October 18, 2002
World Series Prospectus: Anaheim Angels vs. San Francisco Giants
This series is almost remarkable in its absence of "hooks." Sure, you've got the "Pastaman's Progeny" angle, as two putative Sons of Lasorda duke it out from the dugouts. As regional incest goes, the Bay Area versus the Angeleno megalopolis doesn't really rise to Boston-New York, and certainly ranks as much more on the level than the low-water mark of the 2000 World Series. Journalists of bents both narcissistic and envious bleat about the injustice of Barry Bonds being in the World Series, before wishfully whining that although he might have hit in the first two playoff series, this time he'll blow it. But none of that really gets us, does it? This series is more basic. It isn't about where the teams are from, or the long-suffering sufferations of fans suddenly happily poised at the penultimate moment of fandom.
The core story is that we've got two very evenly matched teams who arrived at this point after a wee bit of dragon slaying. How their duel plays out should make for a great series whether it goes four games or seven.
Deity-of-choice help the Giants as far as tabbing a DH if they don't finally add Damon Minor to their postseason roster. At this point, whoever else the Giants use in the DH role could bat 9th and not offer an awful lot more than Russ Ortiz at the plate.
This Angels' offense has been the buzz of the postseason, but this is not your Earl Weaver offense. They drew 462 walks all season, good for 26th place in the majors, and they hit 152 home runs, finishing ahead of only four American League teams. Nevertheless, Anaheim finished fourth in the majors in runs scored. They score because they put the hard-hit balls in play. They led the majors in hits and batting average, and they haven't wasted their chances. Only one team hit into fewer double plays, Pittsburgh, and the Pirates had substantially fewer baserunners than the Angels. The Giants have the advantage of knowing that Barry Bonds will spend more than half his time on base, but behind him their 5th, 6th, and 7th slots in the lineup combined to ground into 55 double plays this year. By way of contrast, slots 4 through 7 in the Angels' lineup hit into only 47. The Angels get on base about as often as the Giants' hitters, but they don't take themselves out of innings.
More importantly, the Angels' lineup is built around young hitters in their prime who happen to be peaking at the right time. They have scored 6.7 runs per game, by far the best of all playoff teams. Two matchups in this series look especially favorable for them. Jason Schmidt and Livan Hernandez were far better against right-handed hitters than lefties this season, so even though the Angels don't have a pronounced platoon advantage against righties, a lineup with four lefties and a switch-hitter could pose problems for Giants starters in three or four games. Also, the Angels stole 177 bases this year, 5th in the majors, and Schmidt and Hernandez had a lot of trouble controlling the running game. The Angels lineup generally doesn't run up pitch counts, play station-to-station and wait for three-run homers. It hits, drives the ball hard, runs, and even bunts, always keeping pressure on the opposing pitcher. And while the Giants don't have a credible bat to fill in as designated hitter in the games at Anaheim, the Angels have the Fullmer/Wooten platoon, giving them a huge advantage in those games. Fullmer is the stronger half of the partnership-he had a season EqA of .304 compared to Wooten's .278--and he'll be getting nearly all of the DH at bats since Giants lefty starter Kirk Rueter will be limited to one start. Although the Angels lost the first game in each of their two playoff series, the match-up is right for the Angels to win the opener here. The problem will be what to do in San Francisco in Games Three, Four and Five: bench Spiezio and put Fullmer's stone hands at first? Spot start Wooten against Rueter? A lot will depend on what happens in the first couple of games, but Scioscia would undoubtedly prefer to not make a move if he can avoid it.
Balanced against all of that halo'd goodness, you've got Barry Bonds and his talented sidekicks. Jeff Kent is, of course, more than the first-among-less-than-equals, and he is the guy who gets pitched to because he hits in front of The Great One. But if there's a critical factor to the entire Series, it's what Barry Bonds does in the first through sixth innings of every game. If Bonds' teammates get on base and create opportunities where Barry gets pitched to, or if the Angels open up the Series by going at him, there should be some damage done. But if the Giants don't score early, then Bonds goes from game-breaker to instant baserunner in the inevitable late-inning machinations. In tight games, like in Game Four of the NLCS, that can still be a very good thing. Unfortunately for the Giants, it means relying on Benito Santiago to keep dialing up delightfully Fiskian moments on demand. Keep in mind, the Angels' pen is even better than the Cardinals' was, and Scioscia is less likely to spin his wheels than Tony LaRussa.
The sturdily mediocre foursome in the bottom half of the lineup is just that - adequate. But given Baker's management style, they'll be playing every night, which will give them plenty of opportunities to scuffle and shine without a lot of micromanagement. It's just as well, since beyond taking their hacks, they're not a group noted for power, speed, or an ability to reach base. Baker's gotten a little bunt-conscious with Rich Aurilia, which is unfortunate since he's having a good October. But generally speaking the Giants take their hacks, which makes absolutely perfect sense when you've got Bonds on base nearly sixty percent of the time.
