That sounds obvious, but you won’t believe the amount of people that make April baseball seem like this inconsequential prelude to the NBA playoffs. In the car yesterday I had the dial turned to AM 830, the local Angels radio network in the LA/OC area. I rarely listen to sports radio, but it was better than the Top 40 tripe filling the FM stations at the time. My suspicions were confirmed when the host was lauding pitcher wins and comparing the first half of Jered Weaver’s 2012 season to Sandy Koufax, conveniently not mentioning Weaver’s 3.72 post-All Star Break ERA.
Anyway, several minutes later a a guest came on. The host asked the guest if he thought the Angels poor start in 2012 affected them throughout the year. The guest said something to the effect of “well people always like to say the games in April count just as much as the games in September but I think the poor start negatively impacted the team mentally more than anything.” While I do believe that early season struggles can negatively influence a roster’s mental health, the statement amazed me. The guest acted as if April is just glorified Spring Training games, ignoring the more tangible effects of a poor April. As of April 30, 2012, the Angels were 8-15, nine games behind first place Texas. That was it. The division chase was done. I think we all kind of knew it if we were being honest with ourselves, but the grim reality of a season with such high hopes being rendered “over” in the span of three weeks is a tough pill to swallow. Sure, the Angels made their runs over the course of the year, but over the span of 140 games nine games is a ton to make up. For as awesome as Mike Trout was and as helpful as their midseason deals for Ernesto Frieri and Zack Greinke were, the Angels still finished four games behind Texas (and five games behind first place Oakland). Because April happened.
This year a strong April (or at least an April that isn’t a total clunker) is imperative, given how strong the AL West is. The start of the season won’t be easy, as they open against one of the three best teams in the National League, the Cincinnati Reds.* The Reds won 97 games last season en route to an NL Central title before being bounced in the NLDS by the Giants, the eventual World Series champs.
The Reds may be a better team in 2013 while losing more games. For one, their Pythagorean record in 2012 (which takes a team’s run differential and spits out an expected record) was that of a 91-win club. Secondly, they don’t have 15 games against the Astros. But still, the Reds possess one of the more balanced teams in baseball. The offense features Joey Votto, arguably the best hitter on the planet and owner of a sparkling .474 OBP (!) in 2012. During the offseason, the team dealt for Indians outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and his career .370 wOBA. Third baseman Todd Frazier, entering his age-27 season, finished third in National League Rookie of the Year balloting last year.
The Red’s greatest strength may lie in their pitching staff, whose 3.34 ERA last year tied them with the more vaunted Nationals staff. Johnny Cueto (who struck out nine Angels on Monday) is the staff ace, his 3.27 FIP the 11th best mark in baseball last year. Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, and Bronson Arroyo all threw over 200 innings last year and were worth at least 2.5 fWAR. Meanwhile, the bullpen’s 2.65 ERA was the best in the majors. The back end of the pen is loaded thanks to Sean Marshall (2.24 FIP), Jonathan Broxton (2.42 FIP), and some guy named Aroldis Chapman, who only struck out 15.32 batters per nine innings last year. Chapman’s 3.3 fWAR was more than any Angel starter last year. I don’t know if that speaks to how poor the Angels’ rotation was in 2012 or how ridiculous Chapman is. Probably both.
A subplot to this series is Josh Hamilton’s return to the Reds, the team he made his MLB debut with in 2007 after a drug addiction nearly ended his career before it even started. In 90 games that year, Hamilton flashed the immense talent that scouts drooled over when he was taken first overall by the Rays in 1999. Hamilton, worth 2.4 fWAR in 2007 for the Reds, was traded to the Rangers after the season for Edinson Volquez. Volquez excelled in 2008 and has since struggled between his time in Cincinnati and San Diego. Hamilton, as we know, won the 2010 MVP and helped guide the Rangers to two AL pennants.
Conveniently, Hamilton doesn’t have to wait long to visit his old pals in Arlington. The Angels close the week with a three-game set against one of their key rivals for the division crown. The Rangers had a rough offseason but will still be an extremely tough team to beat thanks to a still-effective offense, a loaded bullpen, and a stacked top of the rotation. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss the Rangers as this season unfolds.
The Angels are 1-0. Against two very good clubs this week on the road, every win will be a nice way to build some early season success and good will in the standings.
Probable Pitchers, according to ESPN
Wednesday: CJ Wilson vs Mat Latos
Thursday: Joe Blanton vs Bronson Arroyo
Friday: Jason Vargas vs Derek Holland
Saturday: Tommy Hanson vs Matt Harrison
Sunday: Jered Weaver vs Yu Darvish
3 Bold Predictions. Yes I’m doing this again.
1) Chris Iannetta will hit the first home run for the Angels this year.
2) The Rangers will win the AL West. The Angels will snag one of the Wild Cards.
3) Tigers over Nationals in the World Series. So now of course it will be Pirates over Royals.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewkarcher.