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Thursday, April 28, 2005

RISE, FALL, AND RISE AGAIN: THE 1995 ANGELS -- PART 3 OF 3: HERE LIES MARK LANGSTON
Part One.
Part Two.

Nursing a twelve game lead in the standings, the Angels played Seattle on August 3, and Gary DiSarcina tore some thumb ligaments sliding into second base. He was sent to the DL, and the next day the Angels signed Dick Schofield with the hopes that a minor league stint would ready him for some major league play. As the non-waiver trading deadline had passed, the Angels were forced to rely on internal options. That meant more playing time for Spike Owen and Rex Hudler at second base, and that Easley, hitting all of .213, would be the man at shortstop.

It took a few days for that to shake out, however. Easley stayed at second for a few games, with Owen and Rod Correia getting time at short. The Angels also had Jose Lind sitting around, so he could play second when Easley moved over.

Despite the loss of offense and defense represented by losing DiSarcina, the Angels actually fared well for the next twelve games, going 8-4 to make their record 64-38, 12.5 games ahead of Seattle. The Mariners had thrown a six-game win streak into the mix, but had only picked up a game.

The Angel disintegration started slowly, and the Mariner comeback started auspiciously. For the Angels, a three-game losing streak here, a three-game losing streak there. But for the Mariners, on August 24, Griffey returned to the Mariners and hit a walk-off home run against the Yankees.

The next day Scott Erickson and the Orioles lambasted the Angels 11-2. So began a nine-game losing streak that left the Angels 67-53 on September 3. Seattle went 6-3 over those nine games, knocking the Angel lead down to 5.5 games, still a manageable lead.

The Angels went 5-3 over the next eight, but on September 13 began another nine-game losing streak. The Mariners passed the Angels on September 22, in the midst of their own seven-game winning streak.

The Angels finally won again on September 24, and found themselves two games behind the Mariners.

What the hell had happened?

The explanation at the time, and for many people since, is that DiSarcina's injury deflated the team. One, he was considered a team leader. Two, it obviously helps to have a guy hitting 317/355/473 batting ninth. Three, the dropoff in offense and defense to the other guys is pretty huge.

But then, why did the Angels go 8-4 in the twelve games immediately following the injury, if DiSar was such a huge factor? Don't get me wrong, obviously his being missing really hurt the team, but can we blame his loss for what happened to the whole lineup?
           On August 3    On Sept. 23
Phillips: 290/414/485 264/394/466
Edmonds: 309/371/558 289/354/538
Salmon: 323/442/583 332/435/609
Davis: 343/468/559 317/431/506
Snow: 308/371/478 284/349/458
Anderson: 353/392/618 325/354/513
Myers: 249/317/373 261/307/409
Easley: 213/296/308 219/292/304
Hudler: 279/317/449 230/269/373
The Angels went 16-32 in that period, being outscored 269-201, or a score of 5.6-4.2 per game.

DiSarcina returned to the starting lineup on the 23rd; Easley had actually been back at second base for about a week or two, as Schofield had come up and hit 250/375/250 in his limited time.

Here's the question: do you really think Tony Phillips lost 25 points of batting average because DiSar was no longer on base in front of him about a third of the time? Do you think Chili Davis, who was 1000 years old and played for many years and many teams, was so rattled by the absence of DiSarcina's leadership that he dropped 26 points of batting average?

Though obviously losing DiSarcina hurt, what really happened here was that none of these guys was really a .350 hitter. Chili Davis couldn't sustain a .468 OBP because he was Chili Davis, and though he was a fine hitter, come on. This was called regression to the mean, and it got almost everybody. The team just wasn't as good as they had been playing, and that eventually caught up with them.

Coming into play on September 28, the Angels were two games behind Seattle, and had a four-game series hosting Oakland. Seattle had four games at Texas.

Seattle won the first two games of their series, but lost the next two. The Angels stepped up to the challenge by sweeping the A's, and securing a tie for first place on the back of a strong Chuck Finley performance on the last day of the regular season.

The stage was set for a one-game playoff, which took place in Seattle on October 2. The Seattle ace, Randy Johnson, was to face off against Mark Langston -- the pitcher whom the Mariners had traded to acquire Johnson in the first place. Both guys were strikeout-happy lefties, and both had started their careers as pretty wild pitchers. Johnson was 17-2 on the year, Langston 15-6.

The game was taut for six innings, with Seattle picking up one run in the fifth. Randy Johnson retired the first 17 Angel batters he faced, with Rex Hudler singling with two outs in the sixth to break up the perfect game.

It was the seventh when Seattle got in business, loading the bases with two outs. With the score still 1-0 in favor of the Mariners, former Angel Luis Sojo stepped up to the plate.

Disclaimer: I was never a big JT Snow fan at all. I always thought his defense was overrated -- he was great within a step-and-a-half, but pretty hopeless if he had to run for two or more steps for a grounder. I thought it was a joke that Snow was getting all kinds of acclaim for his glove while Wally Joyner had never won a Gold Glove himself, and I thought he was a much better defensive first baseman.

