By Jonathan Northrop
Continuing my series:
- Introduction and Catcher
- First Base
- Second Base
- Third Base
- Left Field
- Center Field
- Right Field
- DH and the Bench
- Starting Rotation
Part Six: LEFT FIELD
The Angels left fielder for the first few years was Leon “Daddy Wags” Wagner in his prime, who hit 91 HR in three years as an Angel. Yet Wagner was a terrible outfielder who, according to Bill James, often compared himself favorably to Willie Mays. He was traded, leading to the Angels’ usual musical chairs throughout the ‘60s. Perhaps the best of the bunch after Wagner was Rick Reichardt, who was solid for a few years, hitting .261/.328/.406 in 563 games as an Angel during an era when such numbers netted him a 118 Adjusted OPS+.
During the 1970s, the Angels went through eight different regular starting left fielders, including decline-phase seasons from Vada Pinson and Joe Rudi. The pattern was set and left field was no exception: the Angels, failing to develop many quality homegrown players resorted to former stars in the latter phase of their career.
The irregularity changed in the 1980s, when left field was dominated by Brian "The Incredible Hulk" Downing, a former catcher and skinny-boy who transformed himself into a muscle-bound outfielder. As a catcher, Downing was something of a disappointment for the Chicago White Sox and was traded after the 1977 season to the Angels. In 1979 he had what was probably his best season—and the best hitting season for an AL catcher that year, hitting .326/.418/.462 in 148 games for the first Angels team to make the playoffs. After an ankle break in 1980, Downing moved to the outfield, starting a remarkably consistent stretch from 1982 to 1992, when he was ages 31 to 41, with seasonal Adjusted OPS+ between 115 and 138. Downing wasn’t spectacular, but he hit for good power, solid average, and drew enough walks to be Gene Mauch’s unusual choice for leadoff for many years. After 1990 he was granted free agency and spent his final two seasons in Texas.
After Downing left, Jack Howell, Tony Armas, and Chili Davis swapped duties in left field for a few years until Luis Polonia took over for four years. After being traded from the Yankees in 1990, Polonia excited Angels fans by hitting .336 with 20 sb in 109 games, but never hit .300 again as an Angel (although he did once with NYY and Detroit later in his career). Jim Edmonds manned left field for a year before moving over to center to take over from Chad Curtis.
Finally in 1995 a 23-year old by the name of Garret Anderson hit .321/.352/.505 (121 OPS+) in 106 games, joining Jim Edmonds (.290/.352/.536) and Tim Salmon (.330/.429/.594) in perhaps the best Angels outfield in history. I remember one of Anderson’s veteran team-mates, perhaps Chili Davis, saying “Garret doesn’t know how hard it is to do what he is doing,” namely hit .320+ in the big leagues. But he found out the next year, and for several years, when his Adjusted OPS+ plummeted below 100. His surface numbers were decent, as he hit .285, .303, and .294 between 1996-98, but this was the most inflated offensive era in baseball history, or at least comparable to the bloated 1930s. From 1999 to 2001 Anderson’s numbers took a step upward, but his OPS+ during that next phase didn't surpass 104. For two years, in 2002 and 2003, Anderson had legitimately excellent seasons, hitting .306/.332/.539 (OPS+ 127) and .315/.345/.541 (OPS+ 131), but this new plateau of performance was derailed when he suffered an injury in 2004 and it was revealed that he had back arthritis.
Garret Anderson is a problematic player in terms of ascertaining his career value, and certainly no Angel has offered more controversy in recent years. Some note his RBI output and an eight year stretch where he played over 150 games (1996-2003), as well as an overall mild-mannered consistency. Others focus on a below average on-base percentage and seemingly uncanny ability to kill rallies (which may be more fiction than truth). Yet Anderson has played more games wearing an Angels uniform than anyone else, which in and of itself earns respect. He will be remembered as, if not the greatest Angel to play the game, at least the one with the most longevity—1868 games and counting is nothing to sneeze at for a franchise known for its free agent peddling. Is he the best Angels left fielder ever? Comparing him and Brian Downing would be like comparing Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle (albeit on a much more humble scale!). Mays played for longer, but Mantle was better while he played. Anderson has the years but Downing was better for a shorter period of time. Who was better? Take your pick: Ten years of Downing or fifteen of Anderson?
- Brian Downing (as an Angel): 1661 games, .271/.372/.441 (126 OPS+)
- Garret Anderson: 1868 games, .297/.327/.471 (105 OPS+)
I'd take Downing without losing too much sleep.
- Garret Anderson (35) - 108 games, .297/.336/.492, 16 HR
- Reggie Willits (26) – 136 games, .293/.391/.344, 27 sb
In spring training it looked like Garret Anderson was primed to have a comeback season; in July it looked like he was ready to be a bench-warmer; but then during the stretch drive he went through the hottest streak of his career. Eventually, as we knew he would, Anderson came down to earth, but still put up his best numbers since 2004, perhaps even 2003. But he also played in his fewest games since his rookie season in 1995.
Reggie Willits looked like something special for about a month—a true leadoff hitter and on-base machine like the Angels hadn’t seen since Tony Phillips. While it didn’t last, Reggie ended up with some impressive numbers, most notably a .391 OBP--a rarity among Angels hitters. Still, it seems that the Angels front office doesn't have faith in Willits, perhaps envisioning him as more of an "Orlando Palmeiro Plus" than a legitimate lead-off man.
2008 is the last year of Anderson’s contract, and probably his last as an Angel—at least as a player. He will likely get the majority of his at-bats as a DH, with Gary Matthews getting the majority of at-bats in LF. Willits will get a few at-bats, but probably too few given his rare (for an Angel) skill set (high OBP). Some fans complained about Willits's defense, but statistically he was actually very good in LF, average in CF, and below average in RF.
The Torii Hunter signing changed the outfield situation, taking over center from Gary Matthews. At this point it is looking unlikely that Arte Moreno will be able to void Matthews's contract due to a moral breach based upon steroid usage, so barring a miraculous trade he will play LF or, when Vlad plays DH to rest, RF. Barring a trade, leftfield, rightfield, and the DH spot will rotate Matthews, Guerrero, Anderson, Rivera, Willits, and Morales, with only Guerrero (barring injury) guaranteed full-time duty. Matthews and Anderson should both get at least 120 games, with Rivera, Willits and Morales filling in as needed. But it is likely that some sort of trade will happen and some of these players—probably Willits, Matthews and/or Rivera—will be gone.
- Willits (27) – 110 games, .285/.380/.330, 25 sb
- Matthews (33) – 140 games, .270/.350/.440, 20 HR
As should be obvious, the Angels have quite a few adequate players that can play left field. But one area where their farm system has been lacking of recent years has been in producing quality outfielders, and it may be another year or two before we can ascertain whether some of the younger prospects—Chris Pettit, Peter Bourjos, Matt Sweeney, Jerome Moore, and Clayton Fuller—will be quality major leaguers. Adam Dunn or Jason Bay would be a great fit, with their combinations of plate discipline and power that the Angels so sorely lack, but for various reasons they have not been pursued (at least openly and aggressively). Upgrade? The Angels could use a big bat, but it likely won’t come to left field.