August 13, 1999
AL West Notebook
Death of a race
Although the Texas Rangers were up by five games in the AL West entering the All-Star break, there was only a 6 1/2-game spread from top to bottom in the division. All three teams entertained dreams of catching the Rangers, but Texas came out of the break hotter than the Astroturf at Riverfront, laying waste to the divisional dreamers. The blue and red have now switched their scoreboard-watching focus to teams in the East in the battle for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
So what kind of post-break team performance forged such a dramatic change in the divisional picture?
W L BA OBP SLG RPG ERA Texas 20 6 .313 .380 .497 6.8 4.97 Oakland 18 9 .280 .392 .523 7.2 4.57 Seattle 14 13 .262 .337 .426 4.6 4.67 Anaheim 5 22 .236 .307 .327 3.0 5.21
Indeed, the Rangers have put up some very formidable numbers, particularly offensively. However, the Athletics' raw statistics are even better, indicating that had they caught a few more breaks and Texas a few less, the AL West flag wouldn't already be being packaged for shipment to Arlington.
The Angels' numbers are instructive: we now know how a team comprised solely of David Howard and Jaime Navarro clones would fare.
Ruben Mateo's broken hamate bone coincided with Tom Goodwin's return from the disabled list, granting Johnny Oates a reprieve from having to make a decision between the two. While Goodwin was out of the lineup, Oates shifted Mark McLemore from the number two spot up to leadoff. McLemore responded nicely--significantly bumping his walk rate--and has posted a .379 OBP since inheriting that role. Texas' run scoring has increased by a quarter of a run per game since McLemore was inserted at the top of the order, demonstrating how useless Goodwin's speed is when he carries a .319 OBP.
Goodwin's balky hip provides a good excuse to bat him ninth. Assuming McLemore keeps doing the job and Oates is as sharp as he seems, the Rag-Armed One won't be the first name in the Rangers' boxscore again.
While General Manager Billy Beane has been hailed as a shaman in baseball circles for his work at the trading deadline, much of the praise has come with a caveat, something to the effect of, "But how could he trade away his closer?". Beane is one of the few front-office men in the game who realizes that the only differences between a good set-up man and a closer are the innings in which they pitch and the money they are paid.
The departed Billy Taylor had been pitching poorly leading up to the deadline and had seven blown saves on the season. Additionally, the 37-year-old is a free agent after the season and would have been seeking closer-type money. Beane opted to replace him with quadrogenerian off-speed junkie Doug Jones, with T.J. Mathews and Jason Isringhausen waiting in the wings. He also has flame-throwing Chad Harville at the ready in Vancouver in case any of them stumble. Kudos to Beane for dispatching with conventional wisdom and maximizing the Athletics' chances in their playoff push.
When Carlos Guillen went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first week of the season, utilityman David Bell was pressed into full-time service at second base. Bell proceeded to go on a power tear, ranking among the league leaders in home runs and conjuring up memories of 1973-vintage Davey Johnson.
The knock on Bell when he arrived from the Indians last August was that he wasn't suited to being a regular, as he wilts like field corn in a midwest drought. His numbers this season indicate that the tag may have some merit:
HR BA OBP SLG Thru 5/23: 13 .256 .321 .542 Since 5/23: 3 .274 .341 .371
The local media mouthpieces say that pitchers are working Bell differently; that he is no longer being served the same meatball platters that he was early in the season and is smartly taking the ball the other way. While this may be true, if Bell's numbers continue to fall his reputation as a part-time player will be cemented.
In an season replete with unfulfilled expectations, there may be no bigger disappointment toiling in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom than Darin Erstad (.246/.307/.366). The Angels' number-one draft choice in 1995, Erstad was an All-Star last year and seemed poised for a breakout campaign this year. Instead, he has suffered through a season that may have him pondering the career in punting that he left behind at Nebraska.
Erstad has split his time between first base and left field, and if it weren't for the execrable Brian Hunter, he would have the distinction of being the worst starter in the league at any position. See Darin dive, see Darin crash into walls, see Darin get dirty, listen to Darin rip into his teammates for not playing with intensity...it's all good fun! Unfortunately, it takes more than a hard-nosed attitude to win baseball games.