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Week 5: The NBA playoffs have started! And oh I guess the Angels are still playing

April 30th, 2012

Jose Bautista, off to a slow start in 2012. Fortunately for him, he plays the Angels this week.

You may remember from my Week 1 preview before the season started that I compared the start of the baseball season, as well as the new big ticket Angels additions, to being a kid on Christmas morning anticipating a bounty of Christmas treasures.

A mere three weeks later, the 2012 Angels season has been anything but a magical Christmas morning. Instead it’s more like that one Christmas where you got deodorant and a copy of Atlas Shrugged. The season has been a disaster so far for the 7-15 Angels; the San Diego Padres are the only team that has lost more games (16). Even the great starting pitching, just about the only thing the Angels are doing well, isn’t enough to overcome an atrocious bullpen* and embarrassing lineup anchored by Albert Pujols, who looks lost at the plate. With LA’s swoon and Texas’ surge, the AL West race has essentially been boiled down to a 5-month long victory lap for the Rangers, who currently hold a 9 game lead over the last place Angels.

* As such, Jordan Walden was moved from the closer role and will be utilized in the 7th or 8th innings. Scott Downs will close, at least for the time being. I don’t love the move because this likely means Walden will be used in more high-leverage situations. Whereas the closer often comes in with nobody on base and a 2 or 3 run lead to protect, Walden now will see time coming in with guys on base, trying to protect a 1 run lead or a tie.

The front office finally made the move the masses have been calling for: releasing Bobby Abreu and calling up uber-prospect Mike Trout. Although Trout will likely be an improvement over incumbent players, we shouldn’t be fooled into believing Trout will cure all that ails the Angels. Trout won’t fix the bullpen, or Ervin Santana (who did pitch very well in Cleveland), or everyone in the lineup not named Hunter or Trumbo. Frankly, the Angels are playing like a last place team and unless we see marked improvement within the next couple weeks, it’s going to be a long summer in Anaheim.

This week the Angels have a 7-game home stand, with a three game set against another AL doormat, the Twins, to open the week. These teams played earlier in the season, with the Twins taking 2 of the 3 games, mostly thanks to the Angels’ pen. The Twins (6-15) have struggled as expected, but it is encouraging to see Joe Mauer playing well again. After a poor/injury-plagued 2011, Mauer is playing well thanks in large part to a .419 OBP. The real world-beater for the Twins so far, though, has been left fielder Josh Willingham. Willingham is batting .353 with a 219 OPS+ in the early going. This is largely aided by a .353 ISO (career .217) and .396 BABIP. Even if it’s likely not sustainable**, credit to him for hitting well and picking up some of Justin Morneau’s slack (.236/.321/.472).

** There’s a certain Angels first basemen who I would love to have inflated numbers right now.

The Angels then close out the week with a 4-game set against Toronto. The Blue Jays, perennial AL East bridesmaids, could be a playoff contender this year, especially with the addition of the extra wild card. The Jays are off to a 12-10 start and that’s without superstar right fielder Jose Bautista doing much of anything so far. In 99 plate appearances, Joey Bats has only 3 home runs while hitting .190 with a .329 slugging. As a whole, the Jays offense has gotten off to a slow start. They currently have a .710 OPS, only 9th best in the American League, which is even stranger when you consider they have slugging catcher Jeff Mathis on board.

As a result, the Jays have been backed by their young rotation thus far. Jays starters have a 3.42 ERA, led by Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow, a pair of 27-year old starters. Encouraging for the Jays is that Kyle Drabek, the key piece acquired from Philadelphia in the Roy Halladay trade, has a 2.25 ERA in 4 starts. Less encouraging is that he is walking almost 5 batters per 9 innings and has a 5.24 FIP. But Drabek is still very young and his successes this year are a very early display of why Toronto was willing to part with Halladay.

The Jays have a ton of young talent on their team. The left side of their infield is anchored by SS Yunel Escobar and 22-year old Brett Lawrie (developing into one of my baseball man crushes). They acquired toolsy, young center fielder Colby Rasmus from St. Louis last summer. Other than Romero and Morrow, the other 3 starters are under 25. In March, Baseball America ranked Toronto 5th in their organizational rankings. Toronto is done with being the team that finishes 4th or 5th in the division every year. If Toronto doesn’t make the playoffs this year, they will sooner rather than later.