Like the guys in the lineup, the Angels role players don't shoulder their bats. Palmeiro's the one who will take a walk, but everyone except The Other Molina can hit. There's a lot of flexibility here. The Angels have a good defensive outfield, so Scioscia can burn Ochoa as a pinch-hitter if the matchup calls for it without worrying about wasting his glove. He can pull Bengie Molina early, in a middle-inning run-scoring situation, and replace him with whatever the Book calls for--Ochoa against lefties or Palmeiro against righties. Gil is available to pop lefties (.310/.344/.838) either off the bench or to spell Kennedy against Rueter. Wooten picks up the light-duty end of the DH platoon, and since Figgins's bat isn't needed he can be the designated pinch runner. The games are likely to be decided before the seventh inning, but if they go beyond that the Angels have a significant tactical advantage.
The Giants, by contrast, have little to offer, especially if you can overlook that the only bench player with a hit in the postseason is Shawon Dunston. It's just as well, since Dusty's willing to ride the eight regulars, although you can ponder the cause and effect here: is Dusty taking a page from Joe Torre, and going with the guys who got him there, or is he taking a page from Joe Torre, and trying to ignore his weak bench? Tom Goodwin is a pinch-runner miscast as the top pinch-hitting option. Tsuyoshi Shinjo is nothing more than a defensive replacement, although he may get a start against Jarrod Washburn in Anaheim. Pedro Feliz should be politely referred to as a washout. Ramon Martinez is the most dangerous hitter on the bench, especially if Minor isn't activated, but the absence of anyone other than Dunston to play the infield in case of an injury seems to keep Martinez marooned on the bench.
The Giants had the better regular season ERA, but once we account for park factors the Angels have the better staff. The Giants had an ERA of 3.54 but they played half their games in an extreme pitchers' park with a factor of 920. Anaheim has a park factor of 1016 and the Angels' ERA was just a little behind the Giants at 3.69. The Angels starters had a Support-Neutral Won-Loss record of 63-50, with the Giants barely over .500 at 58-56.
In the Angels' first two series, Washburn was the only pitcher Scioscia allowed to throw more than six innings in a start. With his excellent bullpen, six innings is the most he needs. When Appier starts, if he can give them five solid innings he'll have done enough. Throughout his career he has been better against righties, but in 2002 he had an OPS that was 100 points better against those who hit from Barry Bonds's side of the plate. Ortiz has acute gopheritis but he's not especially vulnerable to lefties. He succeeds in spite of it because he doesn't put a lot of runners on base. He'll only have to face Bonds twice per game, so Bonds could tee off on Ortiz and he'll survive it, so long as he doesn't give up cheap homers to guys he should be dominating.
Washburn is the star of the group and maybe the most likely Angel to profit from national exposure. Scioscia trusts him to go longer in games than his other starters and that makes sense because he's their best. He had 22 quality starts and when he was trusted to take those quality starts further, he blew only two of them. He makes the bullpen deadlier too: when he goes seven innings, he saves the bullpen innings that can be spent early in the Appier or Ortiz starts.
Lackey might get one start. He would be a fair match for Rueter, and his platoon split is so backwards (.504 OPS against lefties, .884 against righties) that it would be interesting to see how he'd fare against Bonds and a lineup otherwise dominated by right-handed hitting.
The only problem with this rotation is that it doesn't induce a lot of groundballs. The threat isn't that the Giants will manage to loft some cheap homers; it's that this rotation might not be able to take advantage of the Giants' propensity to hit into double plays. The upside is that Angel starters have yet to get a chance to pitch in an environment like Pac Bell, where their flyball tendencies won't be so threatening.
The Giants rotation, isn't quite as strong, but beyond not having anyone of Washburn's quality, they're pretty evenly matched. Leading off with Jason Schmidt may not seem like an ideal solution, but he was a horse down the stretch. However, his career-long performance issues against lefties remain an problem against an Angels lineup featuring DH Brad Fullmer in Game One. Russ Ortiz is similarly reliable, and although he stumbled against the Cardinals, he had a good pair of starts against the Braves. Unfortunately, there's a bit too much of a Mike Torrez-like capacity to make things interesting with a few walks, and the Angels are the sort of lineup that can hurt Ortiz for his wildness. Livan Hernandez has given the Giants two quality starts in two outings, but that's to Dusty's credit. Hernandez is better off in Pac Bell, and a pair of home starts are a nice way to help out the Giants' most hittable starter.
