The Los Angeles Angels have been one of baseball’s good stories in the early part of this season. They’re narrowly leading a tight three-team race in the AL West with the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. The Angels’ Shohei Otahni has electrified the game with his dual role as starting pitcher & designated hitter. Mike Trout continues to churn out superstar numbers with ease. But the ultimate fate of the Angels will be determined how an uncertain pitching situation plays out.
Los Angeles is fourth in the American League in ERA and the starting roation in particular is exceptionally well-balanced. The five starters range in ERA from 3.07 to 4.08, giving a consistency to manager Mike Scioscia’s day-to-day handling of the bullpen. But none of the starters have a real track record.
Let’s start with the obvious case of Otahni. He’s got a 3.58 ERA in his six starts to go along with some amazing work at the plate (.392 on-base percentage/.652 slugging percentage). It’s still quite logical to wonder if he keep up either of these performances for the long haul, much less both of them. And if one aspect of his game falls by the wayside, which will it be?
Of the other four starters, only Garrett Richards has ever made more than twenty starts in a season and that was back in 2014-15. His last two seasons have been marred by injuries. If Richards stays healthy, his track record suggests he can certainly match, if not improve on his 4.08 ERA. But that same track record suggests even more strongly that he might not make enough trips the mound.
Nick Tropeano, Tyler Skaggs and Andrew Heaney round out the rotation. All are pitching well, with ERAs in the 3s, particularly Skaggs who has a 3.07 ERA in eight starts. But again, none have ever taken on a full workload. Keep in mind that I used 20 starts as a benchmark that they all have never hit, but even that’s generous. A team that’s going to keep pace with the Astros is going to need multiple pitchers making 30 starts. Will the arms hold up?
The same level of uncertainty applies to the closer’s role. Kenyan Middelton has done a nice job here, with a 2.04 ERA, but at age 24 this is only his second year in the major leagues and he’s making an early trip to the disabled list (albeit a minor one and is expected back before May is out).
There’s a lot of good things about these Angels. Trout has a shot at another MVP, Ohtani is a tremendous story, Albert Pujols crossed the 3,000-hit threshold and there’s a number of position players (Kole Calhoun, Ian Kinsler) that are likely to pick up the pace after slow starts and give the offense a continued lift. Above all, it’s nice to see a Mike Scioscia-managed team back and relevant again.
It still comes down to the pitching. The Astros more than proved their mettle last October and are stacked with proven starting pitching. The quartet of Skaggs, Richards, Heaney and Tropeano have potential, no doubt about it. But they all need to put it together in the same season to win the AL West. It’s with good reason that while the Angels are a respected team by the smart money, it’s the Astros that are still the odds-on favorite to bring this division home.
This season has been a long time coming for the Los Angeles Angelsand 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.
So how have they done it and what are the pitfalls that lie ahead?
*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 Cardinalsas 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.
The Los Angeles Angels have won seven in a row coming into Wednesday’s games. The Halos are now at 40-43, and though that’s still 8 ½ games off the pace in the American League West, there’s still a half a season to play and a lot of talent in Anaheim. Let’s take a closer look at the Angels and see if this is the start of them making a definitive move in this division.
THREE STRUGGLING STARS
Any conversation about the Angels’ struggles to date, or their prospects going forward clearly have to start with the struggling stars. Albert Pujols is having a rough year, with a stat line of .322 on-base percentage/.425 slugging percentage. That’s mediocre by generic standards, and by the standards of Albert and his big contact, it’s positively pathetic.
But even more pathetic is the play of Josh Hamilton, whose stat line is .282/.390. At least Pujols likely has an injury excuse—ESPN’s Tim Kurkijan said last night that Pujols is dealing with immense pain in his feet, and that type of lower body problem pretty much makes it impossible to hit effectively. If there is any such problem with Hamilton, we don’t know about it.
Jered Weaver has had a trouble year himself, having only made nine starts due to an early season injury. The starts he has made have been nothing special—a 3.79 ERA isn’t bad, but it’s not ace-caliber in a division where there are a lot of weak bats.