My goal for last week was 4-2. The Angels did slightly worse, going 1-5. My goal for this week is simply a winning record, 4-3. Their first week long winning record would be a welcome sight.

Probable Pitchers, according to Angels’ official team site

Twins

Monday: CJ Wilson (2.42 ERA) vs Nick Blackburn (7.53)

Tuesday: Jerome Williams (5.51) vs Francisco Liriano (11.02!)

Wednesday: Jered Weaver (2.02) vs Liam Hendriks (6.89)

Blue Jays

Thursday: Dan Haren (3.34) vs Brandon Morrow (3.03)

Friday: Ervin Santana (6.16) vs Henderson Alvarez (3.62)

Saturday: Wilson vs Kyle Drabek (2.40)

Sunday: Williams vs Drew Hutchison (6.61)

3 Bold Reverse Psychology Predictions of the Week

1) Pujols won’t hit a home run.

2) Kevin Jepsen will walk guys in crucial situations.

3) Santana won’t be able to replicate his performance in Cleveland.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewkarcher

Games 20-22: Well That Stunk

April 30th, 2012

You folks may have noticed that I don’t typically write about the games during the weekend. I briefly touched on the Trout call-up on Saturday, but I save the recaps for Monday. This weekend I was scouting some minor league baseball, so I ended up catching up by watching the Angels play the Indians on MLB.tv for the past several hours.

The Angels dropped two of three to the Indians, who are a very underrated team. The Halos are now 7-15 and 5.5 games behind the Yankees, who currently occupy the second Wild Card spot. It hasn’t been pretty, and this weekend wasn’t much better.

The opening game of the series saw the Indians come out as victors by a score of 3-2. Justin Masterson and Jered Weaver battled, but the Angels’ bullpen did what it does best and blew the game. Weaver went six shutout innings, allowing seven hits, striking out eight, and walking four. Masterson tossed eight and a third innings, allowing four hits and two runs while striking out and walking five.

In the seventh inning Hisanori Takahashi allowed a pair of hits, one being a one-out, RBI double by Michael Brantley. Kevin Jepsen then came on and let the Indians knot it up with a single from Jason Kipnis. In the bottom of the ninth the Tribe bunched together a few hits against rookie David Carpenter and eventually won on a walkoff single from Asdrubal Cabrera.

The second game saw the promotion of Mike Trout. Trout was 0-for-4 in the game, but the story was Dan Haren, who pitched an eight inning gem. Haren struck out seven and walked two, and allowed only one run on four hits. The Angels put together two runs, which was enough as Scott Downs came in for the save in the ninth. The final score was 2-1.

Yesterday’s deciding game was brutal. Ervin Santana was really good. He tossed seven innings, and would have left the game unblemished if not for an error by Torii Hunter in the fifth inning. Hunter lost a ball in the sun that dropped and plated two for the Tribe. Mike Scioscia then solidified Cleveland’s lead by allowing Kevin Jepsen to pitch the eighth, when they scored another pair of runs. The Angels had no answers for Derek Lowe and lost the game by a final score of 4-0.

Things continue to be bad. The Trout promotion is a band-aid on a gun-shot wound. The team needs some help from relief and Albert Pujols, as well as Erick Aybar and Peter Bourjos, need to wake up for this team to make up that deficit for the Wild Card spot, much less the division crown.

Hudson Belinsky can be followed on Twitter at @hudsonbelinsky.

C’mon Man: A Look at Ervin Santana’s Early Struggles

April 29th, 2012

Santana gave up four home runs against Tampa Bay in his most recent start.

Ervin Santana has been awful so far this season. His strikeout and walk rates haven’t been too bad, but he has an outrageous home run rate to thank for his 7.23 ERA and even higher FIP. Per nine innings, Santana is giving up a ridiculous 3.8 schwingers. Ick.

