Sunday, August 17, 2014
Pitching carrying first-place Angels
By Jason Collette
Much attention has been paid to Oakland this season for its play on the field and its acquisitions off the field. The A's have been atop the ESPN Power Rankings for eight consecutive weeks. They've revamped most of their starting rotation by trading for Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. And the A's are one of three teams in baseball with at least 70 wins -- but they're now the only one not leading its division.
After defeating the Texas Rangers 5-4 and watching Atlanta defeat Oakland 4-3, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim now boast the best record in the American League West and the best winning percentage in all of baseball. The victory over Texas was the club’s fourth consecutive win, while Oakland's loss to Atlanta was the A's fourth consecutive defeat.
The most recent time the Angels held as much as a share of first place, it was on the first day of the 2013 season -- a season that went horribly wrong and was highlighted by the foot troubles of Albert Pujols and the disappointing play of Josh Hamilton.
The 2014 Angels roster was still talented enough for them to be considered a decent favorite to contend for a playoff spot in the American League, but most pundits pegged the Oakland Athletics to repeat as AL West champs for a third consecutive season. Oakland kicked off the second half of the 2014 season with a win against Baltimore that put them 24 games over .500, at 60-36 -- two and a half weeks after beginning the revamping of their pitching staff. After a 13-1 win against the Astros on July 24, the A's were 25 games over .500.
Despite the Athletics' hot play and the notable roster makeover, the Angels remained just two games off the pace as they, too, went through their own roster reshaping. While Oakland could dangle the carrot of a highly regarded prospect such as Addison Russell to bring in help, the Angels’ farm system lacked that kind of token to offer teams to get help. The Angels have the fourth best team-weighted on-base average (wOBA) this season at .319, and the 3.81 ERA by their starting pitching staff is in the top half of the league. The issue was with a bullpen that had one of the worst ERAs in the league at 3.89 and a relief pitcher in Ernesto Frieri, who was not getting the job done.
General manager Jerry Dipoto made a series of small moves to shore up the leaky pen by acquiring Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher, Vinnie Pestano and, finally, Huston Street to take over the closer role. Since the All-Star break, the bullpen had posted a 2.24 ERA heading into play on Saturday night. Street closed out Saturday night's win in Arlington and gave young hurler Matt Shoemaker his 11th victory of the season and the team its 14th win since the break. That, in and of itself, is impressive, considering how ice-cold the Angels’ offense has been since the break.
The team’s .279 team wOBA and .229 batting average are the worst in the American League and the third worst in baseball since the break. MVP candidate Mike Trout is hitting .234/.317/.439, Pujols is hitting .245/.33/.415, and Hamilton is hitting .214/.278/.347 in the second half. Only Kole Calhoun and David Freese have batting averages over .250 since the break, and nobody on the team has an on-base percentage over .340 during that time.
The Angels' 14-12 second-half record has come while playing a very tough schedule. Each game in the second half of July came against playoff contenders (Seattle, Baltimore and Detroit). They opened August against one of the hottest team in baseball in Tampa Bay and then took on their crosstown foes for four games before the schedule gave them a break. The Angels looked that gift horse in the mouth and dropped two of three to Boston and narrowly avoided a sweep to the last-place Red Sox by stealing the middle game of that series in 19 innings. The Angels then swept Philadelphia in two and have now taken the first two games in this three-game set against Texas.
From Arlington, the Angels travel to Boston for a four-game series before returning to the West Coast for a crucial three-game set in Oakland. The two teams at the top of the American League West face each other seven times this month and will not see each other again until the final week of the season in a three-game series at Oakland.
The Angels are being carried by their pitching these days, as the offense has cooled off from where it was earlier this season. Los Angeles will need the offense to heat up in a hurry to take full advantage of the head-to-head matchups against Oakland, given that they won't see them again for another three weeks. In between those series, the schedule sets up quite favorably for the Angels as it includes five games against Houston, four against Minnesota and six more against Texas.
The stars are aligning nicely for the Angels, who look to win the American League West title for the first time since 2009. The rebuilt bullpen and the performance of the starting pitching staff is now carrying the load for the Angels, but they'll need a complete team effort to ultimately best an Athletics club whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Jason Collette writes for The Process Report, a blog on the Tampa Bay Rays, and also contributes to FanGraphs and Rotowire.