Los Angeles Angels: Oakland Athletics

Angels' sweep means AL West race is over

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
9:54
PM PT


When Garrett Richards, the best pitcher on the Los Angeles Angels in 2014 and one of the best pitchers in the league, went down with a knee injury on Aug. 20, the consensus seemed to be: The AL West race is over; the Angels didn't have the rotation depth to survive his loss, especially with veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson not what they once were.

The West is over. Except it's the Angels, who finished off a four-game sweep of the Oakland Athletics with an 8-1 win on Sunday, and not the A's, who are going to win the division. The sweep pushed the Angels' lead over the A's to five games, had winning pitcher Matt Shoemaker calling it a "huge series for us in regards to the playoffs," saw Angels fans chanting "Sweep! Sweep!" late in the game and caused normally placid Oakland manager Bob Melvin to call out his team: "They should be embarrassed."

It was an energizing four days for the Angels -- they shut out the A's for 29 consecutive innings at one point -- and a demoralizing series for the A's, who finished August with a 12-17 record, their first losing month since May of 2012.

"We don't play like that," a glum Melvin said after the game. "The last three games here were the worst I've seen this team play in I can't remember how long. I feel bad for our fans to have to watch that."

What has gone right with the Angels? What has gone wrong with the A's?

For the Angels, let's start not with likely AL MVP Mike Trout -- who did homer on Sunday -- but the rookie Shoemaker, who continues to excel. Before the season, Baseball America didn't even rate the 27-year-old right-hander as one of the Angels' top 30 prospects. Perhaps understandable given his age, undrafted status coming out of Eastern Michigan and his pedestrian numbers the past two seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake, but the Angels were also rated to have the worst farm system in the majors -- for the second year in a row. How could this guy not be one of their 30 best minor leaguers? Put it this way: Shoemaker wasn't on anybody's radar as a potential key contributor.

But here he is: 14-4, with a 3.14 ERA and 115 strikeouts and 21 walks in 117.2 innings. There's nothing in those numbers that screams fluke: The strikeout rate is very good, the control is excellent, the BABIP isn't abnormal. Does he have an overpowering fastball? No, it averages just 90.6 mph, but he does have an effective splitter that has become a wipeout pitch. That pitch has accounted for 68 of his 115 K's and batters are hitting just .148 against it with one home run.

It's a pitch he initially learned to throw as a 14-year-old. "It just continues to get better," he said after beating the A's with seven scoreless innings. He threw it 30 percent of the time on Sunday, but considering he also mixes in a two-seam sinker, a slider and curveball, he's a five-pitch pitcher with a repertoire that resembles Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma, and that has made him tough even without the blazing heater.

Or maybe it's the beard. He has grown a Brian Wilson-esque patch of fur on his chin. Hey, considering he's 7-2 with a 1.67 ERA since the All-Star break, I wouldn't shave either.

Another secret weapon for the Angels is catcher Chris Iannetta, who only has an on-base percentage better than Trout. Or right fielder Kole Calhoun, hitting .299/.346/.476 since June 6 and doing an excellent job setting the table for Trout. Or the bullpen. On Saturday, manager Mike Scioscia started reliever Cory Rasmus, who pitched three innings, and then used seven other relievers. The eight pitchers combined for a 2-0 shutout. It was an effective strategy as the Angels continue to scuffle for a fifth starter, one made possible by Scioscia's confidence in Shoemaker going deep into the game on Sunday.

As for the A's, the cop-out excuse is to say they miss Yoenis Cespedes. Maybe he did help provide a certain swagger, but that's not the reason they've struggled in August. Plus, have you eve know an A's team to lack swagger? Look at how their All-Stars have fared before the break and after:

Josh Donaldson: .238/.317/.449 to .314/.427/.529
Brandon Moss: .268/.349/.530 to .183/.318/.254
Derek Norris: .294/.402/.477 to .235/.300/.336
Scott Kazmir: 11-3, 2.38 ERA to 3-4, 6.21 ERA
Sean Doolittle: 2.89 43 IP to 11.2 IP (injured)

Only Donaldson, who has actually played better, has kept up his pace. Moss' struggles have created a power hole in the middle of the lineup, especially when combined with Cespedes' departure. The declines of Norris and Kazmir were predictable to some extent, two guys playing above their heads in the first half. Further, Sonny Gray had a 2.79 ERA before the break and 3.61 after; Jason Hammel has a 6.09 ERA since the break; Coco Crisp is hitting .172/.252/.284. Don't blame this slide on the Cespedes trade (and Jon Lester has been terrific).