So I had this running joke, that whenever a ball would get by Snow, no matter if it was his fault, I would say, "Wally woulda had it." Foul pop fly, fifteen rows up in the stands? "Wally woulda had it."

Well, this ball that Luis Sojo that hit with two outs in the seventh inning on October 2, 1995: I am telling you, without one sliver of doubt in my mind: WALLY WOULD HAVE HAD IT.

It was a cue shot off the end of the bat that hugged the right field line, with some crazy spin, apparently. Snow's glove kept going and going and this slow-moving ball kept going and going, and never the twain met, and the ball got down the field.

One run scores. Two runs score.

Here comes the third runner, and here comes Tim Salmon's throw, and --

-- and, inexplicably, instead of doing his job and backing up home, there's Mark Langston to cut the ball off. He turns around and heaves it toward home plate at about Mach 9 -- from about 20 feet away. And it's high. It's his hardest throw of the day, probably, but it's not accurate and the catcher has no chance. Hell, the broad side of a barn would have had no chance.

But now, since there's no one backing up home because the pitcher's relaying the ball for no reason, now the catcher has to take off for it. Luis Sojo has advanced to third on the throw, so now he comes home, where Langston has to cover. The catcher heaves a desperation throw back to Langston, but it's not close. 5-0, Seattle. Langston falls to his back over home plate, his arms stretched out to his sides, looking plaintively at the Kingdome ceiling.

I forgot who it was, but an LA Times writer the next day said this image should be captioned "Here lies Mark Langston."

But it wasn't only Mark Langston lying there; it was the 1995 Angels and all of their chances. With Randy Johnson on the mound, it didn't matter that Seattle got four more runs off the bullpen the next inning, or that Phillips got a home run in the ninth. It was done, right then and right there.

There is a reader and contributor to the comments section of this site who has said that you can see in the slump of Brian Downing's shoulders the exact moment that the Angels lost the 1986 ALCS. He's right; Here Lies Mark Langston is that moment for the 1995 team, at least for me.

Randy Johnson struck out Salmon looking to end the game, and the season was over. Same old Angels.

I just pretty much covered this, but whenever a team with a lead collapses like that, people begin to ask questions. The fact that everyone had been playing over their heads for four months didn't really seem to be the answer, that I recall, but my memory's kind of hazy on that point. It was usually DiSarcina;s injury, or maybe some blamed manager Marcel Lachemann, the longtime Angel pitching coach who seemed very uncomfortable in a manager's skin. Some probably blamed it on the fact that Troy Percival and his stellar 1.95 ERA was setting up for Lee Smith and his 3.47, instead of closing himself.

In addition to the whole regression to the mean thing, another big factor in the Angel collapse was the absolute sinkhole that was Damion Easley and the second base situation. Easley played 114 of the Angels' 145 games, and hit a microscopic 216/288/300. It's really hard to win a division when a guy like that is getting a lot of playing time, and once DiSarcina went down, he was playing nearly every day. Spike Owen, one of Easley's backups, played 82 games and hit 229/288/312. Getting even a remotely competent second baseman into the lineup would have been worth more than one game, but the Angels just stuck with these guys and Rex Hudler, whose 265/310/417 looked pretty Ruthian in contrast to the other guys.

Despite the fact that everyone had been playing over their head, there was a lot of optimism coming into 1996 -- probably because we didn't know to what extent those guys, even Salmon, had overperformed. The young core of Salmon, Edmonds, DiSar, and Percival was intact. Veteran Randy Velarde was brought in to fill the second base hole. Phillips was gone, but George Arias could step up at third, along with the veteran Tim Wallach. Finley, Langston, and Abbott could anchor the rotation.

I'm sure you recall how awry that team went ... Snow, DiSar, and Garret all turned into pumpkins, Wallach was old, Arias couldn't play, and Abbott went through one of the most painful seasons you can imagine, going 2-18 with a 7.48 ERA. Marcel Lachemann resigned, then interim manager John McNamara resigned. It was a lost year.

But over the next few years the Angels remained competitive, often hanging around in the division until something crazy would happen and they would fall short. Chuck Finley broke his arm, Todd Greene broke his arm, Tony Phillips freebased cocaine, etc. It was a team that always seemed just a little bit away from breaking through, that could win if everyone just managed to stay in one piece for a whole season. They ended up playing bridesmaids to Seattle in 1997 and Texas in 1998, and they never got over the hump. Snow was dispatched to make room for Erstad, Edmonds went away, but Salmon, Anderson, and Percival remained from the 1995 team -- a core that appeared to have missed its moment.

I started this off talking about the ten-year period from 1995-2004, but that 1995 team really saw its fruition in the 2002 team. Salmon and Anderson were the best hitters on that team, and, as mentioned above, several key pieces were brought into the organization that year. Troy Percival, of course, was a rookie in 1995. And the opposing dugout contained JT Snow, while Edmonds and Finley both made it to he NLCS. It was the year when everything finally stopped breaking wrong for the Angels. 2003 was a transitory year, leading into the Vlad era in 2004.

