With 82 games in the books and the All-Star Game right around the corner, now is as good a time as any to assess the Angels’ performance during the first half of the season.
Much was expected when the Halos took the field on opening day against the Royals two months ago.
The team was coming off a blistering spring training in which its offense battered baseballs all over Arizona and on paper the starting rotation was looking like the envy of the rest of the league.
Fast forward three months, and the Angels find themselves in the thick of the playoff hunt, tied for the top wild card spot and five games behind the division-leading Texas Rangers. But while the end result seems on par with expectations, the journey to get there was anything but.
Where do we begin? Since I’m a firm believer that pitching wins championships, we’ll start
Despite a trip to the disabled list in May, Jered Weaver is once again having a dominant season as the team’s unquestioned ace. He’s 9-1 with a Major League-leading 2.13 ERA and has a 0.94 WHIP, tops in the American League.
C.J. Wilson has been everything as advertised, posting a 9-4 record with a 2.33 ERA, good for fifth best in all of baseball. Together those two have carried the Angels to their current standing as a playoff team if the season ended today.
The fact that the team is even in playoff contention is a bit of a surprise given the fact that, through injury and ineffectiveness, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana have been big disappointments this year. Haren is 6-8 with a 4.86 ERA and Santana has been even worse, going 4-9 with a 5.75 ERA and failing to make it out of the second inning in his most recent start.
Together, those two pitchers have given up as many home runs (36) as every other pitcher on the team combined despite pitching 300 less innings. Over the past month, opponents are batting .364 against Haren, while Santana looks more and more like the pitcher who got demoted to AAA in 2007 than he does the three-time 16-game winner the Angels were counting on.
Haren recently admitted what most already suspected, that his back was bothering him more than he was letting on. Santana, meanwhile, has no such excuse to fall back on. This is the same guy who, less than a month ago, tossed a complete game one-hitter against Arizona and then followed that
up with eight innings of four-hit ball against the then-division leading Dodgers, a game in which he struck out 10 while earning a no-decision.
Given Haren and Santana’s struggles, the expectations for the Angels’ fifth starter have gone up considerably. When the season started, the team was hoping its fifth starter—Jerome Williams at the time—would be an innings eater who kept his bullpen off the field and his team in the game.
Williams was filling that role nicely, posting six quality starts out of his last 10 appearances, but that is no longer good enough if the team wants to make the postseason. Garrett Richards had looked impressive through four starts filling in for Williams while Williams recovered from an injury but was knocked around by Toronto in his last start.
As the second half of the season gets underway, it’ll be interesting to see which of these four pitchers (Haren, Santana, Williams and Richards) takes the remaining three slots. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Haren end up on the DL or Santana in the bullpen.
Maybe the Angels pick up another starter via trade. Those are questions for the second half. As to its first half grade, the starting rotation gets a B-.
The Angels had questions in this area when the season started, and it didn’t take long for them to be answered. Chief among them was could young fireballer Jordan Walden be the closer, the answer to which was a resounding “no.”
Recognizing the need to address this issue sooner rather than later, Angels’ GM Jerry DiPoto acted swiftly and decisively, trading a pair of minor leaguers to the Padres for reliever Ernesto Frieri.
If you didn’t know about Frieri before the trade, you certainly got to know about him afterwards, as all he’s done since joining the team is post 42 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings of work while not allowing a
run. More importantly, his arrival solidified the bullpen and allowed others to settle in to roles that better suit them.
As a result, the team has a potent one-two punch at closer between Frieri and Scott Downs and reliable setup men in veterans LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen, while Walden and
the others provide valuable middle relief options when needed.
What began looking like a jumbled mess when the season started is now one of the strengths of a playoff contender, and for that the bullpen gets a first-half grade of A-.
As expected, the Angels have an MVP candidate in their lineup. But it’s not Albert Pujols. They also have someone among the league leaders in both home runs and RBI. But it’s not Albert Pujols.
In fact, with the exception of doubles (21—good for 9th in the AL) you won’t find Pujols’ name anywhere among the league leaders in any offensive categories. He didn’t even make the All-Star team.
But Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo did, and it is largely because of their play that the team remains in playoff contention despite getting below-average contributions from several everyday players.
The first half was essentially a tale of two seasons. The first season was a disaster. It featured a leadoff hitter who couldn’t get on base (Peter Bourjos, Erick Aybar, etc.), a number two hitter who wasn’t hitting (Howie Kendrick) and a number three hitter mired in the worst slump of his otherwise Hall of Fame career (Pujols).
It also had a formerly potent slugger struggling to regain his pre-injury swing (Kendrys Morales), a promising young power hitter failing to match last season’s breakout campaign due a position switch he was forced into (Trumbo), and a pair of aging outfielders who were ill-suited for their roles as middle-of-the-order hitters (Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells). And don’t get me started on the bottom third of the lineup, whose offense was non-existent.
Then, a series of events occurred, literally within days of each other, and the offense was completely re-made. Wells got hurt, facilitating Trout’s call-up. Hunter had to leave the team for personal reasons, putting Trumbo back in the lineup at a position (right/left field) he was comfortable with. Hitting Coach Mickey Hatcher was fired, which for whatever reason snapped Pujols’ six-week slump.
Two months later, the team has the aforementioned MVP candidate and potential batting champion Trout leading off, Hunter excelling as the number two hitter, Pujols and Trumbo crushing the ball, Morales settling in as DH, and even the bottom third of the lineup, now featuring Aybar, last season’s leading hitter Alberto Callaspo and fill-in catcher John Hester producing.
As a result, the team has moved from the bottom of the American League West with one of the worst records in baseball to playoff contention. For that, the offense earns a B+.
Solid to spectacular is the phrase that comes to mind with regards to the Angels’ defense this year. Pujols has been a rock at first base and Trout has been Edmonds-like in the outfield. When Bourjos was playing, he was without peer in center field and Callaspo has been a vacuum at third base. Aybar has struggled at SS coming off his 2011 Gold Glove Award and Kendrick has room for improvement
at second base.
Hunter has lost a step in the outfield but still manages to make the plays he is supposed to, and Trumbo is gaining more confidence every day as an outfielder. Behind the plate is still a concern as
opponents continue to run on the Angels with great success, but with Iannetta hopefully returning soon, those numbers could improve as well. Still, for the first half, the defense gets a solid B from me.
After struggling to find a winning combination, manager Mike Scioscia finally hit on a lineup that is producing up to expectations. Moving Hunter to the number two spot in the lineup was genius, as he is getting the same steady diet of fastballs as Howie Kendrick was, only Hunter is turning on them and spraying them all over the field.
As a result, Pujols is coming up with runners on base more often than he was in April and getting better pitches to hit. Kendrick, for his part, looks more comfortable hitting lower in the order.
And the benefits of getting Trumbo in the lineup every day speak for themselves with his All-Star selection even more validation that this guy is an absolute stud.
DiPoto’s trade for Frieri essentially saved the season as far as I’m concerned. And there’s no denying that the firing of Mickey Hatcher, unpopular as it was among Angel fans at the time, served as a wakeup call and catalyst to the team’s resurgence. For those moves, and Scioscia’s, I give the coaching and front office a B+.
The goal is to win the World Series, and you can't do that if you don't make the playoffs. The Angels are right there among several teams in the hunt. If they were leading the West by five games instead of trailing, we’d all feel much better, I’m sure.
But given their disastrous start, the fact that they are even this close is amazing. A lot went wrong in the first half, but plenty went right. And they are certainly trending in the right direction. For that, and all of the above, the team gets an overall grade of B. Good, but room to improve...