October 2, 2014
ALDS Preview: Angels vs. Royals
Here’s something I learned about the Angels’ fanbase while covering the team five years ago: They hated Rob Neyer. Not for the usual reasons that everybody hates everybody else these days, but because, in the late 1970 and the 1980s, the Angels and Royals were legit rivals. In 1978 and 1979, each team won the AL West once—and finished second once. 1982, the Angels won and the Royals finished second; in 1984 and 1985, the Royals took the crown, and the Angels were in both years the runner-up. In 1986, the Angels took it, and the Royals were third. They hated each other, so much so that Angels fans still hold it against Neyer that he was a Royals fan at the time and, to their view of the world, must hate them. Of course, since then Kansas City and Anaheim have moved farther from each other on the map; the former is now in the Midwest, if you can believe it, so there is no division rivalry, but this week will surely revive some of the old feuds.
Some updates to the original version of this article have been made to reflect final roster decisions.
Lineups (AVG/OBP/SLG/TAv, WARP)
Much hinges on the return from injury of Hamilton, who would otherwise have been replaced by Collin Cowgill in the linenup. But even if Hamilton is in play, expectations for him should be tempered. He has played one game in the past four weeks, and won’t get a chance to play rehab games; as Mike Ferrin once found, the rust of a long absence can be worth almost 20 points of True Average.
Regardless, the Angels will hit. They led the majors in runs per game, no small accomplishment given their home ballpark, with its thick marine layer and distracting monkey infestation. There is a public idea of what a Mike Scioscia offense does—swing away, put the ball in play, take extra bases, give away outs—but that caricature has been undone a bit over the past half-dozen years, as the composition of the Angels’ roster has dictated what Scioscia can do, and as Scioscia is smart enough not to force anything. This isn’t an offense that is particularly oriented toward any particular mode of attack: They are the AL’s median group in walks, they are sixth in the AL in homers, 11th in stolen bases, ninth in sacrifice bunts, sixth in strikeouts. While GM Jerry Dipoto has spoken with reverence of the sixth tool—plate discipline/count control—the truth is that this isn’t really a lineup that you would say Dipoto put together: Hamilton and Pujols are widely considered “Moreno signs,” and other than David Freese and time-sharer Chris Iannetta, everybody else was drafted by the previous regime. Befitting the triptychian origin of this lineup, it’s an offense that will take whichever mode of transit to first, third, and home is available.
It will do so unrelentingly. No member of this starting nine was worse at the plate than the league average, and the one definably Scioscian aspect of the group—aggressive baserunning—pairs nicely with the personnel. The Angels were the second-best baserunning team in the majors; they excel especially at advancing on base hits (third best in the AL) and staying out of double plays, via the hit-and-run and generous secondary leads.
The Royals’ lineup is the safest best in this postseason—not that it will hit, but that it will be. Ned Yost has used an identical lineup card for the past nine games, going back to the regular season, whether a lefty or righty is on the mound, making you wonder whether the Royals simply forgot to order new office supplies. It has basically been this group, in slightly different orders, all year: Every member of this lineup qualified for the batting title (502 PA), other than Moustakas, who was just two trips shy. Yost won’t play platoons, in part because there isn’t a huge need to; the team’s platoon split is minimal, and the individuals’ platoon splits for the most part have been, too.
Stability is not the same as strength. The Royals finished ninth in the AL in scoring and last in the AL in OPS+, suggesting the possibility, at least, that the worst offense in the American League has somehow made it to a full postseason series. Offense is more than just hitting, and the Royals do run the bases well (the best in baseball, more than twice the runs added of the no. 2 team). They put the ball in play, giving their baserunners plenty of chances to take the extra base, and they reach on error more than the typical team. They also sacrifice bunt some, but not as much as the facepalming in your feed will suggest; they were just seventh in the AL in sacrifices, trailing the saber-cred regimes in Tampa Bay and Cleveland. Rather, they’ll take the stolen base when they can, stealing 72 more bases than the Angels—while getting caught three fewer times.
