June 25, 2005
Thanks in large part to a sweep over the visiting Texas Rangers this week, the Angels have established a 5 1/2-game lead in the AL West. This isn't quite as impressive a feat as it's been for most of the 21st century, of course. With the A's and Mariners stumbling along below .500, and the Rangers a flawed squad, the AL West has ceded its position as the toughest division in the game. Still, a hot June has pushed the Angels to the second-best record in the AL, and the third-best in all of baseball.
This is a pretty neat trick given how bad the Angels' offseason moves have turned out. Bill Stoneman made just two significant moves over the winter, signing center fielder Steve Finley and shortstop Orlando Cabrera to big-money deals. Neither player has been productive; Finley has looked his age, hitting .225/.287/.408 and playing a below-average center field. Cabrera is at .246/.298/.355, or about what he was hitting before his trade to the Red Sox last summer. Cabrera is, however, playing very good defense, already saving six runs beyond an average shortstop per Clay Davenport.
Of course, any number of disappointing signings last winter are more than made up for by the masterstroke from early 2004, the signing of Vladimir Guerrero. Coming in at a bargain price due to a buyer's market and concerns about his back, Guerrero won an MVP award last year and is a dark horse candidate to repeat in '05, putting up a .338/.392/.570 line and a .334 EqA that places him fourth in the AL. He lacks a comparable rank in the other Davenport metrics because of a partially dislocated left shoulder, suffered on an awkward slide, that sidelined him for about three weeks (18 games).
It's only a slight exaggeration to say that Guerrero is the Angels' offense. His .334 EqA is 48 points higher than any other Angel has posted, and even with the missed time, he's been worth more than a win more than any of his teammates, per both RARP and VORP. (It's worth noting that they actually averaged 5.4 runs per game during his absence, well above the 4.5 they've averaged the rest of the time. However, that figure was a bit inflated by a visit from the Royals, and they scored three runs or fewer in seven of the 18 games.)
Even with Guerrero, this is a marginal offense. The Angels rank seventh in the AL in runs scored and eighth in EqA. They're tenth in OBP and ninth in slugging, and outside of Guerrero they have no one who is well above average at their position. Guerrero aside, only Bengie Molina has even an 800 OPS. As is the case every year for the Angels, their run scoring depends entirely on how well they hit for average. They're at .271 this year, thanks to a .317 June that has seen four players hit .341 or better. They don't walk--13th in the AL--they don't hit for power--tenth in isolated power, 10th in home-run rate--and they're not anything special on the bases: third in steals, but just seventh in success rate.
Summing all this up: Secondary Average is a statistic that measures everything batting average doesn't; the Angels are 11th in the AL in it, ahead of three non-contenders. They need to keep Guerrero in the lineup, and they need to hit .280, or an already shaky group won't score enough runs to win.
Then again, the Angels' threshold for "enough runs to win" is as low as any team's. Their pitchers lead the AL in ERA and strikeout rate, have allowed the second-fewest homers in the league and have the fourth-best strikeout to walk ratio. That's a staff that makes itself hard to beat, even in front of a defense that's only middle of the pack in the AL.
Once again, the Angels have a virtually unhittable bullpen. Carryovers Francisco Rodriguez and Scot Shields are two of the top 15 relievers in baseball per WXRL. Combined, the two have allowed a baserunner an inning in 69 1/3 frames, striking out 90 batters between them. They've become a a devastating eighth/ninth combination in the tradition of Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland, or Duane Ward and Tom Henke.
Of course, the Angels wouldn't be the Angels without getting great work from people you've never heard of. Converted infielder Joel Peralta was called up in May, and has allowed just one earned run, five hits and three walks in 13 2/3 innings, while striking out 16. Jake Woods has become the first left-handed reliever to make a significant contribution to the Angels since 2003. He has a 2.38 ERA in 22 2/3 innings, and has held left-handed batters to a .189 batting average and no extra-base hits. While Scioscia hasn't changed his approach--Woods is not being used as a specialist--having an effective left-hander at his disposal enables him to get favorable matchups in high-leverage situations while not affecting everyone else's usage patterns by doing so. It's a club Scioscia didn't have in his bag the last couple of seasons, and one that will be important if and when the Angels reach October.
With that kind of bullpen, the Angels just need to get adequate work from their starters, and they have. Five Angels starters have ERAs of 3.87 or lower, while Kelvim Escobar's understudy, Ervin Santana, has been alternately impressive and disastrous. As bad as big-money signings Finley and Cabrera have been, the low-profile pickup of Paul Byrd has paid off. Byrd has averaged nearly seven innings a start, allowing just eight home runs in 93 innings and posting a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Other than Jarrod Washburn, no Angels starter has much of a disconnect between his ERA and his peripherals. When you consider that Escobar will be back after the All-Star break, and that the relief corps should remain one of the best--arguably the best--in the game, the Angels can likely get by with just a bare minimum of offense. That they might have to is unfortunate but, with this kind of run prevention, not deadly.
The Angels have established themselves as the favorite in the division, a favorite with a below-average offense, an average defense, terrific pitching. That formula might not have worked in 2002, but in a year when no other AL West team is likely to crack 85 wins--acknowledging that the improving A's may yet worm their way into the picture--it could be more than enough to assure a third postseason berth in four years.