We are now 115 games into the 2007 regular season, with the Angels holding a record of 68-47 (.591), and a lead of 3.5 games on the second place Seattle Mariners. With this improvement of 9 games over our standing at this point last year (59-56, .513), I've decided to take a position-by-position breakdown of the team and see what has led the Angels to have the second best record in all of baseball this year.
-2006: Casey Kotchman/Kendry Morales/Robb Quinlan/Howie Kendrick vs. 2007: Casey Kotchman/Robb Quinlan
This match-up should be no contest. In 2006, after spending about a month struggling to secretly overcome the effect of mononucleosis and batting an anemic .152 with a .436OPS, Casey Kotchman finally went to the disabled list for the year, allowing Quinlan and Morales to spend time at the position. Morales brought a brief flash of his potential to the game before slumping considerably and losing playing time to Triple-A and to Quinlan. Quinlan brought a lack of patience, but a good average and solid pop to the position. Howie Kendrick, playing out of position and seeing the Major Leagues for the first time, brought an expected amount of streakiness, but showed glimpses of his upside. However, 2007 has seen Casey Kotchman break out of his shell and show why he earned the praise of scouts for so many years in the organization. His .307 average and his .860OPS have been tainted only by a slump following a concussion sustained in June that led to his departure from the lineup for about a week. Quinlan's drop in production has been more than offset by Kotchman's emergence. On defense, Kotchman's consistent 2007 playing time has led to a definite improvement at the position. Edge: Strong 2007
-2006: Adam Kennedy vs. 2007: Howie Kendrick and Maicer Izturis
The greatest attribute Adam Kennedy has been able to bring to the offensive game is his ability to hit for average. When he's unable to do that, his worth rapidly declines. His trademark uppercut swing seemed to fail him frequently throughout 2006, as he struggled to produce with any kind of consistency. On defense, his glove was once again greatly overlooked as he presented himself as a solid second baseman. In 2007, Howie Kendrick has struggled to stay off the disabled list, taking two lengthy trips there for two separate broken bones in his left hand. During a recovery period after rejoining the club, he went through a slump, but emerged from it to begin contributing again before going back to the D.L. When healthy, Maicer Izturis has been one of the most clutch bats in the game. Batting .407 with runners in scoring position, he has been essential to the club's success in tight games. Although Kendrick and Izturis don't quite yet match Kennedy in the field, their offensive contributions offset this difference. Edge: Weak 2007
-2006: Orlando Cabrera vs. 2007: Orlando Cabrera
In 2006, the most memorable aspect of Cabrera's season was his 63 game on-base streak (via walk, hit, or hit-by-pitch). On defense, he became somewhat shaky, being merely an average contributor at shortstop. 2007 began extremely hot, with Cabrera batting .328 at the all-star break. Although he has since found himself in a slump, his long hot streak to open the season, in conjunction with his resurgence at the shortstop position (with improvements in both range factor and fielding percentage), make 2007 his better campaign. Edge: Strong 2007
-2006: Maicer Izturis and Chone Figgins vs. 2007: Chone Figgins and Maicer Izturis
Chone Figgins' 2006 offensive campaign was his worst to date. Marred with inconsistency at the plate and a shoddy glove in the field, he became a liability on both sides of the game. Statistics would say that he suffered from a stroke of bad luck in which he would put the ball in play, but have nothing to show for it. What matters most, however, is that he just wasn't contributing. Maicer Izturis, however, was. As a pleasant surprise both in the field and at the plate, Izturis gave Angels fans reason to be excited when his name was in the lineup card. 2007, however, has seen a complete turnaround for Desmond DeChone. After a terrible start that had fans screaming for a trade, Figgins has turned it on for the last 2 1/2 months, and no one has found the off-switch. Batting .133 through his first 25 games, Figgins has since hit .413 in his next 61 games, and has notched 31 stolen bases (as many as Ichiro, despite Figgins missing a month). Figgins has continued to play a marginal defense, but what he has done on the offensive side has more than offset this. Izturis, as stated previously, has been a clutch performer for the team. Edge: Strong 2007
-2006: Mike Napoli/Jose Molina/Jeff Mathis vs. 2007: Mike Napoli/Jose Molina/Jeff Mathis
Mike Napoli proved to be the surprise player of 2006 for the Angels. Despite finishing the season with a .228 batting average, his ability to draw walks and hit the long ball made him a key offensive contributor. Napoli filled in that season for Jeff Mathis, who took little time in getting sent back down to Triple-A due to his poor offensive performance. Jose Molina was a predictably solid game caller and defensive catcher, with an equally predictable black hole of a bat in the lineup. 2007 has seen Napoli continue to put up good power numbers, while also bringing his batting average up to .253. However, injuries have kept him from playing full time, and the trade that sent Jose Molina to the Yankees has forced Jeff Mathis into a regular role, in which he has had only marginal improvement over his production from a year ago. Due to these injuries, and the increased playing time of Mathis/absence of Molina, this position has become an ever-so-slightly larger liability, even if it does have room to improve. Edge: Weak 2006
-2006: Vladimir Guerrero vs. 2007: Vladimir Guerrero
I won't need a terribly long summary for this one. People will tell you Vlad's power has dropped off (don't listen to the pundits, it's not the Home Run Derby, as his homer-less streak pre-dated it) in 2007, but they would be overlooking the large increase in doubles (37 already in 2007, compared to 30 in all of 2006), and the directly comparable slugging percentages (2006: .552, 2007: .542). Guerrero, however, has increased his on-base percentage by 27 points and continues to be the biggest piece of the offense. This is to say nothing of his ~130 RBI pace. Then again, he wasn't exactly a liability in 2006, either. Edge: Weak 2007
-2006: Chone Figgins vs. 2007: Gary Matthews Jr.
