AL West: Oh, the storylines

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Texas is, as expected, playing well and leading the American League West. Seattle is, as expected, playing poorly and is in last place. But the other two teams in the division are not following their expected paths.

On one hand, the Oakland A’s are a surprise at the moment, outperforming expectations and doing so in part with what appears to be smoke and mirrors. On the other, Albert Pujols, possibly the greatest hitter of our generation, started the 2012 season in horrific fashion, and that has played a big role in why the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are struggling when most thought they would be fighting Texas for first place.

By now, Pujols’ struggles are well known. He’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone than he ever has before. This is something he started doing a little more a few years ago, but he has taken it to a new level this season. As a result, he’s walking a lot less often than he used to, and he’s striking out a lot more often than he used to. For Pujols, this is uncharted territory. However, for the rest of his new team, it is familiar ground. It’s the type of approach Anaheim has had for years.

The Angels fired hitting coach Mickey Hatcher last week. Hatcher had served in that role since the 2000 season.

Looking back, his first year as hitting coach was the only time his team finished in the top half of the American League in walks. That organizational disdain for the base on balls, whether necessitated by personnel or by Hatcher’s design, has led to below-average levels of team on-base percentage in all but four years of the former coach’s reign. In three of those four good years, the team’s OBP was propped up by American League-leading team batting average. Dave Schoenfield talked about this over at ESPN at the time of Hatcher’s firing and pointed out that the Angels’ approach at the plate mirrored Hatcher’s own approach as a player.

While we may not be able to place this squarely at the feet of Hatcher, there’s no doubt that the teams he coached always tried to hit their way on. We can assume the message was never to chase bad pitches. We might also assume no one would tell Albert Pujols to change his approach. But for whatever the reason—organizational methodology, the pressures of being on a new team, or signing a huge contract—Pujols, a guy who has had a season with more strikeouts than walks only once in his career (his rookie year), is currently fitting in with his new co-workers by taking on their hacking ways.

This is not what Anaheim needed. The Angels needed the Pujols who patiently waits for pitches to destroy. They needed him to lay off balls out of the zone and take his walks. They needed him to help the team post an OBP better than the .312 they averaged the last two years.

Hatcher’s dismissal is not the only sign that Anaheim is looking in a new direction. The club called up its top prospect, Mike Trout, who has immediately established himself as one of the more patient hitters in the lineup, which is a little like saying Job was a little more patient than a bunch of sugar-fueled toddlers.

The good news for Anaheim is that Pujols seems to be coming around a bit at the plate lately. The bad news is that it looks like his days of being a eight-to-10 win player in terms of WAR are over, and that his days of posting a .440 OBP are probably over, as well. If that’s the case, the Angels will probably once again finish near the bottom of the American League in runs scored. And if that’s the case, the pitching staff will have to be exceptional in order to compete with Texas.

Luckily, they have exceptional pitchers, with Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Dan Haren. Haren has started 2012 slowly but should be able to turn things around and join Wilson and Weaver to form a trio of guys that could keep hopes alive. Weaver has already thrown a no-hitter this season and annually contends for the American League Cy Young Award, while the other two would be front-line starters on several other teams.

While Anaheim has disappointed, Oakland has been a pleasant surprise for the few fans who are actually attending A’s games. Oakland is working some magic on the mound, ranking near the top of the American League in ERA while simultaneously ranking toward the bottom in strikeouts. Their pitchers’ ability to coax opposing batters into hitting into most of their outs might be paramount for them to stay around .500. The owner wants to move, and frankly, increased revenue from a move to a better park may be the only way for them to compete in the future.

Texas’ best pitcher, on the other hand, is getting his opponents out with pure smoke and no mirrors.

Texas’ ace, Yu Darvish came to the Rangers with a huge amount of fanfare, and for the most part, he has responded by being one of the most exciting pitchers in the game. His collection of pitches is as varied as it is breathtaking. His curveball alone is must-see viewing since it’s a pitch he can vary in both velocity and break.

Darvish started the year struggling with his command, but he seems to be working toward a better understanding of working to major league hitters, who may be holding off on Darvish’s pitches a little more than what he saw in Japan. Still, the strikeout rate (he’s averaging 10 strikeouts per nine innings pitched) is a direct reflection of his stuff.

Unlike Oakland’s staff, Darvish is posting his excellent ERA by making opponents swing and miss. We haven’t quite reached “Fernandomania” levels in Arlington, but the love for Darvish is strong. His home starts always end with rousing ovations and an acknowledgement to the fans.

Texas manager Ron Washington is not easing Darvish into life in the big leagues. “Wash” has moved the 25-year-old up a day a couple of times to keep him on the same five-day pitching schedule all year. Darvish finished last season on a similar schedule but had been used to having five days off in between starts before that change, and it might be interesting to see how he handles pitching more frequently as the year goes on.

Also of note, Darvish’s penchant for strikeouts, walks, and very few runs allowed means he works deep into games and racks up pitches. But he seems like a strong kid, with a build that might allow him to challenge Detroit’s Justin Verlander as far as being the biggest workhorse in the game.

Darvish also rivals Verlander in another aspect—watchability. His starts are exhilarating.

Darvish’s teammate, Josh Hamilton, continues to serve as protagonist in one of the most compelling stories in sports. He blasted four home runs against Baltimore on May 8, he leads the league in homers, RBIs and batting average, and he’s making some of us think that if he can stay healthy, he may actually make a run at the Triple Crown. He also leads the league in OBP, slugging, and total bases, and he’s doing all this in a contract year.

Rangers management is facing a very difficult decision regarding Hamilton. His much-publicized fight with addiction makes him a long-term risk. And it’s not just a relapse they have to worry about, but the damage he did to his body in his early 20s may also come back to haunt him.

But this has been the refrain with Hamilton since his return to the game. In many ways, he is a ticking time bomb set to go off at any point should he find a bottle in front of him. But if that doesn’t happen, and if he can stay productive throughout his mid-30s, he could have one of the most unique careers in baseball history, providing moments like his four-homer game every now and then while making us constantly wonder how much better he could have been.

However, those long-term concerns don’t really matter to us now in regard to who will win the West this season. Seattle’s early struggles seem to be the kind that will last the whole year. Oakland may be able to hang around like it is now, and the return of Manny Ramirez could help keep the A’s afloat. Texas is playing like the talented and deep team that it is.

That leaves Anaheim as the team most likely to see a dramatic turnaround. Despite the Angels’ offensive troubles, there is too much talent on the team, particularly on the pitching staff, for them to continue to struggle. But again, that Texas team is so good that it looks like Anaheim may have to set its sights on one of the two Wild Card spots in the American League. Their odds will get better if the Angels’ superstar starts to play more like he’s accustomed to.

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