The 2010 Western Americans
Fresh as a baby’s cheek, the new baseball season promises an exciting battle for AL West supremacy. Are these promises genuine ? Throughout the latter half of the aughts, the Angels have been the most consistent performer, winning the last three division championships, and five of the last six (finishing 2nd to Oakland in 2006). Their reputation for running first-to-third, for having a solid bullpen, for marching out a consistent starting pitcher 1-to-5 — these workman-like attributes belie the more obvious reality: division domination. For the years 2007–2009, the Angels have won the West by an average of 12.5 games. More meaningfully, they’ve separated themselves from their 2nd place division runners-up more than any other division champion for two years running (+21 games in 2008, +10 in 2009), and were 6.5 games ahead of the Mariners when the 2007 season ended.
However: unlike, say, the Braves during the nineties, the Angels seem to receive lukewarm prognostications for success at the beginning of each season. Twenty-ten predictions repeat this ritual, as at least half of the baseball analytic community are betting against them to finish on top: the Mariners and Rangers getting about an equal share of predictive favor, with a few outlying votes going to the A’s. But that last part makes the outlook for this season a more exciting one than in season’s past: clever people who think about baseball often, and substantially, can think of a scenario in which each of the four teams (yeah, it’s funny out left — the AL West is Led Zeppelin to every other division’s Fleetwood Mac) will triumph. My sense is that the anything-can-happen anticipation for followers of the Westerners is more pronounced than in recent years past. Let’s focus on the anythings that can happen to the LAA.
Looking at the fine print of last season’s outcome, key indicators contributing to regular season success:
- Bobby Abreu played the entire season, despite his advanced age, and played at about his expected peak.
- Torri Hunter had a career year, until he was injured for a month, and then played very well in August and September.
- Erick Aybar emerged from offensive liability to offensive asset, and avoided injury for the first time in his career.
- Kendry Morales can be a damn good hitter for a full season, and we thank you.
- Chone Figgins enjoyed a career year offensively and defensively.
There were also plenty of dissapointing performances (Vlad aged, bullpen was mediocre, starting pitching was fine but not world-beating, Howie Kendrick, Ervin Santana) and just as many expected ones (Juan Rivera, Mike Napoli, Joe Saunders, Jered Weaver, John Lackey played, more or less, as their prior numbers and career trajectories suggested they would). If we can agree with most folks that the AL West will be stronger this year versus last, then I’ll casually pronounce that a 2010 Angels season with as many exclamatory bullet points will win the division by 5 games instead of 10. And because one of last year’s expected performers was a vital one — John Lackey — we’ll have to figure out the likelihood that his production will be replaced by either a new guy (Joel Pineiro: very unlikely) or a reëmergent mainstay (Ervin Santana: less unlikely), and if not, we can’t help but drop that 5 games to an even lower number. First, let’s tackle comparable bullet points for a best-case 2010.
- Bobby Abreu plays the entire season, gets on base about 40% of the time, and scores 100 or so runs. Unlikely.
- Torri Hunter plays most of the season, catches lots of balls, hits 30 home runs, and smiles perpetually. Unlikely.
- Erick Aybar gets on base 35% of the time, runs the bases well, scores 100 runs, and avoids injury. Maybe.
- Kendry Morales gets 500+ at-bats and slugs .600 effortlessly. I’ll take that bet.
Whoops, Chone Figgins doesn’t play here anymore! Possible alternatives:
- Brandon Wood plays great third base and hits 20 home runs. Again, maybe.
- Mike Napoli puts it all together, throws out 25% of baserunners, hits 30 home runs. Possible.
- Godzilla-san stays healthy, gets on base 35% of the time, and hits 25 home runs. Unlikely.
Summarizing the above, the players who wear Angels uniforms have to produce more than their past performance suggests they will (especially the young guys who’ve never really put it all together consistently: Aybar, Wood, Kendrick, Napoli) or the real good, old players have to be not old for one more season. Unfortunately for the purposes of prognostication, those old players can be really good, but are all at the age when really good players suddenly stop being really good. Hunter, Abreu, and Matsui, and even Rivera, are all potentially very good; it’s also very easy to imagine all of them spending most of 2010 injured, ineffective, or both. That’s not the kind of imagining that one likes to bet on.