That’s the bad news—actually, its terrible news. The good news for Angels fans is this—if someone tells you your second-half chances are predicated on the improved play of Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton and Jered Weaver, I think that’s something you’re ready to take your chances with. So our next question is this—is that the case? Are the supporting cast members playing well enough that a Pujols/Hamilton/Weaver surge could push the Angels all the way back?
A SPLIT SUPPORTING CAST
The answer here is twofold—the supporting cast has been pretty good in the everyday lineup, while the starting pitching has been mostly awful. The one exception in the rotation is C.J. Wilson, who has a 3.63 ERA in 17 starts, and has pitched very well over the past month. But Joe Blanton has been a disaster, though in fairness, his last five starts have shown some signs of life. Tommy Hanson was first hit hard, then hit the disabled list.
Jason Vargas was having a decent year, but he’s on the DL with a blood clot, and may be out until the end of July. If the Angels had a five-game lead, that timeframe would be fine. When you have to play the last 80 games or so with playoff urgency, it’s not as manageable, and manager Mike Scoscia is trying to make do with a combination of veteran Jerome Williams and call-up Billy Buckner (yes, the son of the former Cubs/Red Sox first baseman who had over 2,700 career hits. The other thing he’s remembered for has been beaten to death) in the rotation.
In the lineup, Scoscia has gotten good work from a lot of supporting pieces. Howie Kendrick is having a good year, at .367/.475. I suppose we shouldn’t call Mike Trout a supporting piece after he finished second in the MVP voting for the 2012 season, but for the sake of this article he falls in this section. Trout’s numbers are .388/.539. J.B. Schuck, a young outfielder, along with catcher Chris Iannetta and third baseman Albert Callaspo are all respectable at getting on base, and Mark Trumbo can clean up the bases, having hit 18 home runs.
Here again, though the Angels can’t seem to catch a break. Or, more accurately they caught a break they didn’t need—a broken wrist, that is. Peter Bourjos, already an excellent young defensive centerfielder, was having a breakout year with the bat, with a stat line of .385/.450, when he broke his wrist. You first lose his bat, and the defensive shift likely forces Trout from left to center, thereby weakening two positions. Bourjos says he’ll back by the end of July, if not before, but even if that’s true, is really going to sustain his offensive production with a wrist on the mend?
SQUEEZING THE MOST FROM THE BULLPEN
The bullpen’s overall numbers aren’t good—they’re ninth in the league in relievers’ ERA. But in spite of that, they’ve managed to close 77 percent of their save chances, an exceptionally good number. Closer Ernesto Frieri explains part of the contradiction—he’s a solid 21/23 in closing saves, though his ERA of 3.19 is higher than that close rate would suggest.
In truth, I see these contradictory stats as evidence that Mike Scoscia can still manage, even as his team underachieves for a second straight year. He’s got just enough good arms—Scott Downs and Michael Kohn are each having great seasons, with sub-2.00 ERAs—that the manager can work good matchups when he gets a lead and finish the games the Angels have a chance to win.
The problem is that when your starting pitching is 10th in the AL, and your key offensive stars are struggling, you don’t get enough of those chances. In either case, Los Angeles probably needs one more arm to step up to give some depth and also provide Scoscia a decent option to keep games close when the team falls behind. And that arm will likely *not* be Ryan Madson. The closer continues to have setbacks in his rehab, and the team has admitted that missing the entire 2013 season is now a possibility.
WILL THE ANGELS FLY AGAIN?
If the question is whether the Angels are going to get back in the playoff discussion, I think the answer to that is yes. The talent here is too good to play below .500 all year, and if they even get to an 85-86 win pace that likely keeps you on everyone’s wild-card radar.
But just like last year, the Angels have started too late, and the pitching problems are too deep to allow the sustained stretch of dominance it will take to get to the 92-93 wins that it likely takes to make the postseason. They aren’t fortunate enough to be in the NL West, like their crosstown rivals, the Dodgers, who aren’t playing any better, but have a real shot at a division title.
