Five reasons why the Angels are off to the best start in franchise history

At 13-3, the Los Angeles Angels are off to the best start in franchise history. They come into Tuesday having won their past seven games and they own the sport's best run differential at plus-48. The Halos have scored 103 runs this season. No other team has scored more than 89.

The Angels have gotten off to this tremendous start despite dealing with numerous injuries. A groin injury has limited Ian Kinsler to only three games, for example. Starter JC Ramirez is done for the season with Tommy John surgery and starter Matt Shoemaker is currently sidelined with a nerve issue in his forearm, and he may be out long-term.

This week the Angels will face their biggest test of the young season as the equally red hot Boston Red Sox -- the Red Sox are also off to the best start in franchise history at 13-2 -- travel to Anaheim for a three-game set. The series opens Tuesday night with a Grade-A pitching matchup: Shohei Ohtani vs. David Price. That'll be fun.

Sixteen games into the season, the Angels have been one of the best teams in baseball, and there's not one specific reason for their success. Many things have contributed to their early winning ways. Here are five.

Ohtani has been incredible

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Kansas City Royals
Shohei Ohtani has been better than the Angels could've reasonably hoped for in 2018. USATSI

Might as well start with the obvious. After that dreadful spring training, Ohtani has been an impact player on both sides of the ball this season, providing big hits at the plate and dominant performances on the mound. Here are his numbers heading into Tuesday night's series opener with the Red Sox:

  • As a hitter: .367/.424/.767 (236 OPS+) with 3 HR and 11 RBI in eight games and 33 plate appearances at DH.
  • As a pitcher: 2.08 ERA (192 ERA+) and 0.46 WHIP with an 18/2 K/BB in two starts and 13 innings.

The season is still young, so Ohtani's performance as both a hitter and pitcher come in small sample sizes. Still though, the combined performance has made Ohtani one of the best and move valuable players in the game in the early going. Here is the early 2018 WAR leaderboard:

  1. Mike Trout, Angels: +1.5
  2. Corey Dickerson, Pirates: +1.4
  3. Matt Chapman, Athletics: +1.4
  4. Mitch Haniger, Mariners: +1.1
  5. Jed Lowrie, Athletics: +1.1
  6. Shohei Ohtani, Angels: +1.0 combined (tied with several others)

Ohtani was an MVP in Japan and he has been an MVP caliber performer 16 games into the 2018 season. Will it last all year? I mean, I'd bet against him maintaining an OPS that high and an ERA that low all season, but Ohtani has the tools to be a impact player over the long haul. Regardless of whether it lasts, Ohtani has been a major factor in the Angels' hot start.

Trout is still the best player in baseball

Ho hum, Mike Trout continues to be the best player on the planet. He's atop the 2018 WAR leaderboard above, as I'm sure you noticed, and he's hitting .266/.377/.594 (176 wRC+) with an AL leading six home runs in the early going. That's after a slow start too. Trout was hitting .184/.279/.421 after nine games. He is 10 for 26 (.385) with four homers in his past seven games.

The scary thing about Trout, who is still only 26, is that he's continually getting better. So far this season he is commanding the strike zone better than ever before. Throw him a strike and he'll punish it. Throw him something off the plate and he'll take it for a ball.

Ohtani is the shiny new toy, but make no mistake, the Angels are still Mike Trout's team. He is the game's best player, and for the Angels to return to the postseason this year, Trout will have to produce like the MVP candidate he's been basically since the day he set foot in the big leagues.

The offense has been insanely clutch

The Angels have scored 14 more runs than any other team in baseball, and their 26 home runs lead the American League and are tied with the Colorado Rockies for the most in baseball. The Rockies have played two more games than the Angels and they call Coors Field their home, so it's not outrageous to say the Angels have been the best homer hitting team in baseball so far in 2018.

There has been more to this offense than home runs, however. In quote-unquote clutch situations, they've been as good as pretty much any team in the sport. Check out the numbers (MLB ranks in parentheses):

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS+

Runners in scoring position

.307 (5th)

.353 (8th)

.460 (7th)

121 (8th)

Men on base

.304 (2nd)

.355 (8th)

.460 (9th)

119 (8th)

High leverage

.293 (5th)

.351 (9th)

.455 (7th)

128 (7th)

The Angels have had a runner on third base with less than two outs 31 times this season, and 20 times they got that runner home, or 64.5 percent. The league average hovers right around 50 percent each year. Combine the best in the league home run production with timely hitting and you've got the recipe for leading baseball in home runs.

