Barring a miracle in these next 11 days, the Los Angeles Angels are going to miss the postseason for the sixth consecutive season. They have played three postseason games in the Mike Trout era -- all losses in the 2014 ALDS -- and Wednesday night's loss (ARI 9, LAA 6) dropped the Halos to 20-30 on the year. .
"It's frustrating for everybody," manager Joe Maddon told reporters, including MLB.com's Rhett Bollinger, on Wednesday. "... The opportunities are slipping quickly by but you have to just keep rolling with it. Our guys have been engaged, our guys are working, it just hasn't played. We have to put ourselves in better position in the beginning of the game to grab a lead and hold on to it."
One of the few bright spots for the Angels this season, beyond Trout and Anthony Rendon, is 27-year-old first baseman Jared Walsh. Walsh slugged another home run Wednesday night, his seventh of the season and his sixth in the last nine games.
Prior to his recent home run binge, Walsh was most notable for being a two-way player. The former 39th round draft pick pitched in college and the Angels tried him on the mound in the minors in 2018. He made his MLB debut last season, hitting .203/.276/.329 in 87 plate appearances while allowing one run in five innings.
The two-way experiment has been put on hold this season. Walsh made Anaheim's Opening Day roster but played sparingly, and was eventually assigned to the alternate site last month. He was recalled on Aug. 28 and is hitting .390/.413/.902 in 13 games since. Walsh has taken over as the team's everyday first baseman, pushing Albert Pujols to DH and Shohei Ohtani to the bench.
"It's a big deal when you think you might be in the lineup, day in and day out," Walsh recently told reporters, including Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register. "So I've been lucky to kind of get on a little roll."
Walsh has always had power. He slugged 29 home runs at three minor league levels in 2018 and 36 homers at Triple-A last year. Baseball America ranked him as the No. 24 prospect in Anaheim's farm system in their 2020 midseason update and said "(when) Walsh connects he hits the ball hard, but he also has huge holes in his swing that were exploited in the major leagues."
Last year Walsh struck out 35 times in 87 plate appearances, or a 40.2 percent rate that was far higher than the 23.0 percent league average. Since being recalled from the alternate site, Walsh has only struck out six times in 46 plate appearances, or 13.0 percent. His swing and miss rate dropped from 14.2 percent last year to 9.7 percent since his recall this year.
Obviously we're dealing with a small sample size, though it is worth noting Walsh used his time at the alternate site to make a few mechanical changes. Here is 2019 Walsh on the left and 2020 Walsh on the right:
The differences are obvious. Last year Walsh waggled his bat way up high and had a big, exaggerated leg kick. This year he keeps his bat relatively steady in front of his body, and he's reduced the leg kick. His load is much, much quieter, and his swing is more direct to the ball. That equals more contact and, given Walsh's natural strength, more damage.
"I had a lot going on. It worked sometimes, but it wasn't consistent enough," Walsh recently told Fletcher and Maria Torres of the Los Angeles Times. "... There were some timing issues that I kind of realized when I got called up last year that I wanted to address. As hitters, we build habits, good and bad. For me it was trying to be more direct to the ball, a little more efficient, and stuff like that."
According to Torres, Walsh's adjustments were inspired by Pujols, Rendon, and Trout, who are not only extremely accomplished hitters, but among the calmest hitters at the plate. There is little wasted movement in their pre-pitch setup and their swings are very compact. If you're going to draw inspiration from teammates, it's hard to do better than those three.
Pujols has one year remaining on his contract and the Angels have given no indication they are ready to pull the plug on Ohtani as a two-way player, but Walsh has shown enough these last few weeks to force his way into the team's 2021 plans. At-bats will be available -- Ohtani doesn't DH every day, after all -- and this level of production is hard to ignore.
At age 27, Walsh's goal during this abbreviated season was force the Angels to take notice. He was approaching the age where, if you haven't established yourself at the MLB yet, you're in danger of being left behind and getting the Quad-A label. Walsh has the team's attention now. The adjustments have made him one of the few things going right in a year that has gone so wrong in Orange County.
"I really love this organization and want to be a part of it for a long time," Walsh told Fletcher. "I think there are some really outstanding players here. I want to be a part of the future in any way I can. And I think that role will kind of solve itself so I don't really jump to conclusions too much."