The Angels have to catch both the A’s and Rangers to win the AL West. And the wild-card? In addition to the runner-up of Texas/Oakland, throw in the following—Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Toronto and the Cleveland/Detroit runner-up. Even with two wild-card spots, that’s not a lot of room for error. It will be a repeat of 2012 in Anaheim—a surge just enough to tease, but some crushing losses that prevent it from coming to ultimate fruition.
AROUND THE AL WEST
Oakland (49-35): We talked about the A’s briefly on my Monday podcast with Greg DePalma at Prime Sports Network. Greg finds it hard to imagine Oakland not winning the AL West. I’m not ready to go there just yet, but I can’t find the necessary arguments to dispute it.
Texas (48-35): Alexi Ogando is close to coming back in Dallas. That’s at least one part of giving me the arguments to make the Rangers’ case.
Seattle (36-47): We discussed Seattle in last week’s MLB coverage, and again reiterate this point—when you’re built on pitching, but the bullpen stinks, that’s not a workable formula.
Houston (30-54): Bud Norris is popping up a lot in trade talks, marking the one interesting thing about the Astros for this season.
The Boston Red Sox have been the toast of baseball in the first four weeks of the season, rolling to an 18-8 record and the best record in the majors. After a soap opera year of 2012, a new manager and a new attitude have produced some new results. In today’s American League MLB coveragewe’ll look at how the Red Sox have been doing it, speculate on their long-term chances and take a brief look at the rest of the AL.
Boston’s strengths in a nutshell are…
Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz have been amazingly good
Dustin Pedroia leads an offense that’s filling the basepaths with runners
The return of David Ortiz has lifted a lineup that’s also driving the ball for power very well.
Bucholz is your April frontrunner for the Cy Young Award, with a 5-0 record and 1.19 ERA, while Lester is 4-0 with a solid 3.11 ERA. These were the two pitchers everyone was focused on at the start of the year. Both were part of the infamous Fried Chicken Fiasco in the collapse of 2011, where pitchers were drinking and eating fried foods in the clubhouse during games—the baseball equivalent of fiddling as Rome burned. But it was presumed the ringleader in the group was Josh Beckett. Now Beckett is gone, the old pitching coach John Farrell is back as manager, and Bucholz and Lester look like aces again.
The back end of the rotation and the bullpen were question marks. I was skeptical of signing Ryan Dempster and my mind hasn’t really changed, but Dempster does have a nice 3.30 ERA. Felix Doubront is an acceptable fourth or fifth starter—one who’s never pretty—but at least gives you a shot. John Lackey has made two starts since his return from Tommy John surgery and has an ERA of 2.61, but with one stint on the DL already behind him, you have to question how many outings he can give you.
Joel Hanrahan was acquired to shore up the ninth inning and began the season by getting hit hard and then hurt. He’s back off the disabled list, but Andrew Bailey—last year’s big acquisition to shore up the ninth inning before getting hurt, then hit hard—has found his pre-2012 form. Bailey’s closed five of six chances with a 1.46 ERA. Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa are doing excellent work in the setup roles.
What happens with Dempster is going to go a long way towards telling us if the Red Sox can continue to lead the AL East throughout the summer. While I’m sold that Bucholz and Lester are back as a legitimate 1-2 punch, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that somewhere along the line they’ll lose some decisions and that Bucholz’s ERA might rise into the 2s. If Dempster can stay steady, it will give the rotation needed stability.
While Boston’s staff ERA ranks 4th in the American League, the hitting is a little bit better, ranking 3rd. The best Red Sox teams from 2003-11 followed the Moneyball formula of churning out on-base percentage and this team is doing just that. Pedroia is leading the way with a .444 OBP, while Shane Victorino is at .385. Jacoby Ellsbury is playing reasonably well, but hasn’t really heated up yet in the leadoff spot, so there’s every reason to think the Sox can maintain their high level of getting runners on base.
This wasn’t supposed to be a vintage Red Sox team when it came to power, but they’re second in the American League in slugging percentage. David Ortiz returned from the disabled list and in nine games, he hit three home runs and delivered a slugging percentage of .917. Mike Napoli, another offseason acquisition I was skeptical about, is coming through and unlike Dempster, I’m ready to change my mind and say this is the real thing. Napoli looks very comfortable in Fenway and my biggest concern was his defensive skill at first base. At the very least, that hasn’t been a problem in the early going.
