There's a blueprint for a Mike Scioscia team: focus on pitching and defense, and build your offense around high-contact batters who hit for a high average. Sitting on the cusp of first place at the quarter-pole of the season, the last part of that formula is in jeopardy for the 2011 Los Angeles Angels.
This year's squad is striking out far more than the Angels' playoff teams in the Scioscia era -- 21.4 percent of the team's at-bats end in strikeouts. Granted, 2011 has so far been the second-heaviest season for strikeouts in major league history. But the Angels have lingered in the bottom 10 of the league in K's in every Scioscia playoff year; they're fourth in MLB this season.
That figure suggests the Angels' offense might be relying on good fortune this season -- and that luck could turn at any moment.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. The Angels had long been skeptical of Mike Napoli's offensive profile. Napoli ranked as one of the most consistent power-hitting catchers in the game, with 20 or more homers a season from 2008 to 2010. But he also struck out about 30 percent of the time for his career, among the highest such rates in the game. Fed up with his whiffs, as well as his injuries and iffy defensive play, the Angels shipped Napoli, along with Juan Rivera, to Toronto for Vernon Wells and his gigantic contract.
First baseman Kendrys Morales -- and Wells -- were supposed to fill the power void left behind by Napoli, while also putting the ball in play more often, facilitating the Angels' take-the-extra-base style of offense. Morales missed 111 games last year with an ankle injury, then tried and failed to return this year after surgery.
Two of the replacements for Napoli and Morales, incumbent catcher Jeff Mathis and rookie first baseman Mark Trumbo, are striking out nearly as often as Napoli ever has (29.9 percent and 27.3 percent of the time, respectively), but with less offensive value: Trumbo's six homers are mitigated by his .295 on-base percentage, while Mathis continues to challenge for the title of league's worst hitter, posting a line of .195 AVG/.213 OBP/.286 SLG.
The concern from a regression standpoint is whether the Angels can maintain their strong team batting average (.267, fifth in MLB during baseball's worst season for batting average since 1972), while failing to make contact so often. The Angels are hitting .317 on balls in play, fourth-highest in MLB and well above the league average of slightly below .300. Hitters do have some control over whether a ball lands in play, of course. But those results also rely on the strength (or weakness) of the opposing team's defense, the dimensions of a given ballpark, and plain old luck.
Several of the players sporting particularly high BABIP numbers possess the kind of speed and/or bat control to suggest strong results on balls in play. The question is how much those early results stem from skill and how much they are due to random chance. Howie Kendrick (.377), Maicer Izturis (.368) and Peter Bourjos (.364) all rank in the AL's top 10 for batting average on balls in play.
The good news is there's hope for some rebounds on the hitting side. Bobby Abreu won't slug .327 all year. And while Vernon Wells is proving the critics right by struggling mightily to start the season (with the Angels paying $81 million for his services over the next four years), he'll almost surely improve on his nightmarish .183/.224/.303 debut.
Still, GM Tony Reagins would do well to keep his eyes open. With Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Joel Pineiro forming one of the best top-three starter combinations in baseball, Jordan Walden emerging as a strong closer, and the Angels ranked as the second-best defensive team in baseball, most of the pieces are in place for another playoff run.
Injuries to some of the Rangers' best hitters, the A's offensive struggles and predictably tough sledding for the Mariners have opened the door for the Angels to take control of the AL West. But they'll need help. Finding another bat or two that truly fits the Angels' profile could make the difference between playing baseball in October, and playing golf.
Jonah Keri's new book, "The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First," has received critical acclaim from Peter Gammons, Joe Posnanski, Buster Olney and many others and is a national best-seller. Check out the Jonah Keri Podcast at JonahKeri.com and on iTunes, and follow him on Twitter @JonahKeri.