With the last installation focusing on the Anaheim Angels’ hitters, its time to take a look at the other half of the California equation: the pitching staff.
The Angels come into the ALDS with one of the deeper rotations among the contenders, with five quality options manning four slots. Mike Scioscia has opted to go with John Lackey as his Game One starter, followed by Jered Weaver in Game Two, Scott Kazmir in Game Three, then Joe Saunders in Game Four. Fifth starter Ervin Santana has been sent to the bullpen, though there are still circles who believe him to be the better option of he and Saunders.
While the overall quality of the Angels’ rotation is comparable to that of the Red Sox, it is not as top-heavy as their Boston counterparts. Few, if any, rotations boast the one-two punch of Jon Lester and Josh Beckett. However, with the seasons that Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright have had, St. Louis could have the Sox beat. Still, that’s beside the point.
The Anaheim bullpen is also a quality outfit featuring some underrated arms and intriguing role players. However, when compared to the talent and depth present in the Sox ‘pen, this corps leaves much to be desired. As echoed by fellow FireBrand writer, Evan Brunell, “Bulger (if healthy), Palmer and Oliver are all good, but would all jockey with Manny Delcarmen for the final spot in Boston’s ‘pen,” this bullpen is already behind in the race.
Game One: John Lackey, RHP
The ace of the Angels’ staff, the big righty posted a 3.83 ERA along with a 3.73 FIP ERA on the year. Once a 200+ inning workhorse, Lackey has seen better days, with consecutive injury-shortened seasons in ’08 and ’09.
However, Lackey can still bring it. Through 176.1 IP this season, the reliever has posted 139 strikeouts against 47 walks, good for a 7.09 K/9 and 2.40 BB/9 (2.96 K/BB ratio).
Lackey has also seen a bit of a resurgence this season in some of his statistical indicators. His fastball velocity is back up to his 2006 days, sitting at 91-92 mph and he is again baiting hitters to chase pitches out of the zone at a very high rate (28.9 O-Swing%).
His four pitch mix of fastball, slider, curve and occasional change-up create a lot of swings out of the strike zone. He gets a good number of groundballs (44.9 percent) which allows him to keep the home runs down.
He’ll have success against the Red Sox as long as he can get batters to chase his pitches. Since he throws so many pitches outside the zone, you would expect him to have more walks than he does. As a result, he may be susceptible to a few more free passes than usual against this patient Red Sox team.
Overall, Lackey is a control pitcher who makes his living on minimizing walks, while keeping a good amount of his balls on the ground. He’s not a “true” ace at this point in his career, and Kazmir may be the better pitch right now, but this is still Lackey’s staff. Expect him to fight hard and make life difficult on the Sox. With a Lackey v. Lester matchup, Game One makes you wish you lived on the West Coast. It would be a terrible game to miss.
Game Two: Jered Weaver, RHP
Jered Weaver is the second of the Angels’ premier starters. Like Lackey, he is a good, not great, hurler, though he turned in the best year of his career this season, including his stellar 2006 campaign. By adding durability to his resume, he was able to go 211.0 IP with a 3.75 ERA and 4.05 FIP.
Weaver’s stats mirror Lackey’s to an extent, as he boasts an above-average K-rate (7.42 K/9) and good walk rate (2.82 BB/9), with an approach focusing on good command.
The similarities end there, however, as Weaver is a soft-tossing, finesse type starter. His fastball sits in the 88-90 range, which he complements with a slider, curve, and change-up. Not surprisingly, it’s been his off-speed and breaking balls that have made his career.
With a below-average fastball, it will be interesting to see what Youkilis and Victor Martinez can do against him, seeing as they’re the team’s better fastball hitters. Weaver will not be an easy starter to solve, but the Sox have broken better pitchers in the past.
Game Three: Scott Kazmir, LHP
Scott Kazmir took the “tale of two seasons” approach to an extreme this year, posting an abysmal first half (7.11 ERA, 62.0 IP, 11 HR, 33 BB, 50 K) followed by a stellar back nine (3.27 ERA, 85.1 IP, 5 HR, 27 BB, 67 K).
