The Angels start Week 20 in fifth place in the wild card standings, two games behind Baltimore for the second spot. In case you were wondering, they currently sit eight games behind Texas for the AL West lead, so if it wasn’t apparent a week ago that the Angels aren’t winning the division, then now it should be. I chuckle now when the Angels broadcasters say things like “welp Texas lost so the Angels could gain some ground tonight,” which is technically true but also misguided. Tampa Bay’s and St. Louis’ miracle runs last year are the exception, and while an Angels comeback wouldn’t be as dramatic, they would still enter territory few teams in the game’s history have ever approached. In conclusion: the Angels aren’t winning the division, no reason to pretend.
That doesn’t mean the Angels are bad or doomed for next year. It simply means Texas is better and the Angels’ perceived strength, starting pitching, has inexplicably turned into a mediocre mess. Say what you will about Albert Pujols and his elephantine contract but when simply looking at 2012, Pujols is an upgrade at first base over 2011 options. Pujols’ arrival moved Trumbo to left field (upgrade over Vernon Wells), Kendrys Morales hasn’t been in 2009 form but he’s still a DH upgrade over Bobby Abreu, Mike Trout > Peter Bourjos, Chris Iannetta when healthy puts Jeff Mathis to shame. That’s five lineup positions the Angels upgraded in one year and the efforts have been fruitful: in 2011 the Angels’ .314 wOBA ranked 9th in the AL, this year’s group has posted a .331 wOBA, third best in the AL.
The starting pitching — the one aspect of the Angels everyone in the baseball universe agreed upon and salivated over in the preseason — is bringing the team down. Despite adding CJ Wilson to a staff that had the second best AL ERA in 2011, the Angel starters have fared significantly worse, allowing an extra half-run in 2012. Jered Weaver has been spectacular, but after him the rotation is hit or miss. Dan Haren’s ERA+ is 36 points off his career pace, Ervin Santana is 21 off his career norms (and nearly 50 off his very good 2011 campaign), and Wilson is 38 points lower than his 2011 season in Texas.
Again, the Angels’ were universally praised for building this rotation. Dave Cameron at Fangraphs even ranked the Angels starting staff the best in baseball back in March. So can we really blame Jerry Dipoto for the current pitching? We can blame the Angels for not having proper organizational depth in case of injury*, but the Angels starters have been relatively unscathed by the injury bug, with Weaver and Haren’s singular 15-day DL stint representing all the missed time for the rotation.
* Contrast them to the A’s, who have used 9 different starting pitchers (5 of them rookies!) and have the best pitching in the league.
On paper the 2012 Angels are a disaster, currently out of the playoffs and only five games over .500. The bullpen isn’t good, but it’s also not the historically bad iteration we’ve seen in April and now August, nor is it the the unit that posted a 2.34 ERA in June; the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The bullpen has lost games, but the starters haven’t put the bullpen in position to succeed either, consistently throwing short outings due to ineffectiveness or inefficiency**. The good news for the Angels is that the rotation talent is there. Weaver is a potential Cy Young winner, Haren has looked pretty good in three of his four post-DL starts, Wilson is due for some positive regression, Santana doesn’t look like a disaster anymore, and Zack Greinke is a significant upgrade over Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards.
** In 2011, Angels starters averaged 6.44 innings per start. In 2012, they’re averaging 6.12. That may not sound like a steep decline, but over 162 games that’s about 52 more innings you’re allotting to the bullpen. 52 more innings of Hisanori Takahashi and Jason Isringhausen will lead to more losses.
The season has been a disappointment and heads will roll if the Angels don’t make the playoffs, but if the pitching was preordained to underperform this much, then there’s really nothing that Dipoto and company could have done to improve the 2012 Angels.
As for this week, the Angels cap a 10-game homestand before hitting the road for a difficult trip. First up is the Cleveland Indians, a team that fancied itself a playoff contender a couple months ago but now has the third worst run differential in baseball, thanks in large part to a recent 11-game losing streak. This is the type of series a playoff contender wins and should regularly sweep, so the Angels really need this series before the schedule toughens up. The same could have been said for Seattle over the weekend so I’m not holding my breath, but still.
The Angels close the week with a 4-game series against the Rays. As I surmised a couple weeks ago when the Angels played the Rays, Tampa seemed like a good bet to go on a run because of their strong pitching, underachieving offense, and Evan Longoria’s return. The Rays then used that series victory over the Angels to propel them on an 11-2 run that took them to the wild card lead. The scary thing is that since his return, Longoria has struggled. In only 6 games, he has a .254 wOBA. He’s better than that, so when he starts hitting the Rays are dangerous. I’ve liked their team all year so I like their chances to grab one of those wild card spots. That leaves one spot open to the Angels, A’s, AL Central second place finisher, Baltimore, and maybe Boston if they can go on a run.
Five teams for one spot. The odds aren’t in the Angels’ favor, but if the starting pitching regains early-2012 or 2011 form, the Angels are a tough out every night. This week will say a lot about where the Angels stand in the playoff mix.
Probable Pitchers, according to ESPN
Monday: CJ Wilson (3.34 ERA) vs Justin Masterson (4.68)
Tuesday: Zack Greinke (3.74) vs Ubaldo Jimenez (5.25)
Wednesday: Ervin Santana (5.82) vs Roberto Hernandez, but you probably know him better as Fausto Carmona (season debut)
Thursday: Dan Haren (4.68) vs David Price, one of the top Cy Young contenders (2.50)
Friday: Jered Weaver (2.22) vs James Shields (4.02)
Saturday: Wilson vs Alex Cobb (4.32)
Sunday: Greinke vs Matt Moore (3.73)
3 Bold Predictions
1) Mark Trumbo finds his power stroke again, hits 3 home runs.
2) Lakers over Heat in 7 games next June.
3) The Expendables 3 needs Steven Seagal. That’s not a prediction so much as a demand.