Analysis : In the Weak West, 4 Factors Make the Angels Strong
The Angels have:
--The American League’s lowest team batting average, .234, and four regulars hitting less than that--Doug DeCinces .223, Brian Downing .218, Dick Schofield .190 and Rob Wilfong .182.
--No regular or reserve hitting higher than Bob Boone’s .269.
--Only seven wins by a starting pitcher in the last 30 games and only three in the last 15. Ron Romanick won two and Mike Witt one.
--Six players on the disabled list, among them first baseman Rod Carew and starting pitchers Geoff Zahn and Ken Forsch. Forsch is out for the year. It is not known when, or if, Carew and Zahn will be back.
How, then, have the Angels managed to lead the American League’s West Division since April 25?
How did they manage to split 32 straight games against the juggernauts of the East, which brings them back to the West, and back to Anaheim Stadium, for 10 straight with division rivals Kansas City, Texas and Chicago?
Are they operating with mirrors? Were they given one of owner Gene Autry’s old movie scripts, in which the hero prevails against all odds? Did Disneyland expand when no one was watching? Is this an extension of Fantasyland?
The explanations seem to stem from more substantial reasons, the four most significant being:
--Manager Gene Mauch’s impact on style and strategy.
--The relief work of Donnie Moore and rookies Stewart Cliburn and Pat Clements.
--The hitting of Gary Pettis at the top of the anemic lineup, Ruppert Jones in the middle and Boone at the bottom.
--A normally reliable defense that leads the majors in double plays and boasts the game’s best center fielder in Pettis.
Besides all of that, the West remains a suspect division, rewarding any team capable of playing at or near .500.
Kansas City was the only Western team that finished better than .500 last year. It won the division title with a modest total of 84 wins.
Although five teams are now at .500 or better in the East, only the Angels, with a 28-23 mark; Kansas City, 26-24, and Chicago, 25-23, are above .500 in the West.
The Angels, who lead the Royals by 1 1/2 games, would be fourth in the East, 7 games behind Toronto. The Angels are clearly more of a title threat in the West, although Mauch, weighing the 32-game split with the East, said that his team can compete with anyone anywhere and that the East’s only potential advantage is in pitching depth.
Here is a closer look at the four reasons for the Angels’ success:
THE LITTLE GENERAL Mauch has responded to the injuries, inconsistent offense and sensitive issue of age by using 49 lineups in 51 games, keeping his entire roster alert and prepared.
He also has attempted to create offense where there is none, much as he did during the first half of 1982, before the Angels erupted offensively and ultimately won the division title. The Angels now lead the American League with 34 sacrifice bunts. They have scored 21 runs as a direct result of the bunts.
They also lead the majors in walks, having drawn 238, an average of more than four a game. This, too, stems in part from Mauch’s belief that most of his hitters should use the entire field, reducing the tendency to pull and overswing and creating, in turn, selectivity and a reduction in strikeouts.
Thus, while the Angels are 14th in the league in team average and 13th in hits, they are averaging 4.5 runs a game, and rank seventh in runs and fifth in on-base percentage.
Then there is the aspect of Mauch’s renowned intensity. The years and experience have produced a degree of patience, a new mellowness, but the purpose is still there, still obvious in his eyes and stride.
The Angels have exhibited some of that same purpose. A team whose desire and animation under John McNamara, Mauch’s predecessor, were questioned repeatedly has come from behind a dozen times to win, is 4-0 in extra-inning games, and has a 12-4 record in games decided by one run.
Said Wilfong the other day: “I don’t want to say anything critical of McNamara. He was a real nice guy. But it was always the same whether we won or lost. It was too comfortable. Mauch has a presence unlike anyone else. He’s totally baseball, there’s never a doubt about it.”
RELIEF PITCHING While General Manager Mike Port pursues help for a starting staff that is 16-17, the Angels have been getting help from within.
The rebuilt bullpen--Doug Corbett is the only relief pitcher who was with the team last year--is 12-5 with 12 saves. Moore has 11, equaling Luis Sanchez’s club-high total of last year.
