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First Half Report

The Angels now have 81 games in the books following last night’s 9-4 win over the Texas Rangers, and the Halos find themselves where they usually have been at the halfway mark over the past few seasons… in first place.

At this point last year, the Angels (who would go on to win a club record and MLB-best 100 games), were 48-33. This year’s Angels, with all the ups and downs, would only be 2 games off that pace with a record of 46-35.

The Halos have won the AL West division 4 of the past 5 years, so being #1 isn’t all that new to them.

But this year, things are much different. It was a year of big changes and adaptation for the Angels.

Preseason

Noteworthy Re-signings:

  • OF- Juan Rivera (3 yrs./$12.75 million)
  • OF- Vladimir Guerrero (1 yr. club option/$15 million)
  • SP- John Lackey (1 yr. club option/$9 million)
  • 3B- Chone Figgins (1 yr./$5.775 million)
  • SP- Ervin Santana (4 yrs./$30 million) – 2008 All-Star selection
  • SP- Joe Saunders (1 yr./$0.475 million) – 2008 All-Star selection
  • 2B- Howie Kendrick (1 yr./$.0465 million)
  • SP- Jered Weaver (1 yr./$0.465 million)
  • INF- Maicer Izturis (1 yr./$1.6 million)
  • RP- Darren Oliver (1 yr./3.665 million)

Noteworthy Additions:

  • CL- Brian Fuentes (2 yrs./$17.5 million) – 3-time All-Star with Rockies in ’05, ’06, ’07 seasons
  • OF- Bobby Abreu (1 yr./$5 million) – .300 batting average, .405 on-base percentage for his career

Noteworthy Subtractions:

  • 1B- Mark Teixeira (Yankees – 8 yrs./$180 million) – .358 avg., 13 HR, 43 RBI with Angels in 54 games
  • CL- Francisco Rodriguez (Mets – 3 yrs./$37 million) – MLB record 62 saves in ’08, 194 saves in 4 full seasons as closer, 208 total saves with Angels, won 5 games in ’02 postseason as 20-year-old phenom
  • OF- Garret Anderson (Braves – 1 yr./$2.5 million) – Was an Angel for 15 years, 2,368 hits, 489 2B, 272 HR, 1,292 RBI with Angels, starter in left field for ’02 World Championship team

To this current point in time, the Angels haven’t exactly had that gold-paved road to the top of the division, that they’ve seemed to have in years past. Injuries decimated the Angels’ rotation to start the year, and an unexpected tragedy would rock the Angels organization and the baseball world in the opening month.

April

Month record: 9-12

Highest point: 1-0 (the only time during the month they had over a .500 record was after the Opening Day win)

Lowest point: 6-11

3+ Game Winning Streaks: 1– 3 games (April 26, 28, 29)

3+ Game Losing Streaks: 1– 3 games (April 17-19)

April Player of the Month: Torii Hunter (.325 avg./.379 OBP/8 HR/16 RBI)

A look back on April

It all started great, nothing like an Opening Day shutout of an in-state division rival. Joe Saunders would dazzle in the April 6th season opener, en route to a 3-0 Halo win against the visiting Oakland A’s.

The A’s would take game 2, and then the bullpen would blow a tremendous outing (soon to become a recurring theme) from young hurler Nick Adenhart in game 3 of the series, a game in which he threw 6 innings of shutout ball, striking out 5 Oakland batters.

But just hours after that April 8th Angels loss, the Angels would be dealt a loss that no one saw coming.

In the early hours of April 9th, that same Nick Adenhart who threw 6 magnificent innings for the Halos in his season debut, would be killed by a drunk driver, as well as 2 of the other 3 people in the car. He was only 22 years old. This was a kid who you just knew was going to be special. At 22 and having good, yet still improving control of a knee-buckling curveball complimented by a mid-90s fastball, as well as having composure and resiliency on the mound… not many come around like that, especially that early in a career. He was exuding with promise. Such a promising career that I believe in all my heart he was going to have, now is just a “what could have been” thought.

The final game of the series against Oakland was postponed in wake of the tragedy.

It just put baseball on the shelf and really put into perspective what’s important in life.

The Angels’ first game following Adenhart’s death would be Friday April 10th against the Red Sox. Before the game, the Angels put together a brief video in memory of Nick Adenhart that I thought was pretty neat, and you can hear (as well as not hear for the moment of silence) the fan appreciation for the fallen Angel.

