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Heavenly Hosts - A Los Angeles Angels Preview

A look ahead at our second Los Angeles opponent of the week

"Nice work, Hank.  I hereby award you five MathisPoints"
"Nice work, Hank. I hereby award you five MathisPoints"
Stephen Dunn

Offense: Kole Calhoun - RF, Mike Trout - CF, Albert Pujols - 1B, Josh Hamilton - LF, Howie Kendrick - 2B, David Freese - 3B, C.J. Cron - DH, Hank Conger - C, Erick Aybar - SS

The Angels traded away Mark Trumbo for pitching this past offseason, and one reason they found him expendable was Kole Calhoun's play in 2013.  Calhoun logged significant time in the majors for the first time last season and more than held his own.  Prior to his debut, he raked at various levels in the minor leagues.  He looks like he will be a good hitter despite his early-season struggles.  Calhoun has missed some time due to an ankle sprain, but has occasionally served as the Angels' leadoff man when healthy.

It may surprise you to learn that Mike Trout is leading the American League in strikeouts.  This is the reason that he's hitting just shy of .300 rather than well over it.  He's been taking it easy on the basepaths this year; just two seasons ago, he led all of baseball in steals, but has just swiped just five bags this year.  That's about it for the dings on Mike Trout.  He's an elite defensive center fielder with power, speed, and a great on-base percentage. For over two seasons now, he's been baseball's most valuable player, even if he's never been its Most Valuable Player.

The great hope for Albert Pujols this season was that with his plantar fasciitis problems behind him, he'd revert to being a star-caliber hitter.  His considerable power is back after a one-season hiatus, but that's really about it. Pujols is four years removed from hitting well over .300 and his walk rate is way down from when he was the game's greatest player.  Optimists will look at his .235 BABIP and see better times ahead, pessimists will respond with his low line drive rate and very high infield fly rate.  While Pujols' days of black ink are long over, he's still a pretty good hitter.  It's just that it's tough to see the recent performance attached to his name and be anything but disappointed.  After this season, there's just 7 years, $189 million to go.

Josh Hamilton made his return to the Angels lineup this week after missing about two months with a bone bruise in his thumb.  He was off to a hot start to the year prior to the injury and did plenty of damage in his rehab stint at Triple-A.  However, the excitement over what he's done so far this year in a small sample should be tempered by memories of his disappointing 2013, during which Hamilton's once-prodigious power took a step back.  The 33 year-old is still a good hitter for the time being, but his injury history and increasing struggles with breaking pitches make him look like a shaky investment going forward.

Howie Kendrick never wound up perpetually contending for batting titles like many once thought he would, but he's still pretty good at hitting for average.  He has excellent hand-eye coordination to go along with some power, and that combination has made him a very productive second baseman over the course of his career. This season, he's getting on base frequently via the base on balls, which is a noted departure from previous years.  He's a notably above-average regular.

Right after David Freese's magical postseason in 2011, I made a prediction to some softball teammates that he wouldn't be a starting regular in three years.  After making me sweat for the first two, he's finally working towards making good on that prognosis.  Freese has fallen off a cliff in pretty much every way possible.  He took a step back in 2013 and the theory was that this was due to a lingering back injury.  This season he's had problems with tightness in his quad as well as a finger contusion, but it's unclear whether these problems are behind his putrid batting line.

Another reason the Halos may have felt they could do without Mark Trumbo is because they had what appears to be a Trumbo clone in their system by the name of C.J. Cron.  The two are eerily similar; both are hulking, right-handed, walk-averse sluggers listed at 6'4'', 235 pounds.  Besides an established major league track record, the only other difference I see is that Cron hasn't been coerced into pretending he belongs in the outfield.  Cron raked at Triple-A Salt Lake City for a little over a month before getting promoted and has succeeded at the plate thus far in the majors in a small sample.

Four seasons after making his major league debut, the "Free Hank Conger" cries have finally been answered...sort of.  Conger's minor league numbers indicate that the switch-hitter is weak against lefties, so Mike Scioscia has him in a platoon arrangement with Chris Iannetta.  Framing and receiving metrics praise Conger's work behind the plate and he's provided the Angels with above-average offense in a limited sample so far this season.  He's the better defensive catcher in this platoon situation and will ideally wind up with the majority of the playing time going forward.

