ANAHEIM — In the wake of Reid Detmers’ brilliant performance on Wednesday night, Angels manager Phil Nevin said it marked a watershed moment for the 24-year-old left-hander.
“He turned into a pitcher tonight,” Nevin said, referring to the fact that Detmers didn’t have his best stuff and accumulated only five strikeouts while carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning.
“I wasn’t really going out there for strikeouts or anything,” he said. “I was just trying to get deep into the game. That was the whole mindset. It was more about sequencing and just keeping them off-balance.”
It was exactly what Angels starters have been unable to do for most of this disappointing season.
Even though all of the key pitchers returned from a team that ranked ninth in the majors in ERA in 2022, the Angels have crashed to 21st this season.
The knee-jerk explanation that many fans have found most convenient is that pitching coach Matt Wise is the problem.
Wise was not available for comment because of a club policy limiting the subjects their coaches can address with the media. A handful of members of the organization, from those above Wise to the pitchers below him, all staunchly defended the third-year pitching coach, even when offered anonymity.
“He’s been awesome,” Detmers said. “I couldn’t have asked for anyone better.”
Nevin pointed out that Wise was the pitching coach when the Angels’ ERA improved from 22nd two years ago to ninth last year.
“I love the rapport he has with the pitchers, the way they respond to him,” Nevin said. “There are some guys that have taken some steps forward. I understand some guys have taken some steps back, but I don’t put that on Matt. Yes, coaching is a lot of it, but at this level, you gotta be a man and figure some things out on your own to be a professional.”
Obviously, each pitcher is ultimately responsible for his own performance. Given that so many Angels pitchers have regressed, it strains credulity to believe it’s a coincidence.
When pitchers and staff members were asked privately for their honest opinions, they had some theories about the reasons for the team-wide pitching failure.
Most of them agreed on one count.
There has been an organizational philosophy – one that comes “from the top,” not from Wise, a player insisted – to concentrate more on spin, velocity and movement instead of command and working through game situations.
Essentially, the focus was the opposite of what Detmers did on Wednesday night.
The shift is personified by a switch in the staff member who is No. 2, behind Wise, in running the pitching staff. Dom Chiti, who began his coaching career in the 1980s, was replaced as the bullpen coach by Bill Hezel, who came from Driveline to take his first job in professional baseball. Hezel’s specialty is helping pitchers improve their velocity, pitch shapes, spin and mechanics.
Left-hander Patrick Sandoval said the Angels definitely went too far in emphasizing raw stuff early in the season, but it became more balanced with the other elements of pitching about a month into the season.
“We’ve structured the pitching here in a way to emphasize both, I think in a good way,” he said. “It’s just a matter of us going out there and executing in games, and that’s where we fall short, for sure.”
One of the reasons the Angels were emphasizing pitch shapes, the pitchers said, is that the team was looking for more strikeouts. This year’s shift ban, plus the Angels’ overall weaker defensive infield, prompted the team to try to avoid contact.
The problem with that approach, the pitchers said, is it means too many deep counts, and too many breaking balls. The Angels rank 29th in the majors in fastball percentage.
Although the Angels were successful last year while also ranking 29th in fastballs, one pitcher suggested that perhaps this year the game plans have gotten too predictable for opposing hitters.
Each day the pitching plan is the product of the work of five to 10 people, including the pitcher, one or two catchers, Wise, Hezel and a number of analysts.
The result of that plan, some pitchers suggested, is too often inflexible, not allowing for the myriad ways that situations can change during a game. A handful of Angels pitchers are not allowed to shake off the catcher, the pitchers said.
The catchers calling those pitches are also a part of that equation, and the difference in experience behind the plate has been dramatic this season.
Chad Wallach has started 112 games at catcher over parts of seven major league seasons. Matt Thaiss, who played other positions for most of his minor league career, has started 73 major league games at catcher. This season Thaiss has started 62 games, and Wallach has started 44.
Last year the Angels’ catching duo of Max Stassi and Kurt Suzuki combined for 1,783 major league starts behind the plate over 26 seasons. Suzuki retired and Stassi has missed the entire season because of a hip injury and a family emergency.
“That’s a lot of years catching experience,” Sandoval said. “To be able to pick their brains day in and day out is something I really miss.”
General Manager Perry Minasian acknowledged the impact of losing Stassi and Suzuki, although he said he’s been pleased with Wallach and Thaiss.
“It’s tough to replace guys like Stassi and Suzuki, especially when you’re trying to develop young pitching,” Minasian said.
Minasian, however, said he was unaware of the other organizational issues that pitchers cited.
He said when the season is over they will “evaluate everything and do a full autopsy on everything. Every year you try to learn from different things and make improvements.”
Minasian said he believes that each individual pitcher who has struggled has his own reasons, most notably youth.
“It takes time for pitchers to settle into the major leagues and be consistent and start rolling off quality years, year in and year out,” Minasian said. “We knew that risk heading into the season with a young group. There are going to be ups and downs. It’s a young, talented group that I feel like is going to continue to get better the more experience they get.”
Rays (TBD) at Angels (LHP Tyler Anderson, 5-4, 5.28 ERA), Friday, 6:38 p.m., Bally Sports West, 830 AM