If the baseball gods are kind, they'll put the Los Angeles Angels and the Toronto Blue Jays in the 2013 American League Championship Series.
Time and the baseball gods could prove that the Angels and the Blue Jays are not the class of the American League, but it sure feels like they are now. The Blue Jays have added several stars to their roster with a flurry of moves this offseason, the most recent of which was the R.A. Dickey trade. Not to be outdone, the Angels added 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton to a lineup that was already loaded.
On paper, the Blue Jays are clearly the team to beat in the AL East. The Angels are not head-and-shoulders above than any one team in the AL West after adding Hamilton, but they could ride their strong offense to the division title that eluded them in 2012.
Making the postseason in 2013 would appear to be a mere formality for both clubs (famous last words, to be sure). If they were to meet each other in the ALCS, baseball would have its very own answer to an epic battle between The Avengers and the Justice League.
As for who would win, well, there's no easy answer there. Pull up a chair and we'll have a discussion that we should save for September, but that we may as well have now in December.
The Starting Pitching Matchup
|Projected Order||Angels||Blue Jays|
|1||Jered Weaver, RHP||R.A. Dickey, RHP|
|2||C.J. Wilson, LHP||Mark Buehrle, LHP|
|3||Joe Blanton, RHP||Josh Johnson, RHP|
|4||Tommy Hanson, RHP||Brandon Morrow, RHP|
|5||Garrett Richards, RHP||Ricky Romero, LHP|
A few bounces either way, and Jered Weaver and R.A. Dickey basically could have been mirror images of each other in 2012. Weaver went 20-5 with a 2.81 ERA and a 1.02 WHIP. Dickey went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA and 1.05 WHIP.
Dickey, however, did one thing a lot better than Weaver, and that's strike hitters out. Dickey led the National League in strikeouts and compiled a K/9 of 8.9. Per FanGraphs, only one pitcher in baseball had a higher swinging-strike percentage than Dickey. To boot, PITCHf/x rated his knuckleball as the most effective pitch in baseball.
Weaver is becoming less and less of a strikeout artist as time goes by. His strikeout rate has fallen each of the last three years, as he's has taken to pitching to contact more with a great defense at his back and an excellent pitcher's park around him.
There's no arguing with the results of Weaver's progression, but a pitcher who specializes in pitching to contact has a smaller margin for error than a pitcher who can rack up strikeouts. More balls in play means more opportunities for opponents to put runners on base and score runs.
As such, Dickey gets the slight edge in a side-by-side comparison with Weaver. Between the two of them, he's more likely to dominate a head-to-head matchup in Game 1.
After Weaver and Dickey, however, the edge isn't so slight. The Blue Jays' rotation is more stacked than the Angels' rotation, and it's not even close.
C.J. Wilson is a solid No. 2 pitcher, but he's too wild to be counted on to produce in a playoff setting. He's accumulated a 3.7 BB/9 over the last three seasons, and he's coming off a year in which he was one of only eight qualified starters to post a BB/9 over 4.0.
Mark Buehrle is far more reliable. He's not a big strikeout guy, but he keeps himself out of trouble by limiting his walks (career BB/9 of 2.0), plus he's good for six innings every time he takes the mound.
Elsewhere in the Angels' rotation, Joe Blanton is little more than an innings-eater. He should benefit from playing in front of the Halos' defense and at Angel Stadium, but there's a natural cap on how good he can be because of his tendency to give up hard-hit balls.
Tommy Hanson has struggled mightily ever since the second half of the 2011 season, and his struggles have come with a decline in control and velocity. His walk rate has drastically increased since the 2010 season, and his average fastball velocity was below 90 miles per hour in 2012 (see FanGraphs).
In Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow, the Blue Jays have two guys with some of the nastiest stuff in baseball. Johnson can still maintain his fastball in the low-to-mid 90s with a couple of nasty breaking balls, and Morrow may have the filthiest fastball/slider combination in baseball.
Johnson is coming off a strong bounce-back year in which he posted a 3.81 ERA, but the sabermetric stats speak even more highly of him. Per FanGraphs, Johnson ranks sixth among all pitchers in Fielding Independent Pitching since 2009.
Morrow has yet to put it all together for a full season's worth of top-notch production, but he showed a glimpse of how good he could be early in 2012. Three of his first 12 starts were shutouts.