And my favorite Red Sox, left fielder Danny Nava, is finally getting regular playing time. Nava got national attention in 2010 when he hit a grand slam on the first pitch he saw in the major leagues. When he got further chances to play, he consistently got on base and played a good left field, but was always shunted aside as the front office went in search of the next high-priced star. Now he’s getting his chance and the numbers speak for themselves–.385 on-base percentage and .500 slugging.
The disappointments in the lineup are clearly on the left side of the infield. Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks are off to horrible starts. Middlebrooks’ six home runs have somewhat obscured that, but he’s only got 19 hits total for the year. He’s a great talent and the fact the team has started so well will buy him some time to keep developing, but for long-term success, Boston is going to need him to hit.
Drew is a different story. I like his acquisition in the offseason, but he’s hitting sub-.200 and has been hurt. You know, I realize that the offseason moves I didn’t like (Dempster and Napoli) are coming through and the one I did (Drew) is a bust. The Sawx are my favorite team, and let’s just say I’m glad I’m not in charge of making these decisions. Just writing about them after the fact. But back to Drew—he’s apparently never really gotten his stroke back after the devastating ankle injury that cost him a season and a half when he was in Arizona. The Red Sox haven’t had stability at shortstop since Nomar Garciaparra was traded in 2004 and apparently the search will continue.
So where do the Red Sox stand for the long haul in what promises to be a tough AL East race? The Yankees are only two games back, as they try and find healthy bodies. The Orioles are two and a half back, and the Rays are inching back closer to .500.
As a fan, I feel good about this team, but also realistic. Clearly, Boston is back to being fun again and will be in the race. The realistic side of me says the 3 thru 5 spots in the rotation are a question mark. And even if you’re a Dempster believer, you have to concede that at least 4-5 are big questions. In the bullpen, Bailey’s known to be fragile, so we have to see how that plays out. I’m not ready to say the Red Sox are the team to beat in the AL East, but at least this spring I don’t have to use the NBA & NHL playoffs as a way of hiding from baseball reality.
DETROIT& LOS ANGELES GO IN OPPOSITE DIRECTIONS
The Detroit Tigers had been off to a muddling start, but have caught fire and won five in a row. They’re getting vintage performances from Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and new free agent acquisition Tori Hunter. The ERA of the Detroit starting rotation is the 2nd-best in the American League, with Anibal Sanchez also off to a blazing start. The bullpen was a question mark coming into the season and is no less so today after some blown saves and injuries to Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel, but Jose Valverde has returned to the team and successfully closed two save opportunities. I picked this team to win 100 games and win the World Series. The century mark might have been overkill given the relief pitching, but as long as the Tigers are alive and have their stars healthy, I consider them the team to beat in all of baseball.
The Los Angeles Angels were last year’s team to beat and for a lot of people they were this year’s too. And apparently they are the team to beat—because of a lot of people are beating them. The Angels are now 9-17, thanks primarily to a pitching staff that’s 14th in the league in ERA. Everyone is to blame. The starters’ ERA is also 14th and the bullpen is an abysmal 3-of-8 in save opportunities. Say what you will about how bad Josh Hamilton has been—and with a .252 OBP/.296 slugging he’s been awful—but pitching is the big culprit here.
And now the elephant in the room is the status of manager Mike Scoscia. He’s considered in many quarter s—including this one—to be the best manager in baseball, or at least the equal of anyone else. But this franchise has spent a lot of money and is not seeing any results. If the issue is management—and that’s still a big if—I’m inclined to that Scoscia would just be better off playing on a team that was less about high-priced stars and more about finding quality, aggressive young players to fill roles. Managing egos is different than managing baseball. But whatever you think on this subject, what seemed unthinkable for a long time, is now a topic being casually broached on talk shows. egos is different than managing baseball.
nd and more about finding quality, aggressive young players to fill roles.
