Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler, for my money the best middle infield in baseball
After going 6-1 last week to elevate themselves to second place in the AL West, this is perhaps the most important week of the early season for the Angels, as they host AL powers New York and Texas for six games. It’s safe to say last week was the Angels’ best week thus far. The starters dominated a few games and the offense picked the pitching up in games when the starting pitcher struggled. Through it all the bullpen continued to excel; in May the Angels’ bullpen has a 2.41 ERA, 5th best in the AL. It’s likely not chance that this coincides with the Ernesto Frieri acquisition on May 3, who in his 11 innings with the Angels hasn’t allowed a run and has struck out 23 batters. As I’ve annoyingly mentioned multiple times to anyone that is willing to listen, the Angels’ pen doesn’t need to be great. The Angels have the best starter ERA in the American League as well as the most innings pitched, so the bullpen merely needs to be passable. Since Frieri was acquired the bullpen has been good and, at times, great.
The Angels open the week with three road games at home versus the Yankees. Technically the games are at the Angels’ home ballpark, but if you’ve ever been to an Angels-Yankees contest at Angel Stadium you know the crowd is pretty even and quite often the Yankee
bandwagon transplant fans drown out the mild-tempered Angels supporters. Derek Jeter traditionally gets the loudest reaction: in addition to the brave Angels fans that boo, there are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of women cheering hoping the renowned Yankee bachelor will, indeed, forgo Minka Kelly in favor of them, the one eating supreme nachos wearing a stained Got Rings? T-shirt. You have to admire their want.*
* Credit to Jason Parks (@professorparks).
Like the Angels, the Yankees started slowly before taking advantage of some weak competition last week, as they enter the 3-game set with the Angels on a 5-game winning streak. In addition to some tough pitching injuries (Mariano Rivera and Michael Pineda are done for the year), the Yankees have unexpectedly struggled to score runs, at least by their standards; they currently sit 6th in the AL in runs scored. Robinson Cano has continued to be one of the game’s elite players (.368 wOBA), Jeter is hitting a BABIP-aided .338 when he isn’t fleeing armies of lady fans, and Curtis Granderson has resumed his torrid 2011 home run pace (14 so far).
So who’s the problem? Two candidates for the early season offensive slumber** are Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher. Teixeira, the former Angels rental, has struggled to hit for average for the third season in a row. Much of his production comes from home runs and walks, but as he ages it’s going to be difficult for him to hit with the kind of power we expect from him. And this year, he’s not walking as much as he used to (only a 7.5% rate compared to 11.4% on his career). So while his average this year (.254) almost mirrors his 2011 .248 average, his overall value is significantly worse than prior seasons due to the decreased walk rate. His .334 wOBA simply doesn’t cut it for a first basemen making as much money as he does.***
** Again, this is relative to what we expect from a Yankees lineup of the past decade. Obviously, the Angels would kill for Yankee offensive production.
*** Yes I know Albert Pujols’ wOBA is worse while making more money. His numbers don’t cut it either.
Similarly, Nick Swisher has just stopped walking. Once the apple of Billy Beane’s OBP-seeking eyes in Moneyball (the book), Swisher found his niche as an irritant to pitchers, a guy that will hit for power but is just as happy taking a free pass to first base (13.3% walk rate and 15% last season). But this season, Swisher’s walk rate has tumbled down to 7.5%. Since Swisher has never been a high batting average player (.253 career), if he isn’t walking his value is severely limited. While he is usually about a 3-4 WAR player, through nearly two months Swisher’s fWAR is only 0.4.
After the Yankees leave town, the Angels welcome division foe Texas to Anaheim, a team that scores runs in their sleep. Entering this week the Angels trail Texas by 6.5 games. Needless to say, a series victory may be essential to catching the mighty Rangers. The Rangers remain, in my opinion, the class of MLB. I’ve thought this since their hot start and haven’t seen a reason to change my opinion since. They’ve scored the most runs in baseball (21 more than any other team) and own the best overall ERA in the American League. Not surprisingly, they own MLB’s best run differential at +97, 34 runs better than second place St. Louis.
It’s hard to pick a couple guys to focus on because the whole team is so ridiculous, but let me give Elvis Andrus a shout out. Andrus will never kill you via home run as he has only 12 in his career, which is a mediocre Josh Hamilton week. But what he lacks in power he makes up for in virtually every other facet of the game. He’s stolen 8 bases so far this season and saved 4 runs on defense. He’s batting .305, and while his .348 BABIP will likely regress, his speed might prevent it from regressing as much as you’d think. He’s improved his walk rate this season to 10.9% against his 8.8% career rate. Even though I don’t really believe in runs as a viable stat, Andrus already has 32, fifth best in the AL. And remember, he rarely drives himself in. Andrus’ .385 OBP is a huge reason the Rangers offense is a machine. Josh Hamilton is having a potentially historic season, so Andrus’ ability to get on base this season via improved hitting and plate discipline allows Hamilton to drive in more runs every time he clears the fences. And let’s remember, Andrus doesn’t turn 24 until August. In the non-Tulowitzki division, you’d be hard pressed to find a better shortstop to build your team around than Andrus. He’s everything Angels fans want Erick Aybar to be.
A 6.5-game deficit with 3/4 of the season remaining and 16 games left against the team you’re chasing isn’t impossible by any stretch, but it means the Angels have to play damn good baseball from here on out. If the Angels want to be considered one of the best teams in baseball and not just a pretender that took advantage of a soft schedule last week, they need to take care of business at home against two teams that have October plans.
Pitching Probables, according to ESPN
Monday: Jered Weaver (2.61 ERA) vs Phil Hughes (4.94). Few things are better than a holiday weekend with baseball.
Tuesday: Dan Haren (3.76) vs Andy Pettitte (2.53). No seriously, Pettitte is pitching. Embrace the power of the cleft chin.
Wednesday: Ervin Santana (4.45) vs Ivan “Exhibit ‘A’ Why Wins are a Pointless Stat” Nova (5.46)
Friday: Jerome Williams (3.81) vs Colby Lewis (3.58)
Saturday: CJ Wilson (2.77) vs Yu Darvish (3.25). The baseball gods are going to demand this matchup occur until the end of time. Also, Angel Stadium is passing out cowboy hats with the idea being they’re going to set a Guinness World Record for largest group of people wearing cowboy hats. See, it’s tradition like this you wouldn’t get at Fenway Park.
Sunday: Weaver vs Matt Harrison (4.72)
3 Theme-less Bold Predictions for the Week
1) CJ Wilson struts out to the mound wearing a cowboy hat, tells Ian Kinsler he’s his huckleberry. He proceeds to strike out 20, all while wearing the cowboy hat.
2) A drunk fan taunts Alex Rodriguez by using the clever and never-used-before moniker “A-Roid.” It’s all very hilarious and everyone laughs because it’s never been used before.
3) The Angels score double-digit runs on Monday.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewkarcher