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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

They Fought The Law: Keith Law On The Angels, Redux

There's plenty of feisty folk out there willing to take a swing at Keith Law's earlier article about what to do with the Angels; while it's way too early to say that Keith Law (or rather, his ideas) won, he does have a followup piece on his ESPN blog. That former article has lately attracted a great deal more attention than it got here at 6-4-2, which is saying something, as it was one of my most commented-on posts in weeks. Excerpt:
... the Angels are still looking at a substantial uphill climb to reach the playoffs, and they're trying to do it with a suboptimal lineup. They have to pass two teams, not one, and they have to win the division, as the wild card is out of reach. They have a losing record and, despite outscoring their opponents 56-22 in that recent nine-game stretch, they've still been outscored on the season. Adam Kennedy continues to drag the offense down, while top prospect Howie Kendrick ... well, he looked good at the Futures Game. I have no idea why they haven't promoted Kendrick, since Kendrick is widely seen by all observers as a future star who is ready to play in the majors now, and since there is some market for a second baseman among contenders.

The Angels also continue to hamper themselves by putting Garret Anderson in the lineup against lefties [...] I had suggested that the Angels explore trading Orlando Cabrera in that earlier article, but that's one move I wouldn't suggest they make if they enter the last week of July within two or three games of first [...] Kudos to the Angels, however, for cutting bait on Jeff Weaver and bringing in his brother Jered [.... That] move alone could be worth two to three extra wins over the rest of the year.

The important point here is that I think people get too fixated on what the Angels have done over the last week, while forgetting the problems of the prior three months. Before the last Dodgers series, the Angels had gone 19 games without taking two consecutive series, and have yet to post a winning month (12-13 in April, 11-17 in May, 12-14 in June). After winning five straight series from May 22 through June 7, they got swept at home by Seattle, won the Kansas City series, but lost three of the next five series. This is not a good team, and it won't be until the back end of the bullpen improves, and more importantly, the offense comes around on a more reliable basis than just having a good week. This team's turned so many corners I'm getting dizzy.

While there are still issues hanging out there, as you and Keith point out, there are also areas where the team is probably a lot better than they've shown. They pitching should be better over the second half with Bart back and with Jered taking over for Jeff. And the defense isn't as bad as the've shown over the first half. I'd expect the flood of unearned runs to slow to a trickle in the second half. The offense still isn't good, but it wasn't good last year or the year before either.

I'm generally not one to predict that the Angels are going to make the playoffs, and I won't do so here. But honestly, I can't look at any of the other teams in the division and see them making it either. Someone has to win. And if they can get lucky with a couple of key injuries, like say to Anderson and/or Kennedy (assuming they still refuse to deal him), I don't see them as having really any less of a shot than anyone else in the division, and I trust their pitching a lot more than I trust any of the other teams in the West.
He's right about a lot, but still wrong about a couple of key points. It is *not* a "substantial uphill climb" to erase a two-game deficit, especially when you have far and away the best rotation in the division, and the other team to beat is missing its dominant starter (while giving away starts to stiffs like Loiaza).

I agree that Adam Kennedy is sucking, and I'd like to see him traded, too; but including him as a major problem going forward is a bit silly, considering that he's almost always been a better hitter than that, & so can be expected to have a better second half.

The 2nd half will definitely see an improvement in the rotation, will likely seen an improvement on defense, and I'd wager will see an offensive improvement at:
C (Napoli should decline, but no more Mathis)
1B (No more mono-Kotch, and Morales will probably inch forward
2B (AK ain't that bad)
3B (no more Alfonzo)
CF (Figgy's egressing to the mean; Erstad's out)
RF (Vlad just had his worst half in God knows how long)
DH (Rivera's on fire, and a 2nd half hitter)

I'd expect offensive regressions only at SS & maybe LF, depending on what's done with Anderson. And maybe Vlad's beginning the decline phase.

But all in all, the there's every reason to believe the team will play significantly better in the 2nd half, and if Morales learns how to hit ML pitching, watch out. All of which has been accomplished without trading away any key prospect.
"Adam Kennedy continues to drag the offense down"

I disagree. The offense is not dragged down by the number 9 hitter. This first half, the offense has suffered because of GA's low slugging %, Figgin's low OB %, and nonperformance and/or inconsistency from 1B and 3B, two positions that usually provide production.