I haven’t mentioned the starting pitching, probably because in many ways the rotation was a mess in 2010. One promising young starter was tragically killed; the staff ace missed over a month due to injury; and the pitcher with the lowest ERA during the 2008 season missed almost half of the year, and he struggled when he did pitch. It’s not hard to imagine that the starting rotation in aggregate will achieve at least comparable performance levels in 2010. It is hard to imagine that Weaver, Saunders, Santana, Pineiro, and Kazmir will all play most of the year and post sub-4 ERAs, and hence will comprise the league’s most effective starting rotation.
These observations can be paraphrased thusly:
- Last season’s success is owed more than anything else to a very productive offense.
- Predicting a similar offensive output in 2010 is a risky business.
- There is little evidence to suggest that other factors — pitching, defense, speed — will tip the scale either way. I’m expecting the status quo.
- The division has probably become stronger, and all things being equal, last season’s 97 win team is this season’s 93 win team (though still the division champion).
- 2009 was not all smooth sailing; the team succeeded despite an often mediocre bullpen, much experimentation within the starting rotation, and nominal contributions from the quondam-dreadlocked one.
But things will not turn out equally, which is why we will watch the games. If Hunter, Abreu, Rivera, and Matsui perform as they have in the recent past and avoid injury, and if the starting rotation is a real strength, and if Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick are above league average at their positions, and if the bullpen avoids last season’s two-plus months of suck, then the adventures of a new season will turn in fortune’s favor, and the Angels will approach 100 wins, and clinch the division in mid-September. If all of the elderly underperform, — and especially if they don’t perform at all due to injury — if Pinerio is a 5+ ERA, sub-200 innings investement sink, if Santana’s arm falls off, if Kazmir is unreliable and often on the shelf, if Brandon Wood is traded to the Blue Jays for Edwin Encarnacion, if Maicer Izturis takes over 2nd base and Howie Kendrick is traded to the Salt Lake Bees; well, then we can expect a losing season, and a possible last-place finish.
Returning to our opening theme, however. The Angels have been consistently very good for several years, and just as consistently they have been underappreciated. And here we are again. A concise description of their recipe for consistent success might look like this: plug in younger, cheaper, effective players, 1 or 2 a year (Kendrick for Kennedy, Aybar for Cabrera, Rivera for Anderson, Santana for Colon) — even if the dismissed players are more or less still effective (Troy Glaus, Bengie Molina, Jarrod Washburn).† This year’s iteration of that strategy will really test its efficacy. Replacing Vlad shouldn’t be difficult, as the team was able to thrive in 2009 with only a fraction of his potential peak production; but John Lackey is the best starting pitcher developed in-house since Chuck Finley, and Chone Figgins was an on-base machine in a lineup that doesn’t reach base prolifically. The team is essentially asking Matsui to replace Vlad, Wood to replace Figgins, and is hoping for sub-4 ERAs and 200+ innings from Weaver and Santana. Is this tenable?
Eminently. I expect 2010 to be more exciting and wide-open than in year’s past, but the most likely outcome is the Angels once again winning the division by a safe margin. Call it the Faith in Scioscia Factor. When things go wrong — and they will — the FISF reads like a Mad Magazine protagonist. This team is balanced, deep, and setup to succeed in the short-term. It’s unlikely that all of the things that can go wrong, will. And my observation of last season is that a lot of things went wrong then — it’s one fan’s sense that 2010 will play out more smoothly according to Team Plan than 2009. Most probably this is not the year that the Angels stop acting like the Braves of the yester-1990s; and most probably this is the year that they stake out a similar, epochal claim of their own for consistent success in the divisional era.
If only the Braves had more World Series rings.
† Of course I’m omitting a complementary team-building tactic, the one that includes signing the wrong center fielder — Steve Finley and Gary Matthews, Jr. come to mind — and overpriced free agent relievers — Justin Speir, Fernando Rodney, and Brian Fuentes, for example. Whatever success the Halos enjoyed during the aughts transpired despite these repeat offenses.