AL West: checking in at the breakby David Wade
July 15, 2013
Maybe it's inevitable. Maybe by now, the Oakland A's are so associated with a known term that there will never be any discussion about them without that term popping up at least a few times.
Because of both a bestseller and a well-received movie, the term probably will show up in almost every article ever published about Oakland from now until the end of baseball. If Oakland's payroll continues to lag well behind that of most of the other Major League Baseball teams, they may never escape it.
Even if they were to change their identity completely, bring in a whole new roster, and abandon their miserly ways, the term still would appear, wouldn't it? Even if they somehow, someway, got permission to build their elusive new stadium in a place where ownership believes revenue will grow and subsequently increase payroll, talk would then only turn to how Oakland had changed their ways and left that iconic label behind. Either way, it would still be referenced.
On the other hand, we know from the past that when the A's are not winning, they are still linked to the term. For example, some have talked about how Oakland's system doesn't work. They talk about how Billy Beane's philosophy has now run its course. They even say it was never really as effective as some thought in the first place.
(Just ask "Hawk" Harrelson. He'll tell you.)
So, even in down years, the term is still inescapable. It's inescapable because everyone against it wants to say, "I told you so." By the way, this is also still true if Oakland keeps winning in the regular season but continues to fall short of a championship. Critics get to criticize either way. Oh, and getting over the hump and winning a championship? Well, that likely would inspire a sequel, and the damn word never will disappear from our baseball vernacular!
Now, more than halfway through the 2013 season, the term is linked to the A's as much as it ever has been. This is because, in addition to winning with a small payroll (the basis of the book), they are doing it by taking lots of pitches and battling for lots of walks (the main theme of the movie).
Oakland rode an improbable finish to win the division last year. This year they lead at the All-Star break and will resume defense of their title by visiting the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Friday.
Speaking of the Angels, they are getting to the point where the word may be tied to them for the next few seasons. Except in their case, the prefix "anti" may be placed in front of it.
This is because the Angels certainly don't lead the league in walks (although they aren't as resistant to taking them as some of their past teams have been). And they certainly aren't found toward the bottom of payroll rankings, either, as they have spent big on free agency the past few seasons and currently spend twice as much on player payroll as Oakland does. And, unfortunately for them, whatever you want to call their formula, it's not working.
Yet, despite another disappointing start to the season, one that's mostly due to the failures of Anaheim's biggest free-agent acquisitions, there is reason for hope for the Angels. Mike Trout somehow is repeating the unrepeatable, amazing numbers he posted last year.
And those two big free agent busts, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols, while disappointments in relation to the sizes of their contracts, still can reasonably be expected to post better offensive numbers in the second half of the season.
Bolstering this hope for Angels fans is the fact that Hamilton is hitting line drives a little over 20 percent of the time he puts the ball in play. That rate is close to what he's done his whole career, yet his BABIP of .265 is far below his career mark of a little over .330.
He's also hitting more infield fly balls (IFFB%) and fewer homers per fly ball (HR/FB) this year, two things that, if they reverse course the rest of the season, really could boost his numbers, which in turn could help his team win more games.
Further, if Hamilton can find a way to be a little more patient, maybe he can adjust to the fact that pitchers throw him fewer and fewer fastballs every season and avoid the stretches where he looks like he's trying to get out as quickly as possible. That probably is less likely.
Pujols also could benefit from an increase in BABIP, and, as with Hamilton, that's an increase that may very well be possible. If there's anything physically wrong with Hamilton right now, not much has been made about it. Conversely, for Pujols, issues with his foot are well known. Angels fans must hope that Pujols' immense talent will mean that he can repeat what he did last year and put up a second half where his batting average jumped 40 points.
Like Hamilton, Pujols' BABIP is about 60 points lower than his career rate. The difference in the two is that the sore foot may make it harder for Pujols to turn things around. To help with the problem, the Angels are playing Pujols more at designated hitter lately, and maybe that will reduce the pain enough for him to have a bounce-back similar to the one he had last year.
Leaving behind the typecast A's and the drama of the Angels, we will find the steady Texas Rangers. But, while Texas has been at or near the division lead for the better part of five years, we are starting to see some signs that they may be facing their own drama soon.
Yu Darvish is hurt a little, and while they expect him back, any extended loss definitely would hurt their playoff chances. Meanwhile, Nelson Cruz is having a great year at the plate but could face suspension if reports of his involvement with the Biogenesis investigation are true.
Luckily, the Rangers have talented prospects they could use to entice other clubs into trade deadline deals if Cruz must miss time and/or Darvish struggles to recover. This would allow the Rangers to bring in some more talent for best buddies Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus to pal around (and win games) with.
AL West representatives to the All-Star Game, with a note about each
Mike Trout: No falloff after his breakout season, as his offensive numbers are right on track with last year. Maybe he's not producing statistically amazing defensive numbers, but that's not due to any physical decline, just because he's playing left field instead of center and has missed a couple of home run-robbing attempts. Trout somehow may miss out on the MVP award again if his team misses the playoffs and Miguel Cabrera repeats as the American League Triple Crown winner.
Felix Hernandez: The fastball velocity is down, but he's striking out more batters while walking fewer. He's a phenomenal pitcher who is getting better at pitching. Hernandez's last start before the break was a well-pitched effort against the Angels.
Bartolo Colon: An older player who is playing way above what we thought he'd be capable of. He also previously has been suspended due to PED use, so that likely will cause some skepticism, especially if he gets suspended again, as reports have indicated is possible. Losing him would hurt, but Oakland is deep with starting pitching talent.
Yu Darvish: He throws a ton of different pitches and is a joy to watch, but he has a tweaked back right now and is looking to get right for a strong finish to 2013, when he could lead the majors in strikeouts.
Hisashi Iwakuma: This Mariner was as good as King Felix for a long stretch to start the season but has fallen off lately. Either the league is adjusting to him, or he was playing above his head. The second half should tell.
Joe Nathan: A former lockdown closer is a lockdown closer again.
Nelson Cruz: Nellie is having a great year on a fun team. But there could be big news from MLB coming after the All-Star break. His loss would be a big blow to the Rangers' chances of winning the division.
Jason Castro: We had to have someone from the Astros, but this catcher can rake, so it was a good choice.
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.