Every team in baseball has two series left as the MLB playoff race hits its final week. Let’s take a look at how the races shape up, who plays who and what we have to look forward to in these closing days…
AL CENTRAL: The Chicago White Sox are fading fast, having lost seven of nine, a stretch that includes series losses to Kansas City & Cleveland. Meanwhile, Detroit took advantage of the chance to play the Royals in rattling off a four-game sweep. Detroit now leads the division by two games. They close on the road, but the trips are to Minnesota and Kansas City.
Justin Verlander is scheduled to pitch Saturday, a circumstance that means he could come back on short rest for Wednesday’s season finale if necessary. Meanwhile, the White Sox are in red-hot Tampa, then go to Cleveland. The most high-stakes race in baseball—its winner-take-all, with no wild-card cushion—could be over by the end of the weekend.
AL WILD-CARD: Tampa Bay and Los Angeles have played their way back into this race right now, and only trail Oakland by two games. Baltimore currently holds the top wild-card spot, and the Rays get the Orioles in a home series to end the season. But both challengers have tough schedules. Tampa has the aforementioned matchups with Chicago and Baltimore, while LAA has to deal with Texas—a team that still has to clinch the AL West—this weekend, and then a road trip at pesky Seattle. The Angels have to face Felix Hernandez on Monday, and as NFL fans now know, some strange things can happen in Seattle on a Monday Night.
AL EAST: Baltimore’s not just looking over their shoulder in the wild-card race, they’re looking ahead in the division race. New York lost the opener of a four-game set in Toronto last night and the Yankee lead is back to a single game. The Yanks will finish out their series north of the border, and Baltimore has that tough series in Tampa ahead. That leaves the Boston Red Sox to possibly settle the division, as they pay a visit to Camden Yards this weekend and the Bronx next week. The pitching for Boston has Clay Bucholz and Jon Lester pitching against the Yankees, and while they doesn’t mean the same this year as it has in years past, I’m sure it’s not a situation Joe Girardi finds idea.
The Yanks, meanwhile, have to feel heartened by the strong outings from Andy Pettite and C.C. Sabathia of late and these two, along with consistent Hiroki Kuroda, will pitch four of the remaining games. Any time a race is this close, anything can happen, but the matchups—plus having the one-game edge—work in New York’s favor.
AL WEST: I suppose you can read Texas’ split of a four-game set with Oakland earlier this week any way you want—because the Rangers have a four-game cushion, they held the course and knocked a few more days off the calendar. But if you’re Oakland you look at that three-game home set with Texas to end the year and figure you dodged the bullet on the road and gave yourself a shot for the final games. The Rangers have hot pitchers Yu Darvish and Derek Holland set up to pitch once apiece, while Ryan Dempster will go twice.
NL WILD-CARD: The race that seemed to be heading for a glorious mess suddenly cleaned up and got stable. St. Louis mostly took care of business in games against Houston and Chicago, while Milwaukee and Los Angeles couldn’t keep pace. The Brewers, at four back, are realistically done, while the Dodgers at three out have a tough uphill fight. St. Louis does have to go on the road to play Washington and Cincinnati. The Cards have Adam Wainwright set to pitch twice, and 16-game winner Kyle Lohse goes Saturday, meaning he’s another one who can go on three days rest if need be.
The one caveat in all this is that the Dodgers have three home games with lowly Colorado ahead, while Milwaukee faces Houston & San Diego. It’s hard to see the Cards blowing this, but after last year’s ending, they’re the last franchise that would ever write anybody else off.
NL EAST: Atlanta’s gotten hot and is still chasing Washington at four games back. But unlike Oakland, the Braves don’t get head-to-head games with the leader, so this is a longshot. But Atlanta does have the favorable schedule, playing at home against the Mets, then on the road against the collapsing Pirates whose fans have again forgotten they exist. Kris Medlen, perhaps the hottest starting pitcher in baseball is going on Sunday, which works perfectly for bringing him back on normal rest for the wild-card game on Friday, so perhaps that tells you what manager Fredi Gonzalez is thinking. Washington does have to play at St. Louis this weekend and then hosts Philadelphia, a team they just took two of three from.
