Now that the Magic Number is down to zero (special thanks go to Texas for their Heimlich Maneuver on the Red Sox choke job), the Sox can safely prepare for the Anaheim Angels.
Make no mistake, this is not the Angels teams of past years, who had been thoroughly cooked by the Sox and served on a platter. They have a lot of advantages over the Boston club: they are healthier, have a deeper rotation (though not as top heavy), and they have momentum from four straight wins and a recent division clincher over the Rangers.
Still, with a new sworn enemy for the next two weeks, let’s remove the veil from the Angels and find out who this team really is.
Where to start? Hmm… how about the sluggers?
The Sluggers
1B Kendry Morales: This guy has had one of the biggest turnarounds in recent memory. It looked like he was headed straight for the former-prospect label after three lackluster stints with the big club.
He’s been a completely different hitter in 2009, however, as he’s added power and learned how to hit major league off-speed and breaking pitches (particularly the change-up and curve). He has had problems making contact this season though, which is probably the only part of his game that has regressed.
When the Angels are down late in the game, it’s OK to cringe when he comes to the plate. If the Angels get to the World Series and if Morales hits the way he’s capable of, these playoffs could catapult him to national superstardom.
If it were not for Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist, he would be far and away the biggest surprise of the season.
In all, Morales is easily the best hitter on the team and one of the most dangerous in the league.
LF Juan Rivera: The second most surprising part of the Angels’ success this season, Rivera came off two injury-shortened years in ’07 and ’08. His first breakout occurred in 2006, where he hit 23 home runs in 448 at-bats. He missed most of the next two seasons and his game suffered, as his .246/.282/.438 line in ’08 can attest. His power disappeared (10.7 % HR per FB rate) and his line drive rate was so poor (14.3 LD%) that he had serious questions coming into the season. Needless to say, he answered those questions, with 24 homers on the year to go with a .285 average and .806 OPS.
Rivera is a curious player, as his strikeout rate is very low for a power hitter (11.1 strikeout percentage), but he has trouble making solid contact at times. Still, he is an excellent hitter and if he ever learned how to take a walk, he would be one of the better outfielders in the league. For now, he’s a power/batting average threat who is always one bad pitch away from tying the game.
C Mike Napoli: He will be one of the keys to the series. If the Sox didn’t have V-Mart, Boston’s catcher envy would make the city greener than St. Patrick’s Day. While he isn’t much behind the plate, he is one of the best power hitting catchers in the game. With 19 homers in 371 at-bats, he is always a threat to go deep.
While two years ago he would be regarded as the catching version of Adam Dunn, he has changed his all-or-nothing approach this season, resulting in the best strikeout percentage of his career. Strangely, his exceptional walk totals have taken a hit, though nothing in his plate discipline indicators state that his approach has changed in any significant way. It is likely the result of two factors, one being random fluctuation and another being that pitchers are getting ahead of him early in the count, while pitching him out of the zone later in the plate appearance. Getting down 0-1 is never a good way to start an at-bat and it’s hurting Napoli this season.
He’s got some of the best power in the game from behind the plate. Buchholz is a good pitcher to face against him, should he throw in Game 3. A ground-ball pitcher should help neutralize his fly-ball tendencies, meaning fewer homers, which is Nap’s calling card. Luckily for the Sox, he will split time with Jeff Mathis during the series, who the Angels still refuse to give up on. Still, when it’s the other team blowing their chances, who’s complaining? Really, check out his stats, its laughable that this team still wants him to start.
DH Vladimir Guerrero: 2009 has been a tough year for Vlad. His body is failing on him and his legs are all but gone. He still plays the game hard and with passion, but he’s just not Vlad the Impaler anymore.
Nevertheless, he still brings a good amount of power to the table, with good contact skills. He’s still the free swinger he’s always been, which should help the Sox greatly should Daisuke make an appearance in the ALDS: at least Dice won’t be able to walk Vlad.
He may not be a true “slugger” anymore, but prorating this year’s stats to a full season would give him 22 homers, which is still a legitimate power threat. Not the Vlad of old, but he can still do some damage.
The Speedy Vets
CF Torii Hunter: Hunter has had a tremendous season in center for the Angels. With 22 homers in 444 ABs, he can still hit with authority, while his 18 SBs and his improved defense from previous years show that he can still motor in the outfield.
Hunter, like many Angels’ batters, is not the most discipline hitter, though he is not the hacking fiend of yesteryear. He has dropped his swing percentage this season, which has brought about a spike in his walk rate. His strikeouts are up slightly from previous years, though he isn’t a huge threat to take a free pass.
