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May 28, 2013

What You Need to Know

The Halo Effect

by Daniel Rathman

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The Memorial Day Weekend Takeaway
If I told you, before Opening Day, that the Angels would come out of their Memorial Day game against the Dodgers with a 23-28 record, the news would have ranked as a disappointment. Calls for general manager Jerry DiPoto and manager Mike Scioscia to be fired would have been heard early and often, particularly by those who dared to search their names on Twitter. And you might have expected the crosstown Dodgers, whose summer and winter splurge made the Angels’ investment in Josh Hamilton seem modest, to steal the La La Land show.

Well, the Angels are 23-28, and calls for the heads of DiPoto and Scioscia have been audible and visible throughout the season’s first eight weeks. But while, 10 days ago, the mood in Anaheim was grim, the team’s eight-game winning streak has brightened it. And the Dodgers, who halted the Halos’ surge with a wild, 8-7 victory in Monday’s Freeway Series opener, are in last place.

For eight games, all of the ills that plagued the Angels for the first month and a half of the season subsided. Hamilton, who notched only five extra-base hits in the entire month of April, turned in a triple and three homers to raise his OPS by 78 points. Joe Blanton, a veritable piñata in his first nine starts since signing a two-year pact in the offseason, limited the Royals to two runs on seven hits in 6 1/3 innings to earn his first win. And the bullpen bLOLpen, a sore spot that elicited many a Twitter joke, held firm, protecting leads even as many of the team’s starters struggled to pave a short bridge to closer Ernesto Frieri.

On Monday, the Angels took advantage of a shaky Dodgers defense to saddle Zack Greinke with six runs (four earned) in just four innings of work. But C.J. Wilson, handed a 6-1 lead entering the bottom of the fourth, squandered the strong start in a duel that never materialized. The starters combined to allow 19 hits in just 8 2/3 frames, putting the game in the hands of the teams’ beleaguered bullpens, and leaving the managers to cross their fingers and hope for the best. Mattingly’s relief corps—with the help of a 4-for-4 showing from Adrian Gonzalez, a 3-for-3 night from pinch-hitter Juan Uribe, and a missed call on a fly-ball double play—proved a touch more resilient than Scioscia’s. And thus, the Angels lost for the first time in nine games.

The good news for the Angels is that they have won 23 games with Albert Pujols hitting .254/.324/.431, Hamilton batting .222/.283/.399, and Jered Weaver on the disabled list since April 8. The bad news is that they have lost 28 games and fallen nine back of the first-place Rangers, a deficit that PECOTA believes they have only a 1-in-16 chance to surmount.

For all the relief that the refreshing winning streak provided, it did little to help the Halos’ position in the American League West standings. The Angels have won eight of their past 10 games, but the second-place Athletics have won nine. And Los Angeles is only a half-game closer to first-place Texas than it was on May 11, because its eight-game rise was preceded by a 1-5 lull.

Hamilton, a .202/.248/.287 pumpkin through the games of May 7, is slowly coming to life. Mike Trout, a .261/.333/432 human in April, has rediscovered his otherworldly form to bat .352/.434/.725 so far in May. Weaver, who on Wednesday will start game three of the home-and-home series with the Dodgers, and Hanson, who is in line to rejoin the crew shortly thereafter, could soon restore order to a chaotic rotation. But the Angels are a long way from coming out of the woods.

And, when the upcoming six-game homestand against the Cubs and Astros ends, they’ll face a challenging stretch that could render a conclusive verdict on their 2013 hopes. Between June 7 and the All-Star break, Scioscia’s club will play 21 of its 33 games against over-.500 contenders, including six dates with the Red Sox and three each with the Cardinals, Orioles, Pirates, Tigers, and Yankees. If the oncoming wave of good news doesn’t lift the Angels’ ship, it may sink before the summertime showdowns with the Athletics and Rangers offer a second chance.

When Hanson and Weaver return, the Angels—apart from the still-rehabbing Ryan Madson and the hamstrung Peter Bourjos—will essentially be the team that DiPoto and Scioscia built. They will be the team about which Scioscia was “excited” and said had “a sense of urgency to win.” During the first 42 games, the questions that, among others, MLB.com beat writer Alden Gonzalez raised before spring training raced to the fore. The eight that preceded Monday’s loss were a long-awaited first step toward a remedy. Now, the Angels have 111 more left to answer them and make up for the ground they lost while doing so.    

Matchup of the Day
Edwin Jackson and Alex Rios were teammates for parts of two seasons, in 2010 and 2011, but they are now on opposite sides of the Windy City rivalry, and will stare each other down in game two at U.S. Cellular Field.

The two have taken polar-opposite paths to this point in the season. Jackson sports a 1-7 ledger and a 6.11 ERA through his first 10 starts as a Cub, providing a bleak outlook on the four-year, $52 million contract to which Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer signed him this past offseason. Rios, meanwhile, has delighted White Sox fans and fantasy owners alike with 10 homers and eight steals already to his name this year. Acquired in a salary-dump trade by the Blue Jays in 2009, Rios (5.1 WARP in 2012, 1.8 WARP so far this year) is suddenly making the later stages of his seven-year, $69.8 million hitch look like a bargain.