The question Baker needs to resolve is whether he should start Hernandez in Game Three, and take his chances as far a potential Game Seven in Anaheim, or if he can overlook Kirk Rueter's struggles in two out of three postseason starts. The Angels do a generally good job of mauling lefties, so this isn't an easy choice, and a lot will depend on the outcome of the first couple of games. If the Giants are up 2-0, they can afford to risk Hernandez in Game 7 to take their best shot at going up 3-0. If the Giants are down 2-0, they'll have bigger problems than what to do with this particular choice.
The Angels' Rodriguez has begun to make a name for himself, but there are plenty of serious baseball fans who are only just now hearing about Donnelly and Weber. Being on the late edition of Baseball Tonight and showing up in day-old box scores will dim a player's star power, especially if that player is a reliever. The Angels' bullpen was second best in the majors this season in terms of Adjusted Runs Prevented, trailing only Atlanta. Since Scioscia is likely to turn the game over to his bullpen early in most games, this is a chance for this no-name crew to gain some fame. If the series comes down to the Angels' bullpen against the Giants' bench, the Angels will win it.
In the past, we have written that there is no such thing as a relief-pitching prospect. Rodriguez's performance has been so strong that we might have to make an exception for him. At the reported age of 20 he has come seemingly out of nowhere (even before this season he was a legitimate but mercurial prospect) to throw ten innings in the postseason, allowing only four hits and four walks while striking out 15. Donnelly has been getting roughed up in October, but his season was quietly excellent. With Schoeneweis, Shields, and Weber filling in around Rodriguez and Donnelly, the Angels have plenty to get the ball to Percival in the ninth so that there's no need to push the starters if they're going sour on any given night. Nen did a great job closing the door on the Cardinals, but Percival is his equal. Much as we think we're smarter about it, Scioscia seems intent on saving Percival for the true closer situations. In four save opportunities this postseason he has four saves. If the Angels have a lead in the ninth and the game gets to him, it's as good as over.
The Giants pen is hardly a weak spot, however. They're strong enough to have finished fifth in the majors in Adjusted Runs Prevented, and beyond Dusty's bizarre infatuation with using Aaron Fultz at all in any situation, there isn't another weak pitcher in the pen. Tim Worrell and Jay Witasick are both sturdily useful setup men; although Worrell had a couple of ugly games against the Braves, he more than made up for it with a fine series against the Cardinals. Scott Eyre has been a late-season steal, and Felix Rodriguez righted himself after a miserable first half. All in all, that's a group that doesn't give up many hits, and isn't especially wild. Chad Zerbe makes for an interesting weapon in Anaheim in case one of the right-handed starters comes out early. If Baker brings Zerbe in early for some long relief work, will Scioscia leave Fullmer in, or pull him and pinch-hit? If there's anything troubling, it's that Robb Nen hasn't been overwhelmingly dominant down the stretch. He's always had runs of the hiccups now and again, but it isn't enough to be something the Giants should worry about. He's not as good as Percival, but 90% of the time, the distinction is meaningless.
The Angels are an excellent defensive team, leading the major leagues in Defensive Efficiency. As we pointed out earlier this postseason, this doesn't mean that they're the best defense in the league as much as it suggests that they're really good. San Francisco doesn't try to steal bases all that often, and they won't have much luck against the Angels, who control the running game about as well as any team in either league. Angels outfielders can track down all those fly balls their pitchers allow, and if the ball is on the ground their infielders can turn two, potentially wiping out the downside of walking Bonds and neutering the San Francisco lineup.
The Giants also feature a generally stout defense, although Kenny Lofton's rag arm will become an issue against the Angels, since they have the hitters to put the ball into the outfield, and the legs to take advantage of him. Santiago is merely adequate behind the plate, both in terms of stopping pitches and intimidating the running game. The Angels shouldn't run wild on him, but we're not talking Pudge Rodriguez or Mike Matheny here.
In the search for angles, the Lasorda Angle's already been overdone. Yes, both Scioscia and Baker are charismatic managers as these things go, and that's supposed to be the thing that set Lasorda apart. Yes, both managers squawk about fundamentals, little ball, and micro-management. Both have built fine bullpens, and had steady hands as far as managing their rotations. If there's a point of distinction, it's that Dusty hasn't really bunted that much, while Mike Scioscia has. You might be able to accept it with a Molina at the plate as an auto-bunt situation as reflexive as when the pitcher's up in the other league, but David Eckstein bunted more than both Molinas combined. There's a not-so-fine line between weapon for show and a tactical indiscretion, and Scioscia pushes past it.
It's a tasty series in terms of balance, but we're going to go with Angels in six. They have the generally stronger and better-balanced lineup that is more likely to produce the next Adam Kennedy if not the original article, and their collection of starting pitchers have fewer jarring weaknesses. There will be several low-scoring games that could go either way, especially considering the quality in both bullpens, but the Angels have the better shot at creating those killing crooked-number innings that burn through several relievers as the opposition tries to stanch the bleeding.