Prior to this year, the Angels were, with baseball’s best player, Mike Trout, and the reliable Kole Calhoun already in the fold, a competent left fielder away from having one of the most-talented outfields in the majors. With a month to go in the 2017 season, they found just the player they needed, trading for the power-hitting Justin Upton before signing him to a five-year, $106 million contract after the season concluded.
However, while Trout and Upton performed as expected in 2018, Calhoun did not, so the Angels’ outfield was only marginally better this year than last. Overall, the group ranked 20th in the majors in on-base percentage (.313), 12th in slugging percentage (.413), seventh in home runs (214), and 12th in Wins Above Replacement (24.4). Although, the outfield was still the most dependable component of the Angels, and, heading into 2019, it is the area that the team should be least concerned about.
2018 was, in many ways, Trout’s best season. He missed about three weeks of the season due to a wrist injury, but, in 140 games, he compiled a monstrous .312/.460/.628 (191 wRC+, where 100 is average) slash line with 39 home runs and 24 stolen bases in 26 attempts. In total, he accumulated 9.8 WAR, and, though he did not win it, he finished in the top two of MVP voting for the sixth time.
In the past, Trout has had years in which he has showcased extreme on-base ability and others in which he has showcased extreme power-hitting ability, but one has often come at the expense of the other. This year, that was not the case.
Leading the majors in isolated slugging (.316), Trout was the sport’s best power hitter, and, leading the majors in walk rate (20.1%), he was its most disciplined. 2018 marked the second consecutive year that Trout finished in the 97th percentile or better in both metrics. Just seven other players have finished in the 90th percentile or better in both metrics in one of the last two seasons, and Trout is the only player to do it both years.
Trout also improved his defense because he said he would. As seen below, Trout’s defensive numbers got better across the board.
Notably, his arm was the best it has ever been. Trout tied his career high with seven outfield assists, and UZR rated his arm positively for only the second time in his career.
Believe it or not, Trout has had a few flaws before; he has simply fixed all of them, and his fielding is only the latest. He now gets on base like nobody else, hits for power like nobody else, plays above-average defense at one of the most demanding positions on the field, and steals bases with tremendous success. In other words, Trout is basically perfect.
To put Trout’s preeminence into perspective, no player has ever racked up more WAR through his age-26 season than him (64.7). 2018 was the fifth time that Trout passed the 9.0 WAR threshold. Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and Ty Cobb each did so six times in their respective careers. Mickey Mantle had four such seasons; Ken Griffey Jr., Joe DiMaggio, and Rickey Henderson had two a piece. Every one of those players’ careers spanned between 13 and 25 seasons, by the way. Trout just finished his seventh.
We can also compare Trout to his contemporaries, though they provide even less competition than the aforementioned legends. Since 2012, Trout (obviously) leads the majors in WAR with 64.0. Josh Donaldson ranks second in that span with 36.8. The 27.2-win gap between those two is as big as the gap between Donaldson and Jon Jay (9.6), the 152nd-ranked player.
This offseason’s top free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, have fewer career WAR combined than Trout does by himself. 2017’s MVPs, Jose Altuve and Giancarlo Stanton, can say the same. Those four players have produced a total of one offensive season equal to or better than Trout’s average offensive season.
So, yes, Trout is just about as to close to perfect as one can get. And, yes, it would be difficult for him to get better next year, but he will surely find a way, just like he always does.
In the meantime, the Angels need to get working on that contract extension.
Although he also does not compare to Trout, Upton is an excellent player in his own right. He started 2018 slowly (.293 OBP in March/April) and ended it in a slump (.301 OBP in September), but he was fantastic in between and finished the season with the sort of numbers he is accustomed to.
Altogether, Upton slashed .257/.344/.463 (124 wRC+) with 30 homers and eight stolen bases, amassing 3.1 WAR. It was definitely a step back from his power-heavy 2017 season, but Upton’s 2018 was right in line with the rest of his career (3.7 WAR/season since 2009), and he was still more valuable than 60% of qualified outfielders.
He was also a welcome addition to a team that had struggled to find left-field production as greatly as the Angels had in recent years. For reference, Upton hit more home runs this year than Angels left fielders did from Opening Day 2015 through August 2017 (27), a stretch in which they hit an indescribably weak .220/.286/.323 (68 wRC+).
Upton’s defense rated poorly (0 DRS, -0.6 UZR, -7 OAA), but the 31-year-old showed few worrisome signs of aging at the plate. Although his ability to crush fastballs declined somewhat, he walked about as often as he always has (10.4%), he chased bad pitches about as often as he always has (24.6%), he made about as much contact as he always has (71.5%), and he made hard contact at a higher rate than he ever has (43.8%).