Santana has given up 10 home runs this season and, luckily, seven of them have been solo shots. Of the 19 earned runs he’s allowed this season, 14 have come on the long ball. Why is Santana surrendering so many long balls?

Below is a look at each pitch that opposing hitters knocked out.

Start # Count Pitch type Velocity H Mvmt V Mvmt Batter Description
1 (3-1) Slider 86.2 2.75 0.31 Billy Butler Down the middle of the zone.
1 (0-0) Four-seam Fastball 92.3 -5.31 8.37 Eric Hosmer Down and away but in the zone.
2 (0-0) Four-seam Fastball 92 -5.73 8.48 Alex Rodriguez Right down the middle.
2 (2-1) Slider 81.9 2.52 -0.57 Curtis Granderson Right across the bottom of the zone.
3 (1-2) Slider 84.5 4.28 -0.72 Yoenis Cespedes Down the middle, a bit lower in the zone.
3 (2-1) Slider 81.5 3.9 -1.64 Jonny Gomes Down middle, across the bottom of the zone.
4 (3-2) Four-seam Fastball 92.8 0.04 10.92 Desmond Jennings Up (too high) and away (but above plate).
4 (3-2) Slider 78.7 6.72 1.46 Luke Scott Middle of zone, but inside.
4 (0-1) Four-seam Fastball 92.2 0.11 7.85 B.J. Upton Medium height, but away (off plate).
4 (1-1) Four-seam Fastball 93.1 -3.06 8.22 Carlos Pena Medium height, inside (still over plate though).

When you take away Santana’s home runs, he’s actually been really good. (I should win the Nobel Prize for statistical analysis.) Unfortunately, you can’t just erase the bad and keep the good. There are a few things we can notice about these pitches:

  1. Santana was only ahead in two of the counts.
  2. His pitches tended to be higher in the zone.*
  3. The standard deviations (in terms of velocity AND movement) of Santana’s home run pitches is rather significant.

*I could have included images to show you this, or the actual tabular data, but I felt that the images would have crowded the article and tabular data would be hard to contextualize.

Now, I don’t maintain my own Pitch F/X database (yet) so I’m not able to look at the standard deviation of each pitch to see what normal is for Santana, but imagine your pitches are breaking one inch less than normal and are either a notch faster or slower than normal. It’s easy to connect the dots and assume that your command is going to take a hit and perhaps you’ll leave balls that were supposed to be down, right down down the middle for hitters to have fun with.

So while the walk rate is not alarming, there does seem to be some command issues going on. Santana is either missing his spots, or his games are being called the wrong way, which could be a product of Chris Iannetta getting used to what works for Santana (Iannetta has been behind the plate for three of Santana’s four starts).

Angels fans may not care why bad things are happening, but this could be a sign that Santana is bound to turn things around and find the Santana of years past.

Hudson Belinsky can be followed on Twitter at @hudsonbelinsky.

“Stressing Over Scioscia”

April 29th, 2012

It wasn’t that long ago when “Angels baseball” proved so stressful on an opposing teams’ defenses and pitching staffs that it gained itself a moniker:  It was simply known throughout the game as “Angels baseball”.  If you were on the mound, playing defense or even coaching for the other squad, you met constant pressure.  It amounted to a never-ending flurry of base runners, line drives, stolen bags, and runs scored.  The vice clenching down and squeezing the breath out of opponents was the result of one man’s doing.

That was then.

“We’re just going through the motions.  We have to do what we’re capable of.  That’s all of us, not just the players.”  This is now.  Torii Hunter’s quote seemingly directed towards Mike Scioscia shows that Scioscia is still applying plenty of pressure on defense’s, pitchers and coaches, but this time they’re in the same dugout as he is.  “Angels baseball” has gone from the coolest thing to be a part of, a “players manager” led squad free-wheeling their way to big wins and division titles, to one of the most humid environments in the game where team leaders question the strategies of their manager and players-only meetings are taking place just three weeks into the season.  Trust me folks, it’s no longer cool under those bright red collars.  It is hot hot hot.

