June 19, 2012
Angels Rush in Where Rangers Fear to Tread
The Rangers started 2012 strong. The Angels did the opposite. Premature conclusions were drawn. Then the two teams' fortunes reversed. There are many reasons for this shift. One is the play of the teams' superstars. Another is the acquisition and emergence of a key arm in Anaheim. These aren't the only factors, but they are among the most intriguing and are the ones we'll focus on today.
Remember the “Rangers are running away with the American League West” narrative from April, when it appeared that they were, in fact, running away with the division? Well, that narrative broke and has been replaced by the ever-popular “it's a long season” and “that's why they play the games.”
Here's the AL West at the end of April:
The Rangers looked every bit the two-time defending AL champs they were, opening a nine-game lead over the Angels, who spent the off]season breaking the bank on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson in the hope of overtaking their rivals to the east. Texas owned the best record in baseball. Meanwhile, Pujols wasn't hitting and the Angels weren't winning. It was freak-out time in Anaheim.
But 23 games don't necessarily mean much. After all, the 2002 Angels had fallen 10 ½ games back of Seattle 20 games into the season, and they won the World Series.
Here's the AL West since the beginning of May (through June 17):
Care to guess which team owns the best record in baseball over that stretch? Hint: It claims to be from Los Angeles. The Angels haven't been as dominant as the Rangers were in April, but wins are wins, and making up five games in the standings in six weeks is a nice start.
Put it another away: Four games back in the middle of June doesn't seem as daunting as nine back at the end of April. With nearly 60 percent of the schedule remaining, that is downright surmountable. Consider, for example, the 2011 Rockies, who led the National League West with a 17-8 record at the end of April. It would have been easy to anoint them the class of the division based on that start—achieved despite lackluster showings from some of their brightest stars—yet they played at a .409 clip the rest of the way, finishing 21 games out of first place.
Not that this year's Rangers—who have won six out of their last seven games as of this writing and whose run differential belies a pedestrian post-April record—are last year's Rockies, but almost anything can happen in a single month's worth of games. The complicating factor is that April stands out because a team's record for the month is identical to its record for the season. When you win (or lose) 74 percent of your games in April, it is immediately apparent in a way that doing so later—when a larger context may obscure a comparatively brief streak—isn't.
For instance, the Padres dominated May from 2005 to 2007, going 59-25 in that period. But this came on the heels of Aprils in which they went 33-41, so their May exploits slipped under the radar more than a hot start might have.
Now, so as not to belabor the point further, let's turn to specifics. What are some factors that have driven the Angels and Rangers in opposite directions since the season's first month?
Hamilton and Pujols
Assuming good health (a dubious assumption in the case of Hamilton, who has averaged 114 games per season over the past three years and who was recently hospitalized due to an intestinal virus, but bear with me), he's got about 400 plate appearances ahead of him this year. He walks a little less than 10 percent of the time, so let's say that comes out to 360 at-bats. If we add those to the 233 he already has, that makes 593. To hit .400 (technically, .3997), Hamilton would need 237 hits. He has 77. So he would need to go 160-for-360 the rest of the way, or .444, which he didn't hit even when he was hitting everything.
Not surprisingly, the Rangers have seen their performance dip along with Hamilton's. They are not a one-man team, of course, but it's interesting to note their offensive splits by month this year (and these looked even worse before they scored 23 runs in three games—without Hamilton—against Houston over the weekend):
Hamilton has struggled (.196/.281/.353) in June, as have many of his teammates. But it's 16 games. What can we say with certainty about 16 games other than that they happened?
On the Angels side, it is easy to indulge, as I have on occasion, in pointing out how bad Albert Pujols has been this year. In the interest of fairness, he is starting to look like Pujols again, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof.
While Hamilton was making his last stab at .400, Pujols had just risen above .200. After a May 16 victory over the White Sox, Pujols' slash line stood at .213/.248/.307. He homered in that win, and he went 3-for-4 the day before, so this represents an improvement over what he had been doing. But since we used that date for Hamilton, we'll use it for Pujols as well.
Since then, Pujols is hitting .313/.382/.607 with eight homers in 29 games. Not coincidentally, the Angels are 19-10 during that stretch.
Here is how this looks in graphical form, including team winning percentage in the rightmost column for context:
April 6 – May 16
May 17 – June 17
That these are arbitrary cutoffs and small samples makes them no less fascinating. On May 16, after Pujols' second homer of the year, Hamilton led him in that category, 18-2. The gap has closed to 22-10. I'm not saying I'd want to bet on Pujols to end the season in the lead. But I'm not saying I'd want to bet against him, either.
