Much in the current MLB standings makes little sense. But I'm not sure anything is stranger than seeing the Los Angeles Angels sitting in the second American League Wild Card spot. With their 4-2 win over Seattle on Sunday -- securing a four-game sweep over their division rivals -- the Angels have won six in a row to grab a half-game lead over Minnesota (!) for that second Wild Card spot. They're also only 1 1/2 games behind the Yankees to host that game. The Angels, who have felt less like a contender than a cautionary tale over the past couple of years, currently have a 27.2 percent chance to reach the postseason. This is amazing.
The way the AL Wild Card race is shaping up, there's a different team going on a hot streak to rise every week. But no one, not the Royals, not the Twins, not the Orioles, has taken a stranger path than the Angels. Here are 10 observations and thoughts about the 2017 Angels, the team you don't know much about … but probably should. This is the zombie team. This team will not die.
1. It is possible -- possible -- that Mike Trout hasn't been the best player on this team this year. This might depend on which WAR calculation you prefer. Fangraphs WAR has Trout at 5.3 WAR and shortstop Andrelton Simmons at 4.6, while Baseball Reference favors Simmons, 6.3 to 5.1. But either way: Have you seen the season Andrelton Simmons is having? Simmons has always been underappreciated, but this is his career year. He is hitting .301 and is slugging .457, the highest marks since he broke into the Majors in 2012. And his defense is better than it has ever been, at the most important position on the field. If you're looking for a reason why the Angels would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, the fact that they have two of the best five players in the AL is an excellent place to start. We have assumed for years that Trout was the only player worth watching on the Angels. This year, they essentially have another player with the impact of Trout on their team. That helps.
2. Oh, yes, Trout missed two months. Here are the Angels' records before Trout went out, while he was gone and after he returned:
Digging into the numbers, you can actually see that Trout has been a little worse since he came back than he was when he left:
Pre-injury: .337/.461/.742 (1.203 OPS)
Post-injury: .347/.480/.602 (1.082 OPS)
Imagine being so good that your 1.082 is a step down.
3. The team's third-best player didn't show up until June. That would be Parker Bridwell, a 26-year-old rookie whom the Angels acquired from the Orioles for cash in April. He wasn't even considered one of the Angels' top 10 prospects after the trade, but all he's done since behind called up has been brilliant. He has a 3.03 ERA, with seven wins, in his 11 starts. If you calculate a leaderboard that features only American League pitchers who have thrown 72 or more innings -- the exact amount Bridwell has pitched -- he comes up shockingly high on the list.
This is certainly unsustainable. Bridwell actually has the lowest K/9 rate in the Angels' not-particularly-impressive rotation, which means a reckoning is surely coming. But it doesn't have to come immediately. Bridwell just need to hold out another month-and-a-half.
4. Seriously, that rotation is rough. After Bridwell, you have:
- Ricky Nolasco, who has a 5.24 ERA and has given up and MLB-high-tying 30 home runs.
- JC Ramirez, who has been a roughly league-average pitcher (and was once traded for Cliff Lee).
- Jesse Chavez, who has a worse ERA and ERA-plus than Nolasco.
- Tyler Skaggs, who has made seven starts and, despite being all right in those seven starts, is still walking more than three batters a game.
That is a rotation full of "don't lose the game for us" guys: Those are five No. 5 starters.
5. The bullpen isn't that good either! Bud Norris was inexplicably the closer for more than a month, though now that he has given up multiple runs in four of his last eight appearances, that's over. Cam Bedrosian might have the job back, but he still has injury concerns. Outside of Yusmeiro Petit and Blake Parker, there isn't anyone in the Angels 'pen that manager Mike Scioscia can, or should, feel comfortable handing the ball to on any given night. Which brings us to the third leg of our wobbly stool ….
6. The lineup is maybe worse than it has been at any time in Trout's career. There are only three above-average hitters in the Angels' lineup: Trout, Simmons and C.J. Cron, who notches a 102 OPS-plus despite a .309 OBP, which is just a little bit higher than Adam Wainwright's. Here are the OBP's for the Angels' starting lineup yesterday:
Cameron Maybin (just returned from injury): .335
Mike Trout: .468
Albert Pujols: .272
C.J. Cron: .309
Andrelton Simmons: .355
Jefry Marte: .276
Kole Calhoun: .320
Martin Maldonado: .300
Cliff Pennington: .311
They also could have called Juan Graterol (.262), Luis Valbuena (.260) or Ben Revere (.284) off the bench. The Angels have Trout, Simmons and then not a single player who is getting on base more than, say, the Cardinals' Stephen Piscotty (.340), who is struggling so much he was just sent to the Minors in the midst of a pennant chase to work on his batting eye and his swing. And I bring up the Cardinals there because …
7. Heavens, poor Pujols. Angels blog Halos Heaven did a definitive look at Pujols' wretched 2017 season three weeks ago, and it has only gotten worse since then. He's batting .212 in August, with just one home run and -- and this is really amazing -- not a single walk. Pujols has walked 1,240 times in his career … and not once in the month of August. Forget what's left on Pujols' contract after this season: Among the 1,119 MLB players to take an at-bat this season, Pujols is 1,118th in WAR, and the Angels are using him as the guy who bats behind Trout. You couldn't make that up.
8. And yet this team is still holding the second Wild Card spot. You did not dream the first two paragraphs of this column. That is actually happening. How? Well, baseball is an insane sport, but also because:
9. The Angels win with defense, and good old fashion GRIT! Thanks in large part to Simmons and Trout and a fast outfield and an efficient infield, the Angels are in fact first in the Majors in Total Fielding Runs Above Average, and they're fourth in defensive efficiency. Their pitchers don't strike a lot of guys out, so they have to be great at fielding, and they are. Fantastic defense will take you a lot further than people realize.
But you also have to look at these insane comeback numbers. The Angels have come from behind to win 34 games this year, which is only nine fewer games than the Phillies have won total. Even more impressive, though:
7th comeback win of season for #Angels when trailing by 4+ runs, which is most in Majors. Royals and Mariners are second with 6. (STATS LLC)- Matt Birch (@MBirchAngels) August 12, 2017
That doesn't explain everything, of course. But it does explain how a team that is essentially a slightly below .500 team by talent could get hot for six games and surge into the lead of a Wild Card race featuring a gaggle of middling teams. You can call it heart, you can call it grit, you can call it sequencing, you can call it luck, but it doesn't really matter: The Angels simply call it a six-game win streak.
10. This is surely (right?) Trout's last chance with the Angels. As my colleague Mike Lupica pointed out last week, the Angels have earned a reputation as the team that's not good enough to take advantage of the peak years of one of the greatest players in baseball history. Trout has three more years under contact after this one -- his salary jumps to $34 million next year, not that it's still not one of the best deals in the game -- before he leaves to sign one of the largest professional sports free agent contracts ever. The Angels still have one of the weaker farm systems in baseball, they still have Pujols making a third of the payroll through 2021 and they still have the middling talent around Trout they've always had. Other than Trout's injury, this year has been the best possible scenario for them, and expecting it to repeat itself is unreasonable. It is likely this lunatic year is the best chance they have left to give Trout the postseason showcase he so richly deserves. (Remember: He has still not won a postseason game in his career. He's 0-3.) It seemed unlikely the Angels wouldn't be anywhere near a pennant chase in 2017. But, if we had our druthers, we'd see Mike Trout late into every October. Those two improbabilities might just even out. If they don't do so this year, it's difficult to imagine they ever will.
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