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March 8, 2007
Hope and Faith
How the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Can Win the World Series
Wait a minute.
The Angels can't win the World Series this year. It's not their turn. Baseball has had seven different champions in the past seven seasons. The Yankees, Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox, White Sox and Cardinals have all been disqualified under the rules of "modern day" baseball. As such, this year's winner can only come from one of those other 23 teams in the majors.
But let's assume that the streak--no, not that streak--will be broken in 2007. The question then becomes, "How will the Angels win the World Series?" Well, before we answer that question specifically, let's take a look at the composition of the current roster as compared to 2002.
Five years ago, the names on the back of the red-on-white uniforms read Eckstein, Erstad, Glaus, Fullmer, Kennedy, Salmon and Spiezio, as well as Appier, Donnelly, Ortiz, Percival, Schoeneweis, Washburn and Weber. The lone holdovers from that magical season are Garret Anderson, Chone Figgins, John Lackey, Jose Molina, Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez. All but Anderson were rookies back then. Figgins was nothing more than a pinch-runner, Molina was--and remains--a backup catcher, and Shields was a seldom-used middle reliever. Only Lackey (who started and won the seventh game of the World Series) and Rodriguez (5-1, 1.93 ERA in the postseason) played a significant role on that club.
The names have been changed, but the style remains the same. In a word, the Angels are aggressive. The batters take their hacks, put the ball in play, and run. By the same token, the pitchers attack hitters by throwing strikes.
The team ranked last in the AL in pitches per plate appearance (3.66). Hitters such as Vladimir Guerrero have never met a pitch they didn't like. Vlad saw the second fewest pitches per plate appearances (or P/PA) in the league with 3.16. General Manager Bill Stoneman, manager Mike Scioscia and hitting coach Mickey Hatcher--who was never known for his patience at the plate when he was a player (4.5% BB/PA)--have always preferred to have their players swinging the lumber from the moment they step out of the dugout. The mantra goes something like this: if you see a pitch you like, square up and rip it.
Don't look for change this year. The free-swinging Howie Kendrick (3.27 P/PA) will be the everyday second baseman, and the "24 unintentional walks is my career high" Shea Hillenbrand takes over as the aptly named designated hitter. Even the somewhat more patient Gary Matthews Jr. was below average (3.71 P/PA vs. 3.77 for the majors), and he is slated to become the team's new leadoff man.
The Angels led the majors in stolen bases (148) and the AL in times caught stealing (57), attempting 19 more steals than any club in either league. They may have stolen more bases, except that they were held back by the fourth-lowest OBP (.334) in the league. As they say, you can't steal first base.
So, with all of that in mind, how is it possible that this team could win the World Series, you ask? Here are five ways it can happen:
1. Maintain last year's momentum. The Angels had the best record in the majors from the first of July through the end of the regular season. After a 35-44 start, the Halos were in last place in the AL West at the end of June--five games out of third, and 7 1/2 behind the front-running Oakland A's. The team then went 54-29 the rest of the way, outpacing even the hard-charging Minnesota Twins (53-31), but they nevertheless fell four games short of first.
The Angels won at home (45-36) and they won on the road (44-37). The Halos won more than their fair share of games versus the West (32-25), the Central (24-18) and the East (26-19). They beat right-handed starters (59-52) and lefties (30-21). The Angels won during the day (28-22) and at night (61-51). They even won on grass (82-67) and on turf (7-6). The team was victorious more often than not in one-run games (25-22) and in extra innings (8-7). Aside from the first and second half, the only split that got the better of them was interleague play, where the Angels went 7-11 against the National League. There's a bit of double-counting going on here, because all but two of these games were played in May and June, when the Angels were still starting the wrong Weaver every fifth day.
