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April 27, 2004

Prospectus Today

The Other Coast

by Joe Sheehan

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Despite living on the West Coast since 1989, I'm still an East Coast guy, and as such, can occasionally show some of that famous East Coast media bias. That was evident in yesterday's column, when I picked apart the lessons from the weekend's big series in New York, while neglecting the games, just as big, that division co-favorites played 3,000 miles away in Oakland.

Just as in the Bronx, the road team out west, the team generally considered to be the underdog of the two, came out of the weekend with a sweep. Unlike in the other series, however, the Angels and A's played without the apocalyptic hype that surrounds their Eastern counterparts. All they did was play three pretty good baseball games, and leave me with the following impressions:

  • It may be time to call the A's offense a problem. They scored just eight runs over the weekend, and 21 in the six games against the Halos. They're averaging 4.3 runs a game. They're 11th in runs and 10th in OPS in the AL, on the heels of ninth-place finishes in those categories in '03.

    It's increasingly clear that the A's do not have enough of any element to be a good offense. Relying on secondary skills isn't a bad idea, as walks and power are critical in scoring runs and more reliable from year to year than BA. However, the A's batted .254 last year and are at .258 this year, so they don't have the base on which to build. If you draw walks and mash like Jason Giambi, you can get away with hitting .250, but these aren't the 1999-2000 A's. They don't draw walks at that pace and they certainly don't hit for that kind of power, leaving them with a below-average offense.

    Batting average is an overrated offensive metric, and I wouldn't suggest a transition to, say, the Angels' approach. At a certain level, however, not hitting for average makes it hard to sustain an offense. That's the point the A's have reached, and until they either boost their average into the .260s or become a stronger secondary-skills team, they're going to be overly reliant on the Big Three holding the opposition to three runs or fewer.

  • The Angels have definitely given up some defense. As much credit as their offense has been given for the 2002 championship, the real greatness of the Angels that year was their defense, which converted balls in play into outs at a staggering rate. In fact, the Angels' defense has been superior in each of the last three seasons, making a starting rotation that hasn't been all that effective look better than it is.

    With the additions of Jose Guillen and Vladimir Guerrero reinforcing the Angels' decision to move Darin Erstad to first base, I argued that the Angels would lose a lot of their run-prevention ability. Erstad, who can't hit, is an outstanding center fielder who was critical to a flyball staff.

    So far this year, the impact of the decision is fairly clear. The Angels have slipped to 11th in the AL in Defensive Efficiency Rating. More damning is the increase in the number of doubles and triples they've given up per flyball allowed:

    
    Year    2B   3B    FB    Rate
    2004    44    1   207     4.6
    2003   260   27  1787     6.2
    2002   248   19  1694     6.3
    2001   285   19  1609     5.3
    
    Sample-size caveats apply.
    
    

    That's outfield defense, and on a team with as many flyball pitchers as the Angels have--they're currently 11th in the AL in G/F ratio at 1.06--it's mission-critical to avoid giving up lots of extra-base hits. The Angels will need to score a lot more runs this year to make up for what they're giving back on defense.

    Erstad, by the way, is hitting .253/.273/.325, so he's not helping that cause. I still say the runs the Angels gave away in this move will all but cancel out signing Vladimir Guerrero.

  • The Angels have a sick bullpen. I mentioned Boston's great pen yesterday, which has actually been a bit short-handed with the need to use Bronson Arroyo as a starter this month. The Angels actually lost a guy with a career ERA of 1.82 this spring, as Brendan Donnelly took a line drive in the face in March and hasn't pitched since.

    They haven't missed a beat without him. Francisco Rodriguez has picked up Donnelly's set-up work and been awesome, with 18 strikeouts and just one run allowed in 10 2/3 innings. Scot Shields opened the year with two lousy outings in his first three, blowing up his ERA; he has 19 strikeouts in 15 innings, though, and has allowed just one run in his last six appearances. Continuing the Mike Scioscia tradition of having random guys come in and pitch well, Kevin Gregg has allowed just 13 baserunners while fanning 15 in 14.1 IP.

    The Angels' bullpen--and you can add Troy Percival in here as well--strikes out many more guys than the team's rotation does. That makes them less susceptible to the weakened defense, and that much more important to the team. Add in that only Bartolo Colon pitches much past the sixth inning, and you can see that this bullpen is going to be a significant factor in the division race.

While there are some differences, these two teams look a lot like they've looked the past couple of seasons. The Angels aren't going to change on offense: They took nine walks in the six games against the A's, posting a 9/35 walk-to-strikeout ratio, and are by far the least-walked team in the AL with 45. They've been good on the bases, 21-for-26 on steals.

Meanwhile, the A's are led by the league's second-best pitching staff (behind the Red Sox). The big three continue to use their defense more and more, their collective strikeout rate plunging for a fourth straight season (down to 5.56 per nine innings thus far in '03). I still think Barry Zito has more trade value than actual value, as his command gets a little bit worse each year and he piles up pitches on an arm that's still not 26 years old. While there's considerable talk that the A's will put Rich Harden in the pen before the year is out, a Zito trade that adds a slugging outfielder would seem to be a better way to get Joe Blanton into the rotation.

There are four good teams in the American League, and only three playoff spots available to them. However the divisions may be carved up in reality, the way to look at the AL this year is like this…


              W-L   Pct.  GB
Boston       12-6  .667   --
Anaheim      11-8  .579   --
Oakland      10-9  .526   --
New York     8-11  .421    2

...with the bottom team on Oct. 3 going home for the winter.

It's going to be a great race, no matter what coast you get your biases from.

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

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