TEMPE, Ariz. — Taylor Ward’s breakout season in 2022 was like a three-act play.
The Angels outfielder began the season as one of the most surprising success stories in baseball, but then on May 20 he crashed into the fence and suffered an injury that sapped his shoulder of his typical strength.
For the next three months, he was a shell of that hitter, suggesting that perhaps his start was all a mirage.
At the end, though, as Ward returned to health, he finished with a flourish that gives him and the Angels hope of what he could do if he can stay healthy for an entire season.
“That player, 100%, is in there,” manager Phil Nevin said. “It’s not just a small sample size to start the season and a little bit at the end. Those numbers as a whole were pretty impressive. I see Taylor being that guy.
“We look at our group and obviously Mike (Trout) and Shohei (Ohtani) have won MVPs and Anthony (Rendon) has been in that mix before too. I wouldn’t be surprised if Taylor was a name that could be thrown in that same sort of category. Not saying he will win it, but certainly he could be talked about. Those numbers were real.”
He said that “100 percent” of his struggles through the middle of the season were health related.
“For a full season, if I stay healthy, I think I can do what I did those first and last months all year,” he said. “I really do.”
If so, the Angels would have another premium hitter at the top of their order, ahead of Trout, Ohtani and Rendon.
Ward posted an OPS of 1.194 through his first 131 plate appearances. He was hitting .370 with nine homers. He explained that it was the result of a winter of work with Trent Woodward, a former college teammate who has since been hired by the Angels as a hitting consultant. In short, Ward said he learned the right way to get the ball in the air, by aligning his swing path with the trajectory of the pitch. He shortened his swing. He cleared his mind.
Then, in the top of the ninth inning of a game against the Oakland A’s, Ward raced back toward the right field fence to track down a ball hit by Tony Kemp. Ward made the catch and crashed to the ground. He left the game, diagnosed with a stinger, an injury to the nerves running from the neck through the shoulder. Ward didn’t play for a few days, all along insisting he could still hit, but not throw.
The only time he spent on the injured list over the next three months was a 10-day stint with a hamstring injury. Although his numbers were plummeting, he didn’t admit for months that the problem was still in his shoulder. He had a .602 OPS over 283 plate appearances, from the moment he crashed into the fence through Aug. 22.
Over the final 150 plate appearances of the season, though, Ward came back to life, with a .963 OPS.
Even with the bad three months in the middle, Ward finished with an .833 OPS and 23 homers. His OPS was 21st in the majors among qualified hitters, right between Xander Bogaerts and Kyle Schwarber.
But Ward believes his true talent was the hitter at the beginning and end.
“I think that (injury) totally impacted that three months, that lull,” Ward said. “The goal this year is definitely to avoid the fence at all costs, to stay on the field.”
Ward will be avoiding a different fence now. The Angels moved him to left field to put newcomer Hunter Renfroe in right. Ward had played both corners regularly before last season, so he said sticking in left shouldn’t be a problem.
“The more reps I get out there, the better I get,” Ward said. “It’s just really dialing in those reps in spring training, working on those wall balls and solidifying all that. I want to take away home runs. I want to win a Gold Glove. I wanted to be the best left fielder in baseball. All the work that I do is going to be toward that.”
VELAZQUEZ IS ALL RIGHT
Andrew Velazquez said he’s finally done as a switch-hitter, even after saying last week that he wanted to give it another try.
Velazquez said his first couple live batting practice sessions convinced him that it was going to be too much work to try to refine two swings, so he’s going to only hit right-handed now.
“I just made a mental decision to make my life easier,” Velazquez said. “I think I’m sleeping better.”
Velazquez abandoned switch hitting briefly last season, but then he suffered a season-ending knee injury before he had much time to evaluate the results. He decided over the winter to try switch-hitting again, but then quickly reversed himself.
“Not that I don’t have time to waste, but I don’t want to waste 100 at-bats trying to get the same result,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez, 28, is a natural right-handed hitter who started switch-hitting in high school. He had produced a .540 OPS in 530 big league plate appearances, an indication that he needed to try something different. He was 5 for 12 with a homer batting right-handed against right-handed pitchers last season, so the Angels wanted him to stick to that, but they ultimately left the decision to him.
“I just think it’ll simplify things for him with his work in the cage, and his work on the field,” Nevin said. “Obviously he can concentrate on his defense as well. I think it will be best for him.”
Velazquez is an elite defender at shortstop and one of the fastest players on the team. As the team is currently constructed, he is projected to start at Triple-A, but he would be one of the first options if someone gets hurt.
Anthony Rendon, Hunter Renfroe hit homers in Angels’ victory
Orange County’s Chris Devenski among Angels’ bullpen candidates
Angels get their first taste of baseball with a clock
Jo Adell homers to lead Angels to victory in Cactus League opener
Angels’ Gio Urshela reunited with influential hitting coaches
Nevin reiterated that the Angels want to develop right-hander Sam Bachman as a starter, even though he had an impressive one-inning outing on Sunday. Nevin said it’s possible they could bring him up sometime this year as a reliever, but “for now we want to stretch him out. We think he’s a starter. If you see that stuff out there for six, seven innings, that’s pretty good, too.” …
Right-hander José Soriano is back in camp with the Angels after undergoing a second Tommy John surgery, and after being claimed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 draft. Nevin said he’s been impressed with what he’s seen so far, even though Soriano hasn’t pitched in a game. “He’s got a big arm,” Nevin said. “He’s certainly somebody we’ve got our eye on, somebody that we can see being up here at some point during the season.”