Did a Bad April Cost the Angels, Albert Pujols their Shot at a Championship?

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An important series between the Oakland Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is underway. The series has implications not only for the AL West, but also for the AL Wild Card race.

At the beginning of the season, few would have predicted this August series would be a big deal for both the Angels and the A’s. By the end of Spring Training, the consensus was that the Angels had a solid club and would contend, and that Oakland would be Oakland again.

By the end of April, Oakland was, to no one’s surprise, already 6½ games out of first. However, at seven games below .500, dead last in the division, and nine games out of first, the Angels were confounding the experts.

Some of the clichés you hear thrown about each year in April, particularly if a team is not doing well, are: it’s a long season; there’s plenty of baseball to play; it’s a marathon not a sprint; and we’re in this thing for the long haul. As accurate all of those may be, there’s another piece of conventional wisdom, one you won’t hear teams that are doing poorly in April repeat: You can’t win a championship in April, but you can lose one. A quick look at some recent history supports the conventional wisdom.

In 2011, the Boston Red Sox missed the playoffs by a game, and they were 11-15 in April. If they’d just played .500 ball in April, they’d have been in the playoffs as the Wild Card team. Last year the Atlanta Braves also just missed the Wild Card spot. They finished the season one game behind the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals. The Braves were 13-15 in April, but finished the year 15 games over .500, just shy of where they needed to be to get into the post season. Want more? Let’s look at the first part of the saying – you can’t win a championship in April. In 2010, the San Diego Padres finished one game behind the Braves for the Wild Card spot. The Padres were 15-8 in April, a terrific month by any standard. But they faded down the stretch, going 14-23 after August 25th. Their outstanding April performance was not enough to carry them to the playoffs for a shot at the championship.

The Angels find themselves up against the conventional wisdom this year. The play of the Angels in April had everyone, including the Angels, baffled. Albert Pujols’ remarkably bad start was well-chronicled (BA .216, 0 home runs, 4 RBI for the month), but it wasn’t just Pujols who struggled. The entire offense slumped simultaneously. By April 30th, the Angels were 8-15. That record landed them in last place in the AL West, nine games out. Their team batting average – .238, 13th out of 14 AL teams – reflected their team-wide slump. The team’s pitching, with the exception of strong starts by Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, was also underperforming.

Since April 30th, they’re a solid 50 and 36 coming into the series with the A’s. Even with the poor stats from April in the mix, they’re sixth in the league in runs, fourth in the league in OBP at .331, and second in the league in hitting at .271. Unfortunately, given the hole they dug for themselves in April, their strong performance since then translates into very little. As of Monday morning, they stood in third place in the AL West, six games out of first place. In other words, in more than three months they’ve made up only three games on the division leading Texas Rangers. And there are less than two months to go.

There’s no doubt it’s too early to write off the Angels. Mike Scioscia seems to find a way to win year after year, and this year may be easier than years past. Albert Pujols is performing as people expected he would; Mike Trout, the 20-year old phenom, is a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year if he stays healthy; Mark Trumbo is having a terrific season at the plate; Kendry Morales is healthy and playing every day; a rejuvenated Torii Hunter, at 37 years old, is hitting nearly 30 points better than he did last year. While there are serious questions about their starting pitching, the team’s ERA of 3.97 is still good enough for 5th in the league.

If the A’s and/or the Rangers falter, the Angels are in a good position to make a run for at least the Wild Card and perhaps the division title. But if they end up out of the running altogether, they’ll be the most recent team to prove that you can’t win a championship in April, but you can lose one.

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at jpdyer@sbcglobal.net or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com


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