Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Flyover: Los Angeles Angels

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. Let's improve the mood around here. Having looked at the tales of woe that are the Milwaukee Brewers and the Oakland Athletics, let's look at a happy story: the Los Angeles Angels.

How Are They Doing Lately? As I pointed out in the A's essay, the Angels have gone from trailing the best-record-in-baseball A's at the July 31 trade deadline to an insurmountable 10.5 game lead in the American League West, the first team in the majors to clinch a postseason appearance. And they have the best record in baseball, 94-57 entering today's play, three games better than the surprising Baltimore Orioles. But their ascendancy shouldn't be that much of a surprise. Yes, they trailed the A's most of the season, but they trailed them with the second-best record in baseball. 

Anyway, they've been really good lately. They're 22-7 over the past 30 days, the best record in the American League. They've scored the most runs per game (5.7, well ahead of the Tigers, in second at 5.4) and they've given up the third fewest (3.4). 

What's Going Right? Well, obviously, both hitting and pitching. (The team's defense has been a bit above average as well.) On offense, they're second in batting average and on base percentage, and fourth in slugging percentage over the past 30 days. They've been the third toughest team in the league to strike out, whiffing in just 18% of plate appearances, and they're fourth in homers and fifth in isolated slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average), which means that when they make contact, it's hard contact. Oh, and speaking of contact, they've made contact on 90% of the pitches thrown to them in the strike zone, the third-highest percentage in the league, indicating that they're not missing on pitches in the zone.

The team ERA of 3.27 over the past 30 days is fourth lowest in the league, compared to a league average of 3.68. The starters' 3.19 is fifth best, the bullpen's 3.38 is sixth best. The Angels don't follow the On The Field Of Play mantra that it's good throw strikes, but it's better to get strikes, as they're fifth-lowest in the league over the past 30 days at pitching to the strike zone (they're not throwing strikes), and they're getting batters to swing at just 27% of pitches outside the zone, second-lowest in the league (they're not getting strikes). They've induced weak contact, though, with only 7% of fly balls becoming homers (fourth-lowest in the league, where the average is 9%). Among six Angels relievers with over six inning pitched over the past 30 days, only one, Fernando Salas, has given up a homer.

What's Going Wrong? Hard to quibble with the offense. They've been maybe a little lucky. Their batting average on balls in play is .313 compared to a league average of .295, and an average well above (or below) the league average are probably a little fluky. But that's about it. Same for the pitchers: that very low home run rate on fly balls probably isn't sustainable. The pitchers also walk more hitters than you'd like, 8.5% of batters over the last 30 days compared to a league average of 7.3%, but they've been able to strand 78% of baserunners, second most in the league, compared to a league average of 73%. That, difference, too, is probably not going to persist.

All this suggests the Angels probably aren't quite as good as they've appeared to be over the past 30 days. That sure beats being bad, of course. 

Who's Hot? Three batters have been hot over the past 30 days. MVP-to-be center fielder Mike Trout is eighth in on base percentage, .392, and fifth in slugging percentage, .593. He's also tied for fourth in the league in homers with seven, first in runs with 28, and tied for seventh in RBI with 27. Shortstop Erick Aybar is batting .356 and second baseman Howie Kendrick has a slash line of .325/.361/.465. Catcher Chris Ianetta has a weird batting line: .212 batting average but .434 on base percentage, best on the club, as he's got twice as many walks and hit by pitches (22) as hits (11).

The Angels haven't missed a beat since ace Garrett RIchards (13-4, 2.61 ERA) suffered a season-ending knee injury on August 20. Over the past 30 days, Mike Shoemaker has gone 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA and Jered Weaver is 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA. 

At the beginning of the season, Huston Street was the closer for the Padres. The Angels' closer was Ernesto Frieri, who blew up for the Angels (6.39 ERA), then was traded to Pittsburgh (where he was worse: 10.13 ERA before earning his release) for Jason Grilli. Street joined the club on July 19 and has notched more saves (14) in the ensuing eight weeks than Frieri got in three months. Over the past 30 days, he's got five saves and a 1.80 ERA. Setup men Mike Morin and Joe Smith have pitched 23 innings and combined for a 0.78 ERA. 

Who's Not? On offense, no regular's been really bad, though highly-paid first baseman Albert Pujols ($23 million this year, $167 million more guaranteed through 2021, .286/.331/.420 slash line) and left fielder Josh Hamilton ($17 million this year, $89 million more guaranteed through 2017, .250/.294/.417) have been a lot more mortal than their paychecks would suggest. After Shoemaker and Weaver, the starting pitching's been unimpressive over the past 30 days. CJ Wilson and Hector Santiago have a combined 5-2 won-lost record, but that's due to outstanding run support; they have above-average ERAs of 4.22 and 3.97, respectively. 

What's the Outlook? The Angels are looking to October, where they'll appear for the first time since 2009. They have enough pop; the question will be whether they have enough pitching behind Shoemaker and Weaver. If they remain the top team in the league, they'll draw the wild card team, which presumably will have burned its ace in the one-game play-in, so LA will be favorites to advance to face the winner of what looks likely to be a Tigers-Orioles matchup for the American League championship.

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