"Kendrick is widely seen by all observers as a future star"

Agreed but that doesn't mean he helps the team win THIS year, the risk factor is already high since the team is depending on so many rookies.

"there is some market for a second baseman among contenders."

I disagree. IMO, Kennedy does NOT have much trade value.

My take: Keep AK unless a great offer comes along. Kendrick is handed the job next year.
I tend to agree with Seitz here. First and foremost, I just don't see how the defense can continue to be as bad in the 2nd half as it was in the 1st. The Angels are a much better defensive team than they've shown so far. Plus, I can't remember where I read it, but I recall seeing something recently suggesting that the defense actually hasn't been as bad as the errors and unearned runs have shown...in that the Angels have had more fielding opportunities (and hence, more chances to make errors) and that they've actually been more middle-of-the-pact than it first appears.

I'm not sure I buy that, because I've seen countless blown plays with my own eyes that have led to catastrophic innings. They've been messing up the routine plays, not the difficult ones. And the weak offense means there's no margin for error(s). But again, that's something that probably won't continue (the messing up of routine plays, that is). So, figure on improved 2nd half defense, just because it almost has to be better.

One thing that may have contributed to the subpar defensive effort has been the lack of an everyday 3B, but that wouldn't explain the countless brain farts by the heretofore reliable A.K. and O.C.

As for the offense, the one player most likely to improve is Figgins. The guy is a career .292 hitter (prior to this year) hitting only .267, and it's that high only because of a recent hot streak. He hit about .290 in April this year, so he really stunk it up in May & June. If he were hitting his career average, that means he'd have about 9 more hits. Because of his speed, there's a good chance that he would have scored a few more runs, and that would probably translate to an extra win or two (I'm not well-versed in Win Shares, but I'm sure that would be worth something). An extra 9 hits would put his OBP at around .357 or so, which would put him just ahead of rumored trade target Carl Crawford, and would represent a perfectly acceptable OBP.

The pitching should be better over the 2nd half if, and that's a BIG if, Colon is healthy enough to contribute. I'm still skeptical, notwithstanding his first SHO since he played for Montreal. But if he's even league average, that's probably a lot better than they got out of WTE in the 1st half.

Meanwhile, the A's also have significant room for improvement. Like the Angels, they've had their own health issues. They also have a bunch of guys performing well below their career norms - so much so that their offense has been worse than the Angels, yet they sit in first. The Angels have a better rotation, but the A's probably have a better bullpen for the 6th and 7th innings.

Texas is Texas. The pitching will suck in August & September, so they're pretenders. Seattle's lineup might be better than either A-team, but its pitching is considerably worse. So, the M's will fall by the wayside as well.

Once again, it will come down to the Angels & A's, and basically whichever team gets healthier sooner will probably pull it out.

But an impact move by either team to beef up the lineup, or by the Angels to beef up the middle relief, could tip the scales.
Plus, I can't remember where I read it, but I recall seeing something recently suggesting that the defense actually hasn't been as bad as the errors and unearned runs have shown...in that the Angels have had more fielding opportunities (and hence, more chances to make errors) and that they've actually been more middle-of-the-pact than it first appears.

You're probably thinking of defensive efficiency ratings, which show the Angels turning ball in play into outs at a pretty high rate, despite the two errors. The problem with run prevention as it relates to defense has been twofold:

1) I'd echo Matthew's observation that they aren't making errors on tough plays and bad throws, but rather they're screwing up really routine plays, making mental errors, making dumb decisions that lead to extra outs. Those are likely taper off in the second half as things start to even out.

2) I have no stats at my fingertips, but not only have they made a boatload of errors, it seems like EVERY SINGLE ERROR leads to one or more unearned runs. So not only have they been bad, they've been unlucky, and I wouldn't expect that to continue into the second half.

And let's face it, Oakland's significant injuries aren't exactly happening to the most healthy guys in the league. I mean, who could have possibly imagined that Frank Thomas, Milton Bradley, and Rich Harden would struggle with injuries? I mean, besides everyone. Maybe they stay healthy in the second half, but I'd bet against it.
Seitz -- agreed on the Weaver-for-Weaver upgrade, and Colon may even improve on his first half if his last start is any indication; he might be figuring out how to deal with what could be permanently (or at least, for this season) impaired velocity successfully. Also agreed that, in a division where two and a half games separates the top from the bottom, this is the ne plus ultra of what they politely call parity; elsewhere, it's just everyone playing equally badly.