Given the depth of Toronto's rotation, the Angels would have to hope that Weaver would get the better of Dickey in a Game 1 matchup. Because after that game goes into the books, the Angels would be clearly overmatched.
Edge: Blue Jays
The Offense Matchup
|Projected Lineup||Angels||Blue Jays|
|1||Mike Trout, CF (R)||Jose Reyes, SS (S)|
|2||Erick Aybar, SS (S)||Melky Cabrera, LF (S)|
|3||Josh Hamilton, LF (L)||Jose Bautista, RF (R)|
|4||Albert Pujols, 1B (R)||Edwin Encarnacion, DH (R)|
|5||Kendrys Morales, DH (S)||Brett Lawrie, 3B (R)|
|6||Mark Trumbo, RF (R)||Colby Rasmus, CF (L)|
|7||Howie Kendrick, 2B (R)||J.P. Arencibia, C (R)|
|8||Alberto Callaspo, 3B (S)||Adam Lind, 1B (L)|
|9||Chris Iannetta, C (R)||Maicer Izturis, 2B (S)|
The 2013 Angels are already being treated as the next coming of the 1927 Yankees, which is what happens when an outfielder with 40-homer power joins a surefire Hall of Fame first baseman and a young center fielder with as much natural talent as any player in the majors.
The hype may be a bit much, but there's no denying that the Angels should be able to score a ton of runs in 2013. They had a .764 team OPS and scored more runs than all but three other teams in 2012, and they've essentially traded out Torii Hunter for Josh Hamilton.
That's a pretty good switch, and it could result in the Angels maintaining their offensive production from the second half of 2012, when they had a .787 OPS and scored over five runs per game.
The key player for the Angels, though, is not Hamilton, Mike Trout or Albert Pujols. It's Mark Trumbo. If he maintains his performance from the first half of 2012 (.965 OPS and 22 home runs) over a full slate, the Angels' lineup will be considerably deeper and more powerful than it appears to be.
But this doesn't mean that their lineup is a lock to be better than Toronto's lineup.
The Blue Jays did not put up offensive numbers to rival those of the Angels in 2012, but that's more due to a lack of health than a lack of talent. When everyone in Toronto's lineup was healthy in the first half of the season, the Jays compiled a .754 OPS and hit 127 home runs.
The long ball is going to be the main ingredient of Toronto's offense in 2013. They have two premier home run hitters in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, and Colby Rasmus and Brett Lawrie both have the power to produce 25 home runs.
The addition of Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera to Toronto's lineup will add a wrinkle on offense that the club didn't have in 2012. Reyes is a traditional leadoff man with speed and decent on-base skills, and he should be in scoring position a lot with Cabrera hitting behind him. He won't hit for a high average again, but he'll put the ball in play enough to create opportunities for Toronto's big boppers.
Put these two offenses side by side, and it's a tossup in regards to which lineup is better. The Angels have the better core trio in Trout, Hamilton and Pujols, but their lineup will lack depth if Trumbo fails to develop into a consistent threat. Likewise, the Blue Jays won't be as strong as they appear on paper if Cabrera turns the clock back to 2010 and Rasmus and Lawrie don't keep the power coming.
If the "ifs" are disregarded completely, though, the Angels' offense deserves the benefit of the doubt. You know what you're getting with Hamilton and Pujols, and Trout proved in 2012 that he can change a game like no other player in the league.
The Bullpen Matchup
|Closer||Ernesto Frieri, RHP||Casey Janssen, RHP|
|Setup Corps||Ryan Madson (R), Sean Burnett (L), Kevin Jepsen (R), Scott Downs (L)||Sergio Santos (R), Darren Oliver (L), Esmil Rogers (R), Steve Delabar (R), Brad Lincoln (R)|
The Angels scored a big-time steal when they acquired Ernesto Frieri in a trade with the San Diego Padres last May, but their bullpen as a whole was a constant source of frustration in 2012.
Angels relievers finished in the bottom third of the league in ERA, and they may have cost the club a spot in the playoffs when they combined to lose seven games with a 6.35 ERA in August.
The good news is that the bullpen has been upgraded this winter. Ryan Madson will be a lights-out presence in the late innings if he recovers well from his Tommy John operation, as he compiled a 2.45 ERA and a 1.10 in 2010 and 2011 when he was healthy. There's no left-handed hitter that Sean Burnett can't get out, as lefty hitters managed just a .534 OPS against him in 2012.
