For most of the last decade, the AL Central has featured one good-but-unspectacular squad and four teams ranging from average to poor. So far in 2005, the AL West is trying hard to usurp that hollow crown.
LAA 23-17 .575
TEX 21-20 .512
OAK 16-24 .400
SEA 16-24 .400
Runs scored per game: 4.15
Runs allowed per game: 4.05
Batting Line: .245/.297/.378
Team OPS+: 85
Opponent Batting Line: .263/.326/.414
Rotation ERA: 4.11
Bullpen ERA: 2.96
Team ERA+: 112
The TV wags correctly say that the division is LA's to take, but the Angels don't seem very eager to do so. They've outscored their opponents by only four runs, and their peripherals are worse: LA has a woeful OPS of .675 and has allowed an OPS of .740. Furthermore, they've played only six games against Chicago, Minnesota, Boston, Baltimore and New York. Oakland and Seattle have played eighteen each against them, Texas twelve. Per ESPN, Los Angeles has faced the weakest opposition in baseball. If the standings were based on peripherals (and they aren't, thank God), only Texas would be playing .500 ball.
As in 2004, the offense prefers to swing early and often, an acceptable strategy if the team bats .280 but a poor one when it hits in the .240s. Los Angeles has thirteen fewer walks than any team in baseball and is on pace to draw fewer than 400 on the season. Vlad the Impaler has done his part, and Garret Anderson has kept his average despite losing much of his power. Everyone else has struggled. Seven weeks in a four-year, $32 million deal, Orlando Cabrera is batting .236/.308/.361, and the well-paid Steve Finley has offered a line of .202/.273/.403.
The pitching has kept the team competitive. Bartolo Colon has pitched like a #1 starter, and none of the other rotation regulars has pitched poorly. The team's saviors have been the bullpen quartet of Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Brendan Donnelly and Jake Woods, who have combined for 71 innings and a tiny ERA of 2.14.
Los Angeles ought to win the division handily, if only by default. Their offense is impatient by design, but they have more than enough talent to pull their on-base percentage above .300. Even in The Year Of The Pitcher, the pennant winner had an OBP of .302.
Runs scored per game: 5.05
Runs allowed per game: 4.98
Batting Line: .260/.322/.437
Team OPS+: 104
Opponent Batting Line: .275/.344/.409
Rotation ERA: 4.43
Bullpen ERA: 5.43
Team ERA+: 87
Meet the Perfectly Average Ballclub. Texas has a winning percentage of .512, a Pythagorean winning percentage of .507, and I calculate a percentage of .502 based on their peripherals. Texas has yet to lose more than two consecutive games or win more than three in a row. They've hovered within three games of .500 the entire season.
The Rangers are the only team in the division not embarrassing themselves at the plate. Texas easily leads the West in all the major offensive categories despite lackluster performances from Mark Teixeira, Hank Blalock and Michael Young. The unlikely hero so far is David Dellucci, who has drawn an astonishing 36 walks in 34 games and sports an OBP of .477. On the downside, Texas has wasted several hundred at-bats on Richard Hidalgo, Gary Matthews and Rod Barajas, all of whom have an OPS below .650. The feeling is that despite scoring over five runs per game, the offense should be better.
David Copperfield seduced Claudia Schiffer, and Kenny Rogers has a 30-inning scoreless streak. Ladies and gentleman, gaze in awe at the power of magic. Overall, Texas has the 7th-best rotation ERA in the AL, but it's mostly a function of Rogers' unfathomable 1.49 ERA. 25-year-old Chris Young is showing he could pitch for any team, not just Texas, but the rest is the usual assortment of queasiness. Chan Ho Park and Pedro Astacio have pitched about as well as you'd expect, but the real worry is putative ace Ryan Drese, who is on pace to allow 277 hits and only 55 strikeouts.
