Friday September 19th, 2014

ANAHEIM -- They wrestled the AL West lead from the mighty Athletics in August and built a Secretariat-like lead by mid-September. They overcame the loss of their ace, Garrett Richards; a season-ending injury to promising starter Tyler Skaggs; a putrid first-half performance from the bullpen; and another lost season from Josh Hamilton. They have the best run-differential in baseball and, at 95-58, they have a good shot at reaching 100 wins for just the second time in franchise history and finishing with the best regular-season record in the majors.

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But should the Angels be the consensus favorite to win the World Series next month? To answer that question, let's take a look at the biggest reasons — other than another transcendent, MVP-worthy season from Mike Trout — why Los Angeles will enter the postseason with the title of Best Team In Baseball.

1. Matt Shoemaker's Moment

The best starter on the Angels' staff was sitting at his locker on Wednesday afternoon, reflecting on where he was just six years ago: undrafted out of Eastern Michigan University and not sure about his future in baseball. "Not being drafted after my junior year was frustrating," says Shoemaker. "I'd already graduated, so I was thinking about going back to school for another year, for my MBA. And then the Angels called up."

Los Angeles asked Shoemaker if he would sign for $10,000. "It wasn't a huge amount of money, and at that point I wasn't old, but I wasn't young, either," says Shoemaker. "I was a college guy, officially a redshirt junior, and I wasn't 18. I was 22, and getting into a system at that age, instead of going to back to school, seemed like the best decision, after spending a few days to really think about it."

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Through his years in the Angels' system, Shoemaker was never considered much of a prospect; he toiled in the minors for six years — his ERA at Triple A is 5.38 — before making one start last season as a September callup. After a handful of spot starts this season, Shoemaker began to turn heads on June 17, when he struck out 10 and allowed two runs over eight innings against Cleveland. In 11 outings since July 1, he has a 2.09 ERA, and in August, he became the ninth player to win both AL Pitcher and Rookie of the Month honors in the same month.

In a rotation that's been hit with season-ending injuries to Richards and Skaggs and has seen an off year from C.J. Wilson, Shoemaker's emergence has been key. The other day, when Mike Scioscia was asked what Shoemaker has meant to the Angels this year, the manager said, "Besides saving our season?"

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Shoemaker's best pitch is a splitter, which he's thrown 21.1 percent of the time this season. And like the Japanese imports whose arsenals are splitter-heavy, Shoemaker's secondary stuff is better than his fastball. "I started throwing the pitch at 14," he said. "I never threw a good changeup at that age, and my dad and the head coach on my travel team were just messing with grips and we just went into a split grip, and it just developed from there. I've used it since I was 14, and each year it got better."

Pitchers who throw the splitter are thought to be at a higher injury risk, but Shoemaker has remained healthy much of his career. "It helps that I've been throwing it for so long. My arm and body are used to it," he said. "And when I throw it, I just try to make the pitch. I don't try to overdo it."

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However, in his most recent start, on Monday, Shoemaker left with discomfort on his left side. He'll miss his next turn but was feeling better on Wednesday, and the Angels are hoping he'll be available in the postseason. "There are a lot of hurdles Matt is going to have to cross before he's out there pitching again," Scioscia said on Wednesday, "and we're not going to have that answer in 24, 48 hours. It's going to take some time. It's still open-ended, and we're going to keep our fingers crossed. We're not going to have that answer for some time now."

Forget Hamilton's various injuries or Wilson's struggles: Shoemaker's health is the most significant question facing the Angels right now. They've already lost their ace; they certainly can't afford to lose Shoemaker.

2. The Emergence of Kole Calhoun, Tablesettter

"My job, hitting in front of Mike Trout, is simple," said Calhoun, the leadoff man on the best offense in baseball. "Get on base any way I can."

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The Angels, somewhat unexpectedly, boast the best offense in the majors: They've scored more runs than any team in baseball and rank second in the AL in average (.263) and OBP (.326), and fourth in slugging (.412).

The unsung hero in the lineup has been Calhoun. He was sidelined for five weeks earlier this season with an ankle injury and plays on a team loaded with stars, yet he still ranks fourth in FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (3.9) and second in Weighted Runs Created Plus (131). Calhoun has hit .293/.348/.486 with 16 home runs out of the leadoff spot, and the Angels are 26-1 in their last 27 games when he scores a run.

