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Two MLB teams have 40 wins, and while it’s not that surprising to see the Boston Red Sox with the best record in baseball, the Los Angeles Angels have certainly turned heads with their play. At 40-24 after taking two of three from the Cardinals over the weekend, the Angels are getting credit for their pitching, but the real difference is an offense that has exceeded expectations.

Same hymn, different verse. As I wrote back in 2004, during a second-half hot streak that eventually landed them an AL West crown:

The Angels are once again executing an unreliable plan as well as it can be executed. If you live and die by batting average, you can win when you hit .280. Be a little bit worse–as they were in 2003, when they hit .268, or in 2001, when they hit .261–and you can’t score enough runs to win because you don’t have enough runners on base. They don’t walk; only the Royals have fewer than the Halos’ 344 bases on balls. Their isolated power of .145 is just 10th in the league, and by far the worst of any good AL team. They hit singles better than anyone else, though, and in ’04, they’re doing it well enough to have a winning lineup.

The Angels are batting .284 this year, third in the AL, giving them a .342 team OBP, good for fifth in the league. Take a look at the Angels in the Mike Scioscia era, and you see just how batting average-driven his offenses have been:

Year   AVG  Rk    OBP  Rk     R  Rk
2000  .280   5   .352   6   864   7
2001  .261  11   .327   9   691  12
2002  .282   1   .341   4   851   4
2003  .268   7   .330   8   736  11
2004  .282   1   .341   6   836   7
2005  .270   6   .325   9   761   7
2006  .274   8   .334  10   766  11
2007  .284   3   .342   5   319   5

For all the talk about how well they run the bases and put pressure on the defense and such, the Angels’ offense is really a relatively simple machine. When they get the extra hits, they do well. When they don’t, they don’t score enough to win. If I told you nothing but the Angels’ rank in batting average in every season since 1999, you’d have all the information you needed to determine whether they had a good offense or not; the only exceptions were in 2003 and 2004, when even a good average was misleading.

This year, Orlando Cabrera is hitting .335; so is Vladimir Guerrero. Casey Kotchman is at .323. Reggie Willits, replacing Garret Anderson, is at .311 (albeit with 26 walks). Mike Napoli (.266) and Gary Matthews Jr. (.286) are also a little bit ahead of par, which makes up for the slow starts by Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick. The Angels’ success, and their standing, is almost entirely a product of their team batting average.

Almost. They can pitch a little, too. The Angels are third in the league in runs allowed and ERA, third in pitching VORP and Support-Neutral Value, and fourth in WXRL. The staff is structured a bit differently than it has been in past years, without the depth and balance that has been a hallmark of Angels’ staffs. The back ends of both the rotation (Ervin Santana, Bartolo Colon) and bullpen (mostly Hector Carrasco and Darren Oliver) have struggled, but the top eight guys have been so good that it hasn’t mattered. Dustin Moseley and Joe Saunders have filled in admirably; I’ve likened Moseley to a younger Scot Shields, while Saunders is a command lefty just getting by thanks to a very low home run rate.

It’s not a surprise that the Angels are preventing runs as well as they are. Their staff has good fundamentals–above-average strikeout and walk rates, and a slightly below-average home run rate–and is backed by a defense that has been good on balls in play. Matthews Jr. gets a lot of the credit for that, but I think having Willits in left field and Kotchman at first base are underrated upgrades over the Angels at those spots in 2006.

Now, all that said, the Angels’ record is slightly inflated. The Adjusted Standings Report knocks them down to 36-28, although some of that four-game difference may be attributed to the back of the bullpen. The Angels are 12-8 in one- and two-run games, which is part luck, but also a reflection of the value their shutdown relief crew gives them from the seventh inning onward. Clay Davenport‘s system also concludes that the Angels have allowed 16 fewer runs than would be expected, a combination of good fortune and a below-average spread of offenses faced. While noting these statistical points, it’s clear that this is not a mirage.

Will they win the West? The run prevention should stay good, and might even improve, especially if Justin Speier returns from his viral infection, and if Santana and Colon pitch closer to expectations. The offense…well, that’s the question. Will the likely batting average regressions of Willits and Cabrera be offset by improvements from Figgins and Kendrick? The difference between the 2006 Angels, a team that got OBPs of .322 and .357 in the top two lineup slots, and the 2007 Angels, with .385 and .368 marks, is those two players. (The 2005 White Sox won a division title, then a World Series, by getting a comparable upgrade.)

This may come down to how Mike Scioscia handles his personnel. He’s already been aggressive once with Willits, elevating him to leadoff and keeping him there after Garret Anderson and Chone Figgins came off of the DL. Should Willits show himself to be a good fourth outfielder playing a bit too much, will Scioscia elevate Kendrick–a strong candidate for a high-OBP second half–and keep Guerrero batting with lots of runners on base? Skill sets are more static than short-term performances, and the skill sets of the players involved would support a change. I’d mention the importance of adding a major-league hitter for the DH slot, but there’s less precedent for the Angels making a significant in-season deal than there is for Will Carroll turning down a free meal.

So it’s pretty straightforward: When the Angels bat .280, they do well, and when they hit .265, they don’t. It’s a simple thing, and a hard one to predict in the preseason. This looks like one of the good years, and if it is, they’ll be playing into October.

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