This season has been a long time coming for the Los Angeles Angels and manager Mike Scioscia. It seems hard to believe that it’s been five years since the Angels last made the playoffs, when they reached the American League Championship Series in 2009.
Since then, there has been the rise and fall of the Texas Rangers and the Angels’ flurry of free agent spending. There has been massive underachievement and the perception of the franchise changed from that of smart, fundamentally-sound overachievers, to a poorly constructed team of fat cats.
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ANALYSIS & HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE FROM AROUND THE SPORTS WORLD
Los Angeles is finally back. The Angels are 60-41 coming into Friday. They’re only three games back of the Oakland A’s in the AL West, and the A’s/Angels tandem represent the best two teams in all of baseball. Los Angeles has a seven-game cushion to at least get into the American League wild-card game this October.
*We can begin with the obvious and it’s that Mike Trout seems to have put the race for AL MVP to bed early. The centerfielder has a stat line of .396 on-base percentage/.606 slugging percentage and has hit 24 home runs. With the Angels set to make the playoffs, it would take a serious slump—or a serious tear by Miguel Cabrera in Detroit—to deny Trout the MVP award.
*Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton haven’t, and realistically never will, live up to the huge contracts they both signed. But at least each former MVP has rejoined the ranks of the living when it comes to production. Pujols has hit 20 home runs, while Hamilton’s stat line is .368/.429.
*The top of the starting rotation is solid, with Jered Weaver sitting on 11-6 with a 3.36 ERA, and Garrett Richards enjoying a breakout year, at 11-3 with a 2.62 ERA.
*Scioscia has gotten contributions from young players and role players, two good examples being rightfielder Kole Calhoun and catcher Chris Iannetta. Calhoun’s stat line is .347/.498 and he’s the second-best offensive player on the team behind Trout. Iannetta has churned out an OBP of .381, giving the Angels offensive production at a spot where most teams struggle to get it.
But before we just proclaim everything all well and good, there are some depth problems and they start with pitching.
*After Weaver and Richards, no other starting pitcher has an ERA below 4.00. It’s possible that when lefty C.J. Wilson returns from an ankle injury (something that should be by either the end of this month or early next) he could become a reliable third starter. Otherwise, Scioscia is just grab-bagging.
*The bullpen is 11th in the American League in save percentage, a big reason the team moved to acquire Huston Street from the San Diego Padres and they also took a flyer on picking up Jason Grilli—the closer who was brilliant last year for the Pittsburgh Pirates before struggling badly this year.
*Within the lineup, the corner infield spots are very spotty, with Pujols now at DH. Scioscia is giving a chance to young first baseman Efren Navarro, and hoping that third baseman David Freese can have the same kind of modest revival that Pujols and Hamilton have enjoyed.
For now though, Freese has been awful, at .322/.342, and it begs the question of what on earth happened to him—remember, he was bad last year for the St. Louis Cardinals as well.
The moves the Angels have made in the bullpen should address their problems there. Street is a reliable, veteran closer and he’s having a great year. Grilli has made 12 appearances for the Angels and his ERA is a buck-74. Those two combine with Joe Smith and Kevin Jepsen, the two reliable parts of the Los Angeles bullpen.
Shoring up the relief at least ensures the Angels won’t collapse and fall out of the playoffs. Staying with Oakland, possibly overtaking them and getting right into the Division Series? That’s going to depend on the starting pitching and I don’t know that I would be as optimistic.
There’s no reason to expect anything from anyone other than Wilson, and while the veteran lefty is nice to have on hand, it requires benefit of the doubt to simply assume he’ll pitch at a higher level when he comes back.
It’s impossible to think Los Angeles can beat out Oakland with only two good starting pitchers. And even if they win the wild-card game, that burns up one of them (presumably Weaver) before going into a potential Division Series matchup with Oakland.
But that only explains why the A’s are rightfully seen as the favorites in this division. If Los Angeles was in a division where the bar wasn’t quite so high (the AL East for example), it would be a different story. Whatever problems this year’s team has, some of already been fixed, and all of them are minor compared to what this franchise’s fan base has lived through the past five years.