Albert Pujols’ hot start has been tremendously good news for the Angels. Of course, it’s always a good thing to have the big guy bash nine homers in the season’s first month. And after an injury-marred 2013 season, it certainly helps that it appears not all of Arte Moreno’s investment in him has been in vain. And paired with Mike Trout’s reliable “best player in baseball” act, the Angels are cranking out a league-leading 5.7 runs per game. They’re both swinging among the hottest bats in baseball in the early going. Pujols’ OPS+ of 179 is the second highest in the league, while Trout ranks ninth (157).
But the other reason why it’s key? Imagine where the Angels’ lineup would be without those two, because league-leading offense or not, a lot of things aren’t working out perfectly well for the Angels’ offense in the early going.
First, there’s the problem with stocking their outfield. Starting left fielder Josh Hamilton and starting right fielder Kole Calhoun both went down with injuries after hot starts, and won’t be back from the DL until the back end of May. Their playing time is going to a combination of J.B. Shuck, Collin Cowgill and Brennan Boesch. Shuck had a decent 2013 season, hitting .293/.331/.366, but he’s at best a fourth outfield type. They’re all pretty much the real-world definition of replacement-level talent, not in terms of the numbers assigned to a replacement-level hitter in models like WAR, but in terms of describing what you wind up with when you lose two starters and your farm system doesn’t have ready alternatives.
That’s a matter of unhappy accidents, but some of the choices the Angels made as a matter of design have turned out even worse. Designated hitter Raul Ibanez is looking done, for starters. Sure, you can say that about anybody hitting .157/.224/.314 after three weeks, and if you’re a big Ibanez fan, you might reasonably point out that his BABIP (now at .170) will come around. The problem is that Ibanez is getting reliably beaten up at home plate, as he’s struggling with breaking pitches and off-speed stuff. If you look at his Hot Zone data here or his PitchF/X outcomes over at Brooks Baseball via Baseball Prospectus, you’ll find that he isn’t killing pitches up the zone, and is getting eaten up low and outside. Another problem for a power hitter like Ibanez is that he isn’t getting balls in the air. Instead, he’s generating a career-worst 1.40 ratio of grounders to fly balls when he isn’t striking out at a career-worst 26.3 percent clip. If he doesn’t start winning those battles at home plate, there won’t be a BABIP level to regress to. As many times as people have been saying Ibanez is done (at least since 2011, if not earlier), this time it might be true.
Over at third base, thanks to his cold start, David Freese, former World Series hero, is losing at-bats to Ian Stewart, former washout with the Rockies and Cubs. Freese has been brutal in the early going, with an OPS at .418 through Friday, while striking out in nearly 30 percent of his at-bats as he struggles to adjust to a new league. Meanwhile, Stewart’s shown some early power, ripping six extra-base hits in 41 at-bats -- while also striking out 16 times already, just going to show that the same whiffery that undermined his career in Colorado and Chicago when he was healthy enough to play hasn’t gone away.
But perhaps even more surprising when talking about these two? It’s worth keeping in mind that while Stewart (2008) broke through to the major leagues two years before Freese (2010), he’s two years younger than Freese. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Stewart keep cadging at-bats and spot starts against right-handed pitching all season, especially if Freese doesn’t get going.
Which brings me to a last point about the Angels to keep in mind: They’re old. Averaging 30.1 years of age, the lineup is fourth-oldest in the American League, trailing just the veteran-spackled lineups of the Red Sox, Yankees and Tigers. The only guys who might regularly play in the lineup this year who bring that number down are Trout and (when healthy) Calhoun. Hitters like Howie Kendrick, Erick Aybar, Chris Iannetta and Freese, all in their age-30 seasons or older, aren't going to get any better, having long since moved beyond fulfilling those dreams some had for them when they came up.
So Angels fans, just keep hoping you get more of the same as far as the Albert of old turning back up, paired up with Mike Trout being Mike Trout. Because even after Hamilton and Calhoun come back, you’re going to need them.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.