The Angels are the second-best team in baseball. Win or lose going into Monday night’s game against the AL East-leading Orioles, they were going to be the second-best team in baseball after the fact. They lost, missing the chance to move within a game of the A’s in the AL West race. But it’s July and there’s still plenty of time, so there’s no reason to sweat, right?
Certainly not, at least not if you look at the big picture and the projection models at FanGraphs or Baseball Prospectus, which say the Angels have a 98 or 99 percent shot at the playoffs. Slam-dunk sure thing? Sounds like it.
But there’s a problem with that: It doesn’t mean all that much in the era of the one-game play-in wild-card “round.” The Angels' shot at winning the AL West is calculated as much less of a sure thing, from the 20 percent range according to analyst Clay Davenport, to the 30s for FanGraphs, or the 40s for Baseball Prospectus. These are roughly the same as the chances of the Blue Jays coming back to win the AL East and then also not having to sweat a one-or-done scenario despite probably being 10 games worse than the Angels at season’s end. Saying the Angels’ shot at playing their way into the one-game coin-toss of the wild card is around 60 or 70 percent is like saying their chance of their season ending a day or two after the regular season is still astonishingly likely.
Unless they beat the A’s and win the West. Unless they make their math problem now into Oakland’s math problem tomorrow. That’s their challenge, and losing games like Monday’s will only make it harder.
To pull this off in the long weeks to come, they’re going to have to find a happier answer in their rotation than the ones they’ve found so far. While the trades for Jason Grilli and Huston Street may have shored up their bullpen, there’s the larger problem of how good their rotation really is outside of newly minted ace and All-Star Garrett Richards. Assuming that Jered Weaver’s back is sound all the way down the stretch, he hasn’t overpowered strong teams’ lineups, seeing his OPS jump 50 points and his WHIP increase by 0.3 facing teams that are .500 or better; unsurprisingly, his FIP is 4.12, which suggests sturdy mediocrity, not the ace he once was. C.J. Wilson won’t be back from his DL stint for a sprained ankle until after the trade deadline; even if he’s sound, his 4.29 FIP doesn’t suggest he’s a solid No. 2, either. And the back-end trio of Hector Santiago, Tyler Skaggs and Matt Shoemaker have put together just 15 quality starts in their 38 turns.
To catch the A’s, the Angels are going to need not just one guy but several guys to step up down the stretch. Not just because you can’t count on a league-best offense to crank out five or more runs every night, but because the Angels need to have somebody else besides Richards to use in those potentially scary end-of-year situations. What if Richards has to pitch in the last weekend series against the Mariners but the Angels don’t catch the A’s then? What if they have to play a tiebreaker? Who pitches the wild-card game? Where does that leave them in the ALDS? They’ll need some of the non-Richards starters to step up, not just to keep up with the A’s and their shored-up rotation, but to be able to win October games when they don’t put five or six runs on the scoreboard.
That was why Shoemaker’s start against Baltimore was a little more important than just another late-July turn. Barring a trade, somebody is going to be bumped once Wilson comes back from the DL. Even on a night when he struck out a career-high 10 batters, seeing Shoemaker get beaten deep twice by Adam Jones was the sort of thing that won’t keep the rookie ahead of Skaggs or Santiago, not that either of them is owning his slot.
To be sure, the Angels should be grateful things are this close. Thanks in large part to early-season bullpen problems of their own, the A’s are four games worse than you’d project from their runs scored and allowed, which is a big part of the reason they are within striking range for the Angels, even after Oakland went 20-10 in its past 30 games. All it took was the Angels going 22-8 in their past 30 before Monday, no easy thing to do with a rotation that may struggle to match the A’s made-over, Jeff Samardzija-enhanced rotation in the last 60 games.
If Wilson or Weaver, Shoemaker or Skaggs steps up, things will be that much more interesting all the way down to the wire. If not, the Angels may be one of those great teams that, like the 1993 Giants, wind up getting to brag about how great they were without getting much of an opportunity to prove it come October. Those Giants were caught from behind by the Braves, San Francisco winning 103 games for the second-best record in baseball … and no October invite. The Halos have to hope they’ll earn something more than one game better than that -- but more than hoping for it, they’ll have to do it.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.