(Long, grateful, meditative sigh) The Angels pitching staff. Home grown and generally youthful, the way it ought to be. With the ability to carry the team, this cast of characters is one of the most complete in the MLB.
It is hard to deny their ability to produce as a whole. They were first in the MLB in wins with 73, second in IP, and they were third in the AL with a 1.31 WHIP. A very dominating performance indeed.
While many are quick to point out the depth of the SP staff as a possible problem , the starting five is concrete. The pitching staff is looking to be the vigor of the squad once again this year with open arms and more experience.
I'll mention him first because I feel like he would want it to be that way. He is the definition of a gamer. He has embraced pressure and expectations, from his Texas State Championship as a quarterback in high school to his World Series Game 7 victory in 2002 (given, it was a home game).
A relatively short 2008 season produced more than adequate, if not preferred, results (12-5, 3.75 ERA), including three complete games and a very near no-hitter against Boston).
An unassailable first half of the season almost propelled Lackey into the All-Star game> Despite missing the first month of the season, Lackey went a 6-2 record and a 2.56 ERA. His second half of the season was less than par for the course however, as he compiled a 4.99 ERA in 13 games. That split is no joke.
There was a stark increase in home runs allowed last year as Lackey gave up 26 long balls, including 17 in the second half. And when compared to 2007 (18) and 2006 (14), this number really stands out.
While it has become less and less evident in the past years, Lackey has been known to have a problem with the big inning, and an elevating home run allowed rate is not conducive towards the assumption that he is overcoming this problem.
Lackey sometimes becomes a victim of his own devices, allowing his bulldog demeanor to get in the way of the game. He becomes cocky and forgets about pitch selection, instead trying to over power an opponent.
He refuses to admit when he's falling behind and continues to pound away trying to regain control of the situation, often leading to home run balls.
Stat analysts seem to predict a rather similar, and somewhat regressive, season from Big John in 2009, despite an entrance into his prime at 30-years old.
This is probably attributed to his shoddy second half, but the real tell tale sign will reside in his health. A healthy John Lackey will produce. Terrific pitching sense, overwhelming/domineering size, and a bulldog attitude all make for a more than proficient ace on a contending team.
I have no reason to believe John Lackey has slowed down at all. He is coming into Spring Training healthy, and he is entering a contract year. There are no sore thumbs in Lackey's advanced stats, and word coming out of camp is John Lackey is looking healthy and taking precautions to make sure it stays that way. Win-Loss: 16-7, ERA: 3.65
Ervin Santana has plus-plus stuff. His fastball resides in the mid-to-high 90s and his slider confused right and left-handers alike. Movement, precision, and speed all seem to be in Santana's repertoire, making him one of the most imposing up and comers in the game. The fact that he is the youngest player with 50 wins reiterates this.
Throughout his entire career, Santana enjoyed relative success except for one aspect, away games in 2007. Santana put up a piteous 1-10 record with an ERA over eight, delegating him to the minors for part of the season.
Then again, he was only 25.
But what difference does one year make? Over five runs a game in this case.
Santana was able to defeat a weakness and put up great 2008 numbers, going 11-2 with a 3.02 ERA on the road. Woah.
The key to Santana’s success is controlling his nasty stuff. When Santana has control of his slider, he has control of the game. One of the biggest differences between the '07 and '08 season was his use of this particular pitch.
In '07, Santana used his under performing slider 25 percent of the time. As I am sure all Angels' fans know by now, the problem was all in the hips. He was forced to rely on his backend pitches, which tended to be unrefined and generally unsuccessful.
In '08, Santana corrected the problem (keep the hip closed Ervin!) and saw great success in his slider, allowing him to use it 33 percent of the time. Mixed with an average fastball usage of around 60 percent, that’s over 90 percent of dominant, above average pitching.
An ever-improving change up of course also helped, but those two pitches working together harmoniously shut down opposing line ups..
His control dependency is also evidenced by his ridiculous K/BB ratio of 4.55, compared to 2.17 in '07.
It's safe to say that Santana's success is dependent on his slider. No slider means less confidence, which in addition to the pressures of the road, leads to getting knocked around. When the slider is working, he's almost unhittable.
Santana was a top-level pitcher in numerous categories including strikeouts, K/BB Ratio, ERA, wins, IP, and WHIP. That is dominant. The only starting pitchers in the AL who had a better WHIP than Santana in '08 were Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. If Santana's slider is on, then he will be on, and let me tell you, it's on. Win-Loss: 18-5, ERA: 3.20
Jared Weaver is the future. That being said, we are waiting for him in the present.
Weaver fell into the hands of the Angels in the draft after a Golden Spikes caliber year with Long Beach State, and anyone who spends any time watching the man pitch can see both potential and progression, a lovely combination really.
When you look at the numbers side by side, Weaver is actually progressing at the same rate as ace John Lackey, if not faster. If this holds to be true this year, than watch out. Lackey finally put it together in his fourth year and had his break out season.
His strikeouts are up (which he is known for by the way. It was one of the reasons he won the Golden Spikes award), and he's inducing a higher rate of infield fly balls, which typically alludes to terrible contact by the batter.
The problem, however, has never really been what he can do out on the mound as much as it is how long he can do it for. During his three-year tenure with the Halos, he has yet to approach 200 innings.
Mike Scioscia has incessantly repeated that he is looking for Weaver to give him more innings, which is the sign of a maturing pitcher.
And so, Weaver is entering camp this year with a purpose, determined to reach 200 innings. He has vastly improved his health and workout regimen in the name of this goal. The longer he spends on the mound, the more time to iron out the inconsistencies that have defined his career thus far.
