Monday, September 24, 2007

Figgins and Guerrero Look to Forget Playoffs Past
By Adam Dodge

As Vladimir Guerrero and Chone Figgins celebrate a third division title in four years after yesterday’s 7-4 victory over the Seattle Mariners, they have to be itching to get a crack at either the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox in the upcoming ALDS. Arguably the Angels’ co-Most Valuable Players during the regular season, neither Figgins nor Guerrero have been particularly good for the Halos in the postseason. In 2004 and 2005 combined, Figgins reached base just 9 times in 54 plate appearances and was a disappointment defensively. Vladimir Guerrero wasn’t much better hitting just .180 with a homerun and 7 RBI in his playoff career.

A repeat of these offensive performances by the club’s key hitters and the Angels will likely be one and done regardless of which AL East team they play.

Luckily for Angel fans, a repeat of 2004 and 2005 is not likely.

After all, the Chone Figgins of today is much different than the Chone Figgins of seasons past. His swing is shorter, his discipline better and his up the middle/other way approach has Figgins hitting .344 – nearly 50 points higher than his career average. A free swinger in the past, and a hitter that tried to do way too much, look for Figgins, a league leader in on base percentage to take many more pitches and gladly accept walks this go around.

Fans need only look at Sunday’s AL West clinching game to see the change. Twice up with a man on third base, a left handed hitting Figgins went the other way, each time flying out deep to left field for sacrifice flies. The former pull happy hitter was unwilling to negotiate pitchers’ pitches like the newer version.

A different regular season Figgins should logically mean a different postseason Figgins as well and a much different Angel offense with one of the games best baserunners on base.

It’s hard to pin point Guerrero’s past playoff struggles. It’d be easy to say that he placed too much pressure on himself and tightened up. But Guerrero did hit a game tying grand slam in game 3 of the 2004 ALDS against Mike Timlin and the Boston Red Sox. It’s hard to get a bigger hit under more pressure than that one.

In 2005 the White Sox did successfully, what other teams could not do during the regular season – bust Guerrero in with fastballs, before living several inches off the plate away with off-speed pitches. The recent and unexpected return of a healthy Garret Anderson as a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter should allow Guerrero to see better pitches this time around. Also consider that the Red Sox, Yankees and Indians do not present the quality or depth of starting pitching the White Sox had in October, 2005, which shut down not only Guerrero and the Angels, but each team it faced in the 2005 postseason.

In any case, Vlady will have to be “relatively selective” if he is to have a break out post-season for the Angels and lead his team to a World Series. That is to say that with Anderson, Maicer Izturis and Casey Kotchman producing with runners in scoring position, teams should be reluctant to completely pitch around the Angels’ slugger.

Another factor in the Angels’ favor is the overall offensive depth the team has shown this season. Top to bottom, this Angel club can hit, and is more patient than past versions. Orlando Cabrera is having a career year. Kotchman has emerged as a plus hitter with patience and pop, and having a .320+ hitting Howie Kendrick makes the bottom of the line-up formidable. Once THE offense, Figgins and Guerrero are now - simply part of a unit.

Figgins and Guerrero are two of the biggest reasons the Angels are AL West champions for the third time in four years. And though they still have to carry the team if it hopes to hang another World Series flag in left center field, when Manager Mike Scioscia says they don’t, he’s not exactly lying either.
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