Thursday, May 24, 2012

Angels still in hunt -- for wild card spot

We suppose by now that the Angels probably won't put enough of it together this year to catch the Texas Rangers in the American League West. But can they finish with the 85-90 wins they need to make the easy new standard as a wild card team?

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


Much doom is spoken these days about the Angels, who have failed to meet not just the super-powered expectations that came with Albert Pujols, but even the more reasonable expectation that they might win around 92 games and contend for a wild card position.

The Angels have put their public to sleep with a 20-25 performance. At the very moment when they signed the top offensive producer of the last ten years, they became one of the very worst offensive teams in the major leagues. The Angels have been shut out eight times, the most in baseball. Last week, they were twice outscored by the San Diego Padres, 3-2 each time, at Petco Park.

No question, the Angels have been disappointing. They seem sleepy because they don’t hit. But from a pitching and defense standpoint, they’re wide awake. They’re not doomed. Viewed realistically, the Angels are just a little behind schedule for a postseason bid, which was all we should have expected in the first place.

Can the Angels roar back to win 100-plus games, make the baseball world forget the Texas Rangers and rally to the World Series championship? Of course not, but that kind of prediction always depended on too much going right. Two years of results have shown us clearly that the Angels were ten games worse than the Rangers. Signing Pujols and C.J. Wilson wasn't going to get them all the way there.

In an off-handed way, the optimistic scenario added up. The Angels last season won 86 games. Figure that the Angels' most significant moves since the end of last season consist in clearing out Bobby Abreu, Jeff Mathis, Tyler Chatwood and Joel Pineiro, and giving those innings or at-bats to Pujols, Wilson, Chris Inannetta and Jerome Williams, which is close enough to right. Just off the 2011 numbers, the second group combined for 13.0 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), while the first group combined for a WAR of minus 0.5. So, the Angels should have been 13 wins better right there.

Of course, that's only if everybody does exactly what they did last year. But everybody isn't even the same everybody. So, being cautious and splitting the differences, figure on half of that gain if all goes badly, six or seven wins in a worst case scenario. That would put the Angels at 92 or 93, which was a reasonable expectation for this club. Even if the Angels wouldn't thereby overtake the 96 wins Texas might be expected to repeat from 2011, the Angels would be in the mix for the wild card, which now is expanded.

(All numbers herein either are or are extrapolated from the numbers on baseball-reference.com. Any errors in the extrapolations belong to the author.)

So, what's happened? With a few obvious exceptions, the Angels are under-performing their 2011 WAR numbers across the board (Is that really what's happened?). The new group of players mentioned has a combined WAR of 1.7. We're a nudge past the quarter pole, so multiply that by four and they would come in at 6.8. The Angels have certainly gotten the worst case scenario, but even that should have them in playoff position. Why, then, are the Angels five games below .500 when they should be making a bid to win 92 or 93 games?

Take a look at the following group of players: Erick Aybar, Peter Bourgos, Alberto Callaspo, Dan Haren, Maicer Izturis, Howard Kendrick and Ervin Santana. Three of these players are in the lineup every day, two are starting pitchers and another is a key utility player. All are holdovers from the Angels of 2011. Their combined WAR last year was 23.9. Their combined WAR so far this year is 1.4. Multiply by four and you have about five WAR for the season. Thus, that group of Angels players is a good 19 games worse than they were in 2011.

Add it all up, then, and the new players are six or seven games better than the guys they replaced and the guys who weren't replaced are about 19 games worse than a year ago. In the aggregate, the Angels drop from an 86-win team to a 74-win team, if unmentioned pluses and minuses are equal.

That's how WAR puts it, by this rough application. The Angels' winning percentage of .444 projects to 72 wins in 2012. The Rangers are paced to win 99 or 100.

So, forget about catching the Rangers. The Angels weren't going to be that good, anyway. Now that they have left no doubt about it, we might embrace the new reality, which is a playoff format that puts the postseason reasonably in reach of teams going as badly as the Angels.

Can the Angels still attain the more realistic benchmark of having, in effect, the fifth-best record in the American League? That's an invitation to participate in the new wild card round with the first wild card team. It's a one-game playoff, so getting in either way is just as good. But you have to cook your best starting pitcher to win that one game, so, if you win, you go to the playoffs as a road team with a disconfigured pitching staff.

That's the bad news. The good news? Today, Toronto holds the fifth position with a .533 winning percentage (24-21). Supposing that much remains equal and .533 is the magic number, then that's 86 wins, maybe 87. Can the Angels still get to 87?

They would have to go 67-50. Is that really hard? And can the Angels do it?

It's not really hard. Through Wednesday, the Angels were 13-10 in their last 23 games. They've taken some lumps, had disappointments, played the rich and the poor, and they're 13-10. Nothing spectacular. But 13-10 is .565. If the Angels do that for the rest of the season, they come in at 86-76.

They need to win at that rate of 13 of every 23 games. And then, once every month during the rest of the season, they need to win one more game. That gets them to 90. That's all there is to it. If the Angels were ever going to be any good, they would have to play that well.

That pace isn't out of the question for any team that aspires to the playoffs. Lots of teams go to the playoffs with a stretch like 20-25 during the season. They make up for it when they're going well. Last year, recall, the Dodgers at one point were 37-51, then they finished 45-28 to reach a winning record. The Angels won't have to do nearly that well to reach the playoffs.

As the above references to players remind us, though, the Angels have a lot of players who aren't going well. However, they have done better -- 19 games better between those players just last season. So, there is room for improvement. And most teams they have to catch on the way to the wild card can't say that. Look at the rosters for Oakland, Seattle, Toronto, Tampa Bay and the Chicago White Sox. One doesn't see so many proven veterans underperforming.

As it stands now, Tampa Bay holds the first wild card spot at 27-18, a 60 percent victory rate. But the Rays aren't a .600 club. They have a good pitching staff and an average offense. Like two other wild card contenders -- the Tigers and the Yankees -- the Rays are a poor defensive team right now. Joe Maddon is doing it with mirrors. How long can it last? The Rays are five games ahead of their Pythagorean prediction and they're 11-3 in one-run games. They're winning more than they're producing, and those good times don't often last long. If Maddon can keep the wolf away from their door, then he's the manager of the year again.

Toronto is a solid club all the way through -- top four across the American League in runs scored per game, fewest runs allowed per game and defensive efficiency. Toronto has the second wild card spot right now, but the Yankees, Athletics, White Sox, Red Sox, Tigers, Mariners and Angels all are within four games.

The Angels, Yankees and Red Sox should be better than they are. Can Toronto hang tight with these other clubs that have recently been in the playoff mix? The Tigers have been dropping fast, losing two of three like clockwork for the last month.The Athletics, White Sox and Mariners all figure to stay camped around .500, if that. So, the Angels have some teams to pass, but a few will drop off naturally and, in the end, we could be looking at the Angels in a wild card division with the contenders from the AL East. The Angels, badly as they started, are within one good week of jumping right into the middle.

The Angels also are way ahead of the other wild card contenders with their pitching. They were fifth in the American League with a 3.60 staff ERA. If only they could crank up their hitting. In their last six games, the Angels have allowed 11 runs. They still lost three of those games. If their bats crank it up just a little, those become wins. That’s been the “if” with this club from the start.

To make the playoffs, the Angels will need more than they've been getting from everyone they've got. But history tells us that much of what they need to be getting is in there somewhere. The question is whether they will find it. But the question is not whether the 2012 season is a lost cause. It isn't.

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