But I look back on that 1995 team, and at the team we root for ten years hence, and I can't really argue that the current team is better. Going around the diamond ... okay, the Molinas and Paul are better than Fabregas and Allanson, but Greg Myers was also in the mix, and he had an OPS+ of 86. But let's go ahead and give that one to the current team.

At first base, you have JT Snow having one of his "best" years ever (111 OPS+), against Darin Erstad, who thrilled some of us last year with his OPS+ of 95. No contest.

Okay, obviously the current team is better at second base.

Tony Phillips played third most of the year and had an OPS+ of 122. Do you really think Dallas McPherson is going to be 22% better than average as a rookie this year? I wouldn't hold my breath, but it's not impossible. But right now, it goes to Phillips.

Gary DiSarcina in 1995 had an OPS+ of 107, and played great defense. Cabrera's career high is 97, and though he's pretty good at defense, I don't think he's any better than DiSar was that year.

Garret Anderson had an OPS+ of 121 and played very good defense. If he's healthy this year, that could be in reach, but that's a big if.

Jim Edmonds was a damn fine centerfielder with an OPS+ of 128; Steve Finley is a lesser glove, and has only met or exceeded the 120 mark in OPS+ four times in his sixteen-year career.

And I'd argue that Tim Salmon's 1995 was better than Vlad's 2004. He has the OPS+ lead, 164-157. Salmon grounded into only nine double plays in his 537 at-bats, Vlad grounded into 19 in his 612 -- and Salmon, batting after Edmonds (.352 OBP) probably had more opportunities for double plays than Vlad did behind Darin Erstad. And while Vlad last year was an average defensive player, we have to remember that Tim Salmon was an excellent defensive player in his prime, one of the top couple of defensive right fielders in the game. Vlad got more from basestealing than Salmon (Vlad was 15 of 18, Salmon 5 of 10), but I think that's fairly small potatoes. I give Salmon's '95 campaign the edge.

And Chili Davis was the DH, and he had an OPS+ of 145. The 2005 team has Jeff DaVanon and Juan Rivera.

(I do realize that I'm comparing our current guys' typical years to a lot of the 1995 guys' best years, in some cases; I'm talking about reasonable expectations. Maybe Orlando Cabrera will break out with a 115 OPS+ this year; it's just as unlikely as DiSar and his 107.)

The main rotation guys of the 1995 team were about league-average, on the whole, probably a bit lower when you include guys like Bielecki. The 2005 rotation might be a bit better than that, if Escobar maintains and Colon returns to form. So maybe the current team gets an edge there.

But what about the bullpen? K-Rod can duplicate or top Percy's 243 ERA+ in 74 1995 innings, and between Shields and Donnelly they should manage to duplicate Smith's 136 and Patterson's 155 and James' 122 ... or, maybe not. It's close, though.

Even though most of the guys couldn't sustain it, that 1995 was pretty special. It's worth noting that by projecting their wins and losses by runs scored and allowed, their record should have been 82-63 instead of 78-67, but that's a small thing. For one glorious summer, the Angels had the rest of the game by the throat. Seven years might seem like a long time to deliver on that promise, but some teams never quite get there at all. At least we have the comfort of the anguish of 1995 resulting in untemptered joy less than a decade later.

***
This series would have been impossible if not for the deliriously wonderful Retrosheet. This Seattle Times article was also a considerable aid.

Comments:
Great series. A lot of that is how I felt at the time, too. A lot of those Angels had career years, but they were also very young, so you can easily see why expectations were high for the next couple of years. I think it is a testament to that team that the core essentially remained intact and was finally able to make a healthy run in 2002 like they were originally supposed to in the late 1990s. It really does feel like the 2002 season was the curtain call of that group, and what a curtain call it was. This team is definitively Arte's team, with very little player evidence that it resembles the pre-Disney organization (which is bound to happen with time).

Also, I think this is the best way for a retrospective...look at what happened 5-10 years later and explore how it has affected things since then (such as your comments on the draft picks). Well done!
 
WALLY WOULD HAVE HAD IT.

I'm pretty sure my dead grandmother would have had it.

There is a reader and contributor to the comments section...

Oh, so now I'm just some random reader, eh?

t was usually DiSarcina;s injury, or maybe some blamed manager Marcel Lachemann, the longtime Angel pitching coach who seemed very uncomfortable in a manager's skin.

I blame it on the fact that in the stretch that started on August 25th, in which they went 1-11, their ERA for the first three innings was 10.00. They gave up an average of over three runs in the first three innings over that stretch. And unlike 2002, they weren't what you'd call a resilient bunch. Once you get that losing mindset, as soon as you get behind, you're done. They were out of a lot of games practically before they even started.
 
Oh, so now I'm just some random reader, eh?

Well, I wasn't sure how to attribute you -- your actual name? BTF callsign? I can go back and change it if you like.

Haven't seen you too much at BTF lately, you're becoming more myth than man ... ;)

Good point on the pitching staff on the non-resiliency, too.
 
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
 
Hey--just ran across this. I remember hearing that Tony Phillips said something like this the next spring: "I've always heard they judge you by your last at bat. Well, if that's true, then I am one baaaaaad man."
 
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