There have been at least three books published this century under the title “Hope Is Not a Plan”—one about navigating middle age, one about business management and one about the war in Iraq.
If it seems like there might also be room for one about baseball, well, just wait a few months. There is still a little runtime left in the story of the 2023 Los Angeles Angels.
This past weekend brought more of the same in an endlessly frustrating season for the historically frustrating club. The Angels made another bold move aimed at winning: They called up first-round pick Nolan Schanuel. Yes, this year’s first-round pick Nolan Schanuel, who had seen fewer than 100 minor-league plate appearances since being drafted in July. (He played 16 games at Double-A and a combined five at lower levels.) That’s a splashy, radical step in an era of carefully plotted calendars for player development. It’s hopefulness bordering on fantasy. This is a move for a franchise that’s very aggressive, very optimistic, very dumb or some combination of all of the above.
Decide for yourself which best describes the Angels.
Schanuel made his debut on Friday. The weekend that followed served as an excellent introduction to the club: The Angels lost two of three to the Rays, including one disastrous meltdown in extra innings and one demoralizing boat race, and they saw their playoff odds (per FanGraphs) go from a figure rounding up to 1% to one rounding down to 0%. Maybe the space between one and zero seems inconsequential. But in the right lighting—with the appropriately liberal interpretation of mathematics—it can be infinite. And in this lighting? Maybe this isn’t hell, but it sure feels like purgatory, and the Angels have been having a dreadful time here. There is no good reason to be hopeful. But they’ve been running on nothing but hope for weeks.
Lucas Giolito has allowed 19 runs and six homers in four games spanning 21 innings since being acquired ahead of the trade deadline.
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports
There are plenty of caveats worth noting in any discussion of this past weekend. The Rays are a formidable opponent, for one, among the best teams in the American League. Losing a series to them is hardly damning. (Even when one of those losses is a 14-run blowout.) And while calling up a player just weeks after he was drafted is certainly unusual, Schanuel is a 21-year-old who came into the minors fairly close to major-league ready. If ever there were a candidate for this kind of treatment, it’s him. In other words: This situation could be far more reasonable and less dire than it might seem in a vacuum. It could be! If only this team didn’t have a terrible habit of stumbling into situations far less reasonable and more dire than they might seem.
How else to describe the general trajectory of the Angels? Start with their deadline strategy. Despite being on the outermost fringes of the playoff picture, they made a splash by acquiring one of the best rental pitchers on the market, Lucas Giolito. It was a bold move, clearly idealistic and maybe even quixotic, but not obviously bad. There were lots of reasons to believe this might not end in the desired playoff spot. But there was no reason to believe Giolito would not make the team better, in some measure, even if not by quite enough. And yet! After putting up a 3.79 ERA in 21 starts this season with the White Sox, Giolito has looked utterly lost in his four starts with the Angels, posting an 8.14 ERA. (Compare that to the fate of another White Sox pitcher dealt at the deadline: Lance Lynn, who went to the crosstown Dodgers, whose staff have helped him engineer a remarkable turnaround.) The Angels made an obvious move to try to get better. Against seemingly all reason—in quite impressive fashion—it backfired.
Which has been more or less the story of the recent history of the franchise. There has been no shortage of bad decisions here: questionable acquisitions, rushed prospects, a total inability to develop a pitching staff. No one would ever accuse the Angels of being particularly smart.
But there is something weirder and more tragic here. No one would ever accuse them of not trying, either. There are plenty of examples of clubs that do not win because they are not designed to. The Angels? For each of the sad, plodding six years in which they have rostered the pairing of Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, they have designed a team to win. That design has (obviously) not been particularly good. But the effort, the care, the desire has been there. If anything, in fact, it’s been uncomfortably obvious: This is a team of sweaty, panicked desperation, faltering under the weight of its generational talents. Every winter has brought new additions. Every fall has brought disappointments. How do you get a club that acquires Giolito, promotes Schanuel, is motivated to make these ambitious moves and loses still? Like this.
The Angels know that hope is not a plan. (By this point, at least, one hopes they know.) They just don’t have anything else to work with.