Chone Figgins, as stated in the second base summary, was a liability on both offense and defense in 2006. Not surprisingly, speed alone did not make Figgins a viable center field option. As for 2007, I have one question for you: When was the last time you heard anyone say "Garbage Matthews Jr."? In fact, when was the last time anyone complained about him being in the lineup at all. Matthews has been a pleasantly surprising offensive contributor. His solid .786OPS and 65 runs driven in have only been half of his game. In the field, Matthews has turned a grand slam into a long third out, made shoestring catches look routine, and sprawled out to turn gappers into just another line out in the box score. Edge: Strong 2007
-2006: Garret Anderson/Juan Rivera vs. 2007: Reggie Willits/Garret Anderson
The deference to veterans that Mike Scioscia has been known to give during his Angels' tenure was on show in 2006. Despite merely average offensive production (and if you listen to the Garret Anderson haters, 'terrible' production), Anderson received consistent playing time with the team. His one bright spot on offense was his ability to drive in a lot of runs, regardless of playing time. His above average level of play in left field was often looked at as being lazy and horrid, despite statistics to the contrary. However, the amount of playing time he received was just not warranted by what he did at the plate. Juan Rivera turned out huge for the Angels, slugging .525 in 116 starts. He batted .310 for the team, and had 13 outfield assists to his resumé. 2007 has seen something of a resurgence from Garret Anderson, with an increase in production at the plate when he has been healthy, as well as solid coverage of left field. Anderson, however, has not been the story for the Angels in left-field this year. After Juan Rivera broke his leg playing baseball in the offseason, Reggie Willits became a regular fixture in the lineup, starting on April 16th. Despite a midseason slump that threatened to bring him to the bench for a time, Willits has managed to make himself a .300 hitter who is a threat to steal any base at any time. He brings passion to the team, and hustles on every single ball hit his way in left. He is as much the story in left field in 2007 as Rivera was in 2006. It's tough to call either one of them a more important fixture. Edge: Toss-up
-2006: Tim Salmon/Garret Anderson/Vladimir Guerrero vs. Shea Hillenbrand/Vladimir Guerrero/Garret Anderson
Once again, the designated hitter role in 2007 has been primarily used for Mike Scioscia to rest tired outfielders or give a spot in the order to a player who can't field well enough to get in the lineup as a glove and bat. The major difference, however, is that in 2007 that bat was Shea Hillenbrand. In 2006, it was Tim Salmon. I don't think I need to say another word on the topic to know where this is going. Edge: Strong 2006
-2006: John Lackey/Ervin Santana/Kelvim Escobar/Jered Weaver/Jeff Weaver/Joe Saunders vs. John Lackey/Kelvim Escobar/Jered Weaver/Ervin Santana/Bartolo Colon/Joe Saunders
The one thing everyone remembers best about the 2006 rotation was the tale of two Weavers. Mediocre veteran Jeff Weaver was supposed to be the arm that would help shore-up a solid starting rotation. Instead, he was woefully awful, going 3-10 with a 6.29ERA and bringing nothing to the team other than a stud hitting prospect named Terry Evans in a midseason trade. The man who replaced him, his at-the-time 23 year old brother Jered, won as many games as Jeff did for the Angels (3) in his first 3 starts with the team. He finished at 11-2 with a 2.56ERA, and would have been a major candidate for Rookie of the Year, if not for his relatively late permanent call-up. John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar continued to be studs in 2006, putting up mid-3 ERAs, but not getting the win-loss records they may have deserved. Ervin Santana proved himself to be a solid contributor, leading the team in wins (16) with a steady 4.28ERA. Joe Saunders was a viable go-to option, if somewhat inconsistent.
