The 1980 California Angels
The California Angels won the American League West in 1979 with a 88-74 record. The long-suffering franchise had accumulated a talented core of veteran ballplayers through free agency (Don Baylor, Bobby Grich, Joe Rudi) and trades (Rod Carew, Brian Downing, Dan Ford, Nolan Ryan). 1B/DH Willie Aikens (1975 first-round draft pick) and 3B Carney Lansford (.287/19/79) were the only homegrown players to make a significant contribution on offense. However, the elation over the ’79 division title would be short-lived.
One-Way Ticket on the Ryan Express
Nolan Ryan, the Angels ace since his arrival in the December 1971 trade for Jim Fregosi, would depart for the Houston Astros as a free agent. Buzzie Bavasi balked when Ryan’s agent requested a 3-year deal for 1.7 million dollars. “I’m from the old school where your record indicates how much you get… Nolan’s record [in 1978 and 1979] was 26-27 for those two years. I had fellas who were 11-8, 12-4. What am I going to do with them if I give Nolan all the money?” Ryan would go on to lead the Astros to their first division title in 1980.
Without Nolan to anchor the rotation, Angels GM Buzzie Bavasi and manager Jim Fregosi cobbled together a pitching staff consisting of Dave Frost (16-10, 3.57 in 1979), Bruce Kison (13-7, 3.19 with the Pirates), Don Aase (9-10, 4.81), Chris Knapp (5-5, 5.51) and Frank Tanana (7-5, 3.89). Alfredo Martinez, a Rule V selection from the Mets, was a member of Angels rotation by season’s end. The starting staff struggled mightily, with no starting pitcher finishing with a .500 record. Kison only made 13 starts (3-6, 4.91), Frost fell to 4-8 with a 5.29 ERA, and Knapp labored through 20 dreadful starts (2-11, 6.14). Tanana’s effort was serviceable (11-12, 4.15), while Aase alternated between the rotation and the bullpen (8-13, 4.06). Martinez made 23 starts, compiling a 7-9 record with a 4.52 ERA.
The bullpen consisted of Mark Clear (11-5, 14 saves, 3.61 in 1979) , Dave LaRoche (7-11, 10 saves, 5.57 ERA, 1.623 WHIP), Jim Barr (10-12, 4.20 mainly as a starter in ’79), and John Montague, who was acquired in an August 1979 deal with Seattle. Andy Hassler was purchased from Pittsburgh in June 1980, and ultimately became the closer, posting a record of 5-1 with a 2.49 ERA. Besides Hassler, the bullpen results were similar to ’79. Clear fared slightly better in ’80, posting an 11-11 record with 9 saves, a 3.30 ERA and 1 strikeout per inning. LaRoche also rebounded with 3 wins, 4 saves, and a 4.08 ERA. Montague (4-2, 5.13, 1.602) and Barr (1-4, 5.56, 1.662) rounded out a battered relief corps.
Expectations and Injuries
California’s defensive alignment was slightly altered entering the 1980 season. Al Cowens was acquired to play center field, in exchange for Willie Aikens. This allowed Don Baylor to become the full-time designated hitter, and sent Rick Miller to the bench as the fourth outfielder. Freddie Patek was signed to play shortstop, relegating Bert Campaneris to a reserve infield role. Cowens fell flat out of the gate, batting .227 with 1 home run in the first 2 months of the season. Bavasi didn’t waste any time, dealing him to Detroit on May 27 for first baseman Jason Thompson. Carew and Thompson alternated between first base and DH, with Rick Miller regaining the majority of playing time in center field. Bavasi might have been more patient if the Angels had not already lost the services of Baylor and Brian Downing for extended periods due to injury.
The Angels fell below the .500 mark on May 6, the start of a 6-game losing streak from which they never recovered. Offensively, almost every California hitter contributed a substandard performance (based on their career records), except for Carew (.331, 23 steals, 92 RC) and Thompson (.317/17/70/9.1 RC/G). Jim Fregosi’s choice of leading off with Cowens was a curious one. Downing (.418 OBP in 1979) or Carew (.419) seem like a better fit, with Cowens slotted between fifth and seventh in the batting order. Instead, Fregosi batted Carew fifth and Downing sixth. He also had Bobby Grich, coming off a stellar campaign in 1979 (.294/30/101), batting eighth at the start of the 1980 season. My revamped lineup selection:
R. Miller cf
Down on the Farm
SS Dickie Thon would eventually become an all-star in 1983. SS Rance Mulliniks raked at Salt Lake City (AAA), batting .343. He was included in the Aikens deal to Kansas City. Mulliniks eventually formed a solid platoon at third base for the Blue Jays, along with Garth Iorg. OF Bobby Clark (.304/15/91 in Salt Lake City) became a dependable fifth outfielder for the Angels and the Brewers. Double-A prospect Mark Brouhard (.350/28/107) was lost in the Rule 5 draft to the Brewers, while 19 year-old catcher Brian Harper (.315/14/90) would languish in the Angels farm system until a December 1981 deal for SS Tim Foli.
1980 was basically a lost season for the Halos. They were unable to overcome the loss of Nolan Ryan from the rotation, and the prospects that were called in to replace Baylor, Downing, Kison and Frost failed to take advantage of their opportunities.
The Angels continue to their losing ways in 1981, putting Fregosi on the hot seat. Bavasi’s wheeling and dealing produces mixed results, but sets the stage for a pennant run in 1982.
References and Resources
The Nolan Ryan quote is from Robert Goldman, Once They Were Angels, Sports Publishing L.L.C., 2006, pp. 121