(Photo Credit: REUTERS/JENNIFER BUCHANAN)
A month into the season in most sports will give you a good idea of which teams are title contenders and which ones are not. That isn't the case in baseball. A month into the season and the standings still don't really matter, but we are now in the second week of May, and that means that they are a good indication of which teams could be battling for a division title come September.
One of those teams is the Los Angeles Angels, who sit atop the AL West by one game. Normally that wouldn't be too much to get excited about, but the AL West happens to play host to the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros who won the division at a canter last season. Their 101 wins gave them a 21-game margin over the Angels. It was the biggest gap between a division winner and the rest of the field in 2017, and the task of narrowing, nevermind closing, the gap was daunting to say the least.
And yet here we are in May and the Angels are ahead. At 21-13 they are behind just the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League. They are ahead of the Astros and already leaving the Rangers behind. So, can the Angels actually win the AL West? Or is this all just a small sample size deceiving us?
The Angels have had the best player in baseball since 2012. Mike Trout is already hitting the cover off the ball with 12 homers (2nd in MLB) and a .336/.458/.720 slash line. His 3.0 WAR leads the league and his 213 wRC+ is second only to Mookie Betts.
This isn't new though. The Angels have always had terrific production from #27, and in recent years it hasn't really mattered. The key is that the rest of the lineup is performing around him. Andrelton Simmons is hitting .350, Shohei Ohtani has been the two-way star the Angels hoped for and is slashing .339/.391/.627 with four homers albeit in limited at bats. Albert Pujols has six dingers and is hitting a respectable enough .256, while Zack Cozart and Justin Upton are providing reasonable power as well.
All of that means that the Angels have been one of the most productive offenses in the Majors so far. They are 5th in runs scored, 4th in slugging, second in total bases and even 1st in stolen base percentage.
While the Angels offense is firing, the pitching is doing less well. It's not that the Angels are at the foot of the league in anything though. Their staff ERA is 4.03, 13th in the Majors. They have a batting average against of .243, good for 16th. They are 18th in K/BB at 2.34, but are throwing the most pitches per plate appearance at 4.02.
None of this is life-threatening though. They have missed a few starts from Ohtani due to an ankle sprain and he had a horrible outing due to a blister, but he has put down strong starts as well and made a solid return to the mound last night. Garrett Richards is slowly rounding into shape as well. Two rough starts against the A's and Yankees have bloated his ERA to 3.93, but outside of those two starts he is posting a 1.95 ERA and owns a huge 11.8 K/9 as he makes his way back from injury at long last.
Tyler Skaggs has been the Angels most consistent starter so far, and the bottom of the rotation is not a strong spot for anyone.
The bullpen is doing well, with Jose Alvarez, Blake Wood, and closer Keynan Middleton leading the way, although Middleton is currently on the DL with elbow inflammation. The overall bullpen ERA of 3.65 is pretty good.
Fending off the charge
The Angels have played well through the first month of the season. They are 6-4 in one-run games and have only been swept by the Yankees and Red Sox. They are a remarkable 13-3 on the road, while their poor home record is thanks to hosting New York and Boston already.
The question is if they can maintain this kind of form all year and stave off the inevitable charge that the Astros make. While Houston's bats are quieter than expected, they are far from silent and they are also getting terrific production at the top of the rotation from Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole.
The Astros have the best staff ERA in the Majors by some way right now and are seventh in runs scored. They have just one three-game series left between now and the All-Star break, leaving them with 13 games against each other in the second half of the season. Those series may well end up being the deciding factor between these two, outside of a catastrophic injury to Trout.
The Astros are still an overwhelming favorite with bookmakers to win the division, and rightfully so. They have a deeper lineup and more talent on the mound but with the way the Angels have been playing, don't be surprised if this is a far tighter race than anyone thought just two months ago.