July 14, 2003
I was fortunate enough to have tickets to yesterday's Twins/Angels game dropped in my lap by some friends who hold a partial season-ticket package. The timing was perfect, as I'd planned to be in Orange County Sunday evening anyway for BP's latest Pizza Feed.
The pitching matchup wasn't anything special: Kyle Lohse, who I'd just dumped from an AL-only Yahoo! team after eleventeen awful starts in a row, against John Lackey, who actually had been pretty good over the last couple of weeks. Lohse looked terrible; his velocity appears down, and he can't locate anything. Every now and then he'd put it together for a batter--he made Tim Salmon look bad twice--but mostly he looked like a pitcher who needs to be replaced.
The Angels are back to their old tricks. They scored eight runs on seven singles, two doubles, one home run and two walks. For the second day in a row, they bunched their hits, putting together a four-run inning late in the game. It looked a lot like last year's team, actually: runners in motion, guys scoring on hard-hit singles, no double plays. The Angels are just eighth in the AL in run scoring (and seventh in EqA) after finishing fourth in runs (and fifth in EqA) last year. Just as they did last year, they're scoring more runs than you would expect given what they've done at the plate, with 450 as opposed to a "projected" total of 437.
One of the big differences between last year's team and this one has been their propensity for hitting into double plays. Using (1B+BB+HBP-SBA-SAC) as an estimate of runners on first base, the Angels hit into a double play every 13.7 opportunities in 2002; in 2003, that figure is one every 10.0 opportunities. A team dependent on putting the ball in play has to avoid making two outs when it does.
The other key element for the Angels is their defense. They have a flyball staff that needs good outfield defense to succeed, and for almost two months, they played without center fielder Darin Erstad. Erstad is largely overrated for his good batting averages and "intangibles," but he may be the best defensive center fielder around. The Angels' run prevention works because of him, and they missed him badly while he was out. In his absence from April 20 through June 8, they allowed 189 runs in 42 games, an average of 4.5 runs per game. The rest of the season, they've allowed 198 runs in 50 games, or just 4.0 runs per game. That's the difference between being disappointing and being a contender, and a big part of that improvement is directly attributable to Erstad's range in center field.
The Twins just don't look good. Granting that they played without three regulars, including two of their best hitters in Jacque Jones and Corey Koskie, this doesn't look like a team capable of taking control of a very weak division. I don't understand the fascination with Dustan Mohr, who gets a ton of playing time instead of Lew Ford and the now-injured Michael Cuddyer.
Terry Ryan has done a good job of collecting talent, particularly so given the budget restrictions he's worked under and the uncertainty he held the job through in 2001 and 2002. The Twins need more than that now; with a massive surplus of outfielders and first basemen, and yawning voids in the middle infield and the starting rotation, Ryan has to shift from building to contending and make the kind of trade that the Twins haven't tried to make in a decade.
The Twins' chances of winning the AL Central are tied to Ryan's performance over the next three weeks; the competition isn't very good, and he has everything he needs to make the team better. The success or failure of the Twins in 2003 rests entirely on his shoulders.
The ballgame was nice, but the big story from yesterday was that I finally won something! Near the end of the second inning, a cameraman appeared in the aisle next to Sophia, which I thought might be a good thing, but hey, there are a lot of rows. Sure enough, they were dialing in on Row R in Section 237, where Seats 1 and 2 were occupied by a burning sportswriter and his lovely wife. Everyone in our row got Angels T-shirts ("2002 World Champions," an item I will happily hand over to the original owners of the tickets) and a coupon for Cold Stone Creamery (which E.J. and Shelley will get over my cold stone body).
I think the only other time I won anything at a game was when I was nine. The Mets had a dot race of some sort, and if the color than won matched the color in your program, you got something from the concession stand. Of course, I won that with a couple thousand other people, and I didn't find myself with a camera in my face and my grinning mug on a ballpark scoreboard.
After the Angels had put away the Twins 8-3, I headed down to the Orange County Pizza Feed at the National Sports Grill & Bar in Santa Ana. I was quite surprised to be greeted by Stephen Roney, the local chapter president for the Society for American Baseball Research. I figured he would be in Denver for the SABR convention; turns out that he had been, and was pulling a Phil Collins/Joel Youngblood maneuver by catching Pizza Feeds in two time zones on the same day. I was highly impressed, and look forward to the day we have three on one day to see who tries to break the record.
Stephen didn't stay long, but the rest of the crowd did, getting to meet Nate Silver and hear him answer questions about PECOTA. Jonah Keri distributed an advance copy of BP's mid-season awards, and I mostly hid in the corner and fantasized about Cold Stone Creamery.
Speaking of mid-season awards: I'll have mine in tomorrow's column.