ATLANTA — Taylor Ward was at the plate in the eighth inning of a tie game against the Houston Astros earlier this month, with runners at first and second and two outs. A single against Astros righty Rafael Montero would give the Angels the lead and bring them just three outs away from winning the series against the best team in the division.
Ward had seen two sliders from Montero, and the count was 1-and-1. Montero then poured a 95 mph fastball over the heart of the plate.
Ward let it go.
He ended up striking out a few pitches later, taking a pitch that Montero had painted on the corner. After the Angels lost the game, Ward lamented his failure to swing at that fastball over the middle.
“I definitely let a pitch go by that I was looking for,” Ward said. “I should have swung at that.”
Pitches like that one have been one of the Angels’ major problems throughout the six-week offensive malaise that has sunk their season. As they start the second half needing a miracle hot streak to get back into the postseason chase, one of the issues they’ve been discussing is the way they’ve handled fastballs.
“We need to pull the trigger on the fastball earlier in the count, team-wide,” Jared Walsh said. “We’ve all spoken about that.”
Ward added: “Being on the heater would help with the aggressiveness, but I’m not the hitting coach. I think being more aggressive in the zone would help. … We need to get to fastballs. When we get them, we need to get them.”
Manager Phil Nevin said before the All-Star break that he would like to emphasize that his hitters concentrate more on doing damage when they get a fastball in the zone.
“I think the dialogue in some of our meetings has changed a little bit, focusing on hitting off the fastball,” Nevin said. “That’s something I prefer to talk about, really. Breaking balls, offspeed pitches, the ones you hit are mistakes. But if you’re not ready to hit a fastball, you’re not going to hit any of those pitches, and we haven’t. The focus is becoming more strong on hitting off the fastball.”
Since May 25, when the Angels were 27-17, they have hit .212 with a .620 OPS, both figures rank 29th in the majors over that span. Only the Oakland A’s are worse.
Obviously, statistics like those are the result of poor performances against all pitches, in all situations, but their issues with the fastball have been particularly evident.
FanGraphs assigns run values to every situation, compared with the average. The Angels rank dead last in production against fastballs since May 25. They are 27th against sliders, 28th against curveballs and 24th against changeups.
Over that span, the Angels have swung at and missed on 23.1% of their cuts against fastballs, the fourth-worst mark in the majors.
Their passiveness against the fastball, which several players identified as an issue, has not been as egregious. Since May 25, the Angels have taken called strikes on 17.5% of the fastballs they’ve seen, which is the 10th lowest percentage in the majors.
Walsh believes the Angels are going to the plate with too specific of a plan for what pitch they are expecting, rather than simply reacting to the ball.
“I’m looking for this pitch right here and they might throw something different, but it’s right over the plate and if you were just reacting you probably would have pulled the trigger on it,” Walsh said. “For myself personally, be as reactionary as possible, because if you get a little too clouded up there, then sometimes the ball becomes secondary.”
Catcher Max Stassi, whose offensive performance has been well below his standard from the past two seasons, said he is clearly a victim of that issue.
“I think I need to be more aggressive in the zone, get after more fastballs,” Stassi said. “This year my performance on the fastball is not nearly what it was the last two years. I’ve got to be better about attacking and catching stuff out front, getting the ball in the air more. I haven’t been doing that this year.”
Stassi hit .264 with an .811 OPS on fastballs in 2021, and he’s hit .219 with a .689 OPS this season.
The most obvious surface-level issue for the Angels’ offense has been strikeouts. They lead the majors in that department. Walsh, though, believes that the strikeouts are not a function of their two-strike approach, but the result of getting into too many two-strike counts by missing too many fastballs early in the count.
“We’re not going out there trying to hit home runs (with two strikes),” Walsh said. “It’s just that we’ve been behind the fastball, so it’s more how do we get locked in mechanically. Whatever it may be, person to person, how do we get on time for that fastball?”
However the Angels fix their fastball problems – and the other issues that have dragged down their offense – they will need to do something if they are to save this season.
“I expect it to change,” Nevin said. “Once we get into the second half and get going, it becomes contagious. And we all hit.”
Angels (RHP Shohei Ohtani, 9-4, 2.38) at Braves (TBD), Friday, 4:20 p.m., Bally Sports West, 830 AM