While it would be nice to say that Kaz will regress back to his first half performance, we have to assume that he is the Scott Kazmir of old, who for many years was the only Devil Ray worth watching. His velocity is back up in the 91 mph range, he’s throwing his slider again (after it mysteriously disappeared in 2008), and he’s finally hitting the strike zone with regularity.
In addition, he has been nearly unhittable recently, posting a 1.73 ERA in 36.1 IP, with 26 Ks and 10 BBs since joining the Angels. As a result, he may be the best pitcher on the Angels. Good thing the Sox will only have to face him once.
Game Three may be the turning point in the series, as Kazmir looks like the better pitcher between him and Buchholz, especially given Buch’s recent bout of gopheritis.
The Sox need to get out to a quick series lead and take at least one of the first two games, as Game Three is in danger of going to the Angels with the way Kazmir has pitched lately.
Game Four: Joe Saunders, LHP
Perhaps the most ordinary pitcher on the team, Saunders can be considered “Lackey Lite”. Yet another in a stable of reliable starters, the Angels’ Number Four walks few, but Ks batters just as rarely. Through four partial seasons, he has posted a 2.9 BB/9 rate, while amassing a shallow 5.17 K/9. This is not the stuff aces are made of, but they do produce quality back of the rotation arms.
With his 90-91 mph fastball, curve, change, and very occasional slider, Saunders isn’t missing any bats. His game is all about control and pitching to contact.
Keeping the walks to a minimum and the balls in play frequent, he’s the epitome of relying on his defense. Fortunately for Saunders, this approach has turned out pretty well in his career, though don’t be intimidated by that 3.41 ERA in 2008: it was buttressed by an unsustainably low .267 BABIP.
The Sox should have no trouble with Saunders. The weakest of the Angels’ starters, Boston has more to worry about should Daisuke be on the mound.
Brian Fuentes, LHP; Closer
Pegged early in his career as a future LOOGY, Fuentes turned heads as a rare lefty closer for the Colorado Rockies. He parted ways with his former franchise this past off-season, becoming the heir to former Halo’s closer Francisco Rodriguez’s throne.
Fuentes is primarily a two-pitch pitcher, going to his fastball early and often, which he complements with a slider and occasional change-up. Without shut-down stuff, he has come to rely on his unqiue ability to hide the ball during his delivery.
With a fastball that jumps on hitters more than it blows by them, Fuentes has posted gaudy strikeout totals during his career for a pitcher who throws just 90 mph.
Time caught up with him abruptly this season, however, as he has posted just a 7.53 K/9, with rising a walk rate that reached 3.93 BB/9 by year’s end. These are not the numbers of a closer, which fueled speculation about a month ago that he would lose the closer’s role to Kevin Jepsen.
Fuentes’ statistical indicators belie his downward trends, while also forecast future struggles. Batters are chasing fewer pitches outside of the zone this season, down 5 percent from 2008. His swing percentage has also dropped a bit, which is especially problematic considering he is throwing fewer pitches in the strike zone than ever before. He is getting ahead in the count less, and, most importantly, his contact rate is way up this year.
Closers can’t survive with 80.3% contact rates, which is a major reason why he has struggled in the role thus far, despite notching 47 saves. His 4.42 FIP ERA is much more indicative of his current abilities than his 3.93 ERA.
If it’s late in the game, the Sox will still have a chance when Fuentes can’t slam the door.
Kevin Jepsen, RHP
Jepsen has been a revelation for the Angels this year, providing stability in the late innings while adding a hard throwing righty arm to the pen. His four-seamer sits at 96 mph, complemented by a cut fastball and curve.
The 25 year-old Jepsen could be destined for stardom in the near future. Not only does he have a blazing fastball that major league GMs covet, but he has a scintillating combination of strikeout potential and groundball-inducing stuff.
His 73.1 percent contact rate is superb on its own. However, when combined with a groundball rate north of 50 percent (57.1% in 2009), one begins to wonder how the opposition could ever score runs against this guy. Though his 7.90 K/9 is merely adequate for a reliever, his excellent contact percentage hints that the number could rise substantially.
If Jepsen gets in the game, close your eyes: it will be painful. He has the make up of the quintessential reliever, one who can come in for a strikeout or induce an inning ending double play. That’s an elite combination.
