Angels falling off the playoff path and road ahead is rocky
For a two-and-a-half month stretch, the Angels were the hottest team in baseball, a club finally playing up to its potential following an expensive offseason overhaul and then a shockingly slow start. Driven by a superstar returning to form and a 20-year-old rookie putting up a season for the ages, they looked like a lock for a Wild Card spot at the very least, with a significant chance of catching the Rangers in time to snare the AL West flag. But since the All-Star break, the Halos have fallen upon hard times. On Monday night, they lost their fifth game out of six, and their third in a row to a sub-.500 team . Suddenly the Angels don't seem so special.
By now, the contours of their season are familiar: Having missed the playoffs for two straight seasons — an eternity for a team that had made it in six of the previous eight — owner Arte Moreno and general manager Jerry Dipoto made a big splash this past winter, signing Albert Pujols (10 years, $240 million) and C.J. Wilson (five years, $77.5 million) to expensive long-term deals. Nonetheless, the team stumbled out of the gate, losing 14 out of its first 20 games to fall nine games back in the AL West. Pujols began the year in a slump so dreadful it drew boos from the Anaheim crowd. The callup of phenom Mike Trout on April 28 — and perhaps the firing of longtime hitting coach Mickey Hatcher on May 15 — keyed a turnaround; from the point of Trout's arrival to the All-Star break, the team went 42-24, the best record in baseball during that span. They had cut the Rangers' lead to four games, and held an 83 percent chance at reaching the postseason according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report.
Since the break, however, the Angels are a disappointing 12-18 despite being outscored by just seven runs (166-159). They're now just four games over .500, below the A's and eight games back in the AL West, and 2 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot, with four other teams above them. Their playoff odds have fallen to 48.9 percent. The offense hasn't been the problem, cranking out 5.30 runs per game in the second half. No, it's the pitching staff, which has yielded 5.53 runs per game during that slide, with the starters bad and the relievers much, much worse:
|Starters 1st Half||3.81||0.95|
|Starters 2nd Half||4.86||1.65|
|Relievers 1st Half||3.16||0.78|
|Relievers 2nd Half||6.07||1.84|
Neither the rotation nor the bullpen have seen much change from half to half in terms of strikeout and walk rates and defensive support,, but both have seen their home run rates skyrocket in the second half, the starters by 74 percent and the relievers by an astounding 236 percent.
The starters have struggled despite the July 27 addition of Zack Greinke, who has been lit for 10 runs in 12 innings over his past two starts after debuting with a seven-inning, two-run performance against the Rays. Jered Weaver and Dan Haren are the only starters with second-half ERAs under 4.58; that mark belongs to rookie Garrett Richards, who has been bumped to Triple-A by the arrival of Greinke and the return of Haren from the disabled list. Wilson (5.61) and Ervin Santana (6.12) have been particularly pummeled since the break. That's an anomaly for the former, whose season ERA of 3.32 still ranks 10th in the league, but it's been par for the course for the latter, whose 5.82 ERA is the highest of any pitcher qualified for the ERA title, as is his 2.0 homers per nine — numbers all the worse given the Angels' pitcher-friendly park.
In an obvious case of "pitching to contract," manager Mike Scioscia and company have allowed the enigmatic Santana — who is making $11.2 million in the final year of a four-year, $30 million deal – to persist in the rotation. His 22 starts are second to Wilson's 25, his 128 1/3 innings third behind Wilson (152 2/3) and Weaver (138). The 29-year-old righty has been roundly outpitched by both Richards and Jerome Williams, the two righties who have generally occupied the fifth-starter role, with the occasional spot start mixed in as well. Both have pitched deeper into games and delivered quality starts more frequently, in addition to preventing fewer runs:
Earlier in his career, Santana alternated respectable seasons with terrible ones; his ERAs from 2007 through 2010 bounded around thusly: 5.76, 3.49, 5.03, 3.92. He broke that up-and-down stretch with a 3.38 ERA last year, but now it looks as though he just waited an extra year to return to Palookaville.
Santana is one problem, the bullpen is another, particularly for a manager who has long enjoyed a reputation for adept handling of his relievers. The unit was rocked for a 5.06 ERA in April while allowing 15 out of 33 inherited runners to score and striking out just 6.1 per nine, but the May 3 acquisition of Ernesto Frieri from the Padres worked wonders, at least for a while. The virtually unknown 26-year-old righty began his Angels career with 28 strikeouts over 13 1/3 no-hit innings; soon he was sharing closer duties with lefty Scott Downs. In May and June, the bullpen trimmed its ERA to a combined 2.49 while whiffing 8.2 per nine, though they still allowed 31 percent of inherited runners to score.
Downs began to falter in July; after allowing just two runs (one earned) in 30 innings prior to the break — admittedly, an unsustainable pace — he allowed nine in his first five innings following it before going on the disabled list on July 28 due to a sore shoulder. Frieri, who carried an 0.71 ERA in 35 innings into the break, has allowed nine runs (eight earned) in nine innings since. Setup man Latroy Hawkins (6.75 ERA in 12 innings) and lefty specialist Hisanori Takahashi (8.38 ERA in 9 2/3 innings) have been knocked around lately as well. Such struggles help explain why the Angels are 4-8 in games decided by one or two runs since the break, compared to 19-18 prior. With such a crowded field competing for the Wild Card, the Angels will have to snap out of their funk soon, as the road ahead doesn't get much easier; over the next 31 days, they face the A's seven times, the Tigers and Red Sox six times apiece and the Rays four times. The good news is that the offense is humming along, with the team sixth in the league in scoring at 4.63 runs per game, fifth in OBP (.329) and fourth in SLG (.433). Trout is having one of the greatest rookie seasons in history (.340/.404/.590 with 21 homers and 37 steals), Mark Trumbo is mashing (.287/.341/.562 with 29 homers), and Pujols is hitting a very characteristic .316/.387/.628 with 24 homers since Hatcher's firing in mid-May. Downs is nearing a return from his shoulder strain, and regardless of the fifth starter, the team still has Weaver, Greinke, Wilson and Haren as its front four. Ownership has given this team virtually everything it needs to secure a playoff spot, but it's on the Angels to take care of business.