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The best Angels team that didn’t win a championship

A star-studded group led by Reggie Jackson, one of four former MVPs in a potent Angels lineup in 1982

Portrait of Angels’ Teammates on the Field

In Angels franchise history, one year stands out like a beacon outshining all the others, the 2002 team that won the World Series. The Halos have reached the postseason 10 times in their history, and the only time they made the playoffs without winning their division was the year they won a championship.

But to figure out the best Angels team that didn’t win a title, we have to look at the nine times they finished atop some incarnation of the American League West.

Angels division winners

Year W-L Runs scored Runs allowed Run diff. OPS+ ERA+
Year W-L Runs scored Runs allowed Run diff. OPS+ ERA+
1979 88-74 866 (1st) 768 (9th) +98 (3rd) 114 (1st) 94 (11th)
1982 93-69 814 (2nd) 670 (1st) +144 (2nd) 114 (2nd) 106 (4th)
1986 92-70 786 (6th) 684 (2nd) +102 (1st) 103 (6th) 107 (5th)
2004 92-70 836 (7th) 734 (2nd) +102 (2nd) 102 (6th) 104 (5th)
2005 95-67 761 (7th) 643 (2nd) +118 (2nd) 96 (8th) 116 (5th)
2007 94-68 822 (4th) 731 (5th) +91 (4th) 99 (8th) 107 (4th)
2008 100-62 765 (10th) 697 (5th) +68 (6th) 95 (11th) 112 (5th)
2009 97-65 883 (2nd) 761 (8th) +122 (2nd) 108 (2nd) 99 (10th)
2014 98-64 773 (1st) 630 (6th) +143 (2nd) 110 (2nd) 101 (8th)
(rank in American League) Source: the wonderful Baseball-Reference

The 2008 team is the only Angels team to win 100 games, one more victory than the championship season of 2002, though by run differential that team is the worst of the nine division winners. That 2008 team was just 10th in a 14-team AL in runs scored, for instance.

Four of these teams finished in the top six in the AL in both runs scored and runs allowed, but adjusted for park and league the 2007 offense was barely even average, with a 99 OPS+ and 100 wRC+, a notch below the other three teams. These are our contenders for best Angels team to never win a championship.

We have two teams (1982, 1986) that came as close as possible to the World Series, only to lose three straight games for an excruciating elimination. Then there’s the 2014 team that finished tied for the best record in baseball and had Mike Trout.

It’s tough to choose between these three teams. Just having Trout, in an MVP year no less, seems like a trump card, but while that offense was quite good (110 OPS+), their ERA+ (101) is the lowest league- and park-adjusted number of this group. The 1986 team featured a lot of the 1982 squad plus youthful infusions from Chuck Finley and Wally Joyner, but in run differential they lag behind both 1982 and 2014.

Late injuries played a factor in these teams as well. Wally Joyner was an impactful rookie who excelled in the first three games of the ALCS in 1986, going 5-for-11 (.455) with three extra-base hits and two walks. But he suffered a bacterial infection in his right leg that would knock him out the rest of the series, robbing the Angels of a key part of the heart of their lineup. Garrett Richards was the Angels’ best pitcher in 2014 but a torn patellar tendon in his left knee ended his season in August.

That leaves the 1982 team, which led the AL in fewest runs allowed and were second in runs scored, the only Angels division winner to finish in the top two in both categories. They are also the only one to finish in the top four in both OPS+ and ERA+. This was a well-rounded, deep team, that stands out as the best Angels team to not win a championship.

Star power

Angels owner Gene Autry was very active in the first few years of free agency, either signing players or trading for established stars. Twenty-three Angels players posted a positive Wins Above Replacement in 1982, and only one (pitcher Mike Witt) was originally drafted by the team.

The big, new star in 1982 was Reggie Jackson, signing a four-year contract with the Angels that guaranteed him close to $1 million per year after five seasons in New York. He was the fourth former AL MVP (1973 with the A’s) in this Angels lineup, joining Fred Lynn (1975), Rod Carew (1977) and Don Baylor (1979).

Jackson tied for the major league lead with 39 home runs in his first year in Anaheim, and was an All-Star for the 12th time. Perhaps none of the home runs were more notable than on April 27 in New York. Not only did it end a slump that included a 9-for-52 (.173) start with no extra-base hits in his first 15 games as an Angel, but it was also Jackson’s first game back at Yankee Stadium.

After Jackson obliterated a pitch from Ron Guidry 450 feet into the upper deck in right field, he earned a curtain call as a road player in The Bronx.

The 1982 Angels had six players (Doug DeCinces, Jackson, Lynn, Brian Downing, Bobby Grich, Carew) post a 120 or higher OPS+. No other Angels team had more than four such players; the 2002 championship team had two players, for instance, and the ‘86 team had one.

Nearly half the Angels lineup was acquired the offseason before 1982. They traded Dan Ford to Baltimore to get DeCinces, who manned third base, hit 30 home runs, 42 doubles, and led the team in WAR (7.6). Bob Boone was purchased from the Phillies in December, and though he didn’t hit much he was excellent on defense behind the plate and instrumental at leading the pitching staff. Tim Foli was the worst hitter on the team but provided value on defense at shortstop.

Lynn, acquired the year before, hit 21 home runs in 1982 for the Angels, beginning his run as a metronome in the 1980s. Starting in 1982, he hit 21, 22, 23, 23, 23, 23, then 25 home runs.