The 2007 season has been an incredibly mixed bag for the Angels. On the one hand, they have two Cy Young candidates in Escobar and Lackey, who have been nothing short of flat-out brilliant. John Lackey is tied for the Major League lead in wins with 15, while Escobar is second to only Dan Haren in ERA in the American League with a 2.74 mark. Jered Weaver has had a solid season with the Angels after missing the first two weeks of the season. His 7-5 record would be better if not for his fluctuating run support, and his 3.94ERA has been somewhat inflated by a small handful of rough starts. Joe Saunders has stepped in beautifully when asked to throughout the season. He has gone 6-0, with a 3.46ERA in nine starts, and has taken his big league call-ups and Triple-A send-downs better than you could have possibly expected him to. The mixed bag comes courtesy of Ervin Santana and Bartolo Colon. Santana, despite flashes of brilliance throughout the season, became unbearably burdensome by July 17th, when the Angels had to send him down to Triple-A to figure things out. His home and away splits (4-2, 3.42ERA at home, vs. 1-9, 8.79ERA on the road) underlie a confidence and poise issue for the youngster, who is likely to figure things out since he is only 24 years old. Bartolo Colon, on the other hand, started the season giving Angels fans hope that he would rebound from 2006 injury issues to again become a solid starter. However, after going 5-0 with a 3.69ERA in his first six starts, he proceeded to go 1-6 with a 9.26ERA in his next ten starts before going on the disabled list, perhaps to never pitch as an Angel again (this is his last year under contract with the team, although if he recovers from injury, it may give room for management to give him one last shot). However, with the absence of Jeff Weaver, and the emergence of Lackey and Escobar as potentially the best 1-2 punch in baseball, this rotation has shown marked improvement. Edge: Moderate 2007
-2006: Kevin Gregg/Hector Carrasco/J.C. Romero/Brendan Donnelly/Scot Shields/Francisco Rodriguez vs. Chris Bootcheck/Dustin Moseley/Darren Oliver/Justin Speier/Scot Shields/Francisco Rodriguez
No fan of the 2006 Angels wants to be reminded of how big of a disaster J.C. Romero was. Not only did he get hit harder than Bobby Cox's wife, but he was traded in exchange for a solid infield prospect in Alexi Casilla. Hector Carrasco was a solid, inoffensive middle relief arm, as were Donnelly and Gregg. The back end of the bullpen offered Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez as the best set-up man/closer combination in baseball during the 2006 season.
It didn't take long for Hector Carrasco to find his way out of a job with the Angels in 2007. He was hit hard, and promptly released. Darren Oliver, a free agent acquisition during the offseason, started the year slow (and, in this writer's opinion, rather unduly criticized). However, since giving up a run during a May 31st apperance, Oliver has had a 2.39ERA over 26 1/3 innings. Moseley, after starting off the year as both a bullpen arm and spot-starter that could get men out with regularity, has been hit hard recently, relegating himself to a much smaller role, despite Carassco's absence. Chris Bootcheck has filled in well, showing the ability to get tough outs when needed, and taking on mop-up duty as well as a reliever can. The real story however, has been the back end of the bullpen once more. Justin Speier has joined the bullpen, turning baseball's best 8th and 9th inning tandem into arguably baseball's best 7th, 8th, and 9th inning trio. Shields has been a stud (with, as expected, the occasional hiccup) and even with Francisco Rodriguez's increased ERA, he has not given fans reason to worry for long, as he still closes games out regularly Edge: Moderate 2007
-2006: Mike Scioscia/Bud Black/Mickey Hatcher/Dino Ebel/Alfredo Griffin/Ron Roenicke vs. 2007: Mike Scioscia/Mike Butcher/Mickey Hatcher/Dino Ebel/Alfredo Griffin/ Ron Roenicke
Mike Scioscia is more of the same, which means more small-ball, and more games in the win column than most any Angel manager in history. He's perhaps learning lessons from the Steve Finley and Edgardo Alfonzo saga, however, after putting both Shea Hillenbrand and Hector Carrasco on short leashes before cutting them out of the team. Mike Butcher, if he is to be blamed for Ervin Santana's struggles on the mound, must also be given some credit for keeping Jered Weaver as a solid contributor and for keeping John Lackey as one of the best in the league while also overseeing Kelvim Escobar's incredible emergence. Hatcher continues to be loathed by fans for his swing-first, ask-questions-later teachings at the plate, but the team's offense continues to be a solid year-in, and year-out contributor to the well being of the ballclub. Ron Roenicke and Alfredo Griffin are fan favorites and longtime mainstays with the franchise, bringing both a positive influence and a steady hand to Scioscia's clubhouse. Dino Ebel continues to be more exciting to watch as third base coach than half of the leadoff men in the game today. Edge: Toss-Up/Weak 2007
Overall: Strong Edge to 2007 club
Projected record: 96-66