Scott Downs is also death on lefties, holding southpaw hitters to a .488 OPS in 2012. Kevin Jepsen is a hard-thrower who can come in and blow hitters away when strikeouts are needed in a pinch. He also dramatically improved his control in 2012.
Toronto's bullpen wasn't any better than the Angels' pen in 2012, posting a 4.33 ERA and coughing up a total of 70 home runs.
No upgrade is needed for the ninth inning, however, as Casey Janssen was a major bright spot in 2012. He had a 2.54 and a 6.09 K/BB ratio, holding hitters to a .429 OPS in save situations. Frieri, by comparison, held hitters to a .526 OPS in save situations.
The bridge to Janssen doesn't appear overly strong at first glance, but don't underestimate Darren Oliver and Esmil Rogers. Oliver can pitch in any situation, and the 2.06 ERA he posted in 2012 was no fluke. Rogers posted a 3.06 ERA and a 4.50 K/BB in 44 appearances with the Cleveland Indians.
It's beyond Janssen, Oliver and Rogers where things get shaky. There's plenty of upside where Sergio Santos is concerned if he's healthy (a big if). He had a K/9 over 13.0 as a member of the Chicago White Sox in 2011, in large part because he had a 14.1 swinging-strike percentage (see FanGraphs).
Steve Delabar and Brad Lincoln feature nasty swing-and-miss stuff that could make them effective shutdown relievers in 2013, but both hit some rough patches upon joining the Blue Jays midway through the 2012 season. They have much to prove next season.
Just like with the offenses, there's no clear winner when the bullpens of these two teams are placed side by side. There are more sure things, however, in Los Angeles' bullpen. Madson is a question mark, but he's surrounded by dependable guys. Toronto's bullpen has a few more question marks than just one, as there's no telling how consistent Santos, Delabar and Lincoln are going to be.
Other Forces at Work
Narrowing things down to starting pitching, offense and bullpens is a pretty good way to get an idea of which team holds the edge in a matchup. But as the San Francisco Giants just demonstrated, there's a lot more that goes into winning games in the postseason than the obvious stuff.
Defense, for example, can make a huge difference. This is an area where the Angels have a clear advantage over the Blue Jays, as they were already an elite defensive team (see FanGraphs) before adding Hamilton to play left field. With him in left and Trout in center, they now have an excellent defensive outfield, and they're still solid at all four infield positions.
Even with all their new additions, the Blue Jays are likely to be a mixed bag defensively. They're not overly strong up the middle with Rasmus in center and Reyes at short, and they may only have one truly elite defender in Lawrie at the hot corner.
The Angels also have an edge in experience, as they have a manager in Mike Scioscia who has a World Series ring in his collection and two core players in Hamilton and Pujols who have seen battle in a couple World Series. Wilson and Blanton have also seen World Series action, and Weaver has a handful of postseason starts under his belt.
The Blue Jays are short on playoff experience. Buehrle is the only member of their rotation with playoff starts under his belt, and only Reyes and Cabrera have logged a significant amount of playoff at-bats.
Between the two managers, Scioscia clearly deserves the edge in the tactical department over John Gibbons. Scioscia is not as hands-on as he used to be, but that has more to do with how his personnel has changed rather than how he's changed. Gibbons, on the other hand, was never a brilliant tactician and he hasn't managed in the majors since 2008.
The Blue Jays may be more perfectly constructed to win in the regular season, but the Angels have more trappings reminiscent of a playoff team.
Spoiler alert: The Angels and the Blue Jays probably aren't going to end up playing each other in the American League Championship Series. That would make too much sense.
But if it happens, I'll take the Blue Jays.
The Angels may have the edge when it comes to offense, relief pitching, defense and experience, but starting pitching is an advantage that can cancel out all other advantages. The Detroit Tigers demonstrated that in their run to the World Series this year, and the Giants demonstrated it in their own way in their sweep of the Tigers in the World Series.
In this case, it just so happens that starting pitching is the Angels' biggest weakness and the Blue Jays' biggest strength. The Angels have one No. 1 pitcher, whereas the Blue Jays have at least three and maybe four if Morrow delivers on his massive potential.
I'd feel comfortable picking the Blue Jays to sweep just because of their starting pitching. But for my super-early pick now here in December, I'll go with the Blue Jays in six.
Now then, all I need for this pick to pan out is for things to go according to plan over the next nine months or so.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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