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1979 Angels review: The first division winner in franchise history

A week-by-week review of the first AL West-winning Angels team

California Angels v New York Yankees Photo by Louis Reqeuna/MLB via Getty Images

I wanted to get immersed in an old Angels season to help us pass the time with no live baseball, and decided on chronicling the 1979 California Angels week by week.

There was no obvious milestone anniversary of any of the Angels’ other playoff teams, and while I thought about reliving the 2002 championship squad, I went with the first division winner in franchise history. That 1979 team also had the first MVP in team history in Don Baylor, had just traded for Rod Carew, and the pending free agency of pitcher Nolan Ryan. There were definite storylines here.

Another factor is I was three years old at the time, so looking back through the box scores and newspaper accounts will be new for me, and could be fun.

I mean, how can you not get excited about wanting to look back at a season of baseball that featured two exquisite logos like these:

From Baseball-Reference’s box score of the opening day game in 1979 between the Angels and Mariners

Without further ado, here begins our review of the 1979 Angels season, one week at a time. This first review is a truncated week, ending on Sunday, April 8.

The good

The Angels opened up their season with four games in Seattle against the expansion Mariners, who were in just their third season. Opening day was on a Wednesday, one of only two MLB games on the schedule that day (Giants at Reds was the day game in the National League).

There was excitement about the Angels, following up an 87-win campaign that snapped a string of seven straight losing years. The hope also came in the form of some offseason acquisitions, adding to an already strong offensive core.

“I’m not worried about us scoring runs. Look at our lineup. If our leadoff man gets on base, we score,” manager Jim Fregosi said during spring training. (1) “If Rick Miller gets on, we have Carney Lansford, Rod Carew, Baylor, [Joe] Rudi, Dan Ford and [Brian] Downing hitting behind him.”

Center fielder and leadoff man Miller, who flirted with .500 in spring training, got at least one hit and scored at least once in every game against the Mariners, hitting .333 (6-for-18) while scoring five of the Angels’ 22 runs in the four games in Seattle.

The big acquisition over the winter was Carew, acquired in a 4-for-1 trade from the Twins on February 3. Winner of six of the last seven American League batting titles, Carew entered the season hitting .345 in the 1970s, by far the best in the majors (his 144 OPS+ from 1970-78 ranked sixth). The new Angels first baseman picked up right where he left off, with at least one hit in each game against the Mariners. At 7-for-16, Carew is hitting .438 with three runs scored and three runs batted in.

In a separate trade with Minnesota in December, the Angels nabbed Disco Dan Ford, and the right fielder paid immediate dividends for California. He hit a go-ahead home run in Saturday’s win in Seattle, then blasted two more home runs and a double in Sunday’s win to secure the split.

The bad

Ryan wanted a four-year contract extension that would keep him in Anaheim through the 1983, but wanted an extension done before spring training ended, threatening to otherwise enter free agency after this season.

“I can understand their point,” Ryan said during spring training. (2) “But I’ve made it very clear I’m not going to go through any form of negotiations during the season.”

Ryan started the second game of the season, on Friday night, and suffered one of his worst starts as an Angel. He allowed a two-run home run to Bruce Bochte in the first inning, and a three-run shot to Bill Stein in the second inning. Seattle chased Ryan in the second inning with a walk and four straight hits, part of a nine-run second inning in a 14-6 triumph.

Ryan recorded only four outs in the game and allowed seven runs, the worst game score (12) of his Angels career (a stat that was still over a decade away from being invented).

Frank Tanana, the Angels’ co-ace, didn’t fair much better on opening day. He pitched into the sixth inning, but left trailing 5-3 thanks to three home runs allowed, something the left-hander has only done four times in the last four years.

None of the Angels starters (Chris Knapp and Don Aase started the final two games of the series) allowed fewer than four runs in Seattle, combining to allow 20 runs (19 earned) in 19 innings.

The Halos’ bullpen allowed a subpar eight runs in 15 innings, but their 4.73 ERA looked dominant relative to the rotation. Rookie Mark Clear stood out among the relievers, the 22-year-old right-hander producing five scoreless innings during the series in his first two major league games.

All in all, Angels pitching allowed seven runs per game to the Mariners, a team that finished 12th among 14 AL teams last season in scoring.

Weekly summary

2-2 record
22 runs scored (5.50 per game)
28 runs allowed (7.00 per game)
.391 pythagorean record

AL West standing: t-4th place, 1½ games back

Game results

Up next

The Angels’ home opener at The Big A is Tuesday, April 10 against the Twins, the first game of a three-game set, before heading back out on the road for three games in Oakland against the Athletics. After Monday’s off day, the Angels will go with Tanana in the home opener followed by Ryan on Wednesday against Minnesota.


References

  1. “Shortstop Gives Angels Cause For Long Pause” by Dick Miller, ‘The Sporting News’, April 7, 1979.
  2. “New Pact by Opening Day Or Free Agency, Says Ryan” by Dick Miller, ‘The Sporting News,’ March 10, 1979.