Only five days remain until the official start of spring, seven days until the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks kickoff the season in Sydney and 16 days until the Angels home opener against the Seattle Mariners. Our long national nightmare of a winter is nearly over and I, for one, am getting more and more excited with each passing spring training game.
We still have yet to see Josh Hamilton grace the Angels outfield this spring, but even without the expensive slugger, the Angels have put on a few offensive displays that are reminiscent of last year’s team. Kole Calhoun has already walked seven times in 36 plate appearances. Mike Trout is hitting .444 with a 1.205 OPS in nine games. Howie Kendrick is, once again, leaving all of his best contact in Arizona. Even Albert Pujols actually has dirt stains on his pants this spring.
But, I am not here to talk about the offense. The Angels had one of the best offensive teams in baseball last season (whether you want to believe that or not is up to you, but the stats back up that claim), and even without Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos (sniffle), the few new pieces they did bring in, to me, are the equivalent to standing pat. Basically, the offense is fine, was fine and will continue to be fine. The pitching however, that was another concern.
So how did the Angels go and make me optimistic about this years pitching staff in only 16 games? Well, for one, they stopped letting Joe Blanton pitch as many games. Hopefully, he doesn’t make it to Opening Day with a Halo on his hat, but that’s another rant. We’ll start by looking at the numbers for the two remaining right-handed starters, Jered Weaver and Garrett Richards.
The problem with spring training is, all it takes is one bad start to inflate a pitchers ERA, and Richards is proof of that. But, do you know what Richards hasn’t done yet? Walked anyone. Not one batter has received a free pass from Richards this spring. Now, I’m not suggesting that the hard throwing righty is going to coast through the regular season without issuing a single walk, but its a good sign that he is attacking the zone. More positivity is found is ground-out to fly-out ratio, a ratio that currently sits at 4.20. For comparisons sake, C.J. Wilson is considered a groundball pitcher. His current GO/FO ratio is 1.44. Just, you know, food for thought.
The spotlight shines brightly on Weaver this year. The velocity worries, decline worries, how does he keep his golden locks flowing worries. His K/9 of 6.35 so far this spring is uninspiring, but in each of his last two starts, he has struck out a batter per inning. No one expects Weaver to revert back to the dominant pitcher that was routinely near the top of the Cy Young voting, and to expect that would be foolish. But Weaver has looked firm this spring, and anyone who is expecting him to become a league average starter, is underselling him a great deal.
Now, onto the lefties. And this is where it gets fun.
Veteran, C.J. Wilson, and newcomer, Hector Santiago, and have been flat-out dominating this spring. Wilson is sporting a nifty K/9 of 9.8 and held the Dodgers hitless over four frames in his second start. Wilson made numerous comments out the outset of spring training that he was “ready to go,” and so far, he is delivering on that promise.
Hector Santiago, where have you been all of my life? He made the claim that he was going to throw his screwball more often this season, and the results have led to two strained thumbs pointing upwards. His spring WHIP of 0.909 (same as C.J.’s) is stupid-good and even with the heightened use of his screwball, he has only allowed three walks this spring.
The real wildcard for the Angels this spring though, is Tyler Skaggs. His fastball velocity is sitting in the 92-94 MPH range, up from the 89-91 MPH range he was sitting at last year in Arizona and his curveball looks as filthy as ever. He has dominant, front-of-the-rotation stuff, but at 22 years-old, it is anybody’s guess as to how well he will do in his first full season in the big leagues. He threw four innings of scoreless baseball against the Cincinnati Reds this spring, allowing one hit and making hitters feel uncomfortable the entire time. He was also shaky in his last start against the San Diego Padres where he allowed four runs in four innings, but allowed no free passes. I expect growing pains from the young lefty this season, but even with those growing pains, he will still be an above-average number five starter, and miles better than what Joe Blanton was last year.
Last season, Angels starting pitchers combined to rank in the bottom-third of most pitching categories. The bullpen didn’t fare much better, but an offense as good as this one can’t be trying to comeback in every game. The prediction models from Fangraphs, Baseball Prospectus and Clay Davenport have the Angels finishing tied for first, first and second in the AL West, with Davenport giving them a good enough record to make the play-in game. They also said the same thing last season as well. But, last year, I did not have the same kind of optimism about the Angels pitching staff as I do this year. This year, those predictions feel a lot more accurate than they did 365 days ago. A lot more.