The 1994 Strike was terrible for the game, but it didn’t affect the Angels.
Twenty years ago on August 12, the most infamous labor stoppage in North American sports history began, eventually wiping out the remainder of the MLB regular season, the postseason, and a chunk of the 1995 season. On Baseball Prospectus’ excellent daily podcast Effectively Wild, Sam Miller and Ben Lindbergh discussed some of the more famous events lost from that season. You’re probably familiar with the greatest hits: Matt Williams closing in on 61 homers, Tony Gwynn flirting with .400, the Expos losing a chance to perhaps save the franchise, and Chuck Knoblauch chasing the doubles record (?!?!?).
If baseball fans in general and the Expos in particular were the big losers from the ’94 strike, the Angels were the big winners. The 1994 club was miserable, finishing 47-68 and threatening to lose 100 games for the only time in franchise history. As it was, their .409 win percentage is the second worst in club history, “besting” only the 1980 squad that plummeted to 65-95 just a year after winning the AL West. Behind Tim Salmon and Chili Davis, the club’s 91 wRC+ ranked 18th in baseball, which isn’t terrible, but bad enough to score the fewest runs in the AL. Kenny Rogers took advantage of that offense and threw a perfect game on July 28 while a member of the Texas Rangers. The pitching was a joke, though, with a staff ERA of 5.43, third worst in baseball and bad for any era, even in the middle of an offensive boom. Chuck Finley and Mark Langston posted 100+ ERA+, but everyone else was bad. Joe Grahe was the closer, and he had a 6.65 ERA and 5.09 FIP, giving him the retrospective nickname “Ernesto Frieri 1.0.” Predictably, the attendance suffered, as the Halos drew only 24,010 fans per game, ninth worst in baseball. The 1994 Angels were relevant for precisely one reason: Angels in the Outfield, a film proven more prescient by the concurrent suck that was the real California Angels. Poor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
The timing was perfect for the Angels. What’s the point in being good in a year that doesn’t count? Expo fans don’t have bragging rights because the season basically never happened. (Also, if you come across an Expo fan, give them a hug.) If anything, being a good team would only fill fans with “what ifs.” We almost had that scenario in 2002, when a near-stoppage threatened to wipe out the Angels’ first playoff appearance in 16 years and, eventually, a World Series title.
The Angels’ 1994 incompetence gave them the first pick in the 1995 MLB Draft, where they selected future stalwart Darin Erstad; with their second round selection, they took Jarrod Washburn. Both players were key cogs for years, particularly on the 2002 championship team. Had the Angels played better ball over the last six weeks of the season and worsened their draft position, they likely wouldn’t come up with a player as valuable as Erstad — the five players drafted after Erstad were Ben Davis, Jose Cruz Jr., Kerry Wood, Ariel Prieto, and Jaime Jones. Erstad was worth more career fWAR than all five of those players, accumulating 28.3 wins above replacement in his career. (Those five players combined for 48.6 fWAR.) Don’t forget about Washburn, either, who may have been off the board whenever they selected in the second round if they picked any lower.
It takes skill to win championships, but there’s more luck involved than fans would probably like to admit. The 2002 Angels broke the Game 6 win probability chart. The Red Sox traded Babe Ruth. Nelson Cruz had his feet stuck in quicksand against the Cardinals in the 2011 World Series. Baseball history is littered with strokes of good fortune — if the Angels win the World Series this season, we could point to the 2009 Draft and wonder how Mike Trout was even available for the Angels to select. The 1994 Expos weren’t lucky. Even if didn’t feel like it at the time, the ’94 Angels were.