Friday, August 7, 2009
Angels' offense hitting a high note
By Tim Kurkjian ESPN The Magazine
There is a general concern among major league managers that their teams aren't always ready to play in the days, even weeks, that follow the All-Star break. The Los Angeles Angels are the exception, as they are in so many ways in baseball. Since the break, the Angels have become the team to beat not just in the American League West, but maybe in the entire American League as well.
Kendry Morales leads the Angels with 23 home runs and is second on the team with 70 RBIs.
The Angels are 15-5 in the second half, and they have done so with a devastating, versatile offense. They have averaged 7.2 runs per game and scored at least six runs in 15 of those 20 games. They are second in the American League in runs scored with 605. In a three-game series last weekend at the Metrodome, the Angels became the second AL team since the 1938 Red Sox to score at least 10 runs and have at least 15 hits in each of three consecutive games. They did so with two of their best hitters, Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter, out with injuries.
"I've never been on a team where our total offense has been on target like this one," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, whose team will face the Texas Rangers on Friday in the opener of a three-game weekend series. "I haven't seen our offense like this since 2002 [when the Angels won the World Series]. This has not been the template for our club in recent years when we've won with really strong starting pitching, a good 'pen and defense. But this year, our offense has been different. We have exploded on the offensive side this year."
The secret to the Angels has been production from 1 through 9 in the batting order.
"We're pretty good 1 through 13," Scioscia said. "Our bench has been good. Gary Matthews Jr. has been very productive. We get production from guys who aren't in the lineup every day."
They get production from traditionally defensive positions, catcher (Mike Napoli), second base (Howie Kendrick -- "he's killing the ball since he came back from the minor leagues," Scioscia said), shortstop (Erick Aybar and others) and center field (Hunter).
You have to commend the Texas Rangers for establishing their farm system the last couple years. Although their system is the highest rated in the majors, sometimes it tends to gets overlooked due to the glitz and glamour of the free-agent market.
Neftali Feliz is perfect evidence of how the Rangers have been patient with developing their young prospects. Feliz is a pitcher with a ton of upside. He doesn't just throw a 100 mph fastball, but his curveball has the unbelievable ability to hit 90 mph. In spring training, he learned how to throw a breaking ball to further complete his pitching repertoire.
From what I see, everything seems to be in good shape for him. He's got a great body for a pitcher (6-foot-3, 190 pounds), not too short or heavy. As his arm continues to strengthen, he'll keep progressing into a fine major league talent. -- Orestes Destrade
The Nos. 1, 2, 4, 5, 8 and 9 spots in the Angels' order are either first or second in the league in runs scored. The No. 5 hole has, by far, the most home runs (32) and RBIs (90) in the league. The No. 2 hole has 92 RBIs, easily the most in the league. Angels designated hitters are batting .303, the highest average in the AL. Their right fielders and center fielders have the most RBIs in the league. And Chone Figgins is the biggest reason why the Angels' third basemen have scored the most runs (85) in the league. There simply isn't a regular out in their lineup.
But it's more than that. The Angels do the little things better than any team in the league.
"No one goes first to third better than us, no one runs the bases better than we do," Scioscia said. "Our hitting with runners in scoring position is the best in the league [.305, the next best is .279]. Our situational hitting this year has been better than any club I've ever seen."
An ESPN researcher who does research analysis recently listed the top 10 picks for AL MVP, and four of them were Angels: right fielder Bobby Abreu, left fielder Juan Rivera, Hunter and first baseman Kendry Morales. Abreu is hitting .322 with nine homers and 77 RBIs; in July, he hit .380 with 28 RBIs. Rivera is hitting .314 with 18 homers and 61 RBIs. The Angels tried to re-sign first baseman Mark Teixeira after last season, but with the money they would have paid him, they signed Abreu, Rivera and closer Brian Fuentes.
If Teixeira had re-signed, Morales would have had to play the outfield. Instead, he has developed into one of the best first basemen in the American League.
"I told you in spring training that he would be the most improved player in the league," one scout said in reference to Morales. "All he needed was a chance to play every day. He's really good, really strong."
Morales is hitting .293 with 23 homers and 71 RBIs. Since the break, he has hit .329 with eight homers and 22 RBIs in 17 games. In spring training, Scioscia said, "If we're wrong about Kendry, then we will have never been more wrong about a player." Meaning, they knew he would be this good.
"In my  years here, I don't know if we've had anyone who is more talented when he steps in the batter's box than Kendry," Scioscia said. "The spotlight was on him; teams were zeroing in on him. He was so raw when we got him. He didn't know how to take a secondary lead. He had to learn how to get off the bag and into the hole after holding a runner. He has learned so much in the last few years. It has been really fun watching him progress."
It has been fun watching the Angels the past month. Last year, they won 99 games while scoring 765 runs, 10th most in the AL. They were knocked out of the playoffs in the division series by the Red Sox in four games; the Angels scored only 13 runs. The Angels are on a pace to score 920 runs this year, which would demolish their club record of 866 in 1979. The Angels might not win 99 games this year -- and there's no telling how they'll do in the playoffs -- but if they get knocked out, it likely won't be because of their offense.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.