Slick-fielding Erick Aybar has continued his remarkably consistent career at the plate this season.  The Angels have been banged up a bit and Aybar has seen plenty of reps in the first two slots of the batting order.  While not an outstanding source of OBP that you'd like to see at the top of the lineup, Aybar is good at making contact with just enough pop to make him a roughly league average hitter.  That's a great thing to get out of a shortstop.  The 30 year-old was once an efficient base stealer, but that piece of his game has eroded in recent years.

Bench: Chris Iannetta - C, John McDonald - INF, Raul Ibanez - DH, Grant Green - UTIL, Collin Cowgill - OF

Pitching: Starting Rotation - Jered Weaver - RHP, C.J. Wilson - LHP, Matt Shoemaker - RHP, Garrett Richards - RHP, Tyler Skaggs - LHP; Closer - Ernesto Frieri - RHP

For years, Jered Weaver's ERAs have resembled those of a staff ace, but the truth is that his home ballpark and excellent outfielders have made the extreme flyball pitcher look better than he really is.  Weaver was a legitimate ace back when he could consistently throw around 90 mph, but these days his fastball sits in the mid-80s and he no longer strikes out very many hitters.  On the plus side, he's 6'7'' and lanky, which gives him a deceptive delivery to go along with his very good curveball.  He can hang his hat on having a far better career than his older brother Jeff, though without the World Series ring to show for it.  So far.

C.J. Wilson was once an ace-caliber pitcher, but like Weaver, he's more of an above-average innings muncher these days.  He's been remarkably healthy since converting to the starting rotation from closing, as he hasn't made fewer than 33 starts in any of the past four seasons.  While increased reliance on his effective slider worked well for him last season, he's shied away from that pitch in favor of the curveball and changeup this year.  The Angels have been getting a great return on the five year, $77.5 million contract that Wilson signed before the 2012 season, and should Wilson continue to maintain his health and velocity, it will be a significant bargain when all is said and done.

After seven ineffective starts, the Angels punted Hector Santiago from the rotation like a Billy Pierce statue. They inserted Matt Shoemaker in his place.  Shoemaker spent the entirety of the 2012 and 2013 seasons at Triple-A Salt Lake City and led the minor leagues in innings pitched both years.  As one might expect for a hurler asked to repeat Triple-A for his second full season at age 26, his performance wasn't great, as Shoemaker posted ERAs of 5.65 and 4.64.  The results have been better on the big stage, as Shoemaker has shown an ability to miss major league bats, but home runs have been a problem.

Garrett Richards looked like your run-of-the-mill Angels back-end starter coming into this season, but things have really clicked for him.  He's added a little velocity and his heater now sits in the mid-upper 90s. This is surprising considering he's been used out of the bullpen for parts of the prior two seasons and is now starting full-time. Though the data suggest his slider has flattened out a little bit, he's getting hitters to chase it out of the zone more often this season, which has contributed to his uptick in strikeouts.  Fun fact: Richards has uncorked more wild pitches than anyone in baseball this season, with 11.

Thanks to Tyler Skaggs, the Angels have received the best return to-date from the three-team trade that netted the White Sox Adam Eaton.  Skaggs didn't pitch particularly well in two partial seasons for the Diamondbacks, but has been plenty serviceable for the Angels. Looking at his stats and his velocity chart, it's pretty easy to see the two biggest reasons he's gotten tougher; all of his pitches are being thrown 2-3 mph harder than in previous years and he's been able to cut his formerly hysterical home run rate by moving into a more spacious home park and doing a better job of keeping the ball on the ground.

Ernesto Frieri has never been an elite fireman because major league hitters blast the ball out of the park off of him with alarming regularity.  The lowest ground ball percentage among qualified pitchers last season was A.J. Griffin's 32 percent.  Frieri has never had a ground ball percentage above 26 percent.  Despite the homers and the fact that he can be a little wild sometimes, Frieri can blow hitters away with his mid-90s rising fastball and he generally limits base hits.  He's a valuable pitcher, even if he's not in the top tier of closers.

Outlook & Prediction: The Angels have a good roster, but they're chasing one of the hottest and best teams in the game in the Oakland Athletics.  I think Mike Trout's teammates once again won't be good enough to get him his first MVP award.  Predicted record and finish: 85-77, second place, AL West