It still kills me to see that face following the end of the “Calling All Angels” video that the Halos play just about 5-7 minutes before the first pitch of every home game at the Big A.

In that game against Boston, Jered Weaver, who was scheduled to move in and room with Nick Adenhart within the week, was the scheduled starter. When he was removed from the game in 7th inning after throwing 6 2/3 ball where he allowed 1 unearned run, he pointed up to the sky on his way back to the dugout, as if he was saying, “this one’s for you, Nick.” They’d win the game 6-3.

The rest of the month would come with it’s fair share of anemic bats and horrendous bullpen work.

It would also take the Angels the longest amount of time to string together back-to-back wins, becoming the last team in Major League Baseball to do so (wins on April 26th, 28th).

The overall character, resiliency and companionship of the Angels’ organization was tested early by having all-stars John Lackey, Ervin Santana and Vladimir Guerrero all on the DL at the same time to go along with Kelvim Escobar among others. Then with the additional blow of losing a teammate, the Angels showed incredible heart to finish the month at 9-12, a success in my honest opinion.

I think a lot of that reflects upon Mike Scioscia and the way he runs his team. He treats his major league squad not as a team, but as a family. It was a month that I believed would go 1 of 2 ways: the Angels fold completely or they rise up and persevere.

Towards the end of April, perseverance was beginning to break through.

May

Month record: 16-12 (25-24 overall)

Highest point: At 18-15, Halos had won 9 of their previous 11 games.

Lowest point: 9-13 to start the month, tough 10-9 loss to the Yankees to begin May.

3+  Game Winning Streaks: 2– 3 games (May 2, 4, 5), 4 games (May 7-10)

3+ Game Losing Streaks: 1– 3 games (May 15-17)

May Player of the Month: Matt Palmer (6 starts/4-0 record/1 blown lead/3.76 ERA/26 K)

A look back on May

To sum it up quickly, May was a very “up-and-down” month for the Halos. Right when you think they’re picking it up and starting to play quality baseball, they go on and lose 2 or 3 in a row. And then, right when you think they’re stuck in a rut, they go on and win 2, 3, or 4 in a row.

Their hottest hitter, Torii Hunter, continued to kill the ball for the Halos game in and game out, recording 26 RBI during the month of May. Had it not been for Hunter making up for the lack of a clean-up hitter (Vladdy on the DL), who knows where the Angels who have been after May, and even now into early July.

But Torii’s stellar player was not even close to being the story of the month.

No doubt about it, the story of the month would be that of 30-year-old rookie right-hander Matt Palmer.

Palmer, a journeyman for years in the minor leagues who could never seem to get his shot with a major league ballclub, contemplated giving the game up altogether at one point. Although it took some convincing, Matt’s wife Michelle convinced him to keep giving baseball a try (Matt wanted to start a landscaping business if baseball didn’t work out for him in his hometown of Caruthersville, Missouri… a small town of just over 6,000 people!).

He would break through with the San Francisco Giants in 2008, and have 3 rough outings, prompting the Giants to let him go after the ’08 season.

The Halos would sign him as a minor league free agent in January of 2009, and by the end of May, Palmer would find himself to be 5-0 to begin his Angels career. Palmer still continues to wear his wedding ring underneath his glove as a reminder of why he’s still on the mound.

The Angels’ play of the year, and a top candidate for the top play in all of Major League Baseball to this point in the season came in the 9th inning of a 1-run game against the Royals on May 10th from Spiderman himself, Torii Hunter. Check out the video below to see his absolutely incredible grab.

As much as the ground he covered and the catch itself are just flat-out remarkable, you can’t help but love the passion, fire and competitiveness and that Torii shows after the catch. That’s what baseball is all about.

June

Month record: 17-9 (42-33 overall)

Highest point: 42-32 (highest amount of games over .500 all year to that point)

Lowest point: 29-29 (Scioscia would give the team a tongue-lashing, and would finish the month by going 13-4)

3+ Game Winning streaks: 3– 3 games (June 3-5), 7 games (June 12-17, 19), 6 games (June 23-24, 26-29)

3+ Game Losing streaks: 1– 3 games (June 20-22)

Player of the Month: Juan Rivera (.290 avg./29 hits/6 2B/8 HR/24 RBI)

A look back on June

July would mark the start of the Angels… well, playing like the Angels. While relying on small ball to win in May (36 doubles, 20 home runs, 37 stolen bases), the Angels would start pounding the ball and playing uncharacteristic long ball (53 doubles, 33 home runs, 15 stolen bases), en route to their most successful month of the season.

