Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a season-long weekly series that will follow the division races and examine the trends and the players affecting those races.
The Hardball Times’ preseason staff predictions resulted in a consensus pick of the Texas Rangers to win the American League West division title in 2011, while the Oakland A’s represented the dark horse candidate among the writers. The staff tabbed the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the dominant team in the AL West since 2004, as the third-best team in the division and they picked Seattle to repeat their last-place finish of 2010.
So far, the four teams are separated by only a couple of games in the standings:
At the beginning of the season, the Rangers cleared leather quickly and blasted their way to a 9-1 start. But their torrid pace slowed after an injury to Josh Hamilton, last year’s AL Most Valuable Player.
Though devastating on the surface, an injury to such a high-profile offensive player may matter more psychologically, or at least take several weeks before any statistically-significant reduction in runs may occur. After all, even while playing a majority of their games post-Hamilton, the Rangers still rank among the best in Major League Baseball in runs scored.
However, the long-term effects may be a different story, and are something to monitor if there is a setback in Hamilton’s recovery (although things look good as of late).
While the Rangers’ relief pitchers lack the star power generated by their slugger, injuries also have impacted them. The team lost Neftali Feliz in the short term and Darren O’Day is out for at least a couple of months.
Feliz could be back by Friday, which is good news for the team, since there is growing concern over the lack of experienced right-handed relievers available for late-inning work. Lately, manager Ron Washington seems to favor lefty Arthur Rhodes late in games, no matter the handedness of the opposing hitters. While Rhodes may be chasing immortality as he closes in on Mike Stanton‘s record for career holds, he is 41 and may be better suited for specific matchups.
For now, General Manager Jon Daniels keeps calling on relievers in the system to help stabilize the bullpen. But, after he promoted Justin Miller, Daniels added an addendum to the stock quote about bringing up a reliable veteran by adding, “…it’s a nice bonus that he’s not hurt.” That does not sound like a proclamation meant to herald a savior.
The savior could be Feliz, but even if he can come back this weekend and be effective right away, Washington may still have to start leaning more on inexperienced pitchers like Pedro Strop for some stability. Of course, Strop gave up a late leads twice recently in one game, a tough loss that has added to the Rangers’ recent slide.
While Texas started fast but is now fading, the Mariners shot themselves in the foot to begin the year by losing 11 of their first 15 games. They have recovered of late and are riding a recent stretch that’s pushing their record ever closer toward the .500 mark. Another difference between the Mariners and Rangers is the way each team has handled injured relievers.
Yet one more striking difference is the lack of any hitters on the Mariners roster resembling Josh Hamilton, but more on that in a bit.
Back to the bullpen talk, David Aardsma is rehabbing from surgery to repair the labrum in his left hip, similar to the injury that the Rangers’ O’Day is dealing with. In addition to the loss of their 2010 stopper, Mariners manager Eric Wedge has worked with some new names and shuffled roles around while biding time until Aardsma returns. Brandon League has filled in nicely as the interim closer, and Jamey Wright, Aaron Laffey, and David Pauley have contributed to a nice run of late from the relievers.
As helpful as it’s been for the pitching to keep them in close games, the Mariners’ offensive problems look to be ones that will linger. The top of the order features two speedsters in Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins, who are both coming off seasons of over 40 stolen bases. The only other Seattle teammates to accomplish that feat were Phil Bradley and Harold Reynolds back in 1987.
Despite all the excitement Ichiro and Figgens provide, the team lacks power and on-base percentage throughout the lineup. The duo can run all they want once they get on base, but if no one can drive them in, they may just be stranded at second instead of first.
A shortage of walks is usually a big part of a team’s OBP problems. But that’s actually the one area in which the Mariners have done well, as they lead all of baseball in bases on balls. Their particular woes are more attributed to their horrible batting average, which sits at .234. It also hurts that their slugging percentage is only 100 points higher, at .334.
In contrast to the ups and downs of the Mariners and the Rangers, the A’s have been steady. Oakland features a balanced offense that is equally bad at batting average, walking, and hitting home runs. Add all that together and Oakland shares Seattle’s struggles with run-scoring, ranking only ahead of Minnesota in that category among AL squads.
The team is carried by its pitching staff, even with an injured Dallas Braden looking less likely to make a quick return from the disabled list. Tyson Ross has filled in nicely in a couple of spot starts covering Braden’s absence, but a return from Braden would just about guarantee the A’s the best staff in the West. They have allowed the fewest earned runs in the AL and have new pitching coach Ron Romanick guiding a club that has already done well in that category over the course of the past three years.
Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Brett Anderson are very promising young pitchers, all under age 26. Brandon McCarthy is very difficult to count on due to his lengthy history of injuries. But Kyle Boddy thinks there’s a chance that McCarthy’s mechanical adjustments over the years may actually keep him on the mound. If he can’t stay healthy, it makes Braden’s return all the more important, as strong pitching will surely be what would win the division for the A’s.
The Angels have also had great pitching thus far, led by Jered Weaver and Dan Haren. As much attention as Weaver is getting for his 6-0 start, Haren has been just as dominant, striking out 6.5 batters for every walk he has issued, as well as only giving up 35 hits through his first 51 innings. Weaver and Haren are currently third and fourth, respectively, on Fangraph’s WAR leaderboard for pitchers.
While not many picked the Angels to make the playoffs in 2011, those two pitchers in a short series would give them a chance to advance if they somehow did make it in. The longer the Angels can hang around .500, and the longer their division rivals must deal with their own problems, the better chance they have to sneak in.
As a team, the Angels have hit the ball pretty well. As an individual, Vernon Wells has not hit the ball at all, posting a triple slash line of .176/.227/.269. Many people saw the Angels coming out on the bad side of their offseason trade for Wells and his horrific contract when it went down. His awful start magnifies the stupidity of that deal. It’s not just that Wells is bad right now, it’s that Wells is bad, and due to his huge salary, it’s not easy to cut bait.
It’s early, and Wells could turn things around. His BABIP is hovering around .200, which means there is some room for growth. However, to maximize that growth, he’ll need to get his line drive percentage up from 7.3 percent. If he doesn’t turn things around soon, the drain on the rest of a mediocre offense may be too much to overcome.
It’s early—way too early to tell who will win the division. But it’s not too early to looking for long-term flaws in each team, or to start seeing what things teams are doing well, or to simply check out some cool graphs.
References & Resources
Grosse Pointe Blank, Baseball Prospectus, Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference, The Miami Herald, The Associated Press, Fort-Worth Star-Telegram, The Mercury News