Angels in six

Teamwork, belief and foul balls will carry Anaheim over Barry and the Giants.

By Allen Barra

Published October 19, 2002 7:10PM (EDT)

Of all the statistics cited by the experts in an attempt to explain the success of the 2002 Anaheim Angels, no one has mentioned the most important one: The Angels hit more foul balls than any other team in baseball history. The pitching staff of the average major-league team throws roughly 21,000 pitches during the regular season. The 2002 Angels made their opponents throw 27,368 pitches, roughly 6,000 over the norm. And of those 27,368 pitches, 9,221 were foul balls ...

OK, you caught me. The part about the foul balls is bullshit. No one keeps statistics on foul balls. But after the Angels win the World Series this year, somebody had better start doing it. I'm sure that if statistics were kept on foul balls, the percentage that the Angels hit would really explain what makes them different from everyone else this year. Angels manager Mike Scioscia instituted a program to improve the Angels' contact hitting, including a stiff series of fines for hitters who failed to advance runners from second or third base. By definition, this meant being selective, working the count, and, with two strikes, guarding the plate and going to the opposite field with an outside pitch. It all sounds so very simple when said like that, but in practice it takes an enormous amount of concentration and discipline as well as a manager who's willing to make a pain in the ass of himself to enforce his theory on the importance of basics.

It's not a very glamorous philosophy, but if you think about it, it's the best and quickest way for a manager whose team has minimal talent to turn that team around. And if you think I'm being ungenerous in saying the Angels have minimal talent, consider that until the last year or so, several of the Angels' current stars were playing in places like Edmonton, Moose Jaw, Nashua, and Salinas (the Salinas Peppers, that is). Of course, there are those who would argue that playing for the Angels in recent years wasn't much of a step up.

If the Angels' batting strategy seems familiar, it should. It's the one used by the New York Yankees from 1996 through 2000, and the one abandoned by them this year when they led the major leagues in home runs but couldn't score in tight situations without the Long Ball. The Yankees of that period also hit an amazing number of foul balls; they practically turned it into an offensive weapon. One instance in particular might stick out in your mind: The ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, when Paul O'Neill, facing Armando Benitez, fouled off 10 pitches before finally working the Mets' closer for a walk. The Yankees went on to tie the game and win in extra innings.

Foul balls are either frustrating or excruciating, depending on whether your team or the opposition is at bat, and for most fans they're just plain boring to watch. But they're an increasingly important tool in the modern game, the strategy you don't see. Or rather, don't notice. They are the reason that Angels hitters cause their opponents' starting pitchers to empty their tanks by about the fifth inning. They are also the reason that the Angels are remarkably good at getting to the opposing teams' best closers.

This last point could be particularly important when the Angel hitters are matched against the Giants' fine relief pitcher, Robb Nen. On paper, Nen and the Angels' closer, Troy Percival, would seem to be just about the same pitcher. On the field, they have one essential difference: Percival is one of the best at getting the first hitter out and Nen isn't. Nen will often allow a runner or two before settling down, and this could well be the hinge that a World Series between two evenly matched teams swings on. This last year, no team in baseball has been as good at moving runners over and getting runners home in tough situations than the Angels. Letting a runner or two on in a tight ninth-inning situation could be doom for the Giants. (Nen blew eight saves this year, way too many for an elite closer; Percival blew four. Perhaps more important, Percival was 20 for his last 20.)

No team in baseball has been as good at getting to the other team's bullpen as Anaheim. In the past few years, it's more and more common for people to keep track of a starter's pitch count. But no one notices when a closer's tab gets up around 20-25 pitches. After that, even the best closer becomes vulnerable. Very good pitchers, both starters and relievers, have gone nuts pitching to the Angels this season, watching them flick foul after foul of their best corner-of-the-strike-zone pitches, all the while working themselves into a position to get something good to hit. This soon develops into a bleeding of runs off dink hits that becomes a hemorrhage when someone finally tags one. Thus those 10-run innings the Angels are now becoming famous for.

You can't play this kind of baseball unless it's a team effort, and the Angels are nothing if not a team effort. Anaheim has no real MVP candidate, no matter what case people want to make for Garret Anderson. (The real truth is that Anderson symbolizes the Angels' success more than he creates it.) The Angels may not even have a team MVP: They not only don't have a Barry Bonds, but really don't even have a Jeff Kent. (Many would point to Troy Percival as the most valuable Angel, with his 40 saves and 1.92 ERA, but Percival had saved 207 games from 1996 to 2001 without even catching a whiff of a pennant.)

At bat, the Angels have only adequate power -- a fact obscured by some of their power binges. (For instance, Adam Kennedy, who hit three home runs in the final game against Minnesota, hit just seven all season long.) They had 152 home runs last season to the Giants' 198, totals that are even more surprising when you realize that Anaheim got to use a designated hitter.

But they do hit for average. With the exception of catcher Bengie Molina, every hitter in the Angels lineup either equaled or surpassed his previous year's batting average. David Eckstein, Darin Erstad, Tim Salmon, Garret Anderson, Brad Fullmer, Troy Glaus, Scott Spiezio, and Adam Kennedy hit a collective 187 points higher in 2002 than the season before. This brought the team's overall batting average from 11th in the league in 2001 (.261) to first (.282) this year. Not coincidentally, total strikeouts were cut by nearly 200. By contrast, the Giants batted just .267. Take away Bonds' .370 and that number drops still lower.

The two teams' starting staffs have allowed similar numbers, but are radically different in approach. The Angels' starters had a higher ERA (4.00) to the Giants' 3.83. But given the .4 to .5 extra runs added by the DH, that probably means that California starters have been considerably more effective. Angels starters got whopped for 129 home runs to the Giants' starters' 93, yet, when you adjust the ERAs for the DH, gave up fewer runs. This is because there were fewer men on base when the Angels' opponents hit those home runs. The Angels' pitchers walked fewer hitters, 326, to the Giants' starters 366. Anaheim's ace, Jarrod Washburn, probably isn't the equal of the Giants' Jason Schmidt -- assuming the Schmidt we've seen in the last month or so is the real Schmidt -- but given Anaheim's deeper bullpen, he may not have to be. The Angels' bullpen posted a 2.98 ERA while their Giants counterparts were .291, and once again when you adjust for the difference the DH makes, it appears that the Angels bunch has been much more effective. The big question, of course, is whether the Angels will pitch to Barry Bonds in key situations. I haven't a clue how to answer that question. I do know that the Giants are going to depend very heavily on getting the clutch hit from Bonds, whereas no one could begin to predict who might prove to be the Angels' most important man.

Patience, humility, teamwork -- these are the virtues of the Angels. Personally, I think this band of Angels will have a hard time finishing fourth in the American League West next year, but the point is that right now they don't know that. They think they're good, and as Crash Davis told us in "Bull Durham," the reason a team thinks it's winning is the reason it is winning. Angels in 6.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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