Matt: I hope and pray you're wrong about Napoli, but of course recognize decline is the most likely possibility. Vlad's slumps get longer and longer, and I do wonder that he isn't undergoing a decline. And I ultimately expect Kotchman will be useful, though it may very well not be this year.

Matthew: OC leads the club in errors, but as Seitz has noted elsewhere, it always seems that it's the plays where the ball is hit right at him where he screws up (less so lately, though). There might be a plausible explanation at third, though; in ST, I watched as Cabrera fielded a ball almost directly behind McPherson and took care of the throw to first. Maybe he's pushing himself so hard for range to his right that he's making errors once he gets there..?? But if so, I don't recall such circumstances.
Seitz -- regarding your point about the A's injuries, Bradley you might have thought would be a problem, but certainly not Harden to this extent. They've already used up as many DL days as the did all of last years. I seem to recall Will Carroll saying something to the effect that the A's are now a merely average club in terms of keeping their pitchers healthy, which for them is a huge decline.
By my count Harden missed about 10 starts last year. Once you get into that territory for a pitcher, missing most of a season can't really be considered a surprise.
Keith Law is a quack. I think the Angels would rather be where they are than the Yankees (3 games behind), the Phillies (12 games behind), and the Reds (4 games behind)...well, maybe not the Reds...even though each of those teams just has to pass one other. As a matter of fact, the only 2nd place team that is closer to a division leader than the Angels is Texas. They have also probably tried trading AK, but he has helped to decrease his value significantly. And why should the Angels get rid of a proven veteran just because they have a prospect that is likely (but not certainly) ready. And I say this hoping they give Kendrick a shot before August. And GA has proven himself to many times over the years against LHP to immediately sit him against all lefties. Yes, at some point you have to say "that's it," but maybe we should give him a fighting chance.

As far as getting fixated on last wekk, well, what the hell else are we to do? There have been 4 things beyond expectations this year: 1) OC's offense 2) Mike Napoli 3) Jered Weaver and 4) last week. As fans, we have to latch onto the good times and hope they represent the future. No, they are probably not as good as last week, but at the same time, they are nowhere near as terrible as the previous three months. Call it a teamwide regression to the mean.

Oh, and I also agree that Harden is one of those expected injuries for now (as are Dallas and Erstad). There is no reason to honestly say something like "Well, if only Harden hadn't been hurt all year," whereas if Zito got hurt like that, you could sort of legitimately say that. Of course, this is all meaningless except to try and figure out future performance on the season i.e. can Harden be expected to contribute a whole lot...and I would say "no". And that would have been my answer before he went on the DL for the second time this year.
I think Harden was seen as just about as likely as Colon to spend quality time on the DL this year.

But Matthew has a point -- the A's will certainly play better, unless their rotation collapses. Chavez, Crosby, Ellis, Kotsay & Johnson are all underperforming significantly; the question will be how much of that is due to injuries, and are those injuries going to get better or worse.

But I think the Lackey start -- and especially his we-own-this-division snarl -- was the turning point, planting doubt in one dugout, and confidence in the other.
I'd love for the Angels to pick up another bat this year. However, at what price? As much as people bag on Stoneman for doing nothing, its still better than making a bad trade. If the team can cut down on the errors that alone will help.
my take:

first off all Law is still an idiot - how can a national baseball writer state a team is "hopelessly out of it" when they are only 5 games back a week before the All Star break???? and now just 2 games out at the break, with this rotation, they have "a substantial uphill climb"???

why do we even bother with this??

ok here's where i think we are - with this team right now, we should easily take the division, then get knocked out of the playoffs pretty quickly. while we have a solid enough team to take the division, this club's offense isn't close to being a World Champion, and that's what we all want, right?

so agreed, we need at least one bat, probably two, to win the World Series, because i'm not convinced Mortales, Rivera, Kendrick, Kotchman, GA, Nap et al really have enough power to win it. sure with this pitching, we could do win it all if they pitched like this past weekend - its enough to win 3 short series - but don't count on it.

we have a division win in sights - now to get the World Series, we still need more offense.
MATT: Vlad just began his "decline phase with an All-Star Game HR.
Josh: the Angels are still a sub-.500 team. The Yankees and Reds are both over .500, the Yankees by 14 games, the Reds by one, and the Phillies are below .500 by seven games. To say that the Angels are in a better position than the Yankees, at least, is simply absurd.