Appearing in at least 133 games every year since 2009 and launching 26 or more home runs in eight of the last 10 seasons, Upton has long been known for his consistent above-average production, and 2018 was no different. He provided the Angels with something the team had been desperate for and proved why it was wise to invest in him.
Of the three regular Angels outfielders, Calhoun had the most turbulent 2018 season. He got off to an unfathomably poor start, hitting .145/.195/.179 (3 wRC+) through the first two months. He then spent a couple of weeks on the disabled list with a right oblique strain, and when he returned to the field, he brought with him a revamped batting stance.
Calhoun’s biggest problem prior to his DL stint was his inability to get the ball off the ground. He had a ground-ball rate close to 56%, which was especially problematic because he faced the shift in almost three-quarters of his plate appearances this year.
His altered starting position at the plate helped him keep his body “in a more powerful position,” and the results supported that statement. In the first two months of the season, Calhoun recorded three extra-base hits; it took him just six games after he came off the DL to match that total.
Calhoun dropped his grounder rate to 36.5%, upped his hard-hit rate from 35.1% to 51.5%, and hit .287/.351/.565 (148 wRC+) with 16 homers from June 18, his first game back from the DL, through the end of the August. But then his numbers declined in September, when he hit a meager .125/.271/.227 (46 wRC+). However, on a positive note, he recorded a 16.7% walk rate during the final month, and, as seen below, he continued hitting the ball hard. The results weren’t there, though, because he started hitting the ball on the ground again (45.9%).
It’s difficult to know exactly what to make of Calhoun’s 2018. If one were to simply look at his final numbers, this year appears to merely be his second consecutive season of declining production. From 2014-2016, Calhoun hit .266/.327/.436 (114 wRC+) and averaged 3.3 WAR per season. His numbers fell to .244/.333/.392 (98 wRC+) and 2.2 WAR in 2017 before dropping to .208/.283/.369 (79 wRC+) with 0.0 WAR this year.
But if one were to throw out those horrid first couple months of 2018, his numbers (.242/.328/.472, 118 wRC+) look very similar to those from 2014-2016. The batting-stance change did not make Calhoun a completely different hitter; it got him back to being the hitter he was, though his September slide cannot be ignored.
Perhaps Calhoun’s best offensive days are indeed behind him, but his 2018 adjustments provide hope for a bounce-back 2019. Plus, the Angels can, at the very least, always bank on his outstanding defense.
Confusingly, the Angels have reportedly made Calhoun available to other teams via trade, despite his stock being at a low point. Such a move would seemingly be motivated by the potential to improve payroll flexibility, as Calhoun is owed $10.5 million next year, and his $14 million 2020 club option comes with a $1 million buyout. But the Angels do not have an immediate replacement for Calhoun within the organization.
Their top prospect, Jo Adell, is an outfielder and could make his major-league debut at some point next year, but the Angels are certainly not expecting him to be on the Opening Day roster. The club also has outfielder Brandon Marsh in the minors, but he seems to be even further away than Adell. Michael Hermosillo is major-league ready, but his underwhelming debut this year was not enough for the Angels to confidently pencil him in as the starting right fielder next year.
Of course, the Angels could, in the event of a trade, replace Calhoun externally (Bryce Harper, anyone?), but they appear to be best off hanging onto him. They still need a fourth outfielder, though. In 2018, that role was filled by Chris Young, Eric Young Jr., Jabari Blash, and Hermosillo, who combined for a .179/.247/.308 slash line, a 33.3% strikeout rate, and -1.5 WAR.
The Angels already signed Peter Bourjos to a minor-league deal to compete for this spot, but they will assuredly be looking for more. They likely prefer a player who could act as a right-handed complement to Calhoun’s lefty bat in case he struggles again. Someone like Brandon Guyer, who is a career .274/.375/.448 (130 wRC+) hitter against southpaws, would be a good fit.
The Angels’ outfield is in a favorable spot. Trout keeps finding ways to get better, Upton can be relied upon to produce high-level offensive numbers every year, and, when at his best, Calhoun is a valuable everyday player. The team also has a couple of exciting prospects, Adell and Marsh, in the pipeline. Finding adequate reserve outfielders was a challenge this year, but the Angels should boast a capable starting trio in 2019 and for the foreseeable future.
This is one part of Angels Avenue’s “2018 Angels in Review” series. Find the links to every other part below.
Featured image via thatlostdog–/Flickr.