For the first time in over three years, the Angels are in first place in the AL West. But how long can Los Angeles hold on to the top spot?
A 4-2 win over the Red Sox on Monday has put the Angels in a place they haven't been in quite some time. With the Athletics idle, Los Angeles' victory broke the two-team tie atop the American League West, leaving the Angels in first place in their division by themselves for the first time since May 15, 2011. To put that in context, it is the first time in Mike Trout’s major league career that the Angels have been alone at the top, and just five players remain from their 25-man roster the last time that happened: Erick Aybar, Hank Conger, Kevin Jepsen, Howie Kendrick and Jered Weaver.
Equally surprising is that the Angels have finally climbed back to the top of the division despite some recent setbacks, most notably losing Tyler Skaggs to Tommy John surgery at the beginning of the month and the fact that Josh Hamilton’s slump recently reached the point that he asked out of the lineup on Sunday.
Hamilton hasn’t homered since Aug. 4, hasn’t had a multi-hit game since Aug. 3, and has hit just .247/.314/.378 since returning from nearly two months on the disabled list. Back on Apr. 8, Hamilton tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb diving into first base, an injury that required surgery and put a quick end to what had been a hot start to his season. Given the nature of his injury, it’s not surprising that Hamilton has struggled since his return, particularly in the power department. We saw similar things from Bryce Harper, who suffered the same injury sliding into third base two weeks later.
In both cases, the lack of production post-surgery was likely due to weakness in that left hand, the top hand for both hitters. Harper has perked up a bit since I suggested the Nationals find a way to get him more rest, doing so without missing a start, but that doesn’t mean that Hamilton won’t benefit from having had the last two days off (he is expected to return to the Angels' lineup tonight). Beyond the condition of his left hand, however, there seems to be a mental component to Hamilton’s struggles, something Hamilton effectively admitted to in asking for Sunday off.
"It weighs on you," Hamilton said on Sunday. “When I get to the point ... and I'm taking it to the field with me, I need to take a step back. ... Because you know what you've done in the past, you know you've been successful and done certain things. And all of it is still there. But getting out of your own way and allowing yourself to just let your talent play is where I'm trying to get to.”
Adding additional weight is the fact that Hamilton hasn’t hit a single home run at home this season. Whatever the condition of his thumb, Hamilton has now been mired in a slump for most of the first two seasons of his five-year, $125 million contract. That has to be getting inside his head. The lack of a home run in Anaheim this year may be a fluke — the rest of his batting statistics are nearly identical at home and on the road — but that zero in the home run column has to be haunting Hamilton.
Fortunately for the Angels, they have done just fine without a meaningful contribution from Hamilton at the plate. On the season, only the A's have scored more runs per game than the Angels’ 4.7. Trout is in the midst of a third-straight MVP-quality season. Albert Pujols has rebounded nicely from his injury-plagued 2013 season, even if he’s no longer the hitter he was for the Cardinals. Kole Calhoun is having a breakout season at the age of 26, delivering on his minor league promise by hitting .328/.379/.532 in 258 plate appearances since June 6. Equally importantly, there are no replacement-level hitters in the lineup. All nine of the Angels' starters have an OPS+ of 99 or higher heading into Tuesday’s action. In a league with an average on-base percentage of .318, the only Angels starter with an OBP below .325 is Aybar at .308.
As for the rotation, after the worst start of his career on Aug. 2, C.J. Wilson promised to "find the groove." He’s not quite there yet but has improved steadily since then, quieting concerns about the health of his left hip. Hector Santiago has similarly stepped up his game since Skaggs’ injury forced him back into the rotation, allowing just one run in 12 innings over his last two starts against the Red Sox and Rangers. Garrett Richards remains the only dominant pitcher in the Angels’ starting quintet (he’s 2-0 with a 1.19 ERA and 5.25 strikeout-to-walk ratio in August), but, as with the lineup, the Angels are succeeding as much because of a lack of weakness as because of a surplus of strength.
They’re also back in first place in large part because the A’s are in a slump, one that could stem in part from the absence of Yoenis Cespedes in the heart of their order. Indeed, it has been more than three years since the Angels have been along in first place, but they haven’t been lousy that whole time. They won 89 games in 2012, but the A’s won 94. They won 86 in 2011, but the Rangers won 96. Last year they were terrible, but as this year has proven, it wasn’t Hamilton’s slump that was the determining factor in their failures last year. It was the struggles of their pitching staff. That’s why general manger Jerry DiPoto targeted young starting pitching this offseason and bullpen reinforcements in July. Improving the pitching, jettisoning low-on-base-percentages hitters such as Vernon Wells, Jeff Mathis, and Mark Trumbo (who bested the three with a .291 OBP in 2011 and posted a .294 mark last year), and getting a healthy season from Pujols have been the keys to the Angels’ turnaround.
All of that said, a half-game lead on Aug. 19 doesn’t mean anything. The AL West should be a dogfight between the divisions’ two Californian teams the rest of the way, with the loser settling for hosting the wild-card game. The two teams will play a quarter of their remaining schedules against one another, ten games in total, starting with a three-game set in Oakland this weekend followed by four games in Anaheim starting next Thursday and concluding with three in Oakland in the season’s penultimate series.
The two teams largely face patsies otherwise, with the significant exception of the Mariners, one of the teams battling for the second wild-card spot. In light of that, the Angels appear to have the more difficult remaining schedule, as they have three games at home against the Marlins next week, the next-strongest opponent either team will have to face, and seven remaining games against the M’s to the Athletics' six. Of those seven games against Seattle, three of them come on the season’s final weekend while the A’s are playing the last-place Rangers. Given that, the Angels will likely have to open up a multi-game lead over the A’s before those final series in order to win the division.