Yes, he is aging, as are we all. But Pujols has been an elite player with elite skills for a very long time. As Angels assistant GM Matt Klentak observed while addressing Baseball Prospectus readers at Anaheim on Saturday evening, “Albert Pujols is not going to have a 400 OPS.” It may seem silly to make this explicit, but when Pujols' OPS hovered not far above that mark in the third week of May, concerns that the end could be near crossed more than one mind.
Adams and Frieri
Adams performed well for Texas down the stretch. Expected to do the same this year, he hasn't been as dominant as he had been over the previous four seasons, when his ERA+ of 223 ranked second only to Mariano Rivera's 260 among pitchers who worked at least 200 innings from 2008 to 2011. (Third place—out of 286 qualifiers—belongs to the Angels' Scott Downs, who checked in at 193, in case you were wondering.) Adams continues to be effective, but he has been more hittable than ever this year and no longer appears to be the lights-out reliever that he was during his San Diego tenure.
According to Brooks Baseball, Adams' velocity is down a tick from recent years:
Key: FA, four-seam fastball; SI, sinker; FC, cut fastball; SL, slider; CH, changeup.
These seem like subtle shifts, but when performing against the best in the world, they could be enough to upset the balance. How much of a difference this slight drop in velocity makes or whether it is a permanent condition remains unknown, but it's worth noting. And besides, it isn't like Adams stinks. He's simply gone from best of the best to pretty darned good. Last I checked, there's no shame in that.
On the other hand, there's something to be said for being the best of the best. In Anaheim, the Angels made a trade early this season designed to help shore up the back end of their bullpen, which had been a problem area. Ernesto Frieri wasn't as well-known or as proven as Adams, and so didn't command the price that Adams did, but he has made a name for himself in his brief time with the Angels. In fact, he has given them more for less (Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland were top-10 prospects for the Rangers, while Alexi Amarista and Donn Roach were less well-regarded in the Angels' system). Looking only at Frieri's time in Anaheim, here is how he compares with his former teammate:
This ignores Frieri's first month with the Padres, for whom he was no slouch before being traded on May 3. And although it would oversimplify and overstate matters to suggest that Frieri's arrival triggered the Angels' turnaround... just, damn.
When he was coming up through the Padres’ system, I saw Frieri a few times at Lake Elsinore and once at Portland. I saw him a lot in San Diego. I thought he could pitch and perhaps be useful. From the 2008 version of my old Padres annual:
Frieri doesn't throw hard but his fastball has good sinking action and he commands it well. The vast majority of A-ball relievers don't amount to anything, but he's worth keeping an eye on in 2008.
The Padres then shifted Frieri to the rotation at Lake Elsinore, and the results weren't overwhelming. Ditto the following season at San Antonio.
Then they moved him back to the bullpen and he became an out machine, allowing just 14 hits and fanning 49 in 37 2/3 innings of work at Triple-A in 2010 before being nearly as difficult to hit after a July promotion—thanks to an Adams injury—to the big club. The pitcher I saw at Portland was extremely aggressive and threw harder than the one I'd seen at Lake Elsinore.
Frieri doesn't always know where his pitches are going, but neither do the guys he's facing. His strikeout rates have been off the charts since arriving in the big leagues. And his initial showing after joining the Angels is becoming the stuff of legend. (Rumor has it that Chuck Norris is afraid to make Ernesto Frieri jokes.)
Personally I'm thrilled at Frieri's success because he's making me look smarter than I am. My comment on him in BP2012 culminated with, “PECOTA has doubts, but he is a solid setup man who could close if needed.” Baseball analysis is similar to hitting in the sense that you miss a lot in the hope of succeeding every now and then. Frieri and the Angels have turned me into a genius, if only for a while. He isn't this good... nobody is. But what a fun ride.
Under the radar? When Adams and Heath Bell still pitched for the Padres, Frieri wasn't even—and forgive this vulgar expression that reflects modern bullpen usage—the seventh-inning guy. He worked in low-leverage situations and waited for a better opportunity, which eventually came in the form of a trade just up the I-5 to Anaheim.
Sometimes opportunity is all a player needs. Sometimes it's all a team needs. We saw this in 2011 with unprecedented turnarounds on the season's final day when opportunities were bestowed and seized at the last possible moment. Sometimes the movement is more evolutionary than revolutionary, with such opportunities unfolding over a longer period of time. Sometimes a hot superstar goes cold or vice versa. Sometimes a guy you'd never heard of a month ago becomes an inadvertent hero.
Sometimes the inevitable cliché of “that's baseball” is your only conclusion. Because that's precisely what it is.