Can the A's turn it around and catch the Angels? I don't see it. Yes, we've had teams blow five-game leads in September in recent years -- see the 2011 Red Sox in the wild-card race; the 2007 Mets had a seven-game lead on Sept. 12; and the A's certainly remember the 2012 Rangers -- Texas had a five-game lead over Oakland as late as Sept. 24 but the A's still won the division.

So never say never. But the Angels have the lineup depth with a superstar leading the way (they haven't even needed big seasons from Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton); the bullpen is on a roll and deep enough that Scioscia doesn't need his starters to go deep into the game; 12 of the Angels' next 13 games are against the Astros, Twins and Rangers while the A's will have two series against the Mariners. On paper, it's going to difficult for Oakland to make up much ground the next two weeks.

Yes, the Angels' rotation is now depending on a 27-year rookie -- 28 later this month -- leading the way while the A's counter with a deep arsenal of starters.

But that's baseball, the most unpredictable of sports. We thought the A's getting Jeff Samardzija and Lester would be the big story in the AL West. Instead, it's Matt Shoemaker. Gotta love it.
We've reached the most fun part of the All-Star Game: Arguing about the final rosters.

The starters and reserves were named on Sunday and it was interesting to note the different philosophies of managers John Farrell and Mike Matheny in filling out their rosters. As expected, some worthy American League players were excluded and there were a couple surprising choices in the National League.

Some quick thoughts:

Worst American League starter: Derek Jeter, Yankees. While I actually don't have that big of an issue with Jeter starting -- there is no Troy Tulowitzki in the AL that he's keeping out of the lineup -- he's probably the worst starter we've had in a long time, hitting an empty .273 with mediocre defense and no power, worth 0.5 WAR so far. Matt Wieters was inexplicably voted in by the fans at catcher, but since he's out for the season, Salvador Perez will rightfully start in his place.

Worst National League starter: Aramis Ramirez, Brewers. Cincinnati's Todd Frazier is clearly the deserving starter at third base based on 2014 numbers while Ramirez is hitting .287 with 11 home runs. Considering Frazier, Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals and Anthony Rendon of the Nationals are better all-around players than Ramirez, his selection cost somebody an All-Star spot (Rendon is on the final player ballot).

Best ballot stuffing: Orioles and Brewers fans. Who says you need to play for the Yankees, Red Sox or Dodgers to have an edge in fan balloting? Adam Jones was never in the top three among outfielders until passing Yoenis Cespedes at the wire. He's a fine selection, however, and has come on strong after a slow April. Orioles fans also voted in Wieters and Nelson Cruz in that crowded DH slot that included Victor Martinez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brandon Moss and David Ortiz. Likewise, Carlos Gomez passed Giancarlo Stanton for the third outfield spot in the NL behind Yasiel Puig and Andrew McCutchen. Stanton clearly should be starting but Gomez is arguably one of the top three outfielders in the NL. Brewers fans, however, couldn't get Jonathan Lucroy voted in over Yadier Molina, so Lucroy will be the backup.

National League DH should be: Stanton. Pretty each choice here for Matheny. Heck, start him and let him play the entire game. A nation that never watches Marlins games should see this guy get four at-bats.

Jeff Samardzija, almost an All-Star. The players had actually voted for Samardzija as one of the five best starters in the NL, along with Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner. Samardzija had a 1.68 ERA through May, so you can see why he fared well in the balloting. His ERA had since climbed to 2.83 with some bad outings and he was replaced by Julio Teheran of the Braves.