A half season of weak hitting against lefties is plenty of evidence to condemn Garret Anderson to a platoon, barring some hidden health problem that's yet to be disclosed.

A healthy Harden and Bradley in the A's lineup will make them really, really dangerous, even if that's only for two and a half months. Bradley's almost ready to return, though Harden may be gone for the balance of the season or something close to it.

Brian -- I know I've covered that elsewhere; Law sent the article when the Angels were seven games back of the division lead but ESPN decided to publish it after they got on their hot streak. Even so, as you say, to be taken seriously, they need to address their weak hitting.
Rev -- talk about small sample sizes! Meantime, the length and depth of Vlad's slumps expand every year...
Vlad had a terrible slump last July, when he hit a meager .208/.264/.376 coming on the heels of a torrid June in which he went .443/.489/.785), and followed with a very respectable August .340/.449/.598.

This year, his bad month was June, when he went .243/.257/.408. Folks who have called it his worst slump ever have very short memories, as it was not worse than July 2005. And this year, he was just fine in May, to the tune of .330/.393/.583, and has gotten off to a nice start in July, at .367/.444/.633.

The point? Reports of his demise are greatly exaggerated. June 2006 = July 2005. Aberrations both.
I am sorry Rob, but I think the Angels are in a better position to make the playoffs right now than the Yankees. Put it this way: would you rather be two games two teams, one of which has no hitting and the other of which has no pitching or would you rather be 3 games behind the immensely talented Red Sox and just barely ahead of the Blue Jays? Add in the fact that the Angels could not have had a worse first 81 games, meaning they cannot help to be better (maybe not 8 of their last 9 better, but better nonetheless). Maybe they won't win 90 games, but it may not take 90 games to win the division. Meanwhile, the Yankees could win 95 games and miss the playoffs. The Yankees may have a better shot at winning the World Series if they make the playoffs, but I think the Angels' chances at the playoffs have to be better right now.
The Yankees are in better shape than the Angels because they're six back in the wild card (vs. fourteen for the Angels).

Okay, so the first column was held back and published right as the Angels hit a win streak. Still, how credible is a column that decisively writes off at mid-season a team five back from the division lead (when the article was written)? But even more difficult to read is the latest "second thoughts" post, where Law "admits" that the Angels are "no longer out of it, at least not in a mathematical sense." No longer?

It's been a frustrating, transitional half-season, but on reflection I think the personnel changes have played out fairly well. It's unrealistic to expect a team to replace three long-time starters overnight. But now, Erstad is sitting out indefinitely; Anderson may soon follow, or at least see less playing time. I agree with Michael that Kennedy likely has limited trade value. Furthermore, I think it would be cruel to bench him in favor of Kendrick mid-season then usher him into free agency. I know baseball is a business, but players are human--it may be hard to quantify, but I think it's better for the organization to make that sort of decision in the off-season.
Not sure where you come up with the idea that Scioscia will bench Anderson; if anything, he's been unapologetic for letting Anderson play against lefties!
Sorry, I didn't mean to suggest that Scioscia would bench Anderson, only that he's playing less. Anderson's not at full strength and has taken himself out of the lineup a few times, right?
I guess the problem really comes down to this: do you believe Anderson's issues are age- and/or infirmaty-related, or are they merely a long slump? Given his age and last year's diagnosis of arthritis, I know which way I'm betting...
Anderson was diagnosed with arthritis 2 years ago (pretty much right after he signed that contract extension. I don't think his loss of performance is age-related at all (except insofar as much as arthritis is age-related and that it isn't expected to get any better). Still, that means his performance has declined over the last 2 and a half years to the point where you expect him to bat in the .280-.300 range with about 30 doubles and 15 HRs, while striking out at a higher rate. This decline appears to be due to a loss of bat speed (this is purely anecdotal evidence). Even so, there are times he appears to be his old self and just rakes the ball. And GA probably should be penciled in as DH after this year, and maybe even given the Salmon treatment after that.

And really, because of GA's contract (two more years AFTER this one is over) and his history with the club, the team is not going to bench him. At best, I would expect a platoon to start in September, if at all. In fact, I have noticed the team already is sort of platooning GA, giving him his days off when they face a lefty pitcher. And I don't mind that the Angels show some loyalty to some of the Great Angel players by allowing them to try to work through the slumps or whatever you want to call them. GA, AK, and Erstad have all earned the right to try to work through things with the Angels: Steve Finley and Jeff Weaver hadn't.

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