Big League Stew - MLB

Sharpen those No. 2 pencils and start brewing your cram coffee, because it's exam time here on Big League Stew! Between now and the start of the postseason, we'll be giving essay-style tests to a blogger from each of the eight teams lucky enough to earn a playoff ticket. Next to take a seat in the classroom is Mat Gleason (a.k.a. Rev Halofan) of Halos Heaven. His Angels clinched their third straight AL West title on Monday night.

Team name: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Deal with it.

GPA/school rank: 94-64, AL West champions

Accomplishments: 2009 was the sixth straight season with 89+ Angel Wins, the sixth straight season that the Angels crushed their Pythagorean projections and the third straight season they took the division. They've now reigned as such for five of the past six seasons. Sportswriter Matt Welch recently observed that the team's .594 Winning Percentage over six straight seasons is a mark that has never been duplicated by many of baseball's most fabled dynasties. The Big Red Machine didn't do it, nor has any Red Sox team ever been this good for this long.

Special skills: The Angels hit singles better than any team in baseball. The Angels get to third from first on singles quite well, too. The Angels lead the league in caught stealing, but they pressure the defenses to the point that fans of other teams call Angel baserunners "annoying." The starting pitching has coagulated into one of the best five-man staffs in baseball ... this after starting 14 separate pitchers in games this season. The Halos have the second best record in the AL to the Yankees and are second in baseball to the Bombers in many offensive categories (hits, runs, OBP, RBI, Batting Average). Of course, this means that New York has peaked and the pennant shall be ours.

References: We no longer have Nolan Ryan as a reference, but along with the Rally Monkey and the classy Arte Moreno, the greatest reference this team has is that Angels fans stick with it despite the traditional media covering the Angels. Fans are subjected the stalest cacophony of nincompoops ever assembled: In broadcasting, there is former Yankee Rex Hudler, the egomaniac chatterbox Steve Physioc and the former host of Blind Date, Roger Lodge hosting the morning show on the Angels own Radio Station. In the traditional media, the Orange County Register's columnist Mark Whicker thinks kidnap and rape is a hoot and is such a dinosaur-cliche of pre-web sports reporting that he probably did not know what Deadspin was until his victim-mockery was their lead item; Meanwhile, the LA Times veteran Angels watcher Helene Elliot waters down the champagne while it is still fizzy as she worries about facing the Red Sox in next week's ALDS. But we can always count on Rob Neyer to never give the Angels their due, and this year he was virtually alone in predicting the Oakland Athletics taking the division. Neyer might have to revert to his old "Ike Farrell" alias if he can't spot a garden variety dynasty in his midst.

Financial aid: According to Cot's, the Angels payroll is $116 Million. They drew three million fans for the seventh consecutive season so they can afford this.

Personal statement: The Angels have so much going against them in finding a place in the national consciousness. The safest bet in sports is in them getting stiffed by Ken Burns in his next chapter of his biased saccharine Baseball epic despite being the equal or better of any team in the sport this decade. They play more than half their games when 3/4ths of the country is asleep. There is an antipathy (aka jealousy) of all things associated with California. Nobody wants to believe in the power of the Rally Monkey.

Their dominance of the American League this decade is unprecedented in their team history, which, save for a handful of the 39 seasons they played last century, was rival to the Washington Generals. But believe it or not, Nov. 17 will mark the 10th anniversary of Mike Scioscia being hired to manage the Angels. Scioscia's transformative influence on the franchise has been so thorough that it's like the Angels of today are an expansion team from 2000; thus the keepers of the baseball pantheon feel these upstarts have not earned the right to get the attention due a perennial winner.

But, really, the Angels are a model of how to run a baseball team and one that you should hold as a measure of the ownership, fans, players and management of your favorite team.

OWNER: Arte Moreno spends money on the team and hires competent managers to do the work. He walks away just far enough to let them do their jobs but stays just close enough to know how they are doing on those jobs. Arte wants to win and has simultaneously made the stadium experience the second most family-friendly environment in town. And when No. 1 is Disneyland, he can be forgiven for seeking first place on the field and second place in the bleachers, which by the way have chair-backs and cupholders as do every one of the 44,000+ seats in Angels Stadium of Anaheim ... unlike the bare benches in many a "major league" park.