Worst player selection: Charlie Blackmon, Rockies. The players actually did a much better job than they usually do and Blackmon's selection was the only dubious choice, a guy who had a monster April but is down to .295/.341/.463, mediocre numbers for a guy who plays in Colorado. To be fair, the NL lacked obvious choices for the fifth and sixth outfielders, but they somehow came up with a player ranked 21st among NL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR. Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Billy Hamilton or even Rockies teammate Corey Dickerson (hitting .340) would have been better selections.

The AL crunch: Farrell had some tough choices in filling out his squad. His manager selections were Jon Lester (deserving and the only Red Sox rep), David Price (deserving and the only Rays rep), Glen Perkins of the Twins, Max Scherzer of the Tigers, Kurt Suzuki of the Twins (a third catcher), Encarnacion and Moss. I guess you have to carry three catchers and I don't have a problem with the Scherzer selection. Encarnacion was a lock with his big numbers so the final choice probably came down to Moss or another player.

Biggest snubs: Ian Kinsler, Tigers; Kyle Seager, Mariners. And that led to Kinser and Seager being this year's biggest snubs. Entering Sunday, Kinsler ranked third among AL position players in fWAR and Seager seventh. In Baseball-Reference WAR, they ranked third and sixth, so by either measure two of the AL's top 10 players didn't make it. It's not that an undeserving player made it -- the players voted in Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre as the backups at second and third -- just that there were too many good players and not enough spots (unless you want to knock out a third catcher). You can debate the Moss selection, but I can see the desire to have the left-handed power off the bench if needed late in the game. (Remember, it counts!)

Matt Carpenter and Pat Neshek are good selections: Matheny picked two of his own players -- third baseman Carpenter and righty reliever Neshek. I'm sure both picks will be criticized but when you dig into the numbers, both are worthy choices. Carpenter isn't having as good a season as last year, but he's still 10th among NL position players in fWAR and 15th in bWAR. Please, I don't want to hear that Casey McGehee is more deserving.

As for Neshek, his numbers are outstanding: 0.78 ERA, 35 strikeouts, four walks and a .134 average allowed. He has been as dominant as any reliever in the game, even if he's not a closer. He's also a great story, once one of the game's top set-up guys with the Twins in 2007 but suffering years of injuries since. On the day the A's clinched the AL West on the final day of the 2012 season, his infant son died after just 23 hours. The Cardinals signed him in February to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training, so Neshek certainly qualifies as this year's most improbable All-Star (along with Dellin Betances of the Yankees).

I suspect Matheny also picked Neshek for late-game strategic purposes -- his sidearm delivery is killer on right-handed batters (although he has been just as effective against lefties this year), so you can see him matching up against Encarnacion or Jose Abreu if there's a big moment late in the game. Similarly, Matheny picked Pirates lefty reliever Tony Watson, a good strategic move since he had only three other lefties on the team.

Strangest selection: That picking reserves for strategic reasons also led to the selection of Pirates utility man Josh Harrison. I get it: He's having a nice season and can play multiple positions, but it's a little odd to pick a guy who doesn't even start regularly for his own team (reminiscent of the Omar Infante choice a few years ago). Rendon -- who has played second and third -- is the better player and Matheny already had versatility with Carpenter and Dee Gordon.

Best AL final man: Chris Sale, White Sox. Farrell went with five pitchers -- Sale, Dallas Keuchel, Corey Kluber, Garrett Richards and Rick Porcello. I wrote the other day that four of these guys would be battling for a spot or two (along with Scott Kazmir, who got voted on by the players). All are worthy but the best choice is pretty easy since Sale is one of the top starters in the game and would have otherwise already made the team if not missing some time with an injury.

Best NL final man: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs. Torn here between Rizzo and Rendon, but since Matheny has already loaded up with third basemen and second basemen, let's go with Rizzo in case you need to swing for the fences late in the game.