Calhoun began 2013 as the 11th-ranked prospect, according to Baseball America, in a minor league organization widely regarded as among the worst in baseball. He has come a long way from the beginning of last season, when he played himself off the 25-man roster with a poor spring training and fractured the hamate bone in his right wrist in April. "Breaking my hand, I look at it now as a blessing in disguise," says Calhoun. "I started working on just putting the ball in play." As a result, he shortened his swing, which "just got shorter and shorter and shorter, and that really was the key to take things to another level."

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When you see Calhoun in person, it's easy to see why so many have dismissed the Arizona State product — drafted in the eighth round in 2010 — through the years. He is built like a fire hydrant, listed at 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, though even his manager has his doubts. "Put him on a rack and maybe he's 5-9," Scioscia said.

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Throughout his career, Calhoun has heard the same thing: Not big enough, not fast enough, not good enough defensively to be anything more than a fourth outfielder. "Scouts can be like robots, afraid to take a chance, go outside the box," says Calhoun. "I've always been hearing the same thing, but for me, all that stuff has always been fuel to the fire to prove those guys wrong." In the leadoff role in Anaheim, "Scioscia has given me the opportunity to just go out and have my at-bats. That's really [all] he's asking for, put up a good at-bat to start off a game," says Calhoun. "It started with a subtle conversation in spring, him telling me that how it was probably going to be me at the top of the order, and once you hear that, you kind of relax in the role."

The Angels can seem like an aging, crumbling team: Aside from Trout, the biggest stars on the club are a 34-year-old first baseman clearly on the downside of his career in Albert Pujols and a $125 million outfielder who can't stay healthy in Hamilton. But the emergence of Calhoun, Collin Cowgill, ​C.J. Cron, Shoemaker and Skaggs give the Angels hope that it's not World Series or bust this season. Indeed, this is a club that is better set up for the future than people think.

"A lot of youngsters that helped us in the minors have come up and made an impact," Scioscia said. "I think we're more of a team, strong one through nine in the order, rather than focused on some guys in the middle. That's been key for us on the offensive side."

3. The Masterful Bullpen Reconstruction

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At the end of May, the Angels' relief corps was dead last in the majors in bullpen ERA. Soon after, the great bullpen makeover began: General manager Jerry Dipoto acquired closer Jason Grilli, an All-Star last year, from Pittsburgh in June; he added lefty specialist Joe Thatcher from Arizona in early July; and a few weeks later, he landed closer Huston Street from San Diego. The Angels have used 31 pitchers this season, the most in a single season in club history, and on the current staff, only two Opening Day relievers — Joe Smith and Kevin Jepsen — remain.

The addition of Street, a flyball pitcher who throws a ton of strikes, has turned out to be a perfect fit in the Angels' park. It allowed Smith, who is tied with Jepsen for the major league lead in scoreless appearances this season (63), to move back to an eighth-inning role, and pushed Jepsen, who has a 1.42 ERA since May 7, to the seventh inning. Scioscia now has the luxury of using Grilli in the sixth, and rookie Mike Morin, who has stranded 32 of 38 runners this season, as another bridge to his late-inning relievers.

Now Los Angeles has one of the best bullpens in the game. It has logged a 2.39 ERA its last 78 appearances to rank second in the majors over that span. Since July 1, the bullpen has worked three-plus scoreless frames to end a game 20 times.

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It's no coincidence that the Angels became the best team in baseball once the bullpen was stabilized. They were six games behind the A's in June, and on Aug. 10, they trailed Oakland by four games with 45 to play. The Angels, according to Stats Inc., are the first team in AL history to be six games or more behind after 70 games and take a lead of at least eight games at any later point in a season.

An MVP year from Trout; Calhoun's emergence; strong seasons from Pujols, Erick Aybar, and Howie Kendrick in the lineup; another solid year from Jered Weaver atop the rotation; Shoemaker's breakout; the drastic improvement of the bullpen: Add it all up, and you have a 95-win juggernaut that's capable of winning its first World Series title in 12 years. The Angels march into the postseason as the Best Team in Baseball, and over the next few weeks, if Shoemaker can get healthy, if Calhoun can continue to be a catalyst atop the order, and if the bullpen can be the lock-down staff they've been over the last three months, they'll have an excellent chance of holding that title all the way through October.

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