2. The pitching staff is tops in the American League. Last year, the team had the third-best ERA (4.04) while tying for first in strikeouts and allowing the fewest home runs in the league. It doesn't take much imagination to envision the Halos surpassing the Twins (especially given the absence of Francisco Liriano and Brad Radke, and the possible inclusion of Ramon Ortiz and Sidney Ponson in this year's Minnesota rotation), and one can make the case that they were better than Detroit in 2006. Sure, the Tigers had a lower ERA, but the Angels put up superior K/9 (7.2 vs. 6.2), BB/9 (2.9 vs. 3.0) and H/9 (8.7 vs. 8.8).
Lackey has emerged as a top-of-the-rotation starter, ranking in the top half dozen in the AL in IP (217.2), ERA (3.56) and K (190). Kelvim Escobar, Ervin Santana, and Jered Weaver round out what could be described as one of the best foursomes in the league. Joe Saunders should be a capable fifth and, speaking of hope and faith, what if Bartolo Colon magically returns to his 2005 Cy Young form upon his return later in the season? (I know, let's set aside for a moment whether or not Colon deserved it.) A bullpen led by K-Rod, Shields, and the newly-acquired Justin Speier means the seventh, eighth and ninth innings are pretty well taken care of most nights.
3. Vladimir Guerrero remains healthy for most of the season and throughout the playoffs. The 2004 AL MVP is the best player on the Angels, and they cannot afford to lose him for long stretches. Vlad is about as consistent as they come, and should hit in the neighborhood of .320 with 30 home runs--PECOTA says .328/.381/.554 with 28 HR. However, his defense is approaching the point where it may become a cause for concern, if it hasn't already. Guerrero's range in right field is no longer what it once was, and his arm, while strong, can be erratic. He would make a great DH, but the Angels have more than their fair share of those types of guys knocking around.
4. Howie Kendrick competes for the batting title in his first full season. The youngster profiles like Bill Madlock, a four-time batting champ, particularly in terms of body type, batting stroke, and the ability to hit for a high average (as evidenced by his .361 career minor-league mark). Madlock hit .313 in his first full season when he was basically the same age as Kendrick. Look for Kendrick to do the same. Madlock then went on and led the league in average the following two seasons, raking at a .354 and .339 clip in 1975 and 1976--numbers that are certainly within the realm of Howie's upside. His 75th percentile PECOTA forecast calls for a .322/.365/.543 line with more home runs (20) than Madlock ever produced in a single season. Kendrick could stand to draw a few more bases on balls, but he is a huge upgrade over Kennedy as is.
5. Mike Napoli performs more like he did in the first half (.286/.412/.579) than the second (.164/.303/.320). The reality is that he will most likely wind up somewhere between those dramatic splits. If the 25-year-old catcher meets or exceeds his PECOTA projections (.239/.339/.458), the Angels will be in good shape behind the plate. Should Napoli not make the proper adjustments, the Angels will be forced to turn to either Jeff Mathis or Jose Molina.
Mathis didn't live up to his advanced billing last year but, at age 24, is still young enough to improve and become a serviceable catcher in the big leagues. It's almost impossible to bring up his name without mentioning Casey Kotchman and Dallas McPherson. The latter two were consensus top-ten prospects a couple of years ago, but neither left-handed hitter has panned out yet. Returning from a severe bout of mononucleosis last season, Kotchman will get a long look this spring, and could become a platoon partner at first base with the underrated Robb Quinlan (career .324/.365/.540 vs. lefties in 340 PA). McPherson had back surgery in January, and is expected to miss most, if not all, of 2007.
While on the subject of prospects, this could be the year that 22-year-old Brandon Wood makes his first appearance in Anaheim. Although currently stuck behind Orlando Cabrera and Erick Aybar at shortstop, it's not far-fetched to picture the power-hitting Wood replacing Figgins as the club's everyday third baseman in the second half of the season. If so, he could be a pleasant surprise and the type of addition who could put the Angels over the top.
A little hope and faith can go a long ways in the AL West. Especially the angelic kind.
Brad talks with Rich Lederer about the Angels' chances in this edition of Hope and Faith Radio:
Click to download mp3 (3.9 MB)
Rich Lederer is the co-founder and lead writer for Baseball Analysts.