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April 21, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The Ascending Angels

by Joey Matschulat

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On an uncharacteristically chilly Wednesday evening in Arlington, something happened to the host team that had not happened since September 20, 2009: The suddenly herky-jerky Texas Rangers officially dropped their third consecutive series, falling to the same team in the same venue as they had when they dropped that third consecutive series nearly a year and a half before. From a division-centric point of view, however, the item of greater significance to come out of the Rangers' inadequate play was the hasty ascent of a new team into the AL West pole position—the Angels. For the first time since June 7, 2010, a team other than the Rangers has outright possession of the top rung... and it pulled it off by beating the Rangers two times out of three in their own house.

Over much of the last half-decade, a big part of the Angels' yearly narrative can be traced to their seemingly paranormal ability to win more actual games than what their raw runs scored and runs allowed totals (or, more concisely, their Pythagorean win-loss record) indicate they should have won. Indeed, I can hardly imagine any baseball-literate person not happening upon at least one snark-filled reference to Mike Scioscia's "magic" or the like in all of their years of online reading, which is really just a more compelling way of stating that Los Angeles has a peculiar knack for performing above the league norms in higher-leverage game situations. (Of course, this trend didn't really end up holding true last year when the Angels went 80-82 against a Pythagorean record of 79-83, but who wants to cast doubt upon the existence of magic?) 

Virtually all of the higher-profile forecasting systems initially projected an uphill climb for the Angels, who seemed to be a full 8-10 games behind the Rangers on paper. Even now, PECOTA has the Angels forecasted to post a record nine games worse than that of the Rangers over the remainder of the regular season, working out to post-season odds in close proximity to only 10 percent. That's pretty underwhelming on the surface, but as much as my personal attachment to the Rangers wants me to believe that Anaheim will begin to slowly fade away, there are certain aspects of this Angels team that are beginning to make me sit up and take particular notice.

Two weeks ago, the Angels struck me as an injury-ravaged mess not befitting of the division lead. Scott Kazmir was coming off perhaps the worst start of his major-league career both performance- and scouting-wise, Fernando Rodney had just been yanked by the neck from the closer's role, and three key pieces (Scott Downs, Joel Pineiro, and Kendrys Morales) remained on the shelf. Given the Rangers' scorching level of play at that point, I was thoroughly tempted to take what I was seeing with my eyes, combine it with the median team projections that forecasted a significant gap between Los Angeles and Texas, and begin writing off the Angels in my mind. Such is the peril of opening your mind to early-season influences. 

To their credit, the Rangers appeared nothing short of dominant in their first-game tilt against Anaheim on Monday night; C.J. Wilson was very good, posting seven frames of one-run baseball and nine strikeouts, and the offense pummeled Ervin Santana for six runs on 10 hits and two walks in just four innings. (So far, my tongue-in-cheek prediction that Santana would be terrible this season has managed to hold up, though he still has the look of a capable mid-rotation starter about him.) The following night, Los Angeles subjugated their hosts with a 15-4 drubbing during which a disturbingly out-of-sorts Colby Lewis got rocked for four runs on five hits and three walks in just five innings... and then the bullpen got rocked, too. Lewis is a story all on his own, as his fastball velocity has plunged into 87-88 mph territory and his command has virtually disappeared, but we're not quite to the point where we can activate the panic button on him.

With the stage set for a legitimate pitcher's duel between unbeatens Jered Weaver and Matt Harrison during Wednesday night's rubber match, the Angels came out and absolutely looked the part of the better team—granted, maybe only the better team during this brief window in the season, but the better team nevertheless. It was something of a wake-up call for me, at least. Weaver was no doubt aided by the Rangers' seeming desperation to make something happen, which led to a number of very quick outs and absolutely no walks, but he looked fantastic in delivering his first complete game (and first shutout as well) since August 19, 2009. Neither Weaver nor Dan Haren are going to sustain their presently subatomic ERAs (which both reside below the 1.25 mark), but if Joel Pineiro can make it back and pitch at even a moderately effective level, the front four pieces in this rotation appear strong enough on their own merits to maintain the Angels' position as a legitimate division threat. 

I don't want to go completely overboard in praising the Angels' offense, because it has been propped up by means of some unexpectedly brilliant performances from Alberto Callaspo (.312/.397/.438), Maicer Izturis (.380/.421/.563), and Peter Bourjos (.295/.343/.525) that we shouldn't expect to continue at that level. Then again, the Angels have gotten to this point despite getting next to nothing out of Torii Hunter (.208/.253/.325) and Vernon Wells (.189/.241/.297), and despite lacking the presence of Kendrys Morales, who figures to rejoin the club sometime next month. It has been pretty easy to overlook this lineup and cite it as a reason why the Angels can't hang with the Rangers (or even the Athletics), but if it rounds into the form that I believe it ultimately will, I can see it being good enough to deal legitimate damage and provide ample support to the pitching staff's efforts.

 If you were chomping at the bit for a heated three-team race in the AL West throughout the summer months, you might just be about to get your wish. 

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