Ultimately, what may keep the team from catching the Angels is the bullpen. Last year, Texas featured the best relief corps in the AL. This year, so far, it's the worst. The loss of Frank Francisco and Carlos Almanzar has forced high-leverage innings onto the arms of Doug Brocail, Nick Regilio and Ron Mahay. All are worthy of roster spots, but none is the kind of guy you want to see on the mound in the 8th inning protecting a 3-2 lead. Yet there they are.
I doubt that Texas can catch Los Angels with their current roster. They need another bat and another arm.
Runs scored per game: 3.95
Runs allowed per game: 5.28
Batting Line: .244/.318/.350
Team OPS+: 77
Opponent Batting Line: .253/.337/.400
Rotation ERA: 4.73
Bullpen ERA: 4.31
Team ERA+: 108 (The Coliseum has been improbably hitter-friendly to date.)
My AL West cohort John Gizzi probably can explain the Athletics better than me, but he probably wouldn't want to. Oakland is not being cheated; they really have been this bad. Indeed, their run differential and peripherals indicated they're lucky to have even a .400 winning percentage.
Goodness, what a bone-ugly offense. Oakland is the anti-Angels, a team that draws plenty of walks but can't do much else. The team's best hitter has been Bobby Kielty, a virtual afterthought when the season began. Eric Chavez formerly had trouble hitting lefties and now has trouble hitting anyone, and he's shown no signs of improvement. Jason Kendall has flopped, batting .234 with no power and suddenly incapable of throwing out baserunners. On the whole, this is a case of everyone slumping simultaneously, but still, scoring runs could be a season-long problem.
Oakland has one starter with an ERA below 4.75, and he's disabled. While Rich Harden heals, the Athletics hope for success from the likes of Seth Etherton and Kirk Saarloos. Barry Zito's ERA has jumped a run compared to last year though he's pitched about as well. For the moment, Danny Haren has lost his ability to keep the ball in the strike zone and in the park.
The bullpen rivaled the Angels on paper when the season began. Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero have provided a bleaker reality, each handing out base hits and walks like so much Halloween candy. Justin Duchscherer and rookie Huston Street have pitched brilliantly, but they need help. Closer Octavio Dotel has allowed only two homers: two gut-wrenching, soul-destroying homers.
Oakland almost has to play better than they have to date, but I can't see this group of players imitating the second-half surges of years past. Billy Beane may again be active at the trading deadline, but he'll be planning for 2006, not a postseason run.
Runs scored per game: 4.33
Runs allowed per game: 4.88
Batting Line: .250/.312/.376
Team OPS+: 89
Opponent Batting Line: .265/.333/.418
Rotation ERA: 5.63
Bullpen ERA: 3.02
Team ERA+: 95
Last year, Seattle collapsed to a 99-loss season thanks to the only AL offense scoring fewer than 700 runs and a terrible rotation. In 2005, the Mariners have partially cured one problem and are still hoping the other solves itself.
Seattle doled out a wheelbarrow of cash to Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre over the winter. Sexson, seemingly the riskier acquisition, has provided needed offensive support despite his .223 batting average (his line is .223/.333/.508). Beltre, on the other hand, has flailed away like the destitute man's Alfonso Soriano, batting .237 with four homers and five walks. With the rest of the regulars essentially playing to expectations, the offense is improved but far from what's necessary to win a division.
Seattle's rotation had a 5.63 ERA last season, dreadful anywhere but especially so in a pitcher's park. This year, with a similar cast, the rotation's ERA is 5.63. Management did banish an aghast Joel Pineiro to Tacoma but has no obvious replacement. Jamie Moyer appears near the end of his fine career, and Aaron Sele has been toast for several years. "King" Felix Hernandez awaits his coronation, but unless he brings all his knights from Camelot, he'll lord over a pretty motley collection of subjects.
The bullpen has been solid outside of Matt Thornton. Jeff Nelson and Shigetoshi Hasegawa have rebounded nicely from last year's misery, and Eddie Guardado is ten-for-eleven in save situations. This group can protect the lead if given the opportunity.
The Mariners will go nowhere with this rotation. They strike me as less likely than Oakland to reverse their fortunes.