The former teammates matched up often during their days in the American League East, when Jackson was a Ray and Rios a Blue Jay, but they have not faced off since sharing the clubhouse on the South Side of Chicago. Rios is 7-for-30 lifetime with three doubles, a triple, two home runs, no walks, and eight strikeouts in his 32 plate appearances versus Jackson, of which 28 are documented on the afore-linked matchup page. But the pitcher that he will see tomorrow has a few new tricks up his sleeve that Jackson did not possess when Rios last dug in against him.

Up through 2009, Jackson was essentially a two-pitch guy when facing like-handed batters, as evidenced by the data on his Brooks Baseball card:

Ninety-seven percent of the pitches that he threw to righties were four-seam fastballs or sliders. Since then, though, Jackson’s heater velocity has diminished, ticking down from 95 mph to 93 mph, and forcing him to use movement to compensate.

Now, Jackson sprinkles in a dose of cutters and sinkers to go with the fastball-slider tandem, which he still employs 84 percent of the time. The augmented mix has been fairly effective, limiting righties to a .260/.306/.390 triple-slash line. And, since the only left-handed hitters on manager Robin Ventura’s roster are Adam Dunn, Alejandro De Aza, and Conor Gillaspie, if Jackson can keep the righties at bay, he’ll have a strong chance to earn his second victory of the year. 

Rios has, over the course of his career, preyed on inside fastballs and breaking-ball mistakes, but his aggressive approach leaves him vulnerable to hard stuff up and away, as well as to spin below the zone. Jackson found Rios’ power alley in this July 20, 2008 at-bat, attempting to set up the inside fastball with a steady diet of sliders early in the sequence, and failing miserably in his bid to blow the outfielder away. This April 7, 2009, strikeout, on the other hand, shows the potential efficacy of a first-pitch fastball strike, followed by a spate of chase sliders.

In addition to the sequences that Jackson, nearly four years removed from his most recent showdown with Rios, chooses to use, keep an eye on the way in which he employs his cutter and sinker. Rios has not seen either offering, and the element of surprise could work in Jackson’s favor in a battle that, over its 32-plate-appearance history, has gone both ways (8:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Tuesday
It’s day two of the four-game home-and-home sequence being played by all 30 major-league teams, and all clubs besides the Diamondbacks and Rangers—who played a doubleheader on Monday—are in action.

  • Kevin Gausman cruised through the first three innings of his major-league debut, retiring nine of the first 12 Blue Jays batters that he faced, but the Louisiana State University product hit a wall in his second trip through Toronto’s order. He allowed back-to-back doubles to begin the fourth inning, the first of two consecutive frames in which the Blue Jays plated a pair of runs, and ultimately needed 89 pitches to complete five innings of four-run ball. The 22-year-old right-hander, who brought a 3.11 ERA up from Double-A Bowie, will try to last deeper in his second assignment, a date with the Nationals in Washington, D.C. Nate Karns, Jason Parksfifth-ranked prospect in the Nationals’ system, is set to take over Ross Detwiler’s spot in the rotation and make his first big-league appearance for the home team (7:05 p.m. ET). 
     
  • What does a hot streak look like when you’re Miguel Cabrera? The 2012 American League MVP was cruising right along, with a cool 1.025 OPS through the games of May 13, but since then, he has turned things up a notch. Cabrera kicked of a 12-game hitting run the next day, over which he batted .439/.519/.978, including a three-homer outing on May 19. Francisco Liriano and the Pirates bullpen snapped the streak yesterday, dealing Cabrera an 0-for-4 afternoon, but in order to avoid a mini-sweep at Comerica Park, the Bucs may have to hold him hitless in consecutive games for the first time this season. Manager Clint Hurdle will give the ball to Jeanmar Gomez, who is 2-0 but has not recorded a sixth-inning out in any of his five starts, and the 25-year-old will lock horns with Rick Porcello (7:08 p.m. ET).
     
  • With Ryan Vogelsong on the disabled list and out at least a month after undergoing surgery to fix a fractured little finger in his throwing hand, the Giants dug into the minors and tabbed Factor on the Farm Michael Kickham to replace him in the starting five.  The 24-year-old southpaw amassed a pedestrian 4.33 ERA over 10 starts for Triple-A Fresno, but he struck out a batter per inning over his 54 frames and shaved his walk rate down from 4.5 BB/9 in Double-A last year to 3.7 BB/9 so far in 2013. Kickham’s first big-league trial comes at the O.co Coliseum versus an Athletics team that ranks third in the majors with a 785 OPS versus left-handed pitching. Jarrod Parker, who has logged three straight quality starts after meeting the criteria only once in his first seven trips to the mound, gets the ball for the home team in game two of four between the Bay Bridge rivals (10:05 p.m. ET).

Daniel Rathman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Daniel's other articles. You can contact Daniel by clicking here

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