Los Angeles Angels: All-Time Greatest Team

Los Angeles Angels (1961-1965, 2016-Present)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2005-2015)

California Angels (1965-1996)
American League (1961-Present)

American League Champions: 2002
World Series Champions: 2002

Professional Baseball in Los Angeles began in the 1870s. By the turn of the century professional baseball was well established when the Los Angeles Angels were one of the original members of the newly formed Pacific Coast League. The Pacific Coast League was the best Minor League in the country, just shy of Major League status for the first fifty years of the 20th century. They were the last Minor League to maintain its independence from the Major Leagues. People have to understand that the PCL was on its own. They had real pennant races, and had no contractual obligation to sell their best players to the Major Leagues. 

 The franchise was purchased by the owner of the Chicago Cubs, William Wrigley in 1921. Just to clarify, William Wrigley was the principal owner of the Cubs, but he was the sole owner of the Angels. The Cubs and Angels did have a pipeline of players, but they were two independently operated franchises. The Angels made baseball moves to help them win. Wrigley built a 21,000 seat ballpark for his PCL Angels in 1926. When Wrigley died in 1932, his son Phil took over ownership of the club and continued his father’s vision. 

The Angels had players who were good enough to play in the Majors that spent their entire career in the Coast League. In the 1930s, the Los Angeles Angels had a team that was as good as many Major League teams. In Bill Weiss and Marshall Wright’s book, The 100 Greatest Minor League Baseball Teams of the 20th Century, the 1934 Los Angeles Angels are rated the best Minor League team of all time, their record that year was 137-50, a .733 winning percentage. The League chose to pit a PCL All-Star team, made up of the best players from the other seven teams, against the Angels in their end of season Championship Series. Los Angeles beat the All-Stars 4 games to 2. 

The PCL Pennant races were real, hard fought, and their fans were devoted to their teams. The Angels and the Hollywood Stars were to Los Angeles as the Dodgers and the Giants were to New York during the first half of the century. The Stars and Angels were baseball in the Los Angeles area up until the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958. 

Everything changed when Dodger owner Walter O’Malley bought the Angels in 1957 to clear the path for his move to the west coast. The franchise that was the Angels, became a farm team for the Dodgers. O’Malley moved the franchise to Spokane, Washington, then to Albuquerque, New Mexico. A storied franchise that had won 11 PCL titles while in the free Pacific Coast League was relegated to feeding their Major League master, the Dodgers. The franchise is now the El Paso Chihuahuas, the top farm team for the San Diego Padres. 

In Major League Baseball’s first expansion since the creation of the American League in 1901, Los Angeles was awarded an American League team. The “Singin’ Cowboy”, Gene Autry, purchased the new club, and then bought the name “Angels”, and their old home, Wrigley Field from O’Malley.

They played their initial season in the old ballpark. Dodger Stadium opened in 1962, so the Angels rented the park and referred to it as “Chavez Ravine” when playing their home games there between 1962 and 1965. They moved to a new stadium in Anaheim in 1966, and, despite several name changes, have remained there since (read our review of this park here).

As an expansion team the Angels had some surprising early success. In their second year they battled the Yankees into the final weeks of the season before finishing 10 games out of first place. They had three other winning seasons in their first decade, but were never really in contention until they hired their former shortstop, Jim Fregosi, to manage the club in 1979.

Led by Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana they won their first American League West Title that year before falling to the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series. Dabbling aggressively in the early free agent market, the Angels were a volatile team in the American League West. Winning 93 games, and a Western Division Title in 1982, falling to 92 losses in 1983, before rebounding to 90 and 92 wins (and another 1st place finish) in 1985 and 1986. The roller coaster continued until 2000, when they hired Mike Scioscia to manage the team, and became a consistent contender in the American League until 2015. Ironically their only American Pennant came in 2002 when they did not win the Division Title. As a Wild Card team, they won both the pennant and then the World Series over the San Francisco Giants. 

The Angels have suffered two of the most crushing defeats in ALCS History. In 1982 they won the first two games of a best of 5 series at home in Anaheim, but then lost three straight in Milwaukee to deny Autry, the “Old Cowboy”, a World Series opportunity. 1986 was even worse. Leading the Red Sox 3 games to one in a best of seven series. they entered the ninth inning of game five leading 5-2 at home at the “Big A”. It looked like they were finally going to give their 79 year old owner, Gene Autry, the title he so craved. They blew it, Boston rallied for four runs after two were out to take the lead. The Angels tied it in their half of the 9th, but the Bosox won it with a run in the 11th. Back home in Boston, the Red Sox routed the shell-shocked Halos, 10-4 and 8-1, to propel them into that memorable World Series and their own late inning disaster. 

Autry died in 1998 at age 91, so he missed the year the Angels finally won it all. This time the Angels were on the verge of elimination against the San Francisco Giants, when down in the Series three games to two, they rallied from 5-0 down in the 7th inning, to shock the Giants with three in the 7th, and then three more in the 8th to force a Game 7 in Anaheim, that the Angels won, 4-1. 

The current Angels seemed to have finally emerged from the shadow of the Dodgers, drawing over 3,000,000 fans each of the last 16 years. This allows them to spend liberally on the players they want. The strategy has not worked out in the last few years, but they have inked the best player (Mike Trout) in baseball to a long term contract and have the nucleus of a competitive team. 

