Monday, July 2, 2012

Best in NL West? That would be the Angels

The Angels gained four games in the American League wild card race with a scorching 11-4 run against NL West clubs during the last stage of interleague play. Now, the Angels are playing in a de facto wild card division, holding the lead against a half-dozen suitors. The Rangers still appear out of reach in the AL West.


By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


We don't know who the best team in the National League West is, but we know who it would be if the Angels were in that division.

The Angels are cruising now, 44-35, and holding the top wild card position in the American League with two games to spare on the last playoff spot. The Angels spent April falling behind, spent May catching up and spent June forging ahead, due mostly to a dominant tour through the NL West in interleague play.

The Angels began June 8 at 29-29 with 15 games coming against NL West clubs. The Angels ended that string of games on June 24 holding a 40-33 record after winning 11 of the 15 games. The Angels won three in Colorado, won two of three from the Dodgers at each place, and beat Arizona and San Francisco two of three each at home.

The Angels have continued the momentum with four wins in six games going through Baltimore and Toronto and now open a three-game set Monday night in Cleveland. So, it might be a little late to recapitulate what happened in those games against the NL West, but it does show how the Angels took advantage of their interleague schedule.

Predictably, though, the advantage pertained only to the AL wild card race in which the Angels rose to the top during the interleague period. The Angels picked up four games on wild card leaders Baltimore and Tampa Bay during interleague play to catch them, and have since surpassed them. To no surprise, though, the Angels made no progress in the AL West race against Texas, which was 12-3 during the same interleague period as it played the Giants, Diamondbacks, Astros, Padres and Rockies. Thus, the Angels actually fell a game further back in that race to five games down.

The most striking aspect of their performance against the NL West is that the Angels weren't especially fantastic. They batted .290 in those games with an .814 OPS, which are nice numbers, but not the kind of numbers one associates with this much winning. They scored 4.9 runs per game in this stretch, compared with 4.39 across the season. The pitching staff tossed a 3.02 ERA in those games, compared with a 3.54 mark across the season.

Basically, the Angels played their average game, maybe a tiny bit better, and cleaned up on the NL West. Against the NL West, they were half of a run better than usual at hitting and half of a run better than usual at pitching, and that made them dominant. If there were ever any doubt about whom the best teams in the west might be, the Angels and the Rangers left little doubt after interleague play.

The Angels now are charged with protecting their lead in the AL's de facto wild card division, which is a much tighter race than the AL West. While the Angels are 1 1/2 games ahead of Baltimore with the wild card lead, Boston, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Toronto and Detroit all are within five games.

Against this wild card division, the Angels aren't doing very well, only 9-10 after winning four of their last six. But they have another run of seven games here going to the All-Star break, the three in Cleveland, followed by four more at home against Baltimore. The wild card race is everything for the Angels, their only realistic chance of making the playoffs.

The wild card berth isn't worth as much anymore, which is for the best, but it’s also the best the Angels can do. The Rangers show no signs that they will give the Angels an opening in the AL West.

There was that little period at the end of May, when the Angels won eight straight and put themselves over .500 for the first time at 26-25, trimming the Rangers lead from eight games to 5 1/2. But the Angels are 18-10 since then and the Rangers have matched them every step of the way, 19-11.

The Rangers just enjoyed a 5-2 week whipping up on Detroit and Oakland, but now face an interesting series in Chicago Tuesday through Thursday. The White Sox surged to the AL West lead with 13 wins in 14 games through June 1 and they are 12-15 since then. But they remain ahead in the AL Central, where no one is clearly up to the task of catching them.

In their hitting and their pitching, the White Sox are slightly on the right side of average. Their slash line of .256/.319/.411/.730 very closely resembles the AL average slash line of .255/.321/.410/.731. Yet, the White Sox have scored 4.66 runs per game against a league average of 4.45, which is an extra three runs every two weeks. Their staff ERA is 3.96, against a league average of 4.02. They are not spectacular, but they are very efficient, and they are sticky defensively. They rank second in the AL with a .710 fielding efficiency mark and a .988 fielding percentage.

Efficiency probably is good enough this year in the AL Central, and this could be the White Sox year because of that. But how will it play against the Rangers, who aren't average, but exceptional? It's always fun when the Rangers take on upstarts, just to see if the Rangers will take them seriously enough to bring the real game. Following that series, the Rangers close out their first half in Minnesota.

If there is a break to be opened for the Angels in the AL West, look for it in the first ten days after the All-Star break. The Rangers will resume the season with an eight-game tour through the parks of their AL West rivals -- three in Seattle, two in Oakland and two in Anaheim. The Rangers have not done well in those locations this year, only 3-7. The Angels go to New York for three against the Yankees right off the break, then they travel to Detroit for four before returning home to face the Rangers.

We'll be 14 games further down the road when the Rangers arrive at the Big A on July 20. Can the Angels get themselves a couple games closer before then?

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