AL West: And down the stretch they come

This is our final in-season look at the American League West, and while the first couple of months saw every team in the division hanging around the .500 mark, the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners eventually faded, leaving the division race to the Angels and Rangers.

The A’s lost 10 consecutive games going into June and never recovered. They struggle scoring runs, but their pitching has kept their record somewhat respectable. At 25, left-hander Gio Gonzalez is emerging as a number one starter and it looks like the only thing holding him back is his control. While he has struck out 167 batters in 168 innings, he has also given up a major league-worst 80 walks. Opponents are batting only .230 against him and any improvement in command would mean big things.

Brandon McCarthy has enjoyed a bit of a resurrection with Oakland, as he has posted a 3.41 ERA and 1.157 WHIP in just over 140 innings. McCarthy has avoided injury so far, but Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson were not as fortunate and saw their seasons end early. Trevor Cahill has regressed following last year’s breakout performance in which he logged an impressive 138 ERA+ over the course of 30 starts. All those guys have youth on their side and Oakland can hope that next year will bring better health and continued growth in production.

The Mariners hung around a little longer than the A’s, clinging to mediocrity well into June before suffering their own freefall. They’d surely like to forget July; they lost every game they played for about a three week period after Independence Day to drop out of contention. They are similar to Oakland in having some intriguing young arms, most notable among them the reigning Cy Young Award winner in Felix Hernandez. The Mariners struggle to score runs, but they do have some promising young hitters in Mike Carp, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak.

With the demise of those two clubs, we are left with the defending West champions trying to hold off a perennial contender.

Going into Labor Day, the Rangers led the Angels by 3.5 games. Los Angeles of Anaheim will need to cut into that lead over the course of the next three weeks to make the season-ending three game series in Anaheim meaningful. We should look for Angels manager Mike Scioscia to try to line up the triumvirate of Ervin Santana, Jered Weaver and Dan Haren for that series. Scioscia has already shown his willingness to gamble in this match-up when he sent both Santana and Weaver on short rest against the Rangers on Aug. 27 and 28.

With an off day on Sept. 15, Scioscia could skip Joel Pineiro on the 16th. That would move Haren and Santana up one day each and line those two up for the first two games of the Texas series. Scioscia could then start Weaver on the 19th and him available on short rest for the season finale, if necessary. Better still for the Angels, in that scenario they would have Cy Young contender Weaver ready for game one of the first playoff series if they somehow clinched the division before the season’s final game.

Unfortunately for the Angels, it’s not likely that Texas will roll over down the stretch.

Texas has battered opponents all year, outscoring the opposition by more than 100 runs. The Rangers are ranked in the top three in the American League in hits, runs, homers, BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS.

On the other hand, the Angels are doing what they always do—winning more games than their Pythagorean Record suggests they should. Put briefly, that formula is fairly accurate in predicting a team’s record by comparing runs scored versus runs allowed. The Angels have somehow been regular outliers, outperforming the formula consistently during the past seven seasons.

Their good fortune is fairly tame this season, in comparison to some of those in the past; they’ve beaten expectations by only a few games. But, as Jonah Keri and Carson Cistulli both wrote last week, the Angels’ brand of baseball always seems to outproduce what we’d expect from a team that can’t outscore its opponents by much.

Keri said he thinks they exceed their Pythagorean Record with defense and smart base running—and because their manager is good. Cistulli said they do it because they excel in high-leverage situations, ranking toward the top of baseball WPA since 2004. Put simply, the Angels come through, repeatedly and measurably, in big situations better than almost any other team.

But, therein lies the rub.

It’s great that they can outperform expectations based on runs scored versus runs allowed. It’s great that the Angels’ team construction—three great starters and good team defense—is probably the best among the American League playoff contenders in regards to potential postseason success, especially in a short series.

But, they are mediocre on offense and their reluctance to take a walk takes a toll on their ability to consistently score runs. They need to make a run over the course of three weeks to cut into that Texas lead. It will be interesting to see if they can do it, because Texas is built for the long haul, and catching up will not be easy.

The good news for the Angels is that they’ve picked up the run-scoring pace of late, averaging almost 6.5 runs per game since Aug. 19. Maintaining that sort of pace would go a long way in helping them gain at least a couple of games on the Rangers, who, unlike their foes in the West, can actually score runs and overcome occasional stinkers on the mound.

The two teams face similar schedules the rest of the way. The Rangers have 12 games against the Mariners and A’s while the Angels have nine. The Rangers have three games at Tampa Bay, but the Angels must host the Yankees for three. The Angels go to Baltimore and Toronto for seven games, where their run-preventing ways will be tested, and that may actually swing the advantage over to Texas. Overall, the Angels have a few more home games, including the aforementioned final series against Texas.

Going into Monday’s games, the Rangers were 28-14 against the AL West while the Angels were only 22-23. If Texas continues to feast on its division rivals while Anaheim struggles, the Angels won’t be able to get close enough to make the last three games of the season matter. Oh, but if they do….

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference and the linked articles

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