HOMEFIELD ADVANTAGE: Texas & Washington are holding down the #1 seeds, although neither one is in the bag. New York is two back of Texas and would win a tiebreaker, while Washington is only plus-one on Cincinnati. Further down the bracket, the AL Central winner is locked into the #3 seed. Over in the NL, Western Division champ San Francisco is two back of Cincy to try and get the two-spot and earn homefield for at least the Division Series.
FIGHTING FOR .500: Nothing can change the disappointment Philadelphia fans over this season, but in the big picture they’ll appreciate it if their 78-78 team can post their seventh straight winning season. Those are the kind of streaks that look very good as they build up, even if some individual years are a disappointment. On that same note, that’s the worst part of the Pittsburgh collapse—at 76-80, the Pirates have to sweep their home games with the Reds & Braves to have their first winning season since 1992, and with just two losses extend their historic streak of losing seasons.
AT THE BETTING WINDOW: Earlier this week, we reviewed how each team was doing against the Over/Under win totals that were posted in Las Vegas at the start of the season. The Yankees, Rays and Brewers were the teams whose number was in serious doubt. If you bet New York to go Over, you’re still sweating, needing them to split their last six. Milwaukee needs to sweep to go Over, although a 5-1 closing record and push is realistic. Tampa Bay’s given their bettors nervous moments, but at 86-70, they look set to go Over the posted number of 87.
LOOKING AHEAD: The wild-card games are both held Friday, with Thursday being reserved for any one-game playoffs. Please note that division races—notably the AL East—that may end in a tie, with both teams going postseason, will now be settled in a one-game playoff. Previous rules had used tiebreakers to see the teams, but with the reward of a division title so much higher under the new format, they now play it off. Any deadlocks that are just over homefield advantage in the Division Series are still settled via the head-to-head tiebreaker system. Division Series play begins on Saturday with the 2 vs. 3 bracket in both leagues, and then the 1-seeds open on Sunday against the wild-card winners.
Here at TheSportsNotebook we’ll chronicle all the races outlined here, and also mix in articles picking a season-ending All-Star team in both leagues, plus separate posts with final MVP selections. All that’s on tap between now and Friday, and then it’s time to start previewing the battles of October.
The Pittsburgh Pirates all but kissed their fading playoff hopes goodbye earlier this week when they lost three straight at home to the Milwaukee Brewers, and the “Buccos”, as the locals on the Allegheny River call them might get some more company in the coming few days as even the most optimistic observer of the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays recognizes that these teams are down to zero margin for error as we size up the MLB playoff race entering the weekend’s games.
Los Angeles dropped two of three at home to Texas, and Tampa Bay split four on their homefield with Boston, all the while New York and Baltimore were administering sweeps. The wild-card picture is perilously close to being pseudo-settled, as we pencil in Oakland against the AL East runner-up and with the Angels 4.5 games out and Tampa Bay a full five back, it will take something dramatic on both ends to alter that picture.
The Rays have a chance to do something bold this weekend as Toronto, fresh off getting beaten three straight in the Bronx pays a visit to the Trop, but the Angels have a tough weekend ahead. Chicago comes west, and the White Sox are still barely clinging to a two-game lead in the AL Central over Detroit. The Angels get a break in that they won’t face Chris Sale, but LAA’s temperamental bullpen continues to do them in, as Ernesto Frieri took the loss last night, and as we noted Wednesday in discussing this team in conjunction with the AL East, Los Angeles simply has given away any cushion it had for blown saves. With the Angel pen being the American League’s worst at closing saves, there’s no reason to assume they won’t cough up at least one more and at this point in the season that’s all it takes.
Another team that will be counting blown saves if they miss the playoffs is the Milwaukee Brewers, who have the worst save percentage in the National League, but Milwaukee is coming on because it’s a problem that seems to be in the past. John Axford nailed down all three wins in Pittsburgh and Francisco Rodriguez has started to pitch better. No one’s going to compare them to the 1990 Nasty Boys in Cincinnati (Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton, Randy Myers) that won the World Series and turned Dibble into a brief celebrity on ESPN Radio, but Brewer opponents can no longer feel like they’re in command of the game if they trail 5-4 after seven. Milwaukee’s sweep of Pittsburgh has nudged them past the Los Angeles Dodgers in the wild-card race with only St. Louis still to catch.
