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May 5, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The Disappointments

by Joey Matschulat

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Billy Beane once remarked that he reserved the first two months of the regular season for evaluating what his team had and pinpointing its most glaring deficiencies, used the middle two months to go out and actively address those deficiencies, and viewed the final two months as an opportunity to allow those midseason improvements to play out and make any final tweaks or adjustments. It's a concise, memorable, and completely intuitive way of looking at the season from a managerial perspective, and one that's becoming increasingly relevant as we begin to burrow our way into the heart of the regular season's second month.

At this point in the game, I find myself most interested in those individual starting players who are not close to pulling their expected weight, and those positions that seem the likeliest to demand some form of midseason fortification. This, of course, is done with the full understanding that a player's season numbers can still swing violently in one direction or the other given such a relatively early date on the calendar. If we can identify what isn't working so far, we've made some fairly substantial progress toward figuring out what's likely going to be addressed at some point down the line... and since this is, after all, all about the AL West, you can probably guess what's coming next.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: Outside of an expectedly poor-hitting Jeff Mathis (his .193/.217/.316 showing to date actually represents slight improvement over his performance last season), the Angels' absolute worst hitters to this point have been nestled in the heart of their lineup—Torii Hunter (132 PA, .246/.311/.381) and Vernon Wells (128 PA, .176/.227/.269). That's disturbing enough without highlighting the reality that Los Angeles is disbursing around $7 million per month to the snakebitten pair of outfielders.

Now, I've been operating under the belief that these are still two quality players—both are less than a year removed from above-average seasons—who will shake off the rust, and Hunter's 11-for-26, three-walk, four-double showing since April 25 engenders definite hope that the worst is behind him and that he'll remain on the uptick... but Wells? His BABIP is mired in the vicinity of .200, which is something you'd expect to improve as time goes along, but there's also a major plunge in his line-drive percentage to consider (from 15.9 percent in 2010 to 7.3 percent in 2011), as well as slipping walk (7.7 percent to 5.5 percent) and strikeout (14.2 percent to 20.2 percent) figures. He's not this bad, but the underlying indicators aren't good up to this point, and frankly, I'm not sure what the Angels could even do with Wells given the enormity of his remaining contract.

Oakland Athletics: It's funny—you punch up the league standings, notice Oakland is the second-worst team in the American League in scoring output, and know there's a very good reason for that buried somewhere further down in the numbers. You don't, however, expect to dig a little deeper and find Mark Ellis (112 PA, .181/.218/.276), Cliff Pennington (99 PA, .236/.278/.303), David DeJesus (110 PA, .227/.303/.258) and Kevin Kouzmanoff (85 PA, .208/.247/.338) stuck in sub-replacement-level offensive territory.

DeJesus' slippage is perhaps the most startling out of the bunch, given his effectiveness in Kansas City over the three years preceding his arrival in Oakland. However, it’s primarily BABIP-driven, with nothing too terribly anomalous in his batted-ball statistics (though there's a little unsavory variation in his line-drive and infield-fly rates that probably warrants monitoring). Ellis has never been the same caliber of hitter as DeJesus, but as in Wells' case, the walk (8.1 percent in 2010 to 3.6 percent in 2011) and strikeout (12.8 percent to 20.0 percent) rates don't portend well if they don't swing back in a favorable direction.

Seattle Mariners: The Mariners are in something of a strange spot, in that most baseball prognosticators and forecasting systems don't project them to be in the thick of things come July. If that proves true and Seattle is on the fringes of the race in a couple of months' time, it's unlikely that Jack Zduriencik is going to go out and reel in a temporary roster-bolstering piece using young talent as bait. That being said, Seattle is certainly no stranger to disappointment, with five different roster spots being occupied by position players with at least 70 plate appearances and OPS marks south of 600. 

And if 2010 was a disaster for Chone Figgins, 2011 is basically apocalyptic. After struggling through the worst offensive season of his career last season (702 PA, .259/.340/.306) and bumming the heck out of every Mariners fan that couldn't believe he decided to pull this right after netting a four-year, $36 million deal, Figgins has gone .207/.252/.297 with little of the patience or feel at the plate that helped him secure a major deal in the first place. Here again is a case where we expect the player to improve as his BABIP equalizes, but with Figgins having already fared poorly at second base in 2010 and now faring even worse at the hot corner in 2011, one has to wonder just how long the Mariners will try to ride this 25-man roster liability out.

Texas Rangers: There are issues at the back of this rotation and in the bullpen that I could touch upon, but those are more a function of lacking depth than outright terrible performance. There's one area on the positional side that could be especially ripe for further adjustment—center field. After receiving genuine votes of confidence from management, initially abundant playing time and probably a nice fruit basket or two, Julio Borbon has slipped to .262/.313/.344 and found himself sitting on the bench semi-frequently in favor of David Murphy. The problem? Murphy really isn't a viable defensive option in center field, and his relative inexperience at the position and lack of range leaves the Rangers' outfield defense compromised every time Texas rolls with a Murphy-in-center alignment.

 The thing about Borbon is that his physical skill set and ability to cover large swathes of ground in center have made it so that you could live with a weaker-than-average bat, provided he could at least bump his OPS into 700-725 territory. It would be something you'd look to improve upon if the opportunity arose, but it would be good enough that you could roll with it without cringing at the sight of Borbon's name in the lineup. Unfortunately, he's still sitting below that threshold, hasn't been the sharpest defender in the center-field crop this season, and is currently at greater risk than anyone in the everyday lineup of losing more playing time to in-house options (Josh Hamilton in particular, provided he makes it back from the disabled list in one piece) or a midseason trade acquisition. 

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