Thursday, January 9, 2014

By David Saltzer, Senior Writer

For those of us old enough to remember the series on TV, imagine this article narrated by Leonard Nimoy.

The story of the offseason has been mostly written. Chapter one was to focus on the starting pitching. Chapter two was about the need to improve the bullpen. Chapter three delved into the need to improve third base. The rest of the book was a deep analysis of the failure to get off to a winning month of April.

Unfortunately, the analysis to date about the failure to get off to a hot start in April has mostly focused on the wrong aspects. So far, most of the focus has been on ways to change the players’ routines in Spring Training and not on the real issue that has plagued the team: the lack of a clear identity.

Looking back at the Angels’ record in 2013 tells a more complex story than just a problem with Spring Training workout regimens. The 2013 Angels lacked a team identity that can be easily shown by looking at its win-loss record.

Overall, the 2013 team had a win-loss record of 78-84 (.481). On the surface, this record doesn’t look so bad. However, a deeper look into the record reveals that the team played with three distinct personalities based on who they were playing. Instead of playing at a consistent level against all opponents as a team, as a team, they consistently played at the level of their opponents. This can be shown by looking how the 2013 Angels did playing against their A. L. West rivals, how they played at home in general, and how they played against all the other teams that went to the playoffs.

Against their divisional rivals, the 2013 Angels did not show a strong identity. They were not confident and did not come out to beat those teams. Overall against the A.L. West, the Angels were 32-44 (.421). That means that the 2013 Angels had a winning record against every other team that they played (46-40 or .535). One team in particular, the Rangers, literally sank the Angels by winning 15 out of the 19 games played. The Astros, who posted an overall .315 win-percentage garnered nearly 20% of their total victories against the Angels by taking 10 out of 19 games. That level of play against divisional opponents is unacceptable. Losses to divisional rivals hurt doubly as they lower your place in the standings while raising theirs.

Similarly, the 2013 Angels did not show that a winning character where they should have—at home. We all, about the advantages that come with being the home team whereas typically teams play better at home than they do on the road, using the comforts and advantages of their home ballpark to secure extra victories, the 2013 Angels had a 39-42 record (.481) both at home and on the road. Every other team that went to the playoffs in 2013 had a substantially better record at home than they had on the road. That failure by the Angels to win at home not only hurt them in the standings, but also in the turnstiles as fewer fans turned out to see the team struggle at home.

Considering that the 2013 Angels overall had a losing record, there was one area where they truly excelled. When they played teams outside the A.L. West who ultimately went to the playoffs they had a surprising win-loss record of 20-18 (.526). In 2013, the Angels played the Cardinals, Dodgers, Indians, Rays, Reds, Red Sox, Tigers and even with all their problems were able to post a positive record. They even managed a seasonal sweep against the Tigers (winning 6 games) showing that they could pull out victories against the best teams in baseball. While this should give Angels fans hope for 2014, it also shows that the 2013 team lacked a consistency in its identity.

One of the beauties of a team sport is watching a group perform at a level that exceeds the sum of the individuals on the team. Championship caliber teams regularly do this. They play with heart. They walk with swagger. They have an identity. They beat the teams that they should beat (the weaker opponents). They win against their divisional rivals, taking the series against each of them. They play over .500 against the best the league has to offer.

Under Mike Scioscia, the Angels have definitely learned the lesson of “one game at a time.” In its essential form, it means to focus on just the game at hand and to not let things that happened in the past affect the performance of the present or future. It’s not always easy to “turn the page” and let things go, but, over the course of a 162-game season, it is an essential skill.

However, at the same time, in order for teams to play with a passion, they need an identity around which they can rally. They need a leader who can inspire, motivate, and push the rest of the team to perform at a higher level. As the expression goes, they need someone who can “carry the team on his back” for a while—someone with determination and grit.

Last year, the Angels did not have that person. As individuals, they had the talent to beat the best in the game. And, their win-loss record showed that. However, as a team, they could not maintain that against the teams they needed to beat (their divisional rivals) and the teams they should have beat (everyone else—especially those with sub-.500 records). They did not have the person who could carry the team on his back and could raise the overall level of play for the team.

This is not to blame anyone. Pujols’ injury made it impossible for him to maintain his elite level. And, Pujols demonstrates his leadership best when he performs at an elite level on the field. Think back to how he played from June on in 2012. I can still picture him after hitting one of his 50 doubles cheering and clapping on 2nd base trying to lift the team.

It’s also not fair to put this burden on Trout because he is still too young to carry an entire team. Most people his age are still in college or deep within the Minor Leagues rather than performing at the level he is.

And, it’s not fair to place the blame on Josh Hamilton. One cannot be a team leader in his first year with an organization. Furthermore, he had nagging injuries for most of the season that sapped his skills until the end of the season.

Leadership is not a skill that can be taught. While it can be refined and improved to a limited extent, either one primarily has that as a skill or one does not. We all know what it’s like to have a good leader to follow, whether it was in the military, on a sports team, or as a boss. We also all know what it’s like to not have that. We feel rudderless and lost.

This lack of leadership helps explain why the Angels have gotten off to slow starts consistently for the past few years. Without the presence of a strong leader, the team has stumbled out of the gate until it figures out its identity for the year.

This lack of an identity also explains what was the prequel to this offseason’s book: the signing of Don Baylor and Gary Disarcina as coaches. It’s not surprising that both have long ties to the organization. Unlike Pujols and Hamilton, both of whom came over as free agents, both are known to all levels of the organization and can immediately begin to exert immediate influence on the team.

Make no mistake about it: even with Baylor and Disarcina, the mantra of one game at a time will continue. No matter what, the Angels will have tough losses in 2014 and will need to be able to get past them before more damage is done.

However, what Baylor and Disarcina will provide is a steady presence in the clubhouse that will push the team onto greater accomplishments from the get-go. They will provide the identity and leadership until the clubhouse gels and team leaders are established. They will be the steady hand on the oar which will allow Scioscia to focus on the bigger issues of the season.

In listening to all the interviews with the Angels management and former players, everyone has talked at length about the “presence” that the new coaches will bring, particularly the “presence” of Don Baylor. Even Bobby Grich on KLAA radio talked about that with Victor Rojas and Terry Smith. That “presence” is what the Angels have been missing and needing in order to do better. In time, the players will take over and define their roles as leaders and will form a new team identity based on their own personalities. Until then, though, it will be up to Baylor and Disarcina to provide that steady push to get the team to win the games that they should win and to win the games that they need to.

In time, I believe that Trout will become a vocal team leader. He learned a lot from Torii Hunter and will hopefully absorb more from Baylor and Disarcina. Ultimately, he will bat third in the lineup and can provide the clutch hits to lift the team.

I also believe that this year that Hamilton and Pujols will also provide more leadership this year. Both feed off of their successes and will be better able to do so now that they are healthy. C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver will both lead at the front of the rotation and the bullpen will be more secure with the addition of Joe Smith. In all, the 2014 team is on the right path to forming its unique identity. Angels fans should be confident about the 2014 team so far. Through minor tweaking and key upgrades to the rotation and bullpen, this new team should be substantially better at the start of the season.

Love to hear what you think!

Listen to "A Fish Like This" Tribute song to Mike Trout's Greatness

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