Juan Rivera would no doubt be the hottest hitter of the month with his aforementioned June statistics, but guys like Torii Hunter (9 XBH), Bobby Abreu (10 XBH) and Kendry Morales (15 XBH) would compliment Rivera’s hot hitting with some consistent extra-base hitting of their own.

The Halos would rack up 2 impressive winning streaks (7 games and 6 games respectively) and really start to hit their stride on their way to getting as high as 10 games over .500.

Pitching stayed solid and consistent, and meanwhile, the arms of the bullpen seemed to have settled in and really calmed down after a rocky 2 months to start the season (thankfully).

Matt Palmer’s remarkable run would continue, with him ending June with a 7-1 record in 11 starts.

But Jered Weaver would no doubt be the Halos’ best pitcher through the first 3 months. Weaver would compile a record of 8-3 by June’s end, and post one of the MLB’s lowest ERAs with a mark of 2.65. To compliment his ERA, his command would be nothing short of outstanding all the way through June by recording 83 strikeouts to only 32 walks.

Brian Fuentes would sit atop the MLB with the most saves (22) at June’s end, going 9-for-9 in save opportunities over the course of the month.

June would also mark the end of Interleague Play. The Halos would post the top record in the MLB against the opposing league, by going 14-4 against National League teams (11-1 against teams not named the Los Angeles Dodgers).

Player Grades

Now that we’re in early July, let’s take a look at some 1st half stats and grade some players:

(bold statistics indicate team-high)

(* denotes All-Star selection)

All statistics are as of the first 81 games.

Torii Hunter *- .307 avg./.382 OBP/86 H/56 R/19 2B/1 3B/17 HR/65 RBI/13 SB

Grade A+

The Angels’ MVP, no questions asked. He’s done everything for the Halos so far. He’s hit for average (.307 avg.). He’s hit for power (37 extra-base hits). He’s driven in runs (65 RBI is 5th in all of the MLB). He’s stolen bases (13). And like the typical Torii Hunter always does, he’s played Gold Glove-caliber defense game in and game out. He picked up the slack for the offense when Vladdy Guerrero was out for over a month, and is one of the first-half MVPs for the American League, no doubt. And talk about a clubhouse leader, he handled everything regarding the Adenhart tragedy so well, and really rallied his team to stick together and face everything with a smile and a positive attitude. It’s really hard to measure the impact that Torii Hunter has had on this team, because his impact reaches far beyond the playing field and stat sheets.

Chone Figgins– .311 avg./.393 OBP/97 H/63 R/16 2B/5 3B/1 HR/25 RBI/24 SB

Grade: A

He’s been the table setter for the Angels’ offense this year, and has really developed his plate discipline since the end of last season, and Bobby Abreu’s presence and influence seems to be the main reason why. For his career, Figgy has an on-base percentage of .359, and this season alone, he’s on pace to post a new career high with a current mark of .393. His defense has been spectacular at 3rd base and should be in the consideration for a Gold Glove, no doubt. He’s getting on base, he’s stealing bases, and he’s scoring runs. The Angels go as Figgy goes. If he scores at least 1 run, the Angels have a remarkably higher record compared to when he doesn’t score a run in a game. You get an A from me Chone, and deserved an All-Star nod in my honest opinion.

Bobby Abreu- .302 avg./.405 OBP/83 H/45 R/16 2B/2 3B/6 HR/51 RBI/17 SB

Grade: A-

Talk about a steal and a bargain. I was hoping and praying that the Angels would go after Abreu, because he’s the type of #2 hitter that Mike Scioscia had been begging the front office to get for years. A guy who, over his career, is a .300 hitter and has an OBP of over .400, Bobby is right at his career levels at the midway point of the year. He’s stealing plenty of bases too, so he’s still got some wheels despite being 35 years of age. He’s played adequate defense in right field, but more importantly, has been able to compliment Figgy’s high on-base percentage with that of his own, which sets up run-producing situations for Torii, Vlad, Kendry, Juan etc. Although Abreu doesn’t have his typical home run numbers (6, but averages roughly 20 per season over the course of his career), he’s been worth every penny.