In addition, Weaver will need to put everything he has learned from the bigs together, and mix it with an agresssive attitude.
Too many times last year it seemed as if he was shying away from a pitch or his eyes were screaming, "Please take me out!" A quick start could put his attitude in the right place, hopefully setting the tone for the whole year.
The time is now for Weaver. He is in his fourth year—third full year—and is quickly losing his "still new to the game" slack. His number progressions suggest a big year. New aggression and more maturity will do him, and most importantly the Angels, good. Win-Loss: 15-8, ERA: 3.75
The fact that I have to put Joe in the fourth spot represents the capacity of the Angels starting rotation.
Saunders went to the All-Star game last year. He was a 17-game winner! He arguably ended the season with the best stats of all the pitchers on the staff.
Baseball insiders have been shocked at such a good season out of a pitcher of Saunder’s caliber and never saw it coming. They thought it was a fluke year, never seeing success come out of his hand before.
Impressively however, Saunders went 10-4 with a sub-3 ERA with the Angels Triple-A affiliate (RIP John Miller, owner) in the Pacific Coast League in 2006. The fact that Saunders parlayed his less than over powering stuff into such a successful year in such a notoriously hitting friendly league speaks volumes of his ability to pitch.
Statisticians are quick to deem last season a fluke due to peripheral stats, but Angel’s fans know what is wrong with that assessment.
If there were a stat that measured a pitcher's ability to have a short memory and keep composed, Saunders would be near the top. His ability to bounce back and get out of jams, while dangerous, is obviously effective.
Saunder's uses pitch selection and location to get effective results. In a recent rating on the "clutchness" of pitchers, Saunders was the eighth-rated pitcher in the majors, right in front of fellow "get-out-of-jams" pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka. When the going gets tough, Saunders gets going.
Due to the risk involved with Saunders, he is the most likely candidate on this staff to regress in numbers. If his control is off, there is not much for Joe to fall back on to carry him through the game. That being said, when he has command of his pitches, he's one of the top pitchers in the league, often holding offenses to two runs or less. Win-Loss: 14-10, ERA: 3.95
Fifth Spot of Rotation-
The fifth spot of the rotation is for the fans. When I say that, I mean it will be the best competition coming into spring training, with over five players in total competing for the job. Competition is my favorite.
It may be a temporary stay for the victor however, and it may be more temporary then they previously thought. Why?
Escobar is currently on the DL. He went through a nasty shoulder problem (labrum) about a year ago that understandably reduced him to tears, wondering if he was ever to play again.
He was out for the entire year last year, and underwent surgery and had a return date set for just after the 2009 All-Star break.
Things have changed. Word coming out of camp is Escobar is way ahead of schedule. He was already participating in long toss drills when the team reconvened, and is now throwing off a mound with no pain.
The Angels are reevaluating Escobar’s progress in order to set a new timetable for return, which they believe will be much sooner than they previously thought.
Many would expect Kelvim's speed to be reduced due to such a dramatic surgery, but that appears to not be the case.
Catchers on the team have been commenting on how smooth and comfortable the ball is coming out his hand already. They report good life on his pitches as well.
There is of course no way he Escobar will be back for Opening Day, so that begs the question- Who will start off the season in the fifth spot? Well, that is what Spring Training is for.
Dustin Moseley, Nick Adenhart, and Anthony Ortega will be among the favorites to earn the spot.
Moseley has the most major league experience and success, but can be a rather exasperating pitcher at times. He is a youthful groundball pitcher who sometimes struggles to keep his pitches down. When his balls float up, he gets shelled.
But late success after a humbling start to the season has shown signs of promise. He has enough good performances for the Angels, including key wins with playoff implications.
Adenhart is probably the most exciting contender. At only 23-years old, he has been touted as the next Angels ace while skyrocketing through the minors.
However, there is no doubt he has control problems. His first Major League experiences reflected this. Granted he was the second youngest player in the Majors at the time of his start (Justin Upton of Arizona being the youngest).
Adenhart actually got off to a smoking start in AAA last year, but stumbled after his somewhat disappointing performance in the show. Spring Training will assess his progress and Scioscia will take it from there, with no reservations about sending him back down if needed for further development (remember he is only 23).
There is no denying his filthy (some say best in the system) curve ball and plus fastball, but if he cannot control his pitches, he falls apart.
Ortega burst on the scene after a little skyrocketing of his own through the minors. He outperformed the field in Double A, and then duplicated the results in Triple A (5-0, 2.92 ERA) at only 23-years old. While some may consider him the underdog, a solid spring will at least give him a shot at covering for Escobar.
Escobar will be back; the question is in how long? Or maybe I should say how short? Until then, the youthful guys will get a fair chance at earning some IP on the Major League level. Moseley is probably the frontrunner, but his sustainability will depend on his results. Spring Training will help iron this out. Win-Loss: 10-13, ERA: 4.30 overall
The Angels are obviously in a good position with their pitching staff. It is clearly the strength of the team, and Mike Scioscia will look for them to duplicate last year's overall performance (first in total wins, second in quality starts), if not improve.
Even slight underperformance would still be a strong showing by this imposing staff. Last year, they were masters at giving up three runs or less, which is key to racking up victories for the Angels and their small ball offense.
While it may be true that the depth is not there beyond the starting five, this is not necessarily a barrier. First of all, they will have depth once Escobar makes his way back.
Second, the Angels have room financially and surpluses all over the field to make a deal for a pitcher at some point of the season if need be.
The Angels will be all smiles about their pitching staff when Opening Day arrives. Let's just hope the rest of the team can say the same thing.
(Look out for my continuation of the in-depth look at the Los Angeles Angels later in the week. Next, I will take a look at infielders)