Few rotations in baseball have been more impressive than that of the Angels since the onset of the month of May. Together, starters have put together a downright filthy 2.16 ERA, given up fewer than one home run every 18 innings, and have had quality starts in ten out of their last thirteen chances. They have been one of the best sets of starting pitchers in the American League.
“One of” because the Astros rotation has been just that much better. It is no surprise that their starting pitchers have a sub-2.00 ERA, fewer home runs allowed, a lower FIP, the lowest BABIP in the majors, and are tied for the MLB lead in fWAR since the calendar flipped a page. Despite Andrew Heaney having defeated them on Monday, Lance McCullers, Jr. still posted a masterful start and had a seriously tough-luck loss. It was apparent going into the previous series against Houston that the Angels would need to pitch at an outstandingly high level in order to win games against a coalition of aces. Fortunately, they mostly have.
There is still a long season to go though with fifteen more games to be played against the feared Houstonians. The Angels have had some breaks go their way in order to take three of the first four, what with the Kole Calhoun double play on Monday, the shut out performance against Gerrit Cole, and a two-HR performance by Andrelton Simmons to lock up the game against Charlie Morton. There has to be a way to gain a slight advantage over our biggest divisional threat.
The most underrated play of the Heaney-McCullers matchup was Andrelton Simmons’ steal of second. Without that man in scoring position, Luis Valbuena’s single would have moved Simba over to third. Four pitches later, Ian Kinsler grounded into a double play that would end the inning. Had Simmons not stolen second, the game would have been tied when Heaney came out, and the Angels may or may not have won in the bottom of the 9th or extras. We will never know.
In three of the four games the Angels have played against the Astros, the team has been held to exactly four hits. They have won two of those three four-hit games. Still more surprising, the Angels have won three out of four total games, despite being outhit every single time we have played them.
Swinging for the fences is quite obviously not the answer when looking up at the Astro giants. The Angels must go full small ball and scratch out runs in any way possible.
I am talking about stealing, bunting, sacrificing, intentionally getting caught between bases to allow a runner on third to score, swinging long to get on base through interference, taking some for the team. The Angels must reach back into that 2002 vault and that traditional, gritty baseball mentality to win these games.
Some of the above are quite clearly not recommended by analysts and sabermetricians. Trading outs for runs is not a way to win games over time. It is always sketchy to see Kole Calhoun lay down a bunt on the first base line or Pujols to jog halfway between second and first. It’s not modern conventional baseball.
I’m not asking for a team-wide season-long philosophy paradigm shift however. The Angels just need to do enough to win while the starting rotation is doing enough to keep them in games. The Houston offense is not a train right now. In the moment, it is even weaker than that of the Angels’. They have their own Kole Calhoun in Jake Marisnick and their own Ian Kinsler in Yulieski Gurriel. They are our equal right now.
Well, not behind the plate.
Brian McCann and Max Stassi are both subpar arms behind the plate these days. They both have a pretty poor 20% Caught Stealing Rate and have allowed a Combined 16 Stolen Bases. 4 of those stolen bases have come when Gerrit Cole was pitching.
Meanwhile, Astro pitchers have an AL-leading 46.8% ground ball rate. If an Angels batter gets a single (one of only four on the night, in all likelihood) and does not steal, 46.8% of the time, they are in prime position to be doubled up. Like clockwork, Lance McCullers had two double plays turned behind him last night. That pitcher happens to have the highest GB% among all qualified pitchers. Incidentally, the Angels have the third highest number of double plays grounded into in the majors and are perennial contenders for the lead.
Gerrit Cole is better than Jaime Barria. Justin Verlander is better than Garrett Richards (I am reluctant to accept). The Angels will most likely have a few hits (or at least walks) though. They will have the opportunities to score without relying on a follow-up extra base hit.
If a game is tied, it is even more critical to score runs by hook or by crook. This team does not have the resources to go deep into the night. The extra-inning Mariners and Twins games are clear, convincing evidence that our bullpen is not equipped to handle long games.
This is not rocket science. Run the bases, move runners over, and do what must be done. We have speed in Mike Trout, Kole Calhoun, Shohei Ohtani and Andrelton Simmons. We have one of the best contact teams in the league. Let’s use what we do have! If we want to see the ALDS, we’re going to need to chip away. One big hack rarely produces the same desired results.