Juan Rivera.312 avg./.353 OBP/87 H/34 R/15 2B/0 3B/14 HR/50 RBI/0 SB

Grade: A-

I wrote an article on Juan a number of weeks ago talking about how this is his first year being back as an everyday player for the Angels after a few years of being the odd-man out in the stacked Angels outfield. I was thrilled to hear that the Angels inked him for 3 years in the offseason, because he can be a productive hitter when given regular at-bats. He’s impressed me every bit so far this year. He’s been on a power surge after a slow start (home run-wise) and has been driving in runs, all while leading the Angels in batting average with a .312 mark. His defense has been solid in left field as it usually is, and I hope Juan can continue his success because he played the role of a true professional the past couple of years; knowing he could be easily getting everyday at-bats while he wasn’t and not making a scene about it like Jose Guillen did years ago… it’s a feeling of clarity for the man.

Brian Fuentes*- 24 saves/3 BS/3.38 ERA

Grade: A-

After blowing a save in his 2nd appearance as an Angel, Fuentes has calmed down and performed nicely late in games lately, converting on 11 straight save opportunities, as well as 18 of his last 19 save situations. I was a little shaky on him early on, but then again, the whole bullpen was imploding before Angel fans’ eyes. He’s been mowing down opponents lately, and with his league-leading 24 saves, made the All-Star team in his first year as a Halo.

Jered Weaver9-3 record/3.15 ERA/114.1 IP/95 K/12 QS

Grade: A-

As you can see, Weaver’s the team leader in every major pitching category (most wins, lowest ERA among starters, most strikeouts, most quality starts). Over the years, Weaver had been the kind of pitcher who would run his pitch count up towards 100 early, and have his night be finished after the 5th inning. This year, he’s done a much better job of controlling his pitching, to where he can pitch deeper into ballgames (recorded his first career shutout back on June 14th against San Diego). He’s been much more composed than in years past too, where sometimes his emotions used to get the best of him. He’s a special pitcher with good stuff, and has far exceeded my expectations this year by being the most consistent pitcher the Halos have to throw out, and he’s not only acted, but also performed like a legitimate #1 starter for the Angels as well.

Kendry Morales– .285 avg./.340 OBP/80 H/37 R/23 2B/2 3B/14 HR/45 RBI/0 SB

Grade: B+

Talk about coming in with some big shoes to fill. KMo had to fill the void of All-Star slugger Mark Teixeira, who opted for the New York Yankees and the 8 years and $180 million dollars they threw at him. A raw talent from Cuba with great power from both sides of the plate, Kendry has done a better job than I thought he would do. He leads the team in extra-base hits (39), and to my surprise, has played pretty good defense at 1st base for the most part. As long as he continues to hit well in the 5 or 6 hole in the lineup, the Angels will continue to have a steady attack if guys like Vladdy, Torii and Bobby continue to get on base. For having such high expectations, he’s responded incredibly well and has produced much more than I could’ve imagined going into the ’09 season.

Matt Palmer– 7-1 record/4.88 ERA/70.1 IP/42 K/4 QS

Grade: B+

What a story Matt Palmer has turned out to be. Right when Mike Scioscia needed to find another starter, when he could’ve thrown a talented young arm into the regular rotation, he took a chance on a 30-year-old journeyman… and Matt Palmer has made Scioscia’s decision look nothing short of brilliant. He won his first 6 decisions, and has been eating up innings for the Angels as a starter, and has even appeared in relief in 3 games. They say “all good things must come to an end”, but for Matt Palmer, he has been defying that old saying for just about 3 months now.

Maicer Izturis- .303 avg./.351 OBP/56 H/37 R/9 2B/3 3B/2 HR/26 RBI/7 SB

Grade: B+

He’s been a space-filler for most of his tenure with the Angels, but now people are really taking note of how Maicer’s play is deserving of making him an everyday player for Mike Scioscia. Consistent with the bat, and clutch when you need him to be, Maicer’s been very productive through the first half of the season, all while playing impeccable defense at shortstop and 2nd base. Now with Howie Kendrick back from the minors (yet still sputtering), I hope that Maicer won’t find himself as the odd man out again, because he has played far better than Erick Aybar has at the plate and in the field. I’d take my chances with Maicer over Aybar any day.

