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August 7, 2009

Clash of the Other AL Titans?

Rangers vs. Angels

by Christina Kahrl

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While most of the mainstream media's attention is zoomed in on the Bronx, there's another active American League rivalry getting played out on another diamond this weekend, and it's one where the stakes are usually higher still. That's because, unlike the Red Sox and Yankees, it's generally understood that in the clash between the Angels and the Rangers in the AL West, there can be only one winner-the consolation prize for second place isn't the wild card, it's supposed to be an early start date on October tee times.

Is that really true, though? Now that the second-place Rangers are just two behind the second-place Red Sox in the wild-card standings, it's worth wondering if all bets are off as far as the AL Wild Card coming from the East almost automatically. Our adjusted standings report reflects how much the two top teams of the West rank behind the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays as far as their respective schedule strength and in-game performance, and suggests that Texas and L'Anaheim have both been a bit lucky in terms of their records (we'll throw in the AL Central just to give you a peek at the full spread of AL contenders):

Team     Actual W-L    Adjusted W-L
Angels      64-42        57-49
Rangers     60-47        56-51
Yankees     66-42        65-43
Red Sox     62-45        60-47
Rays        60-48        65-43
White Sox   56-53        57-52
Tigers      57-50        53-54
Twins       53-55        54-54

So sure, adjust for schedule strength and performance, and it should still be the East providing us with a pair of playoff teams. The Rangers and Angels undoubtedly have other ideas, however, and given that the schedules of the two teams involve series against the titans of the East and plenty of divisional play, there's a chance the two teams can make things interesting for the total playoff picture if they can keep running as hot as they've been of late. The Angels are 39-18 since the calendar flipped to June, while the Rangers rattled off a 17-8 July before losing four of six in August. The suggestion that both teams might wind up ahead of the second-place finisher in the AL East seems improbable, but it's not impossible.

The interesting thing about this series matchup is that whatever it lacks in history, it makes up for in misconceptions. The Angels' brand of offensive baseball, based on contact hitting and aggressive yet intelligent baserunning, has been decidedly oversold. Although they rank second in MLB in runs added through their work on the bases advancing on base hits, netting an additional five runs, they rank eighth overall because of the runs they've cost themselves on all other baserunning plays, notably by losing runs on the second-most stolen-base attempts in baseball, where they rank 14th. In contrast, the Rangers and A's rank one-two in MLB in runs added on stolen bases, and the Mariners are just a fraction of a run behind, so the Angels might end up being the worst basestealing team in their own division. Nor are the Angels scoring runs via getting well-hit balls in play; however much they might preach contact hitting, the Angels are next-to-last in the AL in their total line-drive percentage.

Instead, the Angels are plating runs by walking well enough, right around league average-their unintentional walk rate of 8.1 percent rates well ahead of the Rangers' 7.4 percent-while getting a big boost in team-wide BABIP, hitting .322 despite that weak line-drive rate. Add in that they're no slouches in terms of hitting extra-base hits, matching the league average in home-run percentage, and the Angels are actually something of an old-school offense-if your schoolmaster's Earl Weaver and not Whitey Herzog-that ranks third in the AL in team-level Equivalent Average. That's the sort of broad basis for offensive success that belies the whole "little engine that could" reputation for the Angels' attack.

The Angels' real problem has been their pitching, which interestingly enough has been Texas' true source of strength this season. The Halos' pen got off to an awful start, but has managed to work its way up to 26th in Fair Run Average and 22nd in WXRL. The Rangers, in contrast, rank fifth in WXRL and 12th in FRA, relying on depth to compensate for closer Frank Francisco's too-frequent absences. The Angels' pen is slowly coming around, with Brian Fuentes getting better support from a now-healthy Darren Oliver and flamethrowing Jason Bulger, but it's a fragile proposition.

The Rangers do live up to their billing as a power-hitting team, tying with the Yankees for the league lead in Isolated Power. They also have followed up on their early-season promise for better defense, perhaps made manifest in entrusting rookie Elvis Andrus the starting shortstop, and ranking second in the American League in Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (the Angels are a much more pedestrian seventh). Where they might surprise people is the extent to which the Rangers' rotation has become an asset. Kevin Millwood's former reputation as an ace has been redeemed by his ranking 15th in the AL on the Support-Neutral Winning Percentage leader board (.563), but nobody could have anticipated Scott Feldman's ranking 10th as late in the year as August (.585). The Angels have Jered Weaver (19th) and John Lackey (24th and rising), but where this was an area where the Angels were supposed to have a decided advantage, between Ervin Santana's meltdown and the Rangers' improvements, they're evenly matched at the front ends of their rotations.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Angels,  The Clash

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