Friday, June 20, 2008
East Coast vs. West Coast.
Urban vs. SoCal.
Today begins a three-game series at Citizens Bank Ballpark between the Phillies and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, as the team formerly known as the California Angels and Anaheim Angels prefers to be called these days. I've very intrigued by the differences and contrasts provided by today's series. In terms of geography and culture, Philadelphia and Metro L.A. couldn't be further apart, the former being a gritty East Coast city featuring a fierce, blue-collar work ethic and artery-clogging cheesesteaks vs. the latter, a West Coast city with pretty people who dine on healthy cuisine and only healthy cuisine. The contrast in styles on the baseball diamond is astonishing too: the Phillies are probably the closest thing that the National League has to a Moneyball team, a team that emphasizes walks and home runs over bunts and steals, while the Angels are the epitome of small ball, always fighting and clawing for runs in the dirt, a delicious contrast to SoCal's effete image.
Trace the Angels small ball attitude back to their manager, Mike Scioscia, the former Dodgers catcher and Upper Darby native who brought a classically National League perspective to managing the Angels. Since taking over the Angels in 2000, Scioscia has guided the team to a 745-621 record (.545), four playoff berths ('02, '04, '05, and '07), and a World Series title in 2002. Scioscia's weapons have been bunting and stealing bases.
The 2008 Angels are an interesting crew, clearly better than the rest of the A.L. West, but still just a few games ahead of the surprising Oakland A's, whom the Angels can be expected to out-spend nearly two and a half to one this season (Angels payroll: $118 million to the A's $47 million dollar payroll). The Angels are a good team, but they feel like one that is under-achieving. Offensively, the Angels rank ninth in the fourteen team A.L. in home runs and tenth in slugging percentage. That partly helps to explain why they rank eleventh in runs scored.
What really explains the Angels struggles is this: they are really struggling at small ball this year.
What is small ball? Generally, small ball tends to be three things: 1) Bunting, with an emphasis on sacrifice bunting to move runners over; 2) Base-stealing; and 3) Clutch hitting. The '02 Angels were masters of this approach: their .290 batting average with runners in scoring position was tied for best in the A.L.; they stole 117 bases, which was third-best in the A.L.; and they led the A.L. in sacrifice hits with 49. That's a team that successfully executes a small ball approach to baseball.
The '08 Angels? Not so much. While they rank third in the A.L. in steals again, their 55 steals are off-set by the fact that they have been caught 22 times, so their 71% success rate means they aren't getting much benefit from running on the bases. Oh, and the Boston Red Sox, that Moneyball team, has more stolen bases, with 64. Surprisingly, the Angels rank twelfth in sacrifice hits with just 11. Finally, the Angels are ninth in batting average with runners in scoring position (BA/RISP) at .268, which is just a little better than the A.L. average of .267. The Angels problem is that they aren't getting guys on base: the team OBP is an awful .318. Garrett Anderson's OBP is .287. Torii Hunter, the team's marque free agent signing during the off-season, has just nine home runs and 33 RBI. Vlad Guerrero, the team's usually reliable slugger, has really struggled in '08: ten home runs and 35 RBI. Assuming that Vlad plays in 90% of the Angels games and continues at his current pace, he ought to have 80-85 RBI this season, which is terrible production from your clean-up hitter.
The Phillies are quite the contrast: the Phillies Isolated Power at the plate (Slugging Percentage minus Batting Average, which is basically Slugging Percentage without singles) is .187, which is very, very high. The Angels ISO is an atrocious .128. The big difference to me between the two teams is how the Phillies work the count harder than the Angels: the Angels 3.63 pitches per plate appearance were the fewest in the A.L., while the Phillies 3.8 P/PA is the N.L. average (typically in years past the Phillies finished #1 or #2).
While the Phillies have a lot of power at the plate (103 home runs to the Angels 61 homers) they aren't entirely without speed: Jimmy Rollins is 14-for-14 in steals and Shane Victorino is 14 of 17. The Phillies are a nice blend of speed and power as compared to the Angels reliance on speed and clutch-hitting.
The strength of the Angels is their pitching staff. The Angels have a pretty formidable rotation, although their pitching staff has been pretty average. The Angels 3.99 ERA is partly the product of really good defense. The Angels tend to pitch to contact: their 2.9 walks per game rate is one of the lowest in the American League, but their 6.0 strikeouts per game is also below the A.L. average as well.
Tonight the Angels send Ervin Santana to the mound against Adam Eaton, which is a major mismatch. Santana has been very good this season: 8-3, 3.40 ERA. His fielding independent pitching (FIP) ERA is terrific: 3.35. Santana has a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.9-to-1). He's tough to homer off of too: 0.89 HR/9. Looks like the Mets traded for the wrong Santana.
Joe Saunders goes Saturday night for the Angels against Brett Myers. Saunders record is 10-3 with a 3.06 ERA, which obscures the fact that he's not pitching particularly well. The Angels have been converting 75.6% of the balls Saunders allows to be put into play into outs, a major reason why his FIP ERA is over a run higher (4.36) than his "real" ERA. Saunders K/BB ratio is just a pedestrian 2-to-1 and he gets 4.7 strikeouts per nine innings. He also allows many more home runs (1.12 HR/9) than his compatriots.
Finally, Jered Weaver, the Angels ace hurler, takes the mound Sunday to finish the series against Cole Hamels. Weaver, who went 13-7 with a 3.91 ERA last season, is just 6-7 with a 4.73 ERA this season. Weaver is a nice illustration of the fact that won-loss records and ERAs are bad tools to measure pitchers performances upon. Weaver's numbers are virtually identical this year when compared to last year:
2007 / 2008
FIP: 4.14 / 4.13
HR/9: 0.9 / 1.2
BB/9: 2.5 / 2.4
K/9: 6.4 / 6.5
And yet the casual observer would wonder why Weaver is struggling this season after being so good last year ...
The battle between Weaver and Hamels on Sunday is going to be worth the price of admission. Young, talented pitchers, the top aces for playoff-caliber teams ...
Defensively the Angels are good, but not great. They've allowed just 16 unearned runs. Their defensive outfield is surprisingly below-average: Torii Hunter ranks 11th of 12 A.L. Centerfielders in Relative Zone Rating (RZR). Garrett Anderson and Vlad Guerrero likewise rank near the bottom in RZR in leftfield and rightfield. I expected such talented players to have much better skills. The Angels infield collectively ranks third of fourteen teams in RZR.
This will be an interesting series. Is it a World Series preview? Maybe. It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see these two teams playing in October. Cheesesteaks vs. Fish Tacos.
I like the Phillies to take two of three from the Angels.
Adam Eaton has put the team in a familiar 'bad spot' as he continues to get whipped like a donkey. Eaton is through in my opinion, he lacks emotion, and the most important thing: lacks good pitching. He should be ashamed to go out there every time his spot in the rotation comes up. The Phillies sent him a clear message that they didn't even want him on the roster for the playoffs last year. I wish they could dump him like a cold sack of leftover Phillies dollar dogs!
The Phils haven't been good against good pitching. The Mets posted a series win against the Angels, but I don't think the Philies do. Look out, I think the Mets will be inspired now that Willie's gone and they are almost .500.
I'll be up at the stadium for Sunday's matchup, but I just heard the advanced weather forecast for the game, and it's rain! Oh no, I hate rainy Sunday's when I have a Phillies game to go to.
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