Hunter does about everything well, though he has a slight issue with curveballs (which he makes up for it by crushing fastballs). Hopefully, Lester can make him look foolish when they face off, as that sharp bender has a tendency of doing. Either way, expect Torii to frustrate the hometown team with his combination of power, speed, and instincts.
RF Bobby Abreu: This guy is all business. At 35, he is no spring chicken, having debuted with the Astros back in 1996. However, he is still quite the force with the bat.
Though an early season downturn made him appear finished, he has since turned it around, particularly in the power department – he didn’t record his first home run until May 26th, nearly 150 at-bats into the year. Since that stretch, he has been able to salvage the season, posting 15 homers with a .297/.394/.471 line.
Though his skills have begun to decline, Abreu is still among the best all-around hitters in the game. He doesn’t have quite the power he used to, but he still has an incredible eye – 94 walks on the year. Abreu can’t field a lick, though, so if you see a few missed plays in right during the series, don’t be surprised.
Abreu is a very tough out at the plate, though he has struggled at times this season against sliders and curves. Don’t let his veteran status deter you from booing him, however. Remember, he used to be a Yankee (’06-’08). When he’s standing in right or locked in at the plate, make sure he remembers where he came from.
3B Chone Figgins: Certainly a very strange pairing at third, Figgins is an all-speed, no power hitter, who somehow found a way to work 101 walks this season despite hitting just 5 homers. Figgins is an excellent hitter however, as his .298/.397/.394 season shows. However, he is not quite as good as he seems at first glance, as he is just one season removed from a .276/.367/.318 disaster in ’08.
Still just 31, he’s been stealing bases in bunches since 2002, with 62 in 2005 and 42 this year. Figgins will spray liners all over the park, but he can be neutralized with a good change up, which he has struggled with at times throughout his career.
Still, he is one of the most selective hitters in the league, with excellent plate discipline. He never swings the bat unless it’s a good pitch, makes frequent contact, and always puts a good swing on the ball.
Figgins will make Boston fans tear out their hair this series, as he will absolutely run wild on the basepaths against the weak Boston battery, and he will be on base seeming every time he picks up a bat. Sox fans will hate him before the series is out.
The Young Infielders
2B Howie Kendrick: Yet another reason why the Angels turned 2009 from a transition year into a division championship. Though he’s always posted good batting averages, he finally added power to his game, as he has morphed into one of the leagues better second basemen.
As a result, he may give Pedroia a run for his money for who is the best second baseman in this series. Sacrilege, I know, but Kendrick has become quite the player this year. He’s not quite at D-Ped’s level yet, but Kendrick is starting to realize his potential. Good fielder, good hitter. ‘Nuff said.
Still, there are weaknesses to his game. He has trouble taking free passes, as his 5.2 % walk rate can attest. He strikes out too often for a player without plus power, though he makes up for it by always putting a good swing on the ball. He’s still young enough that he can stop whiffing, but its starting to get a little late in the game for that, especially with how often he swings outside the zone. Kendrick has a very poor batting eye, though its been getting better as he’s begun to make adjustments this season, becoming a little more selective.
If the Sox do their homework on this guy, he’ll never see a strike, and Lester will make him wear the golden sombrero.
SS Erick Aybar: Aybar is the nominal shortstop, though he will cede some time to Maicer Izturis during the series, who is also developing quite well as a hitter. Aybar is the least exciting batter on the team, though his above-average fielding skills and good bat speak wonders about the depth of this lineup.
Yet another example of why the Angels are in the playoffs instead of sitting at home, Aybar has posted a .303/.346/.416 season after a poor 2008 (.277/.314/.384) and pathetic 2007 (.237/.279/.289).
Aybar has become a very different hitter this season, as he’s finally driving the ball (20.6% line drive rate) and has solved his woes against fastballs and sliders. He is a great hitter of off-speed pitches as he owns change-ups and curveballs.
Like nearly every other Angels hitter, he is the consummate free swinger, with a poor batting eye, but good enough contact skills to make up for it. He won’t kill the Red Sox this series by any means, but for a shortstop, he’s quite the asset.
With even just a casual look at the Angels’ roster, it’s pretty clear why they took home the AL West title. Their lineup is deep, has no holes, and possesses good depth.
This series could easily go 5 games, though it would be nice to save the aces for the ALCS, which almost assuredly will be against New York. In the end, these are two very evenly matched teams, though a fully healthy Beckett and Lester could tip the scales in the Sox’ favor. Regardless, the ALDS will not be easy on the Sox: expect a battle.