Catcher

Brian Downing (1978-1990) was a very underrated offensive player. Due to his ability to accept a walk, he had a .372 OBP with the Angels, with a .425 Slugging Percentage and .813 OPS. He’s clearly the best offensive player who can be listed as a catcher for the Angels. The problem, he only had 310 out of his 1,661 games in an Angel uniform as a catcher. In his entire career he caught in just under 50% of his games played. By reputation he was not a good defensive backstop, despite that, Bill James rates him an adequate B. Bengie Molina (1999-2005) and Bob Boone (1982-1988) were excellent receivers, but both struggled at the plate. We could move Downing to the outfield, where he played 721 games in California, but we won’t. We’ll sacrifice some defense to get Brian Downing’s (1978-1990) bat in the line-up as a catcher.

First Base

Darin Erstad (1996-2006) is another player who played more games in the outfield than the position we’re now considering for him. He played 892 games in the outfield, and only 627 at first. It comes down to is the team better with Wally Joyner (1986-1991) at first and Erstad in left, or Erstad at first and Garret Anderson in left? We like Anderson better than Joyner, so Erstad is the choice at first.

Second Base

Bobby Grich (1977-1986) is another player who had a wide range of skills, but was not great at any of them. There are second basemen in the Hall of Fame who were not as good (Johnny Evers, Billy Herman, and Bill Mazeroski come to mind). We’re not advocating his selection, but he was better than this year’s selection of Harold Baines. We know we also chose Grich for the Baltimore Oriole franchise, but he was clearly more valuable than the next best candidate for the Angels, Howard Kendrick (2006-2014).

Third Base

By the formula we use Chone Figgins (2002-2009) is slightly ahead of Troy Glaus (1998-2004). This is offset some by Glaus’ World Series MVP Award in the Angels’ only World Championship season in 2002. Figgins had 4,075 plate appearances with the Angels, while Glaus had 3,479. That’s about one year’s worth. If Glaus’ peak years were better than Figgins we would go with him, but they’re not. Chone Figgins (2002-2009) is the choice.

Shortstop

The face of the Angels during their first decade was Jim Fregosi (1961-1971). An easy choice at Shortstop.

Left Field

By the metrics we use Brian Downing (1978-1990) is narrowly ahead of Garret Anderson (1994-2008), but Anderson has a significant lead over the next best catchers, Bob Boone and Bengie Molina. The defense will suffer with Downing behind the plate, but the offense is much better with both Downing and Garret Anderson (1994-2008) in the line-up. Anderson was a much better outfielder than the converted catcher, Downing. 

Photo by Kevin Sullivan, The Orange County Register — 10/1/08 The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim take on the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Angel Stadium Wednesday October 1, 2008.

Center Field

Mike Trout (2011-Present) has been the best player in baseball for the last seven years. This season, at age 28, he may be having his greatest season of all. The “Willie Mays” of his era. 

Right Field

Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero (2004-2009) was a major star in his six year run with the Angels. He won an MVP Award (2004) and finished in the top ten three other times. Another choice between a star player that only had a few years with the club or a very good player who spent most of his career with the franchise. By the formula we use Tim Salmon (1992-2006) is clearly ahead of Guerrero, but does the peak Vlad reached overcome the solid play of Salmon for 14 seasons? It doesn’t; in fact, Salmon’s peak he reached in the 1990s is just as high as Guerrero’s in the 2000s. This may be controversial, but Tim Salmon (1992-2006) was simply a more valuable player for the Angels.

Pitchers

The #1 and #2 pitchers for the Angels will not surprise anybody, but their order probably will. Chuck Finley (1986-1999) was the ace of the Angel’s staff for 12 years, and while his best years were not up to the level of Nolan Ryan (1972-1979) his overall value was higher. Finley posted a 165-140 record with the Angels, while Ryan’s was 138-121.

We think Nolan Ryan (1972-1979) is the most over-rated player since World War II, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a legitimate Hall of Fame selection. He’s just not in the conversation as the greatest pitcher of all time, where many modern fans insert him.

CIRCA 1977: Nolan Ryan #30, of the California Angels, pitching during a game from his 1977 season with the California Angels. Nolan Ryan played for 27 years with with 4 different teams and was inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999.(Photo by: 1977 SPX/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

The choice between Jered Weaver (2006-2016),  Frank Tanana (1973-1980), Mike Witt (1981-1990) and Dean Chance (1961-1966) is not as easy. Chance won a Cy Young Award in 1964, when only one was awarded each year. He had five other solid years for the Angels, before winning 20 games with the Minnesota Twins in 1967. He just didn’t have enough good years. Mike Witt has the same problem. He was very good for only four years. That leaves Jered Weaver (2006-2016) as the choice as the #3 pitcher. The peak he reached in the late 2000s was not as high as #4 Frank Tanana (1973-1980), but his overall record in Anaheim was 150-93, while Tanana’s was 102-78. 

Manager

It must be very humbling for Angel fans that the best manager in franchise history is not Angel icon Jim Fregosi (1978-1981), or the renowned skipper Gene Mauch (1981-1982, 1985-1987), but the ex-Dodger Mike Scioscia (2001-2018). Scioscia’s Angels won six American League West Championships in his first 14 years at the helm of the Halos. This doesn’t include 2002 when the Angels won 99 games, but finished second behind the Oakland Athletics, and then stormed to an American League Pennant and a World Series Title as a “Wild Card”. This is an easy choice.

MVP

It’s very hard to make a fair judgement on players who are in the middle of what should be their peak years. It’s hard to differentiate between what they’ve already accomplished or what we project they will accomplish. Mike Trout (2011-Present) is the best player in baseball, and he has been for many years. The question we must answer is: if Trout got injured today and never played another game with the Angels, would we still list him as the best player in Angel history? The answer is: yes we would, by a large margin. 


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