Sunday, May 4, 2014

By David Saltzer, Senior Writer

Going into Spring Training, Angels fans all knew the goal for the start of the season: Have a winning record for the month of April. To make that happen, the coaching staff focused on making adjustments to the players’ routines during Spring Training, made changes in scouting and defensive alignments, and worked on improving situational hitting.

While many of those changes have made improvements to the team, and helped lead the Angels to their first winning month of April in years, another change appears to also have been made: It appears that Scioscia has shortened the leash on struggling players in an effort to win more games, especially early in the season. While in some cases injuries have played a big factor in this, overall, it appears that the length of time for players to turn around poor performance has been shortened by design.

Baseball is a performance business. At any given time, over the course of 162 games, all players are going to struggle. Hitters won’t “see” the ball well. Pitchers will struggle with their command. Most players are always dealing with nagging issues which sap at their ability to perform at their peak level.

In the past, Scioscia would let players work through their struggles at the Major League level and in critical situations. As a players’ manager, Scioscia would protect his team and his players and would continue to show confidence in them—often long after many fans had given up on those players. And, in many cases, the player did return to his career norms. Unfortunately, though over the past 4 years, the player’s return to form was too late to turn around the team’s season.

So, this year, it’s come as a bit of a surprise to see how willingly Scioscia has been to play the hot-hand and has shortened the leash on struggling players. Two examples: Ernesto Frieri and J. B. Shuck. In the past, Frieri would most likely have gotten a longer period of time to work through his struggles all while potentially costing the team wins. Look at how many games that Joe Blanton got to start and lose last year. After a few poor performances by Frieri this year, Smith got promoted into the closer’s role and Frieri got swapped out.

Similarly, in his first game, J. B. Shuck appeared to be making a case for why the Angels should have kept him on the Opening Day roster by hitting a homerun in his first game of the season. In fact, in his first 3 games, he went 5/14 (.357). Unfortunately, in his next 16 games, he went 9/67, dropping his batting average down to .173. in the past, Scioscia most likely would have let Shuck work through his struggles to regain his 2013 form—all while hurting the team offensively. This year, Shuck got optioned back to Triple-A Salt Lake where he can work out his issues and come back to the Major League club when he’s got the hot-hand and someone else is struggling.

There are two differences that have helped make this leash-shortening possible. First, the Angels under Jerry Dipoto have built in some depth at several key positions. While not considered “splash” moves, signing Joe Smith and trading for Grant Green provided a depth at critical positions in the event that the established starter struggled. Moves for depths aren't always considered the most impressive moves by fans, but they often are the most instrumental moves for championship ball clubs.

Just as important, though, the Angels have made philosophical changes towards player development to improve the Major League club. Under Jerry Dipoto, Scott Servais, and Bobby Scales, the Angels have been more aggressive in their prospect development, and have been challenging players with higher levels faster than the Angels did in the past—even having players skip levels to rise to their level of talent. This has led to pockets of players who are rapidly approaching the Major Leagues and who are more likely to get the call—especially if they are playing well and a Major League player is struggling at the same position.

For example, in the past, the Angels would not have been so willing to promote C.J. Cron from Triple-A Salt Lake because he had only played 28 games at that level. This year, because Cron was off to a hot start at Salt Lake, and in an effort to give Albert Pujols some time at the DH spot, the Angels gave him the promotion—and Cron responded with a 3-hit night.

Promoting C.J. Cron was not an isolated incident. As Dipoto recently said about the possibility of Cam Bedrosian and R. J. Alvarez helping the Angels bullpen this year (two highly touted relief prospects who are presently playing in Double-A Arkansas):

“Oh sure . . . Once you get to double A and you’re doing what they’re doing, 
you’re a phone call away. They’re doing it against high-level professional 
hitters. I feel like both can help sooner rather than later.”

This statement came after the Angels promoted Michael Morin from Triple-A. In the past, the Angels haven’t always had the depth to make such a move or the willingness to allow a prospect to jump a level to contribute to the Major League club. Angels fans should be encouraged by this statement and these types of moves.

While not every move this season can be explained by the shortened leash (injuries have forced some changes or prevented others from being made), it does appear that Scioscia is playing this season with a new level or urgency. As players realize that Scioscia will play the hot-hand, it will force the entire team to scrap more in an effort to earn more playing time, especially early in the season. Hopefully, this change will be one of many that leads the Angels back to the post season.
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