The next week of games is going to be St. Louis’ opportunity to put the final playoff berth away. Milwaukee continues its road trip with four games in Washington, followed by three more in Cincinnati. Both teams still have divisions to clinch, particularly the Nationals who’s 5.5 game over Atlanta is comfortable, but not so much that a team will let its foot off the gas. Meanwhile, St. Louis plays road games against the Cubs and Astros, with Chris Carpenter making his return to the mound this afternoon in Wrigley.
If St. Louis can’t finish off Milwaukee and Los Angeles (who is in Cincy this weekend) by the time we get to next Thursday, the schedule flips in the Brewers’ favor. Then it’s St. Louis who’d been playing the Nats and Reds, while the Brewers host the Astros and Padres. While one might think St. Louis would play two teams who have nothing to play for, remember Washington and Cincy might not be resting starters. With the wild-card game there’s now an extra day off for division winners before their three-of-five series’ begins. Which means, for example, that Cincinnati could line up Johnny Cueto to pitch the opener of a three-game set against St. Louis and have him on normal rest for Game 1, and do the same down the line with Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo.
In other action this weekend, Baltimore finishes a nine-game road swing in Boston, with Oriole manager Buck Showalter reminding people that the Orioles spoiled the Red Sox’ playoff hopes in the season finale last year and that Boston would surely like to do the same. It’s a good motivational reminder from Buck, but speaking as a Sox fan, I can say that presumes this current Boston lineup is motivated by anything other than the desire for a new manager next year. And just as a fan, I’d much rather ruin the Yankees’ season in the final weekend at the Bronx. I think you always root for your own team, regardless of the consequences in the biger picture, but let’s just say if the Sox lost this series, I’d take it considerably better than any other loss in the last ten years.
Speaking of those dastardly Yanks, they are hosting Oakland, which is the last set of games New York plays against a contender. And Detroit hosts Minnesota. With the Tigers two games back, they have to be thinking about a home sweep in this spot and then if the Angels get two must-win games against the White Sox, it would bring the AL Central back to even.
The AL East race is still running close to a dead heat, with the New York Yankees holding a half-game lead on the Baltimore Orioles entering Wednesday night’s games. As part of a look at the landscape in this division race, we’re also going to include the Los Angeles Angels. Because it looks like the Angels’ place in the MLB playoff picture is trying to chase down the AL East runner-up for the second wild-card.
It looks like both Texas & Oakland are in out of the AL West. It looks like Detroit and Chicago will be winner-take-all in the AL Central, with the loser out of the wild-card race. Tampa Bay is slumping and looks finish. With the regular season set to conclude two weeks from tonight, there’s time for hot streaks or slumps to alter the dynamics of the race, but barring something major, the AL East has been paired to New York and Baltimore and LAA is the only team with a real shot at catching the runner-up.
NY Yanks: There’s hope in the Bronx that New York has finally started to stabilize, having won consecutive series over Boston and Tampa Bay and seen Andy Pettite pitch well this afternoon in his first start back from an ankle injury. The Yanks desperately need Pettite to be his old self, because C.C. Sabathia is struggling—a 5.40 ERA in three September starts, including poor outings in games against the Orioles and Rays were the team needed its stopper. Hiroki Kuroda also has a 5+ERA down the stretch.
The offense has been struggling with Mark Teixeira out (and not doing anything spectacular when he was in), and Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher really struggling in the season’s final month. The talk of this team’s fabled bench looks like New York media hype—Eric Chavez’s .484 slugging percentage is an asset, but everywhere else looks no better than any other team.
