Posted June 18, 2012

Angels taking flight after slow start

Albert Pujols, Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Mike Trout

Albert Pujols has put his dreadful first six weeks behind him and is looking like the superstar he was in St. Louis. (Robert Beck/SI)

On Saturday, Ervin Santana put in a bid to join Philip Humber and Matt Cain as perfect pitchers of 2012, retiring the first 20 Diamondbacks before yielding a single to Justin Upton, the lone hit he would allow in nine innings. On Sunday, Garrett Richards and Ernesto Frieri combined for a four-hit shutout of Arizona, enabling the Angels to capture their seventh series out of their last eight. Left for dead after a sluggish start which saw them fall eight games behind the Rangers in the American League West race, they’ve been the hottest team in baseball over the past five weeks, winning 21 out of their last 31 games (a .677 winning percentage) while outscoring opponents by 37 runs (136-99). Today they’re just four games behind the Rangers, and 1 1/2 behind the Rays for the second AL Wild Card spot.

The turning point of the Angels’ season appears to have arrived on May 15, when they fired longtime hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. At that point, the team was 15-21, with an offense scoring just 3.61 runs per game, the worst showing in the AL this side of the Twins. The team was hitting a collective .247/.299/.377, with $240 million free agent Albert Pujols mired in a .197/.235/.275 slump to start his Anaheim career. He was harldy alone in his underperformance, as Vernon Wells (.233/.258/.408), Erick Aybar (.193/.220/.235) and Alberto Callaspo (.225/.271/.275) were pulling in the opposite direction as well.

Correlation doesn’t prove causation, but the Angels offense has turned things around since throwing Hatcher overboard. Pujols collected three hits on May 15, just his sixth multi-hit game of the season to that point, and he homered in each of the next two games. Since Hatcher’s departure, he’s hitting .325/.388/.625 — numbers that approximate his career line — with nine homers in 139 plate appearances. The Angels as a team are pumping out a respectable 4.39 runs per game during that span, on .268/.331/.420 hitting.

Pujols hasn’t done it alone. Mark Trumbo, virtually the only Halo hitter flourishing during the first part of the season, has stayed hot, batting .321/.378/.613 overall. Mike Trout, who was recalled from Triple-A on April 28, has been a major boon; installed in the leadoff spot in place of the struggling Aybar, he has hit a searing .324/.382/.516 while fueling an entertaining debate over whether he or Bryce Harper (who, coincidentally, also played his first game this season on April 28) is the brighter prospect. Torii Hunter, who missed 16 games in the wake of his son’s arrest, has hit .316/.391/.544 since returning. That trio, now the team’s starting outfield, has helped clear up a logjam — or a Mike Scioscia headache — that saw Bobby Abreu (.208/.259/.333 in 27 PA) bumped off the roster, Peter Bourjous (.212/.275/.273) replaced in centerfield and Wells sent to the 60-day disabled list as of May 20 due to a torn ligament in his right thumb that required surgery.

The pitching staff has actually improved by an even wider margin since May 15, an uptick that can’t be attributed to jettisoning Hatcher (beware even the well-crafted narrative). Where they were allowing 4.11 runs per game before, the Angels have allowed just 3.19 per game since, a showing all the more impressive given that ace Jered Weaver left his May 28 start after just three batters due to a lower back strain. C.J. Wilson has yielded just seven runs (four earned) in 38 2/3 innings since May 15, while Richards has allowed just three runs (two earned) in 20 innings over three starts in place of Weaver; as a whole, the rotation’s ERA split since mid-May has dropped from 3.82 to 3.11. That’s actually more reflective of an improved defensive unit that has shaved 18 points off the team’s BABIP in that span, from .282 to .264 — signs that the turnover in the outfield has paid dividends, as has the end of Trumbo’s experiment at the hot corner.

Also improving by leaps and bounds is the bullpen, thanks in large part to a May 3 trade that brought Frieri from the Padres in exchange for a pair of prospects. The 26-year-old righty fired 13 1/3 no-hit innings to begin his career with the Angels, racking up 28 strikeouts during that span and claiming a share of the closer responsibilities alongside lefty Scott Downs. Frieri has now allowed just three hits in 19 1/3 innings and has yet to allow a run or let an inherited runner score. The bullpen as a whole had yielded a 4.64 ERA prior to May 15, while allowing 41 percent of inherited runners to score and striking out just 6.3 per nine. Since then, they’ve trimmed that ERA to 2.09, allowed 29 percent of inherited runners to score, and boosted their strikeout rate to 8.4 per nine.

The Angels still have plenty of causes for concern. Even with the recent uptick in offense, they’re getting substandard production from Aybar, Callaspo, Howie Kendrick, Kendrys Morales and their catching corps, which hasn’t been helped by the loss of Chris Iannetta to a wrist fracture that required surgery. Santana, despite his one-hitter, is carrying a 5.16 ERA while yielding 1.8 homers per nine, and Dan Haren has been homer-prone as well. The Rangers, who have gone just 17-14 during the Angels’ surge, have won seven out of nine to get back on track, and don’t figure to disappear from the race anytime soon. Still, the return of Weaver, expected on Friday, can only improve their odds of challenging for a playoff spot.

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