Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Understanding the Importance of Intangible Players

 
There are some players on professional baseball teams that, quite frankly, don't get the attention they deserve. It might be because they lack the ability to produce "sexy" results...hitting a homerun, striking everyone out, etc. For the Angels in recent years, it can be said that "Mr. Overlooked" was none other than Maicer Izturis. He belongs in the group known as the intangibles: players who lack the hype, but bring the late punch.

 Izturis, also known as Mighty Maicer, always seemed to find a way to get a base hit when it counted. Outside of a sub-par 2012 that saw him struggle with runners in scoring position, Izturis was a dependable utility infielder who occasionally found himself as an everyday player when someone would go down with an injury.

It's not every day that you come across a player who owns a clean .300 average with runners in scoring position for their career, and that's exactly what Maicer Izturis brought to the table. He was also a slick fielder, capable of making a variety of plays from second base, shortstop and third base. From 2005-2012, Izturis was a quietly effective player who scored runs and drove runs in on a consistent basis and never got the praise he deserved.

And now, he's on the Toronto Blue Jays, having signed a 3 year, $9 million deal. This was not earth-shattering news when Angels fans heard it, by any means. After all, some of them probably didn't even know who Izturis was. But they will certainly notice a difference when the Angels lose a close game in extra innings because no one was able to come off the bench and provide a spark.

Teams cannot succeed unless they have just that...a team. There is more to winning than just having a few superstars; there are intangibles that are not normally paid attention to, but that can add up and produce a World Championship.

For a case in point, look at the San Francisco Giants. Yes, there is star power there: Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, maybe Hunter Pence. These are very good players, but beyond these players, the team that plays around them works together as a cohesive unit that pulls for each other. That is why this Giants team has won 2 of the last 3 World Series: they pitch, they get timely hits, and everyone has a specified role that they embrace.

So, what does this mean to the Angels? It means that they must add to the depth of their ballclub by plugging in the intangibles along with the superstar caliber players. For the days that Mike Trout, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols aren't enough (though those days will, hopefully, be limited), the Angels need a presence off the bench that can provide late dramatics.

That is where a guy like Bill Hall comes into play. It would be wise to pay attention to him in Spring Training, because Hall is the kind of player that, when he's going right, has the chance to become one of those intangible pieces that can mesh a team into a winner.

Yes, Hall is 33 years old. And yes, he hasn't had a really great season since 2006 with
Milwakuee in which he hit .270 with 35 home runs and 85 RBI. But this guy can play. In other seasons, he has been known to hit 15-20 bombs, and that's some solid production for a utility infielder/outfielder.

Next time he's in a Spring Training game this March, look at the determination on the guy's face. He's been hitting the ball with authority, seemingly to all fields. These are the kinds of players that, when placed on a team with superstar talents, will make a ballclub truly dangerous. And when it comes to winning a World Series, these are the players that steal that extra base late in a game, or get the base hit that scores that extra run.

Don't underestimate the impact of less-heralded players. Just ask the San Francisco Giants.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Rotation: A Breakdown & Reasons to Believe

Coming into the 2013 season, almost every team around the league (with the exception of maybe the Washington Nationals), have a concern with some part of their ball club. The Los Angeles Angels are no exception as many around the industry believe that the Angels' starting rotation could become problematic throughout the season due to lack of health as well as performance. While these sorts of concerns are justifiable, there is reason to believe that the starting rotation can be just as strong, if not better than it was last year, when it led the team to 89 wins.

Jered Weaver:
There is not much to discuss here. Weaver has been one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League for the past few years. Heading into the 2013 season, there is no reason to believe that Weaver will be anything other than an ace once again. If the Angels rotation does manage to struggle throughout the season, it is unlikely that Weaver, with a 2.73 ERA over the last three seasons, will be a part of such struggles.

C.J. Wilson:
Wilson's first season with the Halos was pretty underwhelming. After signing Wilson to a 5-year $77.5 million contract, the Angels expected much more from Wilson who despite being dominant in the first half of the season, struggled down the stretch. Wilson was incredible in the early parts of the season where he posted 2.43 ERA in 18 starts and 111.1 innings pitched. The last 16 starts however, saw Wilson post a 5.54 ERA in 91 innings pitched. Many wondered why Wilson struggled so badly after the All-Star break and it wasn't until after an October 1 win over the Seattle Mariners that they got their answer. Wilson had been dealing with bone spurs in his elbow which have since been successfully removed. With the bone spurs gone and a new season upon us, one can expect that Wilson will be a better pitcher than he was after the 2012 All-Star break.