It should be noted Ohtani and Trout are not the only players giving the Angels high-end offensive production. Justin Upton has been phenomenal. He's hitting .297/.360/.531 (154 OPS+) in the early going. He is one of the biggest reasons to believe the 2018 Angels will be better than the 2017 Angels. They'll have Upton all season. Andrelton Simmons is hitting .318/.357/.409 (121 OPS+). Zack Cozart (128 OPS+) and Luis Valbuena (128 OPS+) have been great as well.

Ohtani and Trout are getting the most attention and understandably so. They're the two biggest stars on the team. The Angels are not a two-man show though. They've been getting strong contributions up and down the lineup. This has been a deep and relentless lineup in the early going this season.

They're playing great defense

Enough about the offense. The Angels have scored the most runs in baseball and they've also allowed only 55 runs, the eighth fewest in baseball. Their defense is a big reason why. Some early defensive ranks:

  • Defensive efficiency: 0.740 (3rd best in MLB)
  • Defensive runs saved: +7 (4th most in MLB)

Defensive efficiency is a fancy was of saying the Angels have turned 74.0 percent of batted balls into outs, which is excellent. The league average usually sits around 70 percent in any given season.

Trout and Gold Glover Kole Calhoun roam the outfield, and now that Kinsler is back, the Angels will field an extraordinary infield defense with Kinsler, Simmons, and Cozart. That's two Gold Glove caliber shortstops -- Cozart has been shuffling between second and third bases in deference to Simmons -- and a Gold Glove caliber second baseman.

I'm not sure the Angels will continue to score runs like this all season. It is all but certain they are actually this good defensively, however. GM Billy Eppler has emphasized defense and the roster is loaded with above-average glovemen.

The new-look bullpen is making leads stand up

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Kansas City Royals
Keynan Middleton has emerged as the Angels' new closer. USATSI

The offense is scoring a ton of runs and the bullpen is protecting those leads. The Angels have lost just one game when leading after six innings this season, and manager Mike Scioscia has had to change bullpen roles on the fly because 2017 stalwarts Blake Parker and Cam Bedrosian have come out of the gate slowly.

Keynan Middleton (one run in 9 2/3 innings) has stepped in and saved four games in four chances. Blake Wood and Jose Alvarez have combined to allow seven hits and six walks in 17 scoreless innings. Noe Ramirez has been a revelation, striking out 13 in 7 1/3 innings. Rule 5 Draft pick Luke Bard has pitched well (one run in 8 1/3 innings) and veteran Jim Johnson is still getting outs as well.

In terms of win probability, no bullpen in baseball has helped their team more than Angels' bullpen. Check out the early season bullpen numbers:

  • Win Probability Added: +2.19 (best in baseball)
  • Shutdowns: 25 (most in baseball)
  • Meltdowns: 7 (fourth fewest in baseball)

Win probability essentially tells you how much one individual play (a hit, a strikeout, whatever) helps or hurts your chances to win the game based on historical data. Anaheim's bullpen has a +2.19 win probability added, well ahead of the second place Mariners (+1.81). 

A shutdown is a relief appearance that improves the team's chances of winning by at least six percent while a meltdown is the opposite, a relief appearance that hurts the team's chances of winning by at least six percent. Shutdowns are the big relief appearances. Middle of the order in a one-run game, inheriting first-and-third with one out, that sort of thing. The Angels have more shutdowns than any other team and fewer meltdowns than all but three teams. Scioscia's relief crew has been stellar so far in 2018.


Now, we know the Angels are not a true talent .813 winning percentage team because no team is a true talent .813 winning percentage team. Sorry, Angels fans, but this 132-win pace won't last.

That said, this 13-3 record is in the bank. These are wins you can't take away. These are wins that have already had a dramatic impact on the team's postseason chances. Look at the massive improvement in their postseason odds through 16 games:

2018-angels-postseason-odds.jpg
The Angels have improved their postseason odds considerably only 16 games in 2018. FanGraphs

Playing .500 ball the rest of the season gets the Angels to 86 wins, which will put them in the wild-card mix. SportsLine projected the Angels as a true talent .508 winning percentage team coming into the season. Playing at a .508 pace the rest of the season gets them to 90 wins.

I'm not sure I'd bet the farm on the Angels outlasting the Houston Astros to win the AL West. Crazy things have happened, but the 'Stros just look so strong, even while losing four of their last five games. They're the champs and they're earned the benefit of the doubt until further notice.

The Angels are definitely a wild-card contender though, and this hot start gives them a nice little leg up on the competition. They have stars (Ohtani and Trout), they have lineup depth (Upton, Simmons), they have a stellar team defense, and their bullpen has been excellent. The Angels are not an early season fluke. They're a good team playing great baseball.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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