With Their Losing Streak at 12, the Angels Do Something by Firing Joe Maddon

Joe Maddon
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, the Angels beat the Rangers to climb to 27–17 and pull within a game of the AL West-leading Astros. While they had slipped out of first place in the midst of a four-game losing streak earlier that week, they owned the league’s fourth-best record and appeared to be on track to make the playoffs for the first time since 2014. They haven’t won since, however, and with their losing streak reaching 12 games, on Tuesday they fired manager Joe Maddon and named Phil Nevin as interim manager for the remainder of the season, then dropped their 13th straight game with a 10-inning loss to the Red Sox.

The losing streak is the longest in the majors this year and the longest single-season skid in franchise history; it matches a wraparound streak of 13 straight that spanned from late 1988 to early ’89 (a stretch that encompassed the entirety of the Moose Stubing managerial era, such as it was). The current streak, which offsets what had been the team’s best 44-game start since 2004, has dropped the Angels to 27–30, 9.5 games behind the first-place Astros and 2.5 out of the third Wild Card spot. Their Playoff Odds, which stood at 77% before the streak began, with a 20.1% chance of winning the division and a 3.6% chance of winning the World Series, are down to 26.7%, with a 1.9% chance at the division and a 0.7% chance of winning the World Series.

The Angels were outscored 78–35 over the 12 games that preceded Maddon’s firing. Few things were going right at either end, as they allowed 6.5 runs per game and scored a hair under three per game, though four of those losses were by a single run (as was Tuesday’s post-firing defeat). A few major factors have contributed to the slide, including Mike Trout’s ill-timed slump, a couple of key injuries, and a particularly rough schedule.

Trout, who owned a 221 wRC+ at the start of the streak, hit just .114/.204/.205 in 49 PA over Maddon’s last 12 games, including a career-worst 0-for-26 drought from May 29 to Monday night, when he singled in his first plate appearance. While he went 2-for-2 with a double and a two-run homer off Garrett Whitlock on Tuesday night, he exited in the third inning with what the Angels termed left groin tightness. He explained afterward that he cramped up while legging out the double, told Nevin, “I need to be a little careful with this,” and did not seem overly concerned beyond that.

Additionally, Anthony Rendon and Taylor Ward are now on the injured list. Rendon hasn’t played since May 26 due to inflammation in his right wrist. Ward, an early-season sensation who has hit for a 213 wRC+, suffered a stinger in his right shoulder via a crash into an outfield wall on May 20 and started just six of the team’s next 12 games, hitting .167/.259/.333 in 27 PA before going on the IL on Saturday with a right hamstring strain.

Trout, Ward, and Rendon own the three highest position player WARs on the team, and their productivity was limited at best during a stretch against tough opponents. Prior to Maddon’s dismissal, the team lost one game to the Rangers, four to the Blue Jays (three in a row by one run), three to the Yankees (by a combined score of 18–2), three to the Phillies (their first after firing Joe Girardi), and one to the Red Sox, teams with a weighted winning percentage of .575.

That’s a lot of bad fortune at once, and it particularly didn’t help that the Yankees — the hottest team in baseball and off to the majors’ best start in 21 years — teed off on both Noah Syndergaard (2.1 innings, five runs) and Shohei Ohtani (three innings, four runs). After the latter got only three swings and misses via his 75 pitches, Maddon suggested he was tipping his pitches, telling reporters, “I’m not accusing anybody of anything except that they’re good at it. If you’re able to acquire things through natural means, I’m all into it. I think it’s great… There is things that pitchers can do that other teams pick up on. And when you have a group of guys that are good at that, you get an advantage.”

Ohtani, for what it’s worth, hit just .179/.333/.385 in 48 PA over Maddon’s last 12 games, and in his outing preceding the one agains the Yankees, on May 26, he allowed five runs in six innings to the Blue Jays. The starters as a group were hit for a 6.88 ERA and 5.50 FIP over Maddon’s final stretch, averaging just 4.5 innings per turn with elevated walk and home run rates. The bullpen wasn’t much better, posting a 5.88 ERA and 5.10 FIP, as the offense hit .216/.278/.318. In Tuesday night’s loss, which isn’t included in those numbers, starter José Suarez yielded three runs in five innings, departing with a 5–3 lead that the bullpen frittered away.

If nothing else, Maddon’s firing comes as something of a shock given his stature within the game. The 68-year-old manager, who won a World Series with the Cubs in 2016 and an AL pennant with the Rays eight years before that, is highly regarded within the game and has taken eight teams to the playoffs in his 17 full seasons as manager, compiling a record of 1,382–1,216 (.532). His ties to the Angels stretch back to a playing career that began in 1976 and include six years as a minor league manager (1981–86) and 11 on the major league coaching staff (1994–2005) before becoming manager of the Devil Rays in 2006. Not only is he almost certain to surface as a top candidate for any opening, but his availability also could lead to a sitting manager’s dismissal. Just ask Rick Renteria and Brad Ausmus, both ousted after one year so that their respective teams could hire Maddon.

That said, in Maddon’s two seasons and change at the helm, the Angels failed to post a winning record, first going 26–34 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, then 77–85 last year, their sixth in a row below .500. Maddon was in the last year of a three-year, $12 million contract, and while the Angels held an option for 2023 (one that would vest if the team won the AL pennant), the team held off on working out an extension this past winter. It figured that general manager Perry Minasian, who took over from the fired Billy Eppler in November 2020 and thus inherited Maddon, might want to choose his own manager if the Angels’ results didn’t improve.