FANS: Angels fans get a rap from baseball know-it-alls for having appeared out of the ether for the 2002 playoffs and staying around in droves thereafter. This is demonstrably false. Angels fans have always been there, the crowds are easily the best-looking in baseball as the California lifestyle attracts and cultivates good-looking, healthy bodies. And now those fans have gorgeous children racing through the turnstiles growing up with a team they have only known as a winner. Tip for you young tourist guys visiting So Cal: Outside of Vegas on a Saturday night, Angel Stadium of Anaheim is the best place on Earth to pick up a hot cougar. And if your Little Leaguer wants tips on how to play the game "the right way," Steve Physioc and Rex Hudler make sure to tailor all Angels broadcasts to the intellectual level of your preteen child.

PLAYERS: Most Angels players were developed by the team. On the Angels 40-Man Roster (which is actually 43-men with three being on the 60-Day Disabled List), 31 players are homegrown, four were acquired in trades (Chone Figgins(notes) as a minor leaguer in 2001, Juan Rivera(notes) and Maicer Izturis(notes) for Jose Guillen(notes) after the 2004 season and Scott Kazmir(notes) for Sean Rodriguez(notes) this August) and eight were signed as free agents (Vladimir Guerrero(notes) and Kelvim Escobar(notes) for the 2004 season, Gary Matthews Jr.(notes) and Darren Oliver(notes) for the 2007 season, Torii Hunter(notes) for the 2008 season, and Bobby Abreu(notes), Brian Fuentes(notes) and Matt Palmer(notes) prior to this spring). Having 31 homegrown players on a team winning the division for its third straight season means all those analysts dismissing the Angels minor league system could not see the big picture if it was a billboard in their own backyard.

MANAGEMENT: This is what is right about those homegrown players performing.... Mike Scioscia leads the baseball side of things with an emphasis on teaching and expectations. Spring training is actually for training in this organization, as Angels players at every level are taught to bunt, hit and run, take third from first on base hits and otherwise pressure opposing defenses and frustrate enemy pitchers. Every player hustles and you can count on Angel defenders covering bases and backing up plays; in the land of the beach bum, slackers don't stay in Anaheim for long.

You should demand as much from your favorite team. And if you must walk away, know that there will always be room on the Angels bandwagon ... walk into a bar and see every dork with a "B" on his hat and let the ladies know that your grade is an A (with a Halo for good behavior).

Essay questions

What are your biggest strengths? The Angels hit singles like a recently divorced dad on his first Internet dating site. They have added power in the form of the 100-RBI basher Kendry Morales(notes) and the 100 RBI baseball intellect of Bobby Abreu. Their 2B platoon of Howie Kendrick(notes) and Maicer Izturis has combined for 125 RBI. In the era of statistical analysts rolling their eyes at the arbitrary nature of the RBI statistic, it is a contrarian joy to root for a team that routinely defeats on the field what the calculators pre-determine as fact on paper.

Chone Figgins is the sparkplug. Baseball blogger Sean Smith (inventor of the CHONE preseason projection system) uncovered an amazing fact: Since WWII, only four players have hit less than 10 HR, stolen 35+ bases and drawn 100 BB: Rickey Henderson (3 times) Joe Morgan, Brett Butler and then Figgins this season. Figgy's patience at the plate has made him the de facto nuisance with a bat and with his baserunning. Plus, his defense at 3B really should merit Gold Glove attention. And speaking of Gold Gloves, Torii will likely see his ninth straight and Erick Aybar(notes) deserves one much more recognition than Derek what's-his-name back east.

Morales has matched Mark Teixeira's(notes) production at the plate and saved the Angels $21 million in salary, but the stathead set refuses to acknowledge a team playing Moneyball when it has not foresworn the bunt as the work of the devil. Meanwhile, Mike Napoli(notes) already holds the franchise record for HRs by a catcher and there is always the chance that Vladimir Guerrero will hit a pitch that bounces in the dirt into the cheap seats.