Moore has given up game-winning homers in each of his last two appearances, but the believability he has created among the Angels was not affected. His string of 18 games in which he allowed one run in 29 innings provided the foundation for the Angels’ division lead and inspired a confidence that they can win the close ones. His poise--in defeat as well as victory--has provided a clubhouse standard that several of his teammates would do well to emulate.
The Angels are 17-4 in games in which Moore has pitched, but now he, too, is getting relief from the bullpen’s unprecedented depth.
Cliburn, a right-handed rookie, is 2-1 with a save and a 1.21 earned-run average. He has allowed only one run in the 19 innings of his last nine appearances. Clements, a left-handed rookie, is 4-0 and has held left-handed hitters to a .231 batting average.
Both worked effectively in the Angels’ 15-inning win at Baltimore Tuesday, after which Mauch compared their fortitude to government mules. It wasn’t long ago, of course, that Angel relief pitchers were called mules of another type.
HITTING The bats haven’t all turned to ashes.
Jones, a fortuitous purchase in the wake of Fred Lynn’s departure, has picked up some of the productive slack in the middle of the lineup. He leads the club in home runs with eight and in runs batted in with 25. A part-time player, his power numbers are comparable to those of Lynn, who is playing regularly for Baltimore.
Pettis, although still bothered by the tendency to strike out that ultimately took him out of the lineup when he batted .227 last year, is now batting .245. He has 28 walks and 25 stolen bases in 27 attempts.
Boone, exasperated by his .202 batting average of last year and .159 in April, made a significant change in his batting stance and has since hit .366, raising his average 110 points during a span in which the team’s average has fallen 22 points.
The fact that the 37-year-old catcher has emerged as the Angels’ leading hitter is testimony to his dedication, as well as to the dreadful averages of his teammates.
Will it get better? Will proven hitters find their previous levels? McNamara thought they would, but it turned out otherwise. Now Mauch is convinced that he will see the improvement.
“I’m kind of encouraged by what we’ve done because I know we’re not going to continue hitting .234,” he said.
“I don’t know if we’ll hit .250 or .255, but there’s going to be some runs scored while we’re getting there.
“I mean, I know Doug DeCinces isn’t going to hit .223. I know Brian Downing isn’t going to hit .218. I’ve agonized with every one of them, but I just hope they know what I know. It’s going to be fun for them getting back to where they should be.”
Although it has been erratic at times recently, the Angels’ defense has been instrumental in the club’s success and the club ranks among the league leaders in fielding percentage.
Even so, mere numbers will never capture Pettis. The play of the center fielder belongs to the camera of the mind or “This Week in Baseball.” He continues to make the pitching better by turning triples to singles, doubles to outs.
The Angels have also turned 79 double plays, a pace that projects to a major league record. There’s good and bad in that.
“A lot of double plays usually means that your pitchers are putting too many men on base,” Mauch said. “It’s a fair assumption that we’d be in trouble if we didn’t have guys who can execute.
“I don’t know how many 5-4-3s we’ve got, but without doubt Doug DeCinces is the best I’ve ever seen at getting the ball to second base, and Bobby Grich and Rob Wilfong can turn it better than most.”
So what now? Will the mirrors shatter? Can the Angels hold on in the weaker West?
The likelihood is that they will be a factor throughout. To what extent hinges on the continued help and success of Moore, the required re-emergence of DeCinces, Downing or Reggie Jackson as a provider of RBIs, and the ability of Pettis to ensure his defensive employment with contributions on offense.
The ultimate key, however, may rest with Port, the general manager. The Angels’ need for a stopper in their rotation seems critical. Romanick is the only starter who has supplied consistency. Zahn is a physical question mark, Forsch is gone and Kirk McCaskill is 0-4.
The Angels’ need is obvious. Both Bert Blyleven and John Candelaria are available. Both have prompted offers from Port. The counter-proposals would strip the Angels of some touted prospects of the long-awaited future. Port must decide how important today is. He has a chance to deliver the type of hit his offense hasn’t.