Before anything else, though, it’s worth keeping in mind the scale of what we’re dealing with. The Angels, for all of their good players, were still not a good team in 2020, finishing the year with a 72-90 record, behind the 107-win Astros. And it’s not like there was a lot of luck there that they can hope will help even things out; both teams finished exactly in line with their Pythagorean records, so we can just go off their regular records.
That put them a full 35.0 games out of first place, which coincidentally matches the single biggest one-year improvement by a team in MLB history (the 1998 to 1999 Diamondbacks, who went from 65 wins to 100 in part with the help of new free agent Randy Johnson). It’s probably unrealistic to expect that from the Angels, so let’s divide that swing between the two teams. If you want to split the difference, dating back to 2000, a little less than two teams per year improve and fall by 17 games. So the Angels, to compete for the division title, are hoping to be one of the two biggest improvements this season and the Astros being one of the two biggest drops (and even that might not be enough, given that 17+17 still only accounts for 34.0 games).
Honestly, that sense of scale is reasonably comfortable already for anyone rooting for the Astros, but let’s break it down further, into the individual components. Let’s start with the offense, since that’s where the Angels made their biggest, most notable improvements. In 2019, L.A. finished with about half of the position player WAR (Fangraphs version) of the Astros, 40.8 to 20.3, in large part thanks to finishing 26 points behind Houston in wRC+, 125 to 99.
Some of that can come from regression to the mean on the Astros’ part, given their historic 2019 campaign and how hard it is to repeat historic seasons. And losing Robinson Chirinos (113 wRC+) is going to hurt some. But it’s not like there aren’t areas for improvement to help offset those losses, too: Yordan Álvarez (87 games, 178 wRC+) should be getting a full season, and Carlos Correa (75 games, 143 wRC+) will hopefully be healthy; Jose Altuve and George Springer each missed about 40 games last year, and could make up some of that difference in increased playing time.
On the margins, Tyler White and Tony Kemp won’t be getting 400+ plate appearances, and while Jake Marisnick’s glove will be missed, Myles Straw could easily prove an adequate replacement on the whole, with a better bat making up the difference even if his defense is a notch below Jake’s. And of course, there’s still the hope that Kyle Tucker steps forward and provides another great bat.
The Astros will almost certainly be worse at hitting in 2020, because no one has hit like they did in 2020; but there’s still plenty of room to fall and still be above average. For example, if they had a team wRC+ a full 10 points lower last year, they still would have been third in the league.
But while the Astros’s position players will still probably good in 2020, it’s not hard to imagine the Angels’ improving enough to match them on that front. Jason Castro is stepping into a spot that was basically a zero last year. Shohei Ohtani and Andrelton Simmons each missed over 50 games, and Mike Trout missed a little over 20. Justin Upton missed nearly 100 games, and the 63 he played in didn’t look anything close to his previous seasons. And of course, there’s Rice-alum Anthony Rendon, who signed a massive contract this offseason and is more than enough to make up for their biggest loss from 2019, Kole Calhoun. We haven’t even gotten into Jo Adell, their equivalent of Kyle Tucker, but saying their Angels’ lineup is on par with the Astros doesn’t feel like too much of a reach.
To go back to our earlier pair of questions, are the Astros 10 wins worse on offense, and are the Angels 10 wins better? I think Houston is worse than before, but 10 wins is a big drop, even for a team that was at a historic high last year. But the Angels very easily might be 10 wins better on this front. And every win above 10 makes up some of that gap from the Astros not dropping 10 wins.
I think I’d still lean towards the Astros due to several big questions hanging around L.A. (Can Justin Upton bounce back? How well and much will Albert Pujols play? Are the bigger injuries last year a lingering problem, or a one-year fluke?), which mostly seem to come down to “they have a similar ceiling, but the Angels have a lot more uncertainty”. I could honestly see the matter coming down to who has a healthier season.
But that’s only half the question, and man oh man is the pitching half of things still as lopsided as ever. Gerrit Cole leaving hurts, and I don’t blame anyone for being concerned about that. But the Angels are not the ones who are going to push Houston on this front; after finishing 18 WAR behind the Astros in 2019, L.A.’s big pickups were Julio Teheran and Dylan Bundy, and at this moment, those two would make up half of their playoff rotation. Fangraphs predicts both of them to finish with ERA’s above 4.40 and FIPS in the 4.50 to 5.00 range.
Shoot, even if they make a big mid-season trade for a starter, those two still might both appear in a potential ALCS rotation, depending on the health of Andrew Heaney (just 95.1 innings in 2019), Shohei Ohtani (hasn’t pitched since 2018, on track to start pitching a month and a half late and only go once a week when he’s back), and how well their assorted fourth and fifth starter options can stick (Griffin Canning, the best of their bunch, is already in a worrisome spot health-wise this spring). Put another way, in a best-case scenario, I can see Los Angeles maybe fielding a competent rotation, but it’s hard to envision a ceiling much higher than that, and it’s extremely easy to see them ending up below that ceiling.
So let’s go back to that two-pronged question we used in the first two parts; is the 2020 Astros pitching 9 WAR worse than it was in 2019, and is the Angels staff 9 WAR better? Losing Cole is big (Fangraphs had him at about seven and a half wins alone), and Wade Miley was competent for most of the year, but there are plenty of mitigating factors to that total. Lance McCullers’ return and a full season of Zack Greinke will help offset some of that, and Jose Urquidy projects to be about on Miley’s level at least; they could still be 9 wins worse on the whole, but it will largely come down to injuries, young pitchers, and regression in that case.
But the Angels just do not strike me as 9 WAR better than last year on the pitching front, let alone enough above that to start making up ground if the Astros don’t fall their full 9 WAR. And remember, just adding 9 WAR isn’t enough; they also have to make up for the late Tyler Skaggs, who was their best starter last year (1.8 WAR in 79.2 innings). And unlike on the offense, where the Angels can match Astros fans’ hopes for Kyle Tucker with their dreams for Jo Adell, the Angels don’t have a Forrest Whitley in the wings, let alone the recent track record Houston pitching has seen under Brent Strom.
Maybe the Angels can make up for that on offense, but that’s expecting something like a 15 WAR improvement on top of a 10-WAR drop by the Astros, which is starting to reach “extremely improbable” territory. The Astros will have a harder path to the division title in 2020 than they did in 2019, and the improved Angels will be a part of that, but they probably won’t wind up replacing the Astros themselves.