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Adapt or Die
BEN REITER
June 18, 2012
Six weeks ago, the Angels were headed to oblivion. Their manager's philosophical makeover has helped turn things around
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June 18, 2012

Adapt Or Die

Six weeks ago, the Angels were headed to oblivion. Their manager's philosophical makeover has helped turn things around

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Mike Scioscia is among history's most successful managers—he has won a World Series and two AL Manager of the Year awards in 13 seasons with the Angels, and his .548 winning percentage ranks 14th among the 53 men who have managed at least 2,000 games. He built that résumé on a set of principles so strict that they could be called the Scioscian School of Management. He has always adhered to rigid, well-defined bullpen roles, emphasized defense over offense and been reluctant to play young players. After the season's first month, however, Scioscia found himself in an unusual situation: His tactics were not working. On April 29, Los Angeles was 7--15, in last place and nine games out of first in the AL West. There were whispers that the job of baseball's longest-tenured skipper might be in jeopardy.

So Scioscia did something many believed he would never do: He changed—and so did his team's trajectory. Six weeks later, the Angels were 32--29, in second place and only three games behind the division-leading Rangers. Scioscia's primary adaptation has been with his bullpen. He has long believed in using a single closer and in deploying him almost exclusively in save situations for a single inning. When Francisco Rodriguez saved a record 62 games in 2008, 69 of his 76 appearances came with a save on the line, and 63 of them lasted exactly three outs. Not one was longer, and not once did he enter a game before the ninth inning.

Scioscia began the year with Jordan Walden as the closer, but in late April he was demoted to a setup role. Soon after, Scioscia began using a pair of relievers, lefthander Scott Downs and righty Ernesto Frieri, to close, basing his choice on matchups. Downs and Frieri sometimes appear for more or less than one inning, and when one closes, often the other sets him up. Downs had six saves and Frieri four through Sunday, and between them they had allowed just one earned run—Down gave it up on Sunday—for L.A. (Frieri was acquired from the Padres for two prospects on May 3.) The result: After losing five games in April in which they were tied or held a lead in the eighth inning or later, the Angels have dropped just one.

Scioscia has also relaxed his usual obsession with stocking his lineup with fundamentally sound fielders. With the offense struggling in early May, he swallowed hard and began tolerating the erratic glove of Mark Trumbo, a first baseman by trade but now used mainly in the outfield. Trumbo has started every game since May 11 and at week's end led the team in home runs (14), RBIs (39) and OPS (1.011). Since he was made an everyday starter, L.A. has averaged 4.07 runs, compared with 3.69 before. Another lineup spark has been centerfielder Mike Trout, an unlikely development considering Scioscia's reluctance to play prospects until they fully demonstrate that they're major league ready. The 20-year-old Trout, who hit .220 in 40 games with the Angels last season, began the year in Triple A. But with L.A. needing a boost, he was called up on April 28—and Scioscia immediately inserted him into the leadoff spot. Trout responded by hitting .350 with five home runs and 13 steals in his first 39 games.

Of course, it has helped that Albert Pujols has begun to look like himself after a wretched April (he has 32 RBIs in 37 games since May 1) and that the recent schedule has been heavy on the A's and the Mariners, the AL West's weaklings. But the impact of Scioscia's adaptation should not be overlooked. In politics it might be deemed flip-flopping, but in baseball it amounts to good managing.

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