Jason Vargas:
Vargas should be interesting to watch with the Angels. He has a career 4.35 ERA and has averaged just over 200 innings pitched over the last three seasons. While the amount of earned runs may not be pretty, Vargas' track record in Angels stadium suggests that his numbers could improve in 2013. Throughout his career, Vargas has pitched 43.2 innings in Angels Stadium and has a 2.27 ERA in those innings. If this small sample size holds true, Vargas could become a valuable asset for the Angels. Additionally, if Vargas can match his statistics from the 2012 season where he went 14-11 with a 3.85 ERA, 1.178 WHIP and 217.1 innings pitched, there is reason to believe that he could improve on his win total by moving from the offensively challenged Seattle Mariners to the (on paper) offensive juggernaut in the Los Angeles Angels. Even 14 wins would be more than Dan Haren or Ervin Santana provided the Angels last season.

Tommy Hanson:
What will Tommy Hanson be in Anaheim? I think that all depends on how healthy he can stay. Between the 2011 and 2012 seasons, Hanson has spent a total of 75 days on the disabled list and even more time pitching with injuries. What could he be if he stayed healthy? That's the bigger question. In 2009 and 2010, Hanson was very good. He had a combined 21-15 record with a 3.16 ERA in 55 starts with the Atlanta Braves. Despite some struggles in 2011, Hanson still posted a 3.60 ERA but that ballooned to a 4.48 ERA in 2012. The biggest question mark for Hanson is health. If he can find a way to keep himself healthy and off the disabled list there is a possibility that he could regain form and begin pitching up to his capabilities. Joe 

Joe Blanton:
This is the one signing that frustrated many Angels fans. How could they possibly give 2-years and $15 million to a pitcher with a career 4.37 ERA? The simple answer is that General Manager Jerry DiPoto wanted to ensure that the rotation had a steady innings eater and generally healthy body to fill out the back end of the rotation. Despite having an ERA above 4.00 in each season between 2009 and 2011, Blanton has also earned 12, 9 and 10 wins respectively. That essentially what you look for in a number five starter. Angels fans of course expect more because, lets face it, we have been spoiled with good pitching for a very long time now. The signing also gives the Angels some starting pitching depth. If Blanton doesn't pitch well enough, the Angels also have other options in Garrett Richard, Nick Maronde, Barry Enright, Brad Mills and Jerome Williams.

With five good starters and plenty innings between them, I don't believe the Angels' rotation will be too much of a liability and actually think it has a chance to be quite a bit better than it was in 2012 when much of the rotation struggle significantly through the second half of the season. Don't expect the rotation to be amazing but don't expect it to be horrible either. Each of these pitchers has a decent upside and each has shown success in the majors at least once or twice. The new additions come into a pitcher friendly ballpark, get an explosive offense to support them and seemingly do not have to face any terrifying offenses. Additionally, while not quantifiable, one has to wonder what sort of effect playing in native Southern California will have on Hanson and Vargas. The success of the rotation, in my opinion will not be based necessarily on how well they pitch. Instead it will be based on their ability to avoid the disabled list and stay healthy.


Oh and stop worrying......baseball is back!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Hamilton Crossed the Line That Rangers Fans Drew


Josh Hamilton has never been one to beat around the bush. He even admitted as much to the media today, February 18th, 2013. And yet he had spent the last 2 months avoiding the one topic that everyone wanted him to talk about: leaving the Rangers and joining the Angels in order to send a message to Texas and its fan base.

Truthfully, Hamilton has not directly said that he signed his 5-year, $125 million deal with the Halos as a means of exacting revenge on the team that he helped re-structure into a baseball powerhouse from 2008-2012. However, there have been hints and signals from Hamilton himself that gives evidence to vengeance. Obviously, the top evidence can be found in the fact that he is now in an Angels uniform, but it goes deeper than that.

Let's not forget the comments that Josh made in his introductory press conference. He said that he "Gave the Rangers the first chance to sign (him) back" and they metaphorically "let him date" other teams. That does not sound like a player who faced a huge dilemma when presented with the decision to either stay the course with Texas or jump ship and wear Angel red for the foreseeable future. It sounds like a player who was fed up with the organizational strategy of a Texas team that never really wanted him back in the first place.