Odd as it is to say this in the age of groundballphillia, the key for the Angels will be to get the Royals to hit it in the air. The Royals hit fewer fly balls than all but one AL team, and when they did they had the majors’ worst isolated power, worst slugging percentage, and worst OPS—by a lot. The Royals hit .237/.297/.281 in Anaheim this year, which isn’t to say they’re uncomfortable around stuffed amusement park mascots or anything, but gives an idea of what a feeble group does in a spacious ballpark. Angels starters had the fifth highest fly-ball rate this year, and the two groundball outliers—Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs—are hurt and won’t be part of the postseason rotation.
Cowgill will be the regular in left field if Josh Hamilton ends up unable to go at any point. The Angels acquired Beckham in late August and he responded by hitting .306/.343/.472 in September, his best single month since 2010. It’s BABIP driven, with just one walk in 36 plate appearances against eight strikeouts, but his ability to play even shortstop will give the Angels the credible backup infielder they’ve lacked since Maicer Izturis left. Hank Conger frames pitches well and will take a walk, but his supposedly lopsided platoon skills (he’s been, since the minors, supposed to hit righties) never really developed in the majors, and he was lousy against both types of pitchers this year. Scioscia hasn’t really developed pitcher/catcher tandems this year, as he has at times in the past, so Conger will start a game or two but probably not for battery reasons.
Brennan Boesch was left off the roster, so the Angels won't have the “power” “bat” off the bench or, probably, a platoonmate for Cron at DH. Boesch has hit just .237/.277/.376 over the past three years, with no sort of advantageous platoon split, and with (at least on the surface) deteriorating pitch recognition; Scioscia played him a lot in September, but he hit .227/.239/.364 that month. The Angels also won't carry a designated speed guy; Tony Campana was left off. Instead, Efren Navarro gets the final bench spot, as he adds defensive value (i.e. owns a glove, has oiled it up) that Brennan Boesch doesn’t.
The Royals, continuing the theme, don’t use many substitutes—with 51 pinch-hit appearances, they were dead last in the majors, by a whopping 26 fewer than the 29th team. If the Royals really don’t care about squeezing out platoon advantages, it’s conceivable (maybe advisable) they’ll leave Ibanez off the roster and play to their strength, carrying Gore to make the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings pig-rassling contests. [Update: They did just that.] Where Yost will use subs is on the bases, as we saw especially in September, and in the wild card game; Gore and Dyson give the skipper two elite speed options. Expect Josh Willingham to pinch-hit for Moustakas or, in an extra-base situation, Aoki; Raul Ibanez would have theoretically been the lefty slug off the bench, but Yost didn’t go to him in the Wild Card game, which says something about the bar for his usage. Ibanez played only six times in September, four times as a sub, and doesn’t have a hit since late August or an extra-base hit since August 1st.
Shoemaker appears ready to go after gradually ramping up his throwing program since a rib-cage strain sidelined him in September. With or without him, the Angels had plenty of imperfect options for their rotation: They could have used Hector Santiago, who was demoted for ineffectiveness mid-season but returned to produce a 3.30 ERA and 8 Ks per nine from June on; due to his September struggles, the Angels opted against. They could have gone with a bullpen game for the fourth spot in the rotation, as they did in September. In those six September games, Cory Rasmus technically got the starts, never pitching into the fifth but allowing only five runs in 19 total innings. If it worked in September it might work just as well in October, with frequent off days and a quick hook for most non-ace starters anyway. But instead they shelved Santiago, scrapped the bullpen-start idea, and will go with Jered Weaver on three days rest in Game 4. (Shoemaker, on regular rest, will pitch games 2 and 5.) No matter how they move the pieces around, this rotation suuuuucks by postseason standards. Weaver’s just guts and guile now, striking out double digit batters only once, holding his opponents scoreless just once, pitching past the seventh inning in the second half just once. He does it with a fastball that averages 87 mph, and leans especially on a sinker that doesn’t have any of the sinking or tailing movement one associates with the pitch. Wilson is still capable of good starts, but couldn’t get himself unlost during bad starts; a quarter of his starts ended with game scores 30 or lower. The threat of a two-inning Wilson outing, as much as anything, is why the bullpen-as-fourth-starter option would have been so terrifying, and why the health of Shoemaker—a 27-year-old rookie who went undrafted and could never convince the big-league brass that his peripherals and pitchability would work at higher levels—is such a key to this series.