Erick Aybar– .271 avg./.314 OBP/60 H/26 R/11 2B/2 3B/2 HR/22 RBI/5 SB

Grade: B/B-

Aybar and Izturis create the problem at shortstop that Napoli and Mathis create behind the plate… who to start? Aybar is lightning fast and may be one of the most athletic shortstops in all of the league, but is a streaky hitter whose defense can be erratic at times. While Izturis doesn’t have the speed, range or athleticism that Aybar has, he is a much more consistent hitter at the plate, and is one of the more clutch hitters the Angels have to offer with runners in scoring position. Izturis has impressed me more than Aybar, but when Aybar goes on a tear, look out.

Joe Saunders– 8-5 record/4.44 ERA/107.1 IP/61 K/9 QS

Grade: B-

Coming off an All-Star year where he went 17-7, expectations were high for the former Virginia Tech Hokie. He started the year by throwing 6 2/3 innings of shutout ball en route to an Opening Day shutout, and would move on to compile a 6-2 record at one point. But recently, he hasn’t quite had his pinpoint command, thus giving him his B- grade. He’s put forth 9 quality starts, but the rising ERA is worrisome. He’ll have one more start in all likelihood before the All-Star break, and it’ll be interesting to see how he does following the break. Entering the All-Star break last year, he would go 5-2, but have his fair share of rough outings. We’ll see how he responds, but as of now, he’s been fading quite a bit.

Mike Napoli – .288 avg./.376 OBP/55 H/28 R/10 2B/0 3B/10 HR/30 RBI/2 SB

Grade: C+/C

Pretty good stats for Nap with limited at-bats, so why the low grade, you ask? The defense. Napoli and Mathis foil each other perfectly. Napoli can hit the ball and get on base, but can’t play good defense. Mathis can’t hit the ball or get on base, but plays very good defense. Put them together, and they’d create the unstoppable catcher! Too bad that can’t happen or the Angels would be a juggernaut. Nap’s quietly batted .288 and still works his way on base with pretty good plate discipline, but after this year, management has a decision to make with who to keep and who to let go (if any). Both of their contracts are up following this season… will they stick with one or platoon both like they have this season and last season? Time will tell.

Jeff Mathis – .205 avg./.295 OBP/25 H/17 R/3 2B/0 3B/3 HR/19 RBI/0 SB

Grade: C-

Had it not been for his good defense behind the plate, he’d be a D- or an F. Mathis’ poor hitting continues despite hitting well in Spring Training (.340 avg./6 2B/4 HR/13 RBI in only 54 at-bats). He’s done a great job of calling games and has played waaaaaaay better defense than Mike Napoli this year. I just don’t know how much longer I can give Mathis the benefit of the doubt by saying “well, his defense makes up for it”… because his hitting has been nonexistent ever since he’s been in the majors.

Howie Kendrick – .227 avg./.275 OBP/45 H/26 R/7 2B/2 3B/4 HR/22 RBI/7 SB

Grade: D-

What an unexpected disappointment. After hitting .285, .322., and .306 in his first 3 years in the MLB, his .227 average just came out of nowhere. After being a .360+ average hitter in the minors, his hitting translated well through his first 3 seasons, but has dramatically dropped off so much that Mike Scioscia sent him down to AAA Salt Lake for 3 weeks to find his swing. His defense hasn’t been all that great either, which opened the door for Maicer Izturis, and he’s taken full advantage of the opportunity. Kendrick doesn’t deserve to start at this point, in my opinion, but it’s Mike Scioscia’s opinion, not mine, that matters.

Vladimir Guerrero hasn’t had enough at-bats for me to give him a fair grade, but he’s been picking up the pace ever since he shaved his head (good idea, because those dreads were getting a little nasty!). He’s starting to look like the Vlad of old, and the Big Daddy has been racking up the extra-base hits over the past week, which is a welcome sign to Halo fans as well as the rest of the lineup.

John Lackey has been regaining his stuff over the past few starts and is looking like the Lackey of the past few seasons. Meanwhile, Ervin Santana has been on and off of the DL this year, but has struggled mightily in his starts.

Still 81 more games to go, but so far, the Angels have faced a lot of adversity, and have done the most that they’ve been able to do with the hand they’ve been dealt.

I still truly believe their best baseball is in front them.

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