If there’s one saving grace, however, it’s that Jepsen struggles to find the zone at times, which can lead to long innings. This may be able to save Boston at least once in the coming week, though Sox fans may call him “Rally Killer” before the series is over.
Darren Oliver, LHP
The team’s go-to lefty, Oliver is a seasoned vet who, incidentally, turns 39 today.
After posting 12 mediocre seasons, including a couple disastrous campaigns, Oliver inexplicably found his form in 2006 with the Mets at age 36. He’s been a whole different pitcher ever since, posting consecutive sub-3.00 ERA seasons over the last two years.
While 2009 looks to be a career year for him (3.32 FIP ERA, 2.71 ERA – both career lows), he is still a quality pitcher. Though he throws just 89-90, his slider generates swings and misses, contributing to the best contact rate of his career at 77.6%.
While some may remember the “old” Darren Oliver, this old-timer needs to be considered a new pitcher: reinventing himself as a quality relief arm who can record a punch-out or groundball when needed.
Years ago opponents would rejoice when he entered the game. Now, proceed with caution. Temper your enthusiasm in 2009.
Jason Bulger, RHP
The 30 year-old right hander has had quite the season. After seeing limited major league action over the past four years, he’s made a name for himself as an excellent strikeout option, posting 9.32 K/9 over 65.2 IP.
While not the best bullpen arm, his 3.83 FIP and high strikeout rates make him very useful and his 93-94 mph fastball is a nice pitch to fall back on. . He still struggles with his command, however (4.11 BB/9), though for an underrated arm, he is a great to have around for the middle innings.
Matt Palmer, RHP
Among the final options among the Angels’ relievers, Palmer is still an interesting bullpen arm for the Angels.
Through 121.1 combined relief and starting innings in 2009, Palmer was able to compile a 3.93 ERA, though his 4.70 FIP is more indicative of his true talents. He doesn’t strike out anyone (5.12 K/9) and he struggles with his command (4.08 BB/9) – not what you want from a pitcher entering the game with runners on base.
Still, he has a role as a situational bullpen arm who can come in for relief in the early innings to induce groundballs. His 50.5 % groundball rate makes him useful, but his overall line still relegates him to the status of a fringe pitcher. Not much to see here.
Ervin Santana, RHP
While Santana may be the better starter out of he and Joe Saunders, his move to the bullpen is not such as bad one. His stuff is better suited for short work than Saunders, as he can get a punchout when necessary and throws relatively hard, with a 92-93 mph fastball.
Still, Santana has had quite the rollercoaster last two seasons. While he appeared to have finally put it all together in 2008, he has taken a huge step back in 2009. His velocity is at least partially to blame, as it fell by 2 mph from last year – an alarming rate for any pitcher. This contributed to a 3 point spike in his contact percentage (77.1 % in 2008 to 80.0% in 2009), which decimated his strikeout rates (8.79 K/9, 2008 to 6.89 K/9, 2009).
With depleted stuff, hitters started laying off his pitches out-0f-the-zone more, which lead to more walks and fewer Ks.
Santana should make a comfortable transition to the bullpen, though he may not be a featured arm. In terms of talent, he is between Palmer and Bulger this season, though Sciscia may opt to use him in higher leverage situations because of how great he was in ’08.
Santana will likely refine his fastball-slider mix as he shifts to the pen, further depleting his use of the change-up, which had already been relegated to a show-me pitch anyway. When he does appear, the Sox should be able to get to Santana without much difficulty.
The Angels’ pitching staff features a nice mix of top-tier talent, depth, and intriguing role players, with old favorites complementing underrated producers.
The matchups between the two teams are quite interesting as well. On the one hand, the Sox boast better high-end rotation talent, as Lester and Beckett are a notch above Lackey and Weaver, respectively. However, the Angels will fire right back in Game Three, as Kazmir appears better than Buchholz.
The Game Four matchup may turn into a major storyline in this series, as Terry Francona has pointed out that he may opt for either Lester or Daisuke, should the series be dire enough to call the ace’s services.
In the end, however, the Sox have the leg up for both the rotation and the bullpen. Now, it’s all up to the bounces, the breaks, and execution. Let’s hope fate’s on our side this October.