Monday, September 16, 2002

West is Best

When last we met I was giving props to the Oakland A’s for going on a tear and seemingly putting the division title in their back pocket. Now, that 20-game winning streak and fifty cents only gets the A’s a bag of chips, because as we go to press, the Anaheim Angels have matched them at 91-55 atop the AL West, taking three of four from the East Bay Elephants, and sending a clear signal that against all odds and aesthetic considerations, this year the road to baseball heaven goes through Orange County.

Those of you who live back east and go to sleep before the late SportsCenter might be asking yourselves where in the hell the Angels came from. The quick and dirty is that while the A’s were getting all the press, the Angels were silently keeping pace, playing .800 ball and waiting for mid-September when they would play Oakland eight times in eleven days. In NASCAR parlance, they’ve been drafting, letting the A’s provide the aerodynamic wedge while they bided their time just behind, conserving fuel in an attempt to break away in the closing laps.

So why is this historically snake-bitten team winning? For one thing they’re hitting the ball pretty well. The Angels lead all of baseball in batting average, and by enough of a margin to place them fifth in the league in on-base percentage despite ranking a pathetic 26th in walks. What’s more, while the A’s red-hot pitching staff has gotten all the press in the past month, it's the Angels who lead the American League in ERA.

But while the numbers tell us a lot, the way the Angels have been winning games lately may tell us just as much. Two of their three wins against Oakland and close to a third of all of their wins since the beginning of August have come in one-run games. And as every good stat-head knows, winning one-run games has a lot to do with luck. Indeed, just looking at the Oakland series and seeing a bench warmer like Shawn Wooten get the game-winning hit on Wednesday, and watching the ice-cold Darrin Erstad -- a player having such a craptacular year that manager Mike Scioscia had him on the bench in Thursday night’s key game -- get a key ninth-inning pinch hit to set up the win, even the most objective baseball analyst might start thinking the Halos are charmed. Or blessed. Or whatever.

Does the Angels' luck take anything away from their success? Of course not. The A’s themselves had luck to thank for a good share of their amazing run.

Besides, luck is the residue of good planning. Even though no one in Anaheim is putting up an MVP or Cy Young season (nor should they have been expected to), management gave Scioscia a flexible roster with few if any black holes. Scioscia, for his part, has used his role players wisely and generally put guys in positions where they are most likely to succeed. It’s been a nice effort all around this year for the Angels, even if good fortune has smiled upon them a bit.

Now matter how they did it, the Angels have made things exciting in the AL West. Given the Mariners’ recent struggles and the Red Sox’ regularly-scheduled late-season swoon, both Oakland and Anaheim will make the playoffs. But the stakes are still high. The loser of their dogfight will fly 3,000 miles and take a bus to the Bronx for the privilege of facing the Yankees in the first round. You can bet that neither team will coast its way into October.

The Angels take their juju to Oakland on Monday night for a four-game series that could decide the division title. Adjust your baseball-watching schedule accordingly.

Perverse Incentives

Normally I would never wish a loss on my favorite team. But as Mac Thomason over at the excellent Braves Journal has pointed out, Braves fans may find themselves wanting their team to honk one at the end of the season.

As I noted a couple weeks ago, the San Francisco Giants blew their last game in Atlanta when Rob Nen failed to hold base runners in the ninth inning. The game eventually ended in a rain-induced tie. As a result, the Giants and the Braves will play only 161 official games this year.

That means the Giants and Dodgers may end the season a half-game apart in the wild card race. If that should happen, the Giants and Braves would be forced to make up L'Affaire Nen in Atlanta one day after finishing their regularly-scheduled tilts on Sunday, the 29th of September. The Giants (who finish the season with an odd Sunday evening game against the Astros) would take a cross-country flight and arrive in Atlanta around 5 AM Eastern time on the day of the makeup game.

If the makeup game becomes necessary (a distinct possibility, given that the Dodgers and Giants are in a battle every bit as tight as that between the A’s and the Angels), and if the Giants come to Atlanta a half-game ahead of the Dodgers, then the Braves would want to win, forcing the Giants to fly back to San Francisco the next day to play a one-game tiebreaker against the Dodgers. If the Giants won that game, they would have to hop right back on the damn plane and come back to Atlanta for the first round of the playoffs.

If, however, the Giants finish half a game behind Los Angeles, the only way for the Braves to ensure a jet-lagged opponent in the first round would be to lose the makeup game, sending the Giants back to San Francisco for the tie-breaker with LA.. If the Braves won, they would face a well-rested Dodger team in the first playoff game.

Of course all this assumes that the Braves would rather face a travel-weary Giants team than a fresh Dodger team. That might not be the case. Tired or not, in Barry Bonds the Giants have a five-time MVP batting third, and he’s always been tough on the Braves. What’s that? You say Barry has only won four MVPs? Well you’re wrong, because he’s got this year’s in the bag. If you don’t believe it, meet me back here next week and I’ll prove it.