The 51-year-old Nevin, who becomes the Angels’ fourth manager in five seasons, has never managed a big league club. After 12 years in the majors (1995–2006), he spent eight years managing in the minors, one in an independent league and seven in the Tigers’ and Diamondbacks’ organizations, the last six of those at Triple-A stops. He coached third base for the Giants in 2017, then spent four years in the same capacity with the Yankees before joining the Angels’ staff. He has a reputation for being fiery, unafraid to mix it up with his critics and opponents. “Tell your f–king hitting coach I’m going to kick his f–king ass,” he yelled at the Astros during the 2019 ALCS, referring to Alex Cintron giving him the middle finger as the Yankees alleged that the Astros were stealing signs by using a system of whistles.

“I think it’s just wins and losses,” Minasian told reporters on Tuesday when asked about the reason for Maddon’s dismissal. “That’s what it boils down to. We’re in positions where you need to win games, and we’re weren’t winning games.” More via the Orange County Register:

“I thought this was the right time to make a change, change the mix, per se. We haven’t played the brand of baseball we played early. And I’m not putting that on Joe. That’s not his fault. It’s all of us. Every single person. But at this time I felt like a different mix, a different voice would be good for the group.”

And via ESPN:

“There hasn’t been one phase of the game where we’ve been good… We’ve struggled on the mound, we’ve struggled at the plate, we’ve struggled defensively, we’ve struggled baserunning. The one thing I will say is the effort’s been great. I believe in this group. I know we’ve gone through a tough stretch, but we have 106 games left. And I’m excited about the 106 games.”

Maddon, for his part, said he was surprised by the decision: “We were the best thing since 2002 sliced bread up until a couple of weeks ago and now we’re not, so that’s the part that just doesn’t make sense, but I can live with it.”

While Maddon told The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal that he thought he, Minasian and the coaching staff were working well together, he did hint at some friction with regards to the information he was receiving:

I’m into analytics, but not to the point where everybody wants to shove it down your throat. Real baseball people have felt somewhat impacted by all of this. You’re unable to just go to the ballpark and have some fun and play baseball. It’s too much controlled by front offices these days.

I actually talked to Perry about this. This isn’t anything new. I told him that. I said you just try to reduce the information you’re giving, try to be aware of who’s giving the information and really be aware of when it’s time to stay out of the way. In general the industry has gone too far in that direction and that’s part of the reason people aren’t into our game as much as they have been.

That’s an odd comment, but it jibes with the perception of Maddon growing more conservative in his managing style over time (his strange bases-loaded walk of Corey Seager earlier this year to the contrary). He came up as an analytical darling and outside-the-box thinker with the forward-thinking Rays — something of a necessity given their budgets — and was particularly aggressive in exploiting players’ positional flexibility with the Cubs in order to get better matchups. He didn’t have the same luxury on the Angels; Tyler Wade is no Ben Zobrist, and Rendon no Kris Bryant. With their stars-and-scrubs rosters and injuries galore, in both 2020 and ’21 Maddon’s lineups had the platoon advantage in less than 50% of their plate appearances, and only this year are they above that mark.

Even so, the Angels have been as bold as any team when it comes to using a six-man rotation, and Maddon has been been on board, at least publicly. While he’s been conservative about letting his starters face batters for a third time — the Angels entered Tuesday ranked 19th in the total number of batters faced under such circumstances — his pitchers held opponents to a .296 wOBA in that context, the majors’ fifth-lowest mark. Even with the slump, the rotation’s overall 3.80 ERA and 4.01 FIP are in the middle of the AL pack, and it ranks fifth in both innings (291.1) and WAR (4.0).

The bullpen, however, is another story, ranking dead last in the AL with a 4.30 FIP, and 13th with both a 4.29 ERA and a 22% strikeout rate. Aside from closer Raisel Iglesias and middle reliever Oliver Ortega, the unit has a distinct lack of power arms; only the bullpens of the Mariners and Diamondbacks have thrown a lower share of fastballs 95 mph or higher. That’s not Maddon’s fault; it’s Minasian’s.

Likewise, the team’s thin middle infield is on the general manager. The Angels got just 2.0 WAR from their entire middle infield last year, with David Fletcher and José Iglesias doing most of the damage. Iglesias is now in Colorado, but Fletcher, who hit for just a 71 wRC+ overall, has been limited to 15 games after undergoing surgery on his adductor and abdominal muscles. This year’s middle infield, which entered the season ranked 26th at second base and 23rd at shortstop in our preseason Positional Power Rankings, has combined for 0.5 WAR, with Andrew Velazquez hitting for a 42 wRC+ as the regular shortstop and Wade and Luis Rengifo getting most of the work at second. To be fair, the team’s defensive efficiency has improved from last year’s .680 (14th in the league) to .722 (third), and from -29 DRS to +3, which has helped the pitching staff greatly.

Like many a managerial firing, Maddon’s dismissal feels like something that’s being done for the sake of appearances, making him a scapegoat for an ill-timed losing streak rather than ousting him in order to alleviate deepening rifts within the clubhouse or between the dugout and the front office. In time, perhaps details will surface that clarify and justify Minasian’s decision, but two weeks ago, this appeared to be the best Angels team since 2014, on pace for 99 wins even with its apparent flaws, with Maddon the right man for the job. It’s not his fault that Trout and Ohtani went into slumps, a couple key players got injured and a solid rotation hit a rough patch, but every manager is hired to be fired, as the saying goes, and in this case, the Angels couldn’t resist the easy move.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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1 year ago

I’m okay with ‘the smartest guy in the room’ being the scapegoat.