The Royals won’t be able to go to their nominal ace, Shields, until Game 3, the penance of using the Wild Card door, so Vargas will pitch Game 1, followed by Ventura. Danny Duffy will be apparently be available in the bullpen only, with Yost leaning toward Guthrie for Game 4. Duffy
Vargas returns to a ballpark he knows well; in 2013, as an Angel, his ERA at home was a run and a half better than on the road. This probably doesn’t qualify as actionable intelligence, but it wouldn’t be altogether surprising to learn that it played some part in Ned Yost’s decisions. James Shields’ value as a horse is, ironically, somewhat diminished in the postseason, when he won’t be leaned on to pitch eight, seven, or even six innings before handing things off to fresher, more effective relievers. Still, his postseason record (a 5+ ERA in seven career starts) is probably no more significant than his so-called Big Game status is. He’s the best pitcher on either side in this series, though by a small margin. Ventura struggled with wildness in the second half and has thrown more than 30 more innings than his previous career high. If he’s reaching the limits of his endurance, it doesn’t show in his continuing triple-digit velocity, but there is more than one way for a pitcher’s exhaustion to show.
Relief Pitchers (ERA, Innings, FIP)
Yup: Nine relievers. Nine. Scioscia has been happy to go without lefties in his bullpen (like, literally, no lefties) in the past, and so Joe Thatcher the LOOGY was left off. Instead, Scioscia will go with whomever he considers his best pitcher, regardless of arm orientation, and this year’s bullpen has provided plenty of options. A Dipoto bullpen-building philosophy is that “different looks” play up, so he’s got the sidearm from Smith, the oddly paced windup of Street, the explosive drive of Grilli, and so on. “This is probably as close as we've come to having a variety of different looks," Dipoto said. "It's just a really good and unique and diverse group of guys. There's always something different." The decision to leave off Thatcher is probably in part due to the way the Angels’ righties have dominated opposite-handed batters this year:
Yost opted not to carry a more established lefty, Francisley Bueno, to LOOGY. Bueno held lefties to a .206/.235/.270 line, but he won't be on the roster; instead, Finnegan and Tim Collins (with his reverse career split) will hold down the southpaw side, and Danny Duffy will presumably be available in the bullpen--though if it's physical health that keeps him from the rotation (and, really, who the heck knows?) it might limit him in any role. Duffy established himself as a formidable pitcher this year, though it’ll be hard not to fixate on the FIP—one assumes Mike Trout won’t consent to Duffy’s .240 BABIP. Indeed, Duffy’s magic isn’t just one trick: He had the third-lowest BABIP among all pitchers (min. 140 innings), the eighth-lowest HR/FB rate, and the 26th highest strand rate, out of 112 pitchers qualifying. That makes him a What Good Fortune! Triple Crown threat, though the defense behind him and a homer-suppressing ballpark aren’t totally irrelevant to the data.
One certainty: The Royals will be dying to get to the seventh, when Yost’s decisions get easy (arguably too easy for his own good) and when the Royals’ win expectancy gets locked in. Will Yost get aggressive with his closer, as the Red Sox did with Koji Uehara last year, as the Cardinals did with Jason Motte, as the Yankees did with Mariano Rivera? Since becoming a closer in 2012, Holland has never saved a game of more than one inning, though that doesn’t necessarily rule it out. Yost did break his template a little by bringing Herrera into the sixth on Tuesday. Still, appearances suggest that Yost will a) try to squeeze six innings out of his starters, worried about the soft middle of his bullpen, b) resist going to his big three before the seventh and c) look real good whenever the pitchers pitch well, and bad when they don’t. Like everybody else.
*yeah, same joke I made last year. Never not true.