Suggested AL lineup: Jeter better hit ninth. Mike Trout, CF; Robinson Cano, 2B; Jose Bautista, RF; Miguel Cabrera, 1B; Nelson Cruz, DH; Adam Jones, LF; Josh Donaldson, 3B; Salvador Perez, C; Derek Jeter, SS. With Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Suggested NL lineup. Yasiel Puig, RF; Andrew McCutchen, CF; Troy Tulowitzki, SS; Giancarlo Stanton, DH; Paul Goldschmidt, 1B; Carlos Gomez, LF; Aramis Ramirez, 3B; Chase Utley, 2B; Yadier Molina, C. With Clayton Kershaw on the bump.

Top stats to know: Athletics at Angels

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
12:24
PM PT
The Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels face off in part two of an ESPN doubleheader Monday night (read about part one here). Here are some of the statistical storylines we’ll be tracking from that matchup.

Oakland’s economical pitching
The Athletics are going with a very low-budget starting rotation this season as they’ve spent only $11.3 million on their five starters. Only the Marlins ($3.2 million) have spent less.

Scott Kazmir accounts for $9 million of the starting pitching budget. The next highest paid starter, Jesse Chavez ($775,000), starts Monday night.

Chavez, a 42nd-round pick in 2002, is now pitching for his seventh major league team, and he seems to have found a groove early this season.

In 13 innings pitched, Chavez has posted a 1.38 ERA, 13 strikeouts and only two walks (6.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio). He has done most of the damage with his cutter.

Chavez has thrown his cutter on nearly 37 percent of his pitches, second only to Travis Wood (44 percent, min. 2 starts). Opponents have gone 4-for-24 (.174) against the pitch with eight strikeouts and no extra-base hits in 2014. The Angels have struggled against cutters so far this season, batting .160 against those pitches.

A more aggressive Mike Trout
Mike Trout mentioned this past offseason he wanted to be more aggressive early in the count. While the sample is small, so far he’s staying true to his word.

Trout has increased his swing percentage on the first pitch by 47 percent, which has led to him doubling his chase percentage against the first pitch as well.

Trout hasn’t put many of these balls in play (just 1-for-3), but falling behind early hasn’t been a detriment. Trout is batting .346 this season after falling behind in the count 0-1.

Josh Donaldson’s early slump
Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson has gotten off to a slow start in 2014, hitting .222 through the first dozen games. The biggest difference for Donaldson is in his strikeout and walk totals. He’s struck out 15 times and walked only once this season, after 110 strikeouts and 76 walks in 2013.

An early issue for Donaldson has been the inside pitch. He’s 3-for-22 (.136) against pitches thrown to the inner third of the plate or off the inside corner this season, after hitting .330 against those pitches last season.

Hector Santiago’s fastball a concern
Hector Santiago pitches tonight for the Angels. He has posted a 7.71 ERA in his first two starts, both losses.

Opponents have posted a .346/.485/.577 slash line against Santiago’s fastball this season, which is compounded by Santiago throwing the pitch 74 percent of the time. Against Santiago’s other pitches opponents have hit .250 with a .500 OPS.

Josh Hamilton continues to struggle

April, 10, 2013
4/10/13
12:48
AM PT

 
The first rule of April: It's too early to panic.

The second rule April: It's never too early to panic.

So the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim returned to the sun and the strip malls and the land where orange groves once filled the horizon for their home opener … and by the top of the second inning were getting booed.

C.J. Wilson had thrown 43 pitches in the first inning while allowing three runs. The Angels then loaded the bases with no outs against Jarrod Parker but failed to score. When Coco Crisp slammed a home run in the second inning to make it 4-0, the boos came. They were mild, Southern California laid-back boos, but there they were. Considering the news earlier in the day that Jered Weaver will miss at least four weeks with a broken bone in his non-pitching elbow, it was understandable that Angels fans were starting to wonder if they were heading for a repeat of last year's disastrous 8-15 start after the team's 2-4 road trip to begin this season.

It ended up being a crazy game. The Angels got the leadoff man on in each of the first five innings but scored only two runs in the third -- an inning that could have been bigger in not for an Albert Pujols baserunning gaffe. With no outs, Yoenis Cespedes ran down Josh Hamilton's fly in deep left-center, but Pujols misread the play and had rounded second base; hobbled by plantar fasciitis, Pujols was doubled off first base.

