Suboptimal: April 2009 Archives

Falling on Black Days

I'll be helping out this season here at The Halo Is Lit, hopefully reviving some user activity, and maybe even contributing something worth reading once in awhile. Updates may be sporadic for a few weeks, but they should become more frequent as the season (and my life) moves along. I'll keep my thumb on the threads, and if we get a pulse, I'll try to pump some life into the conversations as needed.

I'll be the first to admit being bummed by the Angels' inauspicious 6-11 start. I'm nearly past the apathy over winning and losing that followed the heartrending loss of Nick Adenhart, which means that it's once again time to do what fans do: tell the Angels what they're doing wrong when they lose, but still find negative things to say about them even when they win.

This is not an easy task at the moment, because the team has suffered so much misfortune. When Anthony Ortega took the mound last night, Reagins and company had officially reached the tenth slot of the organization's rotation depth as it stood on the first day of the season. Ortega became the 8th different starter to be used only 17 games into the season and the 17th different pitcher overall. The 2008 Angels used only 7 different starters and 19 pitchers over the course of the entire season. An even more striking comparison is the number of starts made by pitchers outside of the projected five-man rotation: already 10 this season, and one more pass through the rotation will equal the total of 13 from last year.

But surprisingly, the starting pitching has actually been pretty good. Even after a poor showing this week, Angels' starters have a 4.19 ERA, not much worse than the 4.14 ERA the rotation put up last year. And even with the grievous loss of Guerero, the offense itself is still competent enough to be mediocre. It's averaging almost 4.9 runs per game, which is slightly better than last year's average of 4.7. Granted, this is a small sample, but the fact that the Angels can scrap together a tolerable rotation and a mediocre offense after losing five starting pitchers and their most potent bat is really a testament to the strength and depth of the Angels organization. It's hard to find fault here.

I wish the same was true of the bullpen. Two words are applicable here: they suck. At least to this point they have. Their 7.52 ERA is almost one run per game worse than the perennial AL bullpen butchers: Texas and Baltimore. And both those teams play in absolute bandboxes. The Angels' pen has blown 4 saves and owns 6 of the pitching staff's 11 losses, and even that number is deceptively low. Almost every game the Angels have played has been eminently winnable when the starter left, but the bullpen has blown just about every chance of winning said games.

Last night's game was an example of what is becoming a standard formula. Ortega pitched a shaky five innings, got screwed a little by the defense, but the game was still relatively close 5-3 affair when he left. Hard to ask more from a kid who's hardly pitched above AA. That's still a very winnable scenario against such crummy opposing pitchers as Carlos Silva and Miguel Batista. When it was all over, the Angels had plated 8 of their 15 total baserunners. This time last year, they win that game. This year, Mike Scioscia had no choice but to watch Jason Bulger pour gasoline all over himself in the pen, then let him walk out to the mound and dare Seattle to light him up.

Why is Scioscia running out of choices? You might think that because of all the injuries to the rotation, the bullpen is being overextended. That's maybe half true at best. The starters have done well enough that the Angels' bullpen has actually pitched the sixth least number of innings in the AL. They've carried as many as 8 relievers on the 25-man roster, so exhaustion is not an issue. Losing Darren Oliver to the DL after his emergency start hurts, but he only pitched four innings; he might have got hurt doing that in a long-relief situation anyways.

The problem as I see it is the complete lack of performance in high-leverage situations. This is normally where Scot Shields has done more to help the team win over the last five years than anyone, but he's been worse than unreliable this year. That reliable person hasn't been Brian Fuentes either. Jepsen and Bulger have been awful, but really, they're just guys from AAA. Scioscia wouldn't be going to them in high-leverage situations if he was comfortable going somewhere else. On the other hand, Arredondo's peripheral stats look great. Justin Speier also seems to have resurrected himself. Or so we can hope.

So is all this bullpen nonsense a genuine catastrophe, or just statistical noise? Fuentes seems to have lost some hair on his fastball since last year, but more probably he's just an unlucky victim of an insane .497 BABIP. Arredondo has also been screwed by ball in play. Forget about Bulger, I can almost guarantee he'll be DFA'd when the starters start coming back. Jepsen will also likely pitch only garbage time the rest of the year, so he doesn't really concern me either. The Angels certainly need Darren Oliver back, but the real problem is Shields. He's walked 8 guys in less than six innings, and pitched behind in the count so much he's been hammered for 6 hits. He hasn't been helped by arsonists like Bulger coming in after him and then letting all their inherited runners score, but the coaching staff desperately needs to get Shields under control. Hopefully it's something correctable like his attack of wildness in 2007 and not a symptom of his age or prior workload.

It's not really fair to pin everything on one guy, but I will anyways: if Shields comes around, I think the Angels can at least tread water until the injured players start returning. If not, they're going to have to lean on Arredondo and try to salvage Speier or Jepsen for a 7th inning role. But the silver lining here is that the team is not getting killed night after night. They're playing in very winnable games and then losing them due to a combination of bad luck and an over insistence on a AAA-caliber middle relief corps. That isn't sustainable; like all bad luck, it will eventually average out, unless other problems pop up. Which makes it all the more frustrating to see batters and starting pitchers perform above and beyond, only to have their efforts shot to hell by an incendiary bullpen. The Angels could easily be a winning team right now. But at least the competition isn't steep, this isn't exactly the AL East. Raise your hand if you're actually worried about Seattle.

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