Posted May 30, 2013

Jered Weaver shines in return, gives Angels hope of rebound

Jered Weaver, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Jered Weaver went six innings and allowed just one run in his return from the disabled list. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Jered Weaver went six innings and allowed just one run in his return from the disabled list. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

In his first outing since fracturing a bone in his elbow on Apr. 7, Jered Weaver offered a tantalizing glimpse of what the Angels had missed. The 30-year-old righty held the Dodgers to one run over six strong innings, and while closer Ernesto Frieri allowed two solo homers in the ninth inning, the Angels held on for a 4-3 win, their first in this year’s Freeway Series.

Weaver, who pitched a no-hitter against the Twins last May 3, retired the first 12 Dodgers he faced before Andre Ethier doubled to lead off the fifth, missing a home run by just a couple of feet. After he recovered to strike out both Matt Kemp and Scott Van Slyke, the inning turned into a slog, however.

Ethier came around to score on Skip Schumaker’s single, tying the game at 1-1. To Weaver’s visible frustration, the inning continued when A.J. Ellis smoked a drive to left field that J.B. Shuck was forced to play on the hop, after which Dodgers television announcer Vin Scully said he could read the pitcher’s lips: “What the blank is going on?” From MLBGIFS.com:

weaver

Pitching coach Mike Butcher came to the mound to calm Weaver down, after which the inning was extended even further when Luis Cruz beat out an infield single to shortstop Erick Aybar, whose diving stop and throw to third base prevented Schumaker from scoring. The extra hits required Weaver to throw 20 pitches in that inning, his high for the night. The Angels quickly regained the lead when Mark Trumbo bashed a two-run homer off Chris Capuano in the bottom of the fifth, and after working around a one-out single to Adrian Gonzalez in the sixth, Weaver’s night was done.

In all, Weaver threw 86 pitches, allowed just five hits, and struck out seven — Kemp, Van Slyke and Nick Punto twice apiece, plus Carl Crawford — without walking a batter. According to the PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, he generated an impressive 14 swings and misses, six with his slider, three apiece with his changeup and sinker, and two with his four-seam fastball. One of the more encouraging signs was the recovery of his velocity relative to earlier in the year, when his lack of heat led some to wonder if he was injured. His four-seamer averaged 88.0 MPH, up from 86.1 in his first two starts if not quite on par with last year’s 88.8 MPH.

The victory was the Angels’ ninth in 11 games, and their first since reeling off an eight-game winning streak that ended at the hands of the Dodgers on Monday. They’re now 24-29, 8 1/2 games behind the Rangers in the AL West and six back in the wild-card race.

Where the Angels go from here with regards to their rotation is an open question, as they have six starters for five spots, but at the very least, Weaver will get an extra day to recuperate before facing the Cubs on June 4, because manager Mike Scioscia wants to give fill-in Jerome Williams another turn. Jason Vargas, whose 3.43 ERA is the rotation’s lowest thus far, will face the Dodgers on Thursday. Tommy Hanson, who returned to the team on Tuesday after missing three weeks in the wake of the death of his stepbrother, will face the Astros on Friday, followed by C.J. Wilson, who has a 3.95 ERA and the team’s highest quality start rate at 73 percent, and then Joe Blanton, who’s been roughed up for a 5.94 ERA and a .386 batting average on balls in play.

Williams, who has delivered four quality starts out of five while patching the rotation, will get one more chance to state his case next Monday against the Cubs. If merit were the issue, he’d take the fifth spot while Blanton goes to the bullpen, but the combination of Williams’ experience as a reliever and Blanton’s sizable contract suggests the latter will have the upper hand when the dust settles.

As noted earlier in this space, the Angels came into Wednesday’s game ranked a disappointing 11th in the league in ERA (4.57) and 12th in strikeout rate (6.3 per nine), though they’re a more respectable seventh in quality-start rate (54 percent). Meanwhile, their bullpen has the league’s third-highest ERA (4.21) and second-highest rate of allowing inherited runners to score (38 percent).

Undercutting the efforts of the entire  staff is a defense that ranks 12th in the league with a .680 defensive efficiency rate, 11 points below the AL average and a staggering 28 points below last year’s league-leading mark. Injuries to Aybar and Alberto Callaspo forced the less competent Brendan Harris and Luis Jimenez to man the left side of the infield for an extended stretch, while the loss of Peter Bourjos took away one of the game’s best defensive outfielders. That said, the latter injury keyed the shift of Mike Trout back to center field, which has coincided with his heating up at the plate.

As for the offense as a whole, the Angels came into Wednesday eighth in the league in scoring (4.56 runs per game), with an uptick of over half a run per game with the calendar’s shift from April to May:

Split R/G HR AVG OBP SLG
April 4.27 24 .262 .321 .402
May 4.85 35 .260 .326 .447

They’re producing more runs lately because they’re knocking the ball out of the park. Trout leads the team with eight homers in May while hitting an astounding .340/.417/.700, while Trumbo (.238/.313/.475) and Josh Hamilton (.244/.320/.522) have six apiece despite otherwise uneven performances, and Howie Kendrick (.330/.365/.495) has four homers himself, a surprise given that only once in eight seasons has he hit more than 10 homers. Hamilton (.222/.283/.399 overall) may be starting to find his way in his new surroundings, but Albert Pujols (.250/.320/.425 overall) is still lagging well behind expectations. The latter continues to DH frequently as he attempts to play through plantar fasciitis, which isn’t helping his own offense or the defense, at least when Trumbo plays first.

Particularly striking among the Angels’ offensive numbers is how rarely their hitters have had the platoon advantage — 44.9 percent of the time, the league’s second-lowest rate — and how poorly they’ve performed when they have. In such situations, their .244 batting average and .305 on-base percentage both rank 14th in the league, their .401 slugging percentage 12th. If it weren’t for the fact that their righty-heavy lineup (all but Hamilton and fill-in outfielder Shuck, with Aybar and Callaspo both switch-hitters) were punishing right-handed pitching at a .279/.345/.456 clip, for the league’s third-best OPS in that category, they might be giving the Astros a run for their money at the bottom of the AL West standings. With Hamilton the only impact lefty in the lineup, opposing managers can save their lefty specialists to match up with him in the late innings rather than let him face righties; thus far, he’s hit just .173/.182/.212 in 55 PA against southpaws

With Weaver and Hanson back, the Angels should do a better job of run prevention, lessening the stress on the offense, but even with their recent surge, they’re hardly out of the woods. As I noted earlier this week, teams that lag below .500 around the 50-game mark rarely make the playoffs. The addition of a second wild card increases their chances; the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds put them at 21 percent prior to Wednesday’s win, in part because their -10 run differential suggests that they’re not as bad as their won-loss record indicates. Though they’ve ranked among the game’s biggest disappointments thus far, the Angels aren’t out of this yet.

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