For stronger finish, Angels seek better start
With April an obstacle in past years, Spring Training has added importance
During the Angels' final series of 2012, Mike Trout met with reporters in Seattle to recap a disappointing season, and he said the first game of next year would be the most crucial of all. He meant how important it would be for the Angels to get off to a better start and avoid the treacherous uphill climb of which they ultimately came up short.
Three weeks ago, he recapped the 2013 season, and a sense of déjà vu was inevitable.
"A slow start hurt us again," Trout said, shaking his head. "We have to figure out a way to come into the spring and avoid that slow start."
It is a feeling that is not lost on anybody in the organization.
Solutions, however, are not easy to come by.
In 2012, the Angels could not have asked for a better Spring Training -- with Albert Pujols swinging the bat well and most players staying healthy and on track -- yet they lost 14 of their first 20 games and 25 of their first 43. In 2013, the Angels' Spring Training featured a 10-20 record and a Major League-worst 6.56 ERA, and they followed with a season in which they did not reach .500 after April 3.
"We've looked at every cross-section you can," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "There were some years when we went out there and just had miraculous Spring Trainings. I mean, you just couldn't play any better than we have on some Spring Trainings. Guys were swinging the bats well, pitchers were where we needed to be, and at the start of the season, you started to see the bumps in the road. Last year was a terrible Spring Training that carried over into a very, very difficult start. We've looked at a lot of the things that we do."
The Angels have finished April at or below .500 in nine of Scioscia's 14 years at the helm. Over the last five years, their combined April winning percentage -- .433, with 52 wins and 68 losses -- ranks 26th in the Majors.
The last two years, the Angels have gone a combined 17-32 in the regular season's first month -- for two vastly different reasons.
In 2012, Pujols navigated through April with no home runs and a .217 batting average, while the bullpen combined to post a 5.08 ERA. In 2013, Josh Hamilton had a .204/.252/.296 April slash line, and the starting rotation compiled a 5.26 ERA -- providing a snapshot of the troubles that would essentially ail the Angels all season.
"My thing is getting out of the gate," new hitting coach Don Baylor said during last week's conference call. "That's what I really like. Mike and I have talked about it a few times already -- How do we do that? How do we approach Spring Training? -- and just kind of take it from there."
Scioscia expressed confidence in the intensity with which his players have attacked practices and drills in past Spring Trainings, and he will continue a similar approach to his lighthearted morning meetings, which involve giving players offbeat projects and have become a staple in February and March.
"But we are going to change some things in the spring," Scioscia said, "just to try to get a little better baseline on maybe what might get us off to a better start."
The hitters' workouts in the first 10 days will be different, with less free swinging and more emphasis on situational approaches, and pitching coach Mike Butcher "is looking at some more aggressive ways to get our pitchers where they need to be," Scioscia said.
"It seems like every year," he added, "the margin is real thin if a guy is set back or if they're ready for the season."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.