Saturday, September 19, 2009

No offense: Why the Angels will fall to the Sox—again

Even Mike Scioscia grabbing a bat won't be enough to save the Angels from losing again to the Red Sox in October. Photo from this site.

The very, very easy thing to do after watching from afar as the Angels scrapped and scratched and whined and moaned and loafed their way to winning one of three games from the Red Sox this week in Boston is to declare the Sox will once again trounce the Angels in the playoffs, because scrapping and scratching and whining and moaning and loafing their way to a defeat at the hands of the Sox in the AL Division Series is what the Angels always do.

Now, admittedly, assuming something will happen just because it always seems to happen is borderline lazy, and the type of thing that used to really annoy people in Boston before October 2004. And relying on an I-can’t-necessarily-explain-it-but-I-know-it-when-I-see-it intangible such as Terry Francona outmanaging Mike Scioscia when it counts—as your friend and mine Jon Couture put it this week, Scioscia has a terrible habit of getting cute whenever he faces the Red Sox—will engender devotion from one half of the audience and derision from the Anaheim half.

Fortunately, there’s a reason that’s actual and factual (always a good night when you can quote TLC) beyond “it always happens” and “Terry Francona is a better manager than Mike Scioscia” why the Sox will almost surely cruise past the Angels when the two teams meet in the AL Division Series beginning two weeks and change from now. (And yes, with Yankees cruising to the AL East flag and the Rangers falling apart, we can safely assume the Sox and Angels will square off in October for the fourth time in six seasons)

Here it is: The Angels can’t hit a lick right now. Oh sure, they entered play tonight second in the AL with an average of 5.46 runs per game, snugly between the Yankees and Red Sox, and at one point last month fielded a lineup with nine .300 hitters.

But the Angels are in the midst of a massive slump, and plenty of evidence suggests this is a regression to the mean they’re not snapping out of anytime soon.

The Angels have scored 10 or more runs 21 times, but more than half of those outbursts came during a 34-game span from June 24 through Aug. 2 in which they reached double digits 12 times. On the other end of the spectrum, tonight’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers marks the 13th time in the last 18 games the Angels have scored three runs or fewer and the 52nd time overall. The Angels have scored four runs or fewer 70 times.

Those splits are remarkably similar to the ones produced by the Sox, who have scored three runs or fewer 52 times, four runs or fewer 68 times and 10 runs or more 19 times following tonight’s 11-5 win over the Orioles. The Sox have also scored four runs or fewer eight times in 18 games this month.

But the Sox have been far more consistent over the entire season, even with several stretches of offensive inactivity. The Sox have scored four or fewer runs in at least five straight games a total of four times this year, including two five-game streaks in May and a season-high six-game streak from July 17-22. Still, as denoted by the following list, they have scored four or fewer runs in more than half their games in just one month.

April: 9 times in 22 games (41 pct)

May: 17 times in 29 games (59 pct)

June: 11 times in 26 games (42 pct)

July: 11 times in 25 games (44 pct)

August: 12 times in 28 games (43 pct)

September 8 times in 17 games (47 pct)

That would look even more impressive on a graph, but such technical expertise escapes me. Regardless, it’s proof the Sox are living the cliché of never getting too high or too low and finding the steadiness most teams strive for but rarely achieve.

You know, like the Angels, whose four runs or fewer totals by month look like this:

April: 12 times in 21 games (57 pct)

May: 16 times in 28 games (57 pct)

June: 11 times in 26 games (42 pct)

July: 5 times in 26 games (19 pct)

August: 12 times in 29 games (41 pct)

September: 14 times in 18 games (78 pct)

If that were placed on a graph, it’d induce motion sickness.

Not surprisingly, the Angels’ overall record is also a bit misleading: They entered play last night at 88-59, five games better than their Pythagorean record. The only AL contender with a bigger gap is the Yankees (seven games). Last year, when the Angels were knocked out of the ALDS by the Sox in four games, they entered the playoffs with a 100-62 record that was an eye-popping 12 games better than their Pythagorean record.

Now, admittedly, in many ways, the Angels seem better prepared for the Sox this October than the last three times. They wreck havoc on the bases and have swiped 15 bases in nine games against the Sox’ noodle-armed catchers, including four in as many attempts this week. Their likely top three pitchers—Jered Weaver, John Lackey and Scott Kazmir—have combined to post a 1.95 ERA in 33 1/3 innings against the Sox this year.

But the bullpen, as it proved last week, is not the strength it has been in recent seasons. Angels relievers have a 4.53 ERA and 1.46 WHIP this year, way up from a 3.69 ERA and 1.34 WHIP last year.

A declining offense and a less effective bullpen is not a good combination heading into the every-run-is-precious postseason. The regression to the mean occurs again this October. Doesn’t roll off the tongue quite like “I live for this,” but hey, some catchphrases are more substantive than others.

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