And so, eight weeks passed. Things were seemingly quiet on the Hamilton front, other than a few articles here and there that debated where he should hit in the lineup, and a few others that argued whether a $125 million deal is justifiable for a player with such a troubled past. There was also the occasional article discussing the fractured relationship between Rangers GM Jon Daniels and Josh Hamilton himself. In one article, Daniels even had a hard time wishing Hamilton good luck.

Here is what Daniels had to say:
"It's the nature of this business — if it works out for the Angels it hits us doubly hard; if it doesn't work out for them, it could help us," Daniels said. "I'd say I wish Josh the best, but I'm not really sure I do. Personally, I do. Professionally, I'm not sure." (http://articles.latimes.com/2013/feb/06/sports/la-sp-josh-hamilton-hitting-20130207/2)

Clearly, there was anger there. And if there's anger on one side of the table, then there has to be anger on the other side. The thing that was uncertain was the level of frustration that had built up within Josh Hamilton. It was becoming clearer that he had, indeed, left the Rangers as a result of the actions made by the front office.

The media craved for more. Clearly, there had to be something that had pushed Hamilton over the edge of loyalty and into sunny Southern California. Then, on Monday, February 18, the truth spilled out.

It was not the front office of the Rangers that had driven Hamilton out. In fact, he was grateful for the opportunity given to him by that group of individuals- Nolan Ryan, Daniels, Manager Ron Washington. The frustration was not for them, but for the Rangers fanbase.

In an interview with the television station CBS-11 of Dallas, Hamilton said that Rangers fans are "not a true fan base." He called them spoiled by the team's success. He said they cared more about football. And by doing so, he lit a fire of hatred that will likely lead to years of loud booing from the same fanbase that had "supported" him for years.

Why do I put 'supported' in quotes? Well, it's simple. When the team was winning, the crowd was loud and in awe of Hamilton's pure hitting abilities, roaring with glee after every gargantuan homerun that slammed off his bat. Hamilton jerseys were everyone in the stands, and chants of "MVP! MVP!" were heard year in and year out. This was seemingly a loving and appreciative fanbase, one who adored Josh and the things he stood for. It was a match made in heaven, and it seemed Hamilton had finally found the place where he could become the player he was destined to become years before.

But what about when the team struggled? And not just when the team struggled, but Hamilton himself? The thing about Josh is that he has always been a streaky hitter, for reasons unknown. He will belt 2 homeruns one night, and strike out 4 times the next. But the peaks and valleys of his career were never more evident than in 2012. The peak of the first half had him  hitting .407 and on pace to break Barry Bonds' single season homerun record of 71. The valley of the second half saw him hit just .259 and swing at more pitches outside the strike zone than anyone else in baseball.

Then, the team squandered a 5-game Division lead over the Oakland A's in the matter of just 9 days, and Hamilton dropped a ball in the sun in the deciding game 162 that led to 3 runs. In the blink of an eye, the division was lost. In half the blink of an eye, the Rangers were defeated by the Baltimore Orioles in a one-game Wild Card playoff. Hamilton went 0-4, seeing only 8 pitches.

The same crowd that had given Hamilton so much love and affection had now stomped on his very reputation and made him a scapegoat. They booed him off the field. The fan comments via the internet blamed Hamilton for the team's failures. The Texas Rangers were instead the Texas Hamilton, and he had failed to lead the team to the World Series.

It's never fair to pin the failures of a 25-man team on one person. It's even worse to pin it on the very man who had helped transform the franchise into more than a perennial cellar dwellar. The Texas fan base had taken the very man who they had idolized and turned him into a trophy symbol of unmet expectations.

And that is why it is not fair to say that Hamilton has it all wrong. To say that he has over-stepped is downright false. He did not over-step the boundaries of fairness, and he has not wrongfully accused an entire fanbase, as some say he did. No, he is simply shoving back verbally. He has risen from the ground that the Texas fanbase had kicked him into.

Texas' fanbase may be solid. They might be loud, and they just might be supportive and in large numbers for the last few years. But it comes down to how you handle moments of failure, not just moments of glory. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have fans that boo regularly, that is true. But they also have 34 world titles and over 200 years of combined franchise histories to back up their extremely large expectations.

The Rangers have just 40 years of mostly playoff-free baseball, with 2 World Series appearances, both of which occured in the last 3 years, to base their expectations on. The Ranger fans seem to have forgotten one of the key reasons why they were even in those 2 World Series:

Josh Hamilton.




 

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