1982 Angels heavy hitters

Pos Player HR OPS+
Pos Player HR OPS+
3B Doug DeCinces 30 149
RF Reggie Jackson 39* 147
CF Fred Lynn 21 142
LF Brian Downing 28 132
2B Bobby Grich 19 124
1B Rod Carew 3 121
*led league

Four Angels were voted to start in the All-Star Game in 1982 — Carew, Grich, Jackson, and Lynn, though Carew didn’t play because of an injury. It’s the only time the Angels have had four All-Star starters. DeCinces and Jackson were awarded Silver Sluggers after the season for their offensive prowess.

Pennant race

The Angels were in a battle pretty much all year with the Royals, who were playoff bound in five of the previous six seasons. California trailed in the division for three weeks late in the season, though never lagged more than two games behind Kansas City. Finally on Sept. 19, the Angels caught the Royals, just in time for a three-game showdown series in Anaheim with just two weeks left in the season.

The Halos squeaked out a one-run victory in the Monday opener, then little-used rookie Daryl Sconiers delivered a pinch-hit, walk-off single to win the next night. The Angels offense romped in the finale to complete the sweep, with DeCinces homering twice. Rod Carew was 6-for-8 in the series. Kansas City never got closer than within two games of the Angels the rest of the way.

Tommy John won the series finale against Kansas City. He was the Angels’ big traded deadline acquisition that year, acquired on Aug. 31 from the Yankees. He was 4-2 with a 3.86 ERA (and 3.83 FIP, which nobody knew about back then) in seven starts down the stretch, and would start Games 1 and 4 of the ALCS for the Angels.

John’s career is fascinating in so many ways, first for his longevity, pitching 26 seasons in the majors. What’s more amazing is he made more starts (382) after the reconstructive elbow surgery that now bears his name, than he made before the procedure (318). John was 39 when acquired by the Angels, part of a season that saw him strike out 68 batters in 221⅔ innings while posting an above-average ERA. His next year in Anaheim saw him strike out 65 in 234⅔ innings. Baseball was so very different back then.

What stopped them

The seasoned and deep Angels offense excelled at home, pounding out 12 runs against the Brewers in the first two games of the American League Championship Series in Anaheim. Baylor drove in five in Game 1, the big blow a two-run triple that gave the Angels the lead for good. Reggie Jackson homered in Game 2, the last of his then-record 18 postseason home runs.

But it was the pitching that stood out in the first two games of the series, with Tommy John and Bruce Kison each tossing complete games, the latter out-dueling Pete Vuckovich, the AL Cy Young winner in 1982 and future portrayer of Yankees slugger Clu Haywood in the movie Major League. The Angels were up 2-0 in the best-of-5 series, needing just one win in three tries in Milwaukee to advance to the first World Series in franchise history.

It didn’t go as planned.

Milwaukee jumped on Geoff Zahn early in Game 3 and took a 5-0 lead into the eighth inning. The Angels rallied for three runs in the frame and brought the tying run to the plate in DeCinces, but he grounded out to end the Angels’ last threat.

The Brewers pounded John in Game 4, knocking him out in the fourth inning while building a 6-0 lead. Milwaukee left fielder Mark Brouhard finished a triple short of the cycle, scored four times and drove in three in the 9-5 romp.

Down to one game to decade the AL pennant, Kison and Vuckovich dueled early, and the Angels took a 3-2 lead into the seventh. Milwaukee loaded the bases against Angels reliever Luis Sanchez — who had a 3.21 ERA in 92⅔ innings in the regular season — and with two outs in the inning, just seven outs shy of a World Series trip, Anaheim’s hopes were dashed by a two-run single by Cecil Cooper that flipped the score.

The Angels got the tying run on second base with just one out in the ninth and two of their best hitters coming up, but Downing and Carew both grounded out to end the game and the series, ending the Angels’ season.

Angels starting pitchers combined for 18 innings and five runs allowed in two games in Anaheim, but in Milwaukee the starters logged just 12 innings in three games, letting in 11 runs. That was the difference in the series.

In what was of little consolation, Lynn, who reached base at least twice in every game and was 11-for-18 (.611) with two doubles, a home run, and two walks in the series, was named ALCS MVP. He was the first League Championship Series MVP from a losing team; since then, only two have matched him (Mike Scott in the 1986 NLCS, Jeffrey Leonard one flap down in the 1987 NLCS).

Brewers manager Harvey Keunn stumped for his closer Ladd, who retired all 10 batters he faced in the series with five strikeouts, including stamping out Angels rallies in Games 3 and 5 in Milwaukee. “Fred Lynn got the MVP? Not in my book. It should have gone to Ladd,” Keunn told reporters, per The Sporting News.

The fallout was swift. Less than two weeks after losing Game 5, manager Gene Mauch resigned after just a season and a half with the Angels, amid reported criticism from all sides: the fans, media, and management. From The Sporting News (Nov. 1, 1982):

“This was the first time in the 13-year history of the playoffs that a team had won the first two games, then lost a championship series. The 75-year-old Autry invested millions of dollars to acquire such stars as Reggie Jackson, Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, Fred Lynn, Rod Carew, and Doug DeCinces. Autry said repeatedly his goal was the World Series, and he was devastated by losing the playoff.”

The Angels would flounder the next two seasons under John McNamara before returning to winning ways in 1985, after Mauch was rehired. They won 90 games in his first year back but missed the playoffs by just a game, then won 92 games the next year, only to come so agonizingly close to a trip to the World Series in 1986, one of our contenders here.

In choosing the best Angels team to never win a championship, it’s a safe bet Gene Mauch was the manager.