Going into October, Scioscia calls his current five-man rotation (John Lackey(notes), Jered Weaver(notes), Joe Saunders(notes), Ervin Santana(notes), Scott Kazmir) the best he has ever had. But the Angels' biggest strength is in flying under the radar. The media microscopes are all in the clubhouses of the East Coast teams. The hardcore statisticians have turned to the Pythagorean Theorem to determine the accuracy of a team's W/L record and despise the Scioscialist Angels regularly outperforming this predictive gold standard. A team's run differential should, the analysis goes, determine its record and if there is an imbalance, the team whose win/loss record is in reality better than its run differential is overperforming and should soon regress to the mean. But Scioscia is a descendent of the Romans. They beat the Greeks back before the turn of a different millennium and Scioscia is beating Pythagoras each season by understanding a simple concept that renders today's trendy bronze-age methodology obsolete: All runs are not created equal. The Angels will exploit your team's weakness to squeak out a much-needed lone run.

What's your biggest weakness? After years of a pre-programmed bullpen with cemented roles, Scioscia has had to improvise with a shaky closer in Brian Fuentes and inconsistency from setup men Darren Oliver, Jason Bulger(notes) and Kevin Jepsen(notes). Meanwhile all those singles getting hit are great, but you basically need three in an inning to score one run, so leftover lasagna may not be a regularity at the Scioscia household but leftover baserunners is a frustrating result of Scioscia's offensive philosophy. Despite all statistical evidence to the contrary, Scioscia fervently believes in the existence of a clutch hitter. And arguing science to a religious person is as futile as arguing about the beauty of the Disney-built rockpile fountain beyond center field in Angels Stadium to a fan of the opposing team.

How have you changed over the year? The addition of Scott Kazmir was the single greatest plus to the team of the whole season. Kevin Jepsen overcoming a lower back injury and turning into a potential closer has been a godsend to the bullpen. Erick Aybar has improved everything about his game to the point that there was little rumbling among Angels fans when it was discovered he was the dealbreaker in the Angels' failure to acquire Roy Halladay(notes) at the July trade deadline. Of course, the tragedy that took Nick Adenhart(notes) gave the team a collective seriousness from which to conduct themselves and while character cannot be quantified and chemistry is ten times the illusion of clutch performance, the reverential tone of the Angels' clinching celebration will be the benchmark of class in professional sports for years to come.

When did you first start believing in yourself? The hallmark of the Angels current dynasty has been the pitching. On Memorial Day watching Ervin Santana get shelled for seven runs in two innings and knowing he was coming back from a strained flexor tendon that causes most pitchers to opt for Tommy John surgery and having already seen the first 10 of the 14 pitchers who would start a game for the Angels this season, the team started phoning it in. On June 11, the Angels lost to the Rays in Tampa 11-1 and Scioscia tore into them, explaining that no player on the team had tenure and that production alone determined playing time. The Angels clubhouse is ordinarily leakproof regarding events outside the lines, but for days and weeks afterward, Angels players spoke about that closed-door meeting on the record in trembling fear, expressing awe at the pure raging certainty in fielding a winner that Sciosica delivered that night. They were 29-29 on June 11. They are 65-35 since.

Can you tell us about a time you faced adversity and overcame it? The death of their teammate shocked this club and nobody could have begrudged them a slow descent to second place. Instead, they now have the second best record in baseball. But there were also so many injuries — and to key players like Lackey, Santana, Hunter and Guerrero. But the organization prizes a reliable depth. By the time that Matt Palmer — literally 12th on the organization's starting pitching depth chart going into spring training — won his first six decisions, it was late June and things were warming up offensively and healing up with the pitching and a glimmer of hope was developing.

In one month, where do you see yourself? If cartoonist Jim Gardner's hilarious take on MLB's need for the Red Sox to produce ratings and revenue is accurate, the Angels will of course be sacrificed on the Tim Donaghy altar of East Coast umpiring. It was not so long ago that all Red Sox fans were noteworthy for was complaining about the umpiring bias in favor of the Yankees, but nobody in "The Nation" seems to notice the routine squeezing of the strike zone on behalf of John Henry's investment portfolio. Overcoming the popular favortism for all things Fenway will be tough, but barring the Boston bias that has become routine behind home plate, the Angels win a ring for Nick Adenhart, for Arte Moreno, for the best-looking fans in baseball and for every follower of the sport who understands that Pythagoras was really such a square.

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Previous exams: St. Louis Cardinals (NL Central) New York Yankees (AL East) Boston Red Sox (AL wild card)

Next up: Philadelphia Phillies (NL East)

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