Mike Scioscia’s intensity is palpable. The man’s demeanor is that of a drill sergeant.  Does anyone think he’s any more chipper in his office before and after the games?  This guy hasn’t smiled during a ballgame in what seems like almost two years.  Add in the fact that only five players outside of the starting rotation know they are guaranteed to play every night, and you have the makings of, dare I say it, a manager losing his clubhouse.

Like any person who goes to work every day can tell you, the attitude of the boss typically harbors itself within the company.  This team is no different.  Players look tight, they look frozen in place, and none of them seem happy (remember who else isn’t chipper?).   These Angels are just reflecting the attitude of their boss, which, frankly should be flattering for any person in a position of leadership.  Having your people “doing as you do” is the ultimate compliment if you’re in management.  That’s why Scioscia has got to get out of his own way, and do so quickly.  He clearly has the ability to get his players to a level mentally where they can succeed at the very highest of levels, but right now that same enabling effect that can be so positive for a players psyche is working in the exact opposite fashion.  Instead of building, it’s constricting.  Instead of creating, it’s crippling.   And worst of all, the mega-pressure that once lied so heavily on the shoulders of the opposition is now pancaked directly on the backs of Scioscia’s guys.  Yes, the pressure is still the doing of only one man.

I want you to imagine what it would feel like to you if you had no idea where you would be put to work anytime you showed up to do your job. Keep in mind you were hired to do the work because the unique skill set that job required came naturally to you.  Now imagine if you had performed that job your entire life better than virtually every single person you had ever met or seen and that you had done it by sticking to what you considered a routine.  This is the feeling almost every single Angel player is greeted with each day when they arrive to the ballpark.  “Am I going to play today?  If so, what position will I play?  Where will Mike have me in the lineup?  Am I going to have to answer countless questions from the media about how this team is doing and why we’re not fulfilling pre-season expectations?  Most of all, if I don’t play well tonight, will tomorrow be the day I am no longer in the lineup, and will I be afforded the opportunity to dig myself out of any hole this game inevitably puts every player in at times?”   Glancing over at Mike in the dugout during games can’t exactly be a warming experience either.  The jersey Mike wears may say “Angels” but the expression he wears on his face says “TENSE”.

In order for this team to finally achieve its full potential, which obviously needs to start matriculating sooner rather than later or this season could be lost before the All Star break, the Angels need to RELAX.  They’ve got to settle in.  The calming effect necessary to produce the greatest results must come from the top.  Not the very top, that already happened.  Arte Moreno did his part when he dropped over $300 million on Albert Pujols and CJ Wilson.  Jerry Dipoto did his part by inking that talent and adding other key cogs to this team, namely Chris Iannetta and LaTroy Hawkins. He also completed the club-friendly extensions of Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar.  Now it’s up to Scioscia to let his team play free and easy.  He can start by rolling out a lineup that looks the same for the next several days.  He can build confidence in his everyday starters by proving to them that he believes they’re starters.  Position players need to play every day, that’s just the way this game of baseball has always worked.  So pick your best nine guys, find a home for them on the diamond and leave them there.  Quit messing with their heads.

Throw your players and us fans a bone and please get back to pressuring the other team instead of your own.  The results could put smiles on a lot of faces.  Maybe even your own, Mike.

In Trout We Trust: Trout Recalled, Abreu Released

April 28th, 2012

He’s been the brightest spot in the system since he took a field, and he made his debut last season, but Mike Trout will make his 2012 Angels debut today, if and when this game ever gets going.

Trout’s tools are off-the-charts. His hit tool, speed tool, and field tool all rate as plus to plus-plus AND he has average power to go along with a fringy arm that will be just fine in left field.

Bobby Abreu was a great player, but his prime gets further away every day. He still has a chance to be a fourth outfielder somewhere, and he should land somewhere before long.

Trout’s promotion pushes Vernon Wells to the bench, a move that was long overdue. Nothing, however, in this game is ever guaranteed and a poor showing from Trout (while doubtful) could re-open the conversation. But today is Mike Trout’s day. Let’s hope he can become the exciting player everyone thinks he can.

Hudson Belinsky can be followed on Twitter at @hudsonbelinsky.

Halos Daily

Dedicated to bringing you top-notch Angels analysis!