Angels stink on ice, but it’s not Mike Scioscia’s fault
Mike Scioscia is the longest-tenured manager in the majors, now into his 14th season as manager of the Angels. He’s enjoyed plenty of success, but with the team off to another terrible start despite spending big on the free agent market this past winter, the vultures are circling, and it’s fair to wonder if his time in Anaheim is running out.
At the moment, the Angels stink on ice. After dropping three of four to the Orioles, they’ve now lost four straight series, five of their last six and eight of 10 thus far this season, with one of their two series wins coming against the lowly Astros. At 11-20, they’ve matched their worst start in franchise history; only three times have they had a worse run differential at this point than their current -35. Among AL teams, only the Astros (8-24, -75 runs) and Blue Jays (11-21, -47 runs) have worse records or run differentials.
The history of teams off to such slow starts is rather grim. In the wild-card era (1995 onward) only one squad — the 2001 A’s — has come back from an 11-20 record or worse to make the playoffs. Two teams apiece have rallied from 12-19 (the 2005 Yankees and Astros) and 13-18 (the 1995 Yankees and Dodgers), but all four had better run differentials at this juncture.
Scioscia has been at the helm of the Angels since 2000, and overall, he’s been quite successful, with a .546 winning percentage, five division titles, one wild card appearance and a world championship back in 2002. The problem for the 54-year-old manager is that the Angels haven’t made the playoffs since 2009 — the year he signed a 10-year, $50 million extension, incidentally — despite maintaining one of the game’s highest payrolls. In the four seasons since then (including this one), they’ve averaged $140.2 million per year, which ranks fourth behind the Yankees ($215.1 million), Red Sox ($166.9 million) and Phillies ($160.5), using the data at Cot’s Contracts. Owner Arte Moreno has okayed the signing of Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million), Josh Hamilton (five years, $125 million) and C.J. Wilson (five years, $77.5 million) in an effort to reverse the slide, and the team has depleted its farm system to the point that Baseball America ranked it dead last this spring, yet the Angels have nothing to show for it beyond an expensive roster.
To be fair, those problems have more to do with the work of general manager Jerry Dipoto and his predecessor Tony Reagins, who was fired in October 2011. Scioscia didn’t trade Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells in January 2011, Reagins did. He didn’t sign those pricey free agents, or send three prospects — including Jean Segura — to the Brewers for Zack Greinke last summer, then let Greinke walk at the end of the year. He didn’t unload Ervin Santana and Dan Haren over the winter in favor of adding Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson and Jason Vargas. Dipoto built this team, and while the Angels won 89 games last year, they still finished third in a four-team division.
Scioscia’s relationship with Dipoto is said to be considerably less strong than with predecessors Reagins and Bill Stoneman, and he wields less clout than he did previously. According to FoxSports’ Ken Rosenthal, Scioscia used to run the team’s end-of-the-year meetings as they set offseason priorities, but that dynamic has changed since Dipoto took over, and tensions were exacerbated last May when Dipoto dismissed longtime hitting coach Mickey Hatcher after last season’s slow start. The current GM and manager may not be a very good fit; Dipoto is more analytically inclined than his predecessors, but last September, Rosenthal noted, “Scioscia has been resistant to using the data prepared by the GM and his staff.”
While Scioscia’s teams built their success on pitching (particularly a strong bullpen), an aggressive offensive approach and strong defense, the current roster has less speed, is more home run-dependent and lacks good pitching. Beyond clashing philosophies, some of that owes to injuries. Staff ace Jered Weaver hit the disabled list after just two starts due to a fractured left elbow suffered while avoiding a batted ball on April 7; there’s no timetable yet for his return. Intended closer Ryan Madson has yet to make an appearance due to a prolonged recovery from April 2012 Tommy John surgery. Shortstop Erick Aybar and third baseman Alberto Callaspo each spent three weeks on the DL, the former due to due to a bruised heel, the latter due to a calf strain and now centerfielder Peter Bourjous is out of action due to a strained hamstring.
Those injuries aren’t entirely responsible for the 11-20 record, but they haven’t helped. Among AL teams, only the Astros are allowing more than the Angels’ 5.19 runs per game. The rotation’s 4.95 ERA ranks 13th and its 5.8 per nine strikeout rate is 14th. The bullpen’s 4.49 ERA is 13th as well, exacerbated by a league-worst 50 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score. Journeyman Brendan Harris and minor leaguers Luis Jimenez and Andrew Romine, the fill-ins on the left side of the infield, have been thoroughly overmatched, hitting a combined .227/.267/.298 with a 42/6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 152 plate appearances.
The bigger problem for an offense that ranks 10th in the league in scoring at 4.16 runs per game has been the dismal showings of Pujols (.237/.319/.407 with five homers in 138 PA) and Hamilton (.208/.255/.296 with just two homers in 137 PA). The former has been playing though a bout of plantar fasciitis, and has just a .228 batting average on balls in play and a .169 isolated power — both career lows by a country mile, but at least they can be explained away by injury. Not so for the latter, who has spent virtually the entire season in one of his prolonged slumps, and looks completely lost at the plate, swinging at far more pitches outside the strike zone than ever, and falling behind in the count all too often. Hamilton has struck out in 27.7 percent of his plate appearances, while walking in just 5.1 percent of them — both well off his previous career marks of 19.7 percent and 8.4 percent, respectively. While Mark Trumbo (.294/.364/.548) remains a force and Mike Trout (.275/.340/.504) has been respectable if not exceptional, neither can do enough to offset the rest of the lineup’s struggles; besides those two, the team’s non-pitchers are batting just .252/.309/.367.
You can’t fire an entire team for such underperformance, which makes the natural response to fire the manager, but Scioscia’s contract would make that a painful proposition. While the annual breakdown isn’t entirely known, his salary is $6 million a year in the last three years of his deal, so it’s safe to say that he’s received less than half of that $50 million so far. It’s been suggested the Angels could trade him, but that’s far easier said than done, and the lack of success from the recent swaps of John Farrell and Ozzie Guillen may scare teams away, in addition to producing an inconsequential return. The current coaching staff doesn’t have an obvious heir apparent, and the biggest name outside the organization that has surfaced, Tony La Russa, isn’t interested (no word on Phil Jackson thus far).
The more justifiable route based on the current state of the organization would be to fire Dipoto. Doing so when he has less than two years under his belt would be a sign of panic, but he’s responsible for far more of the team’s current problems than Scioscia. Given the team’s aging roster and depleted farm system, it could be years — or several other big free agent contracts — before things turn around, but there will always be a GM hungry enough to take on such a challenge.
In all likelihood, Scioscia will remain on the job unless or until he decides his time with the Angels has run its course; such is the commitment a skipper receives when he’s on a 10-year deal. Beyond enjoying the typical regression toward the mean that an underachieving club tends to experience eventually, it’s not at all clear that a new manager could turn this season around. That may leave the Angels playing out the string, but when the alternative is simply creating fireworks for the sake of creating fireworks, it’s the better course of action.