Friday, July 25, 2008

Casey Kotchman is a big part of the Angels success this season

By Bruce Nye - Contributor

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim keep on winning despite what many in the sports world believe is an unconventional path to the top record in Major League Baseball.

Along the way, Frankie Rodriguez is marching towards a record setting saves record. The Angels offense is among the lowest in runs scored, even though there are signs the season-long slump is coming to an end. Still they have the best record in baseball, yet continually the team is criticized or looked down upon. Why is this?

For starters, the Angels play on the West Coast and don’t get the coverage from the media-heavy groups in the East. Many don’t know what is happening with the Angels. The Angels play in the absurdly weak American League West, so there is not a lot of attention given to any of the teams. The Oakland A’s is the exception, but Billy Beane (A’s GM) has thrown in the towel preferring to re-build the perennially strong A’s.. Result: the AL West has all but given the division crown to the Angels for the 4th out of 5 years.

So what is the real story? Even though the Angels are beginning to score runs with frequency, the key to the ball club’s success is in pitching and defense. The pitching staff has racked up impressive numbers and placed three on the All Star team. The defense is solid as usual. Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia, who has long stressed fundamentals is seeing the fruits of his teachings. So how has this happened?

The team is built on a strong pitching requirement, pitching and more pitching. Drafts of the Stoneman/Scioscia years indicate this requirement. On the offensive side, Mike Scioscia stresses fundamentals from the second an Angel player is drafted. From the rookie leagues through AAA, the Angels stress the fundamentals that mean so much to Scioscia. First they draft players who fit the system. Scioscia demands speed and team players among the regular players. He is a strong believer in the 1st to 3rd base running opportunity. He demands they learn to bunt; he demand they execute the productive out; and, he demands they know how to squeeze. Scioscia wants any player activated from the minor leagues to be steeped in these fundamentals. If not, they do not get elevated to the major league squad.

The team is built on a 25-man roster and everyone is expected to contribute and at any time. In truth, the 25-man roster is expanded, because he reaches out to the AAA Salt Lake City Bees team to supplement his team anytime a player cannot contribute. So with use of the Disabled List, the Angels repeatedly are dipping into the Minor Leagues for a player or pitcher. The Angels must have millions of frequent flyer miles from Salt Lake City to wherever the team is playing.

Much has been written about Scioscia’s lineups. The conventional wisdom of stacking the team’s best hitters at the top of the lineup is not part of Scioscia’s plan. Continually, Scioscia fills out a lineup card with more emphasis on righty-lefty-righty; who can get a productive out (i.e. moving a runner the next base) than who is a better hitter. Taking a page from Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa, who often bats the pitcher in the 8th spot, Scioscia believes in putting together a lineup that he thinks will give the team a better chance of winning.

This strategy, like moths to a flame has drawn criticism from sportswriters across the country as well as Angel fans alike. It’s an unconventional lineup, but one cannot argue with the results. As of this writing, the Angels still have the MLB’s best record in 2008. It remains to be seen how this unconventional strategy will work out come October, but so far devoted Angels’ fans need only say, “Scoreboard.”
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