and slugging percentage (.423). They can pitch, for a change: Fifth in staff ERA (3.27), third in WHIP (1.07) and tied for first in opponents’ batting average (.208 with, again, the Dodgers). And they’ve popularized cowboy hats, as Orange County fans seem to have picked up on the home run celebration featuring that particular talisman and are wearing their own to the ballpark.
(Gene Autry would approve, I’m sure.)
The Angels are doing something else, too, as they attempt to trash the common wisdom – at least in the rest of the country – that Mike Trout needs to go elsewhere because his team can’t get him to the postseason. They might be flexing their muscles in the midst of the Deader Ball Era, but they’re also playing plenty of small ball – fifth in the majors in stolen bases and second in attempts, for example – and maybe Manager Joe Maddon is displaying a template for what the game should look like once the people in charge get through tinkering with the rules.
“If (the ball’s) not going out, you have to play baseball,” he said. “And I think … if you want to get more people interested in our game, play baseball, do it all, play all the components, all facets of the game. And I think that’s what we’re doing right now. I know that’s what we’re doing. That’s all we talked about in spring training.”
That is, remember, the type of baseball that Mike Scioscia brought to Anaheim, the type that led to the 2002 World Series championship pennant that still flies at Angel Stadium.
Fun to watch? Trout leads baseball in OPS (1.143) going into Saturday’s games. Ohtani is still one of a kind. Brandon Marsh and Taylor Ward are making an impact, Rendon is healthy again … and the front office emphasis on pitching is finally bearing fruit.
General manager Perry Minasian spent $120.5 million of Arte Moreno’s cash last winter to solidify the rotation (Noah Syndergaard, Michael Lorenzen) and the bullpen (Raisel Iglesias, Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera, Archie Bradley).
A year ago the Angels used all of their picks in the 20-round draft on pitchers. (Chase Silseth, an 11th-round pick in that draft, allowed one hit in six innings in his big league debut Friday night in Oakland.) Before that, then-GM Billy Eppler used the 10th pick of the 2020 draft on Reid Detmers, and that suggests that the no-hitter Detmers threw Tuesday night against Tampa Bay was not a fluke but instead a glimpse of his potential once he unlocks it.
The most impressive thing about the Angels right now? They’ve got the rest of the country actually paying attention.
Meanwhile, the Monstars – as Freddie Freeman jokingly called his new team shortly after he joined the Dodgers – have several players operating below their capabilities … but, as we said, it’s early.
They’re still the favorites unless and until someone knocks them off. They entered Saturday second in baseball in team ERA (2.75 to Houston’s 2.68), first in WHIP (1.05) and, as we mentioned, tied at the top with the Angels in runs scored and opponents’ batting average.
And unlike a year ago, when the Dodgers would score a lot of runs one or two times a week and struggle to score the rest of the time, this lineup can grind a pitcher or a pitching staff down and impose its will in the late innings. (See: Thursday and Friday nights, albeit against a leaky Phillies bullpen.) And they don’t seem dependent on the home run, also a good sign.
Again, do we dare dream so soon? Keep in mind, we’ve only been close once in the teams’ 62-season mutual existence to even thinking about Dodgers vs. Angels in late October.
They’ve both reached the postseason in the same year only four times: 2004, ’08, ’09 and ’14. Only once did they both get to the LCS, in 2009, when the Angels lost to the Yankees in six games, the Dodgers lost to the Phillies in five, and those who said “Wait’ll next year” might have been dismissed as hopeless dreamers.
Yeah, maybe – probably – we still are. And at times when either team is scuffling, which is guaranteed to happen during the 162-game ordeal, it sounds crazy.
But it could happen. And wouldn’t it be a blast?