The A's later attempted to give the game away when Chris Young dropped a fly ball and Jed Lowrie booted a grounder, helping the Angels take a 5-4 lead, but John Jaso hit a three-run homer pinch-hit homer off Kevin Jepsen in the seventh and Brandon Moss followed with a two-run shot as the A's won 9-5 for their sixth consecutive victory, dropping the Angels to 2-5.

[+] EnlargeJosh Hamilton
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsThe A's used Josh Hamilton's aggressive approach against him with a diet of off-speed pitches.
But the major takeaway from this game has to be Hamilton: What's going on with the Angels' $125 million free-agent signing? The Rangers intentionally walked Pujols three times Saturday to get to Hamilton. Perhaps Texas manager Ron Washington was having flashbacks to the 2011 World Series, or maybe the Rangers were playing mind games, or maybe Washington really believes in the intentional walk, or maybe they just thought Hamilton was an easier out.

Guys making $25 million aren't supposed to be easy outs, but right now Josh Hamilton is a pretty easy out. (Caveat to analysis below: It's just seven games; if this happened in the middle of June we wouldn't necessarily even notice.)

Entering Tuesday's game, here were three facts about Hamilton:

1. He had the fourth-highest percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone, at 48 percent (behind Alexei Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval and Alfonso Soriano). Nothing new there: Hamilton had the highest such percentage last season of any qualified hitter.

2. His contact percentage when he did swing was tied for 11th-worst. Hard to make contact when you're swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. Again, nothing new here: He was the worst in this category among regulars in 2012.

3. He was tied for 26th in percentage of pitches seen within the strike zone (41.7 percent). That will probably change. Last year, Hamilton saw the fewest percentage of pitches in the strike zone, at 34 percent.

Now, he managed to hit 43 home runs last year anyway, certainly a testament to his talent. But we also know he tailed off in the second half -- .259 with 16 home runs in 69 games after hitting .308 with 27 home runs in 77 games in the first half -- as pitchers realized they didn't have to feed him as many strikes.

On Tuesday, here were Hamilton's five plate appearances:

First inning -- Struck out on three Parker changeups with the bases loaded.

Third inning -- Batting with two on, Hamilton did take two balls in the dirt to work the count full against Parker before lining a 93-mph fastball to deep left-center that Cespedes hauled in.

Fourth inning -- Batting again with the bases loaded, this time against Chris Resop, Hamilton got the count full but tapped weakly back to Resop, who got the force at home. Resop threw seven pitches -- five changeups, a curve and one fastball.

Sixth inning -- Against lefty Jerry Blevins with runners at the corners, he lofted an 0-2 slider to center for a sac fly. All three pitches from Blevins were sliders; the first two were fouled off.

Eighth inning -- Facing lefty Sean Doolittle, fouled off five fastballs before finally grounding out to first on a 2-2 curve.

There were some positive signs on the day: After striking out 10 times in his first 29 plate appearances entering the game, Hamilton whiffed just once. He fouled off pitches. But you can see the game plan. Other than against Doolittle, the A's fed him a steady diet of off-speed stuff, hoping to use Hamilton's aggressive approach against him. That's what pitchers did last year and what most teams will do moving forward, at least until Hamilton shows he won't stop swinging at those pitches when they're out of the strike zone. It's only a week, but I don't see any signs yet that Hamilton is any different than the hitter we saw the second half last year.

Now, he can still be a good hitter. Can he be a great hitter? I don't think so. Hamilton just gets himself out too often.

Look, it's too early to panic about Hamilton's production. But it's not too early to wonder what the long-term ramifications about his approach will mean.

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TEAM LEADERS

BA LEADER
Howie Kendrick
BA HR RBI R
.293 7 75 85
OTHER LEADERS
HRM. Trout 36
RBIM. Trout 111
RM. Trout 115
OPSM. Trout .939
WJ. Weaver 18
ERAG. Richards 2.61
SOJ. Weaver 169