What New York does have going for them is a bullpen that leads the league in closing its save chances and is 6-for-6 in that department in September. Rafael Soriano ably stepped in for Mariano Rivera and has posted a 41-save/2.02 ERA season, with David Robertson sitting on a 2.98 ERA. There are some depth issues and a Robertson meltdown in a big game at Baltimore reminded everyone how this team would really miss Mariano in big situations. But the overall performance of the pen in the absence of the game’s greatest closer is a vindication to sabermetricians who felt the position was overrated. And when it comes to getting the bullpen lead, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano are the two position players acting like they know they’re in a fight for their lives, and while Joe Girardi has squeezed some decent starts out of Phil Hughes and David Phelps.
On balance though, this is a team that’s crawling to the finish line and beating Boston—which everyone is doing—and Tampa Bay—which over the last two nights has proven to be the only team that can’t beat Boston—doesn’t prove anything.
Baltimore: The Orioles have done almost a complete reversal in the way the win since the All-Star break. The overall season numbers tell you they are overly reliant on the home run ball—J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds have all hit 20-plus homers, but all needed improvement in the on-base percentage area. In the month of September, they all seemed to learn how to draw walks. Reynolds, Davis, Wieters, along with second baseman Robert Andino and new acquisition Nate McClouth all have OBPs that range from .365 to .441, more than enough to keep the runs churning. And a closer look at the stats tell you it’s not just a hitting streak—each player really is more patient at the plate and taking their walks. And this doesn’t even factor in how much Nick Markakis contributed, with an OBP over. 400 since the break before breaking his wrist a week and a half ago.
Buck Showalter continues to squeeze what he can out of the starting rotation, as Wei Yin-Chen appears to be wearing down. The Japanese import has turned in a good year, winning 16 games with a 3.98 ERA against a diet of AL East lineups, but that ERA is at 5.25 in September. The staff has been saved by the addition of veteran Joe Saunders—a 2.55 ERA in his last three starts and Chris Tillman. And the staff as a whole has been saved all year by a bullpen that’s somehow gotten even deeper in recent weeks. Showalter put struggling young starters Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and Jake Arrieta in the pen and all three suddenly became unhittable. They are added to a relief corps that was already anchored by stellar work from Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson.
I’m half-expecting Showalter to just junk the traditional notion of the starter and have a few pitchers work a couple innings at a time. While that might be an exaggeration, the manager certainly has the depth to put his starters on a short, playoff-type leash the next two weeks.
LA Angels: The road won’t be easy, as the Angels are three games back of Baltimore, and the power has gone out in September, as Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo all have seen their slugging percentages drop sharply. Trout is still getting on base consistently, but Trumbo has been in a prolonged slump in all facets of his offense since the All-Star break. Pujols is hitting .226 with one home run in September. Mike Scoscia has gotten help from an unlikely source in shortstop Erick Aybar, who is slugging over. 500 in the season’s second half and Kendry Morales is also swinging the bat well.
LAA’s offensive problems put the pressure on a pitching staff that’s up and down and the starters have come through. Zack Greinke, after struggling right after his acquisition from Milwaukee, has really gotten locked in and the rest of the staff—Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana—have all dominated in September. This was the pitching rotation the baseball world feared and why as long as the Angels are breathing, their World Series chances will be taken seriously.
But when you’re trying to come from behind in a playoff race, you can’t cough up games and the Angels’ bullpen is the worst in the American League at closing out their save chances, and they’ve been consistently bad—whether we measure the entire season, the second half or just September. It’s a franchise that essentially is asking to have its heart ripped out.
THE REST OF THE WAY: Not only do the Angels have to play from behind, but they have the toughest schedule. The last two games of a home series with Texas are ahead, as is a visit to Dallas to play the Rangers. LAA will also host Chicago. New York’s only games against a contender are this weekend’s three-game home set with Oakland. Otherwise it’s Toronto, Minnesota and Boston on tap. The Orioles get six games against the dysfunctional Red Sox, four more against Toronto, although a closing series in Tampa could be a little hairy if the race is still close.
It’s going to take everything Mike Scoscia has to steal a playoff berth from either AL East foe. And as far as the AL East race itself goes, a lot hinges on the continued health of Pettite and the possible late September return of Baltimore ace Jason Hammel.