Series Preview: Yankees vs. Angels

Jeff Mathis's hitting is single-handedly keeping the Angels out of the playoffs. (AP)

Yes they're seven games back, but the Angels are the Yankees' closest rival for the Wild Card spot in the American League this year. They're also an extremely lop-sided team that has allowed fewer runs per game than any other in the American League while scoring more runs per game than only the utterly inept Mariners. Add the National League to that picture and the Angels have both the third-best pitching staff and the third-worst offense in baseball.

Those two items, the Wild Card chase and the Angels' dependence on pitching, make it all the more significant that Jered Weaver, who leads the majors with a 1.78 ERA, will miss his scheduled turn in this series while serving a six-game suspension for throwing at a member of the Tigers in his recent duel with Cy Young rival Justin Verlander. The Yankees will also miss Ervin Santana, who pitched on Sunday, no-hit the Indians three turns ago, and has a 2.23 ERA over his last dozen starts. That's very good news for the Bombers in this series, though they still have to contend with Dan Haren in the opener.

The Angels might not seem like a major threat in this series, but they should strike fear into the Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers as potential playoff opponents. Entering this series, the Angels are just a game and a half behind the Rangers in the West, and if they manage to sneak past the defending division champions, that top three of Weaver, Haren, and Santana could do for these light-hitting Angels what Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner did for the light-hitting Giants last year.

As for that light-hitting, the Angels biggest problem is self-inflicted. Jeff Mathis, who has started 59 of the team's 115 games behind the plate, was a sub-replacement-level hitter coming into the season and has been as bad as ever this year, hitting .181/.226/.259 on the season, a line that only looks good next to that of the hitting stats of the average major league pitcher (.142/.173/.184). To be fair to the Angels, rookie Hank Conger was supposed to push Mathis out of the way by now, but just as he seemed to get a foothold on the job, Conger went cold. Still, even the ice-cold Conger (.176/.311/.333 in limited duty in June and July) would be better than Mathis and offer actual potential for improvement, but rather than let Conger learn on the job, the Angels sent him back to Triple-A in late July. Current back-up Bobby Wilson, a 28-year-old with no growth potential, has still out-hit Mathis on his career (.210/.275/.358), but Wilson can't seem to knock Mathis off his squat, either.

The rest of the Angels' lineup is largely lacking in power (see the four infielders who rotate through the three skill positions, speedy center fielder Peter Bourjos, and 37-year-old Bobby Abreu). Rookie first baseman has big-time pop, but won't accept a walk (just 13 unintentional passes in 402 plate appearances) and has struggled to keep his on-base percentage above .300 as a result. Aging Gold Glove center fielders Vernon Wells and Torii Hunter, now relocated to the outfield corners, have retained their home-run strokes (30 taters combined), but offer little else at the plate or on the bases. Howie Kendrick looked like he was going to have a break-out year earlier in the season, but he has homered just twice since April 20 and has walked unintentionally just eight times since returning from the disabled list on June 4.

Add that all up, and you get a team that has scored just 3.83 runs per game on the season. The Yankees took two of three from the Angels in Anaheim in early June. The Halos scored just eight runs in that entire series, their lone win coming behind Weaver in a 3-2 game in the opener. That sums it up nicely.

A.J. Burnett (8-9, 4.54) vs. Dan Haren (12-6, 2.81), Tuesday, August 9, 7:05, Ch. 9

Haren has been a regular part of my Awards Watch column as a year-long contender in the AL Cy Young race. He's not going to win the award (heck, he's not even the best pitcher in his own rotation), but he's clearly half of the best one-two punch in the American League right now. Here's what I wrote about him in yesterday's column:

Haren posted a 1.74 ERA in his first 10 starts this season, a 4.52 ERA in his next 11, and has since allowed just three runs in 24 2/3 innings (1.09 ERA) over his last three starts. Fluctuations in balls in play have contributed to those shifts in performance, but Haren hasn't hurt himself. In his last 14 starts, he has walked 12 men and allowed just eight home runs, and on the season, he has allowed two home runs in a game just once. As a result, his defense-independent ERA is a half-run lower than Beckett's.

By both game score and situation, Haren's best start came on July 5, when he dueled with Justin Verlander and came out on top via a two-hit shoutout in which he struck out nine Tigers without walking a batter. He last faced the Yankees as a member of the Diamondbacks last June, turning in a seven-inning quality start and striking out eight only to take a hard-luck loss.

I'm encouraged by the fact that questions about whether or not Burnett should be bumped from the rotation have gone mainstream, even popping up during the game broadcasts, but so far it's still just talk. Burnett doesn't have a win or a quality start in is last six turns. In his last start, he was staked to a 13-1 lead and still failed to pick up the win, getting the hook after 4 1/3 innings and seven runs allowed. That start pushed his ERA over those last six turns to an even 6.00. What was most frustrating about Burnett prior to that last start was that he wasn't good, but he wasn't bad enough to get yanked from the rotation. The Yankees still need to see more from Phil Hughes before they pull anyone from the rotation, but at the very least Burnett's now part of that conversation. Burnett hasn't faced the Angels since last April, when he gave up four runs in six innings and failed to get a decision.

Ivan Nova (10-4, 3.81) vs. Joel Piñeiro (5-6, 5.31), Wednesday, August 10, 7:05, YES/ESPN

Seeing Ivan Nova back in the rotation boasting a handsome 10-4 record and 3.81 ERA is exciting. Even more exciting is the fact that he has struck out 16 men in his last 14 2/3 major league innings. Those innings came in two starts sandwiched around three minor league outings in which he struck out 18 men in 16 innings. That's a collective 9.98 K/9 in his last five starts, regardless of level. Nova doesn't seem likely to maintain that kind of strikeout pace, but what he's showing is that he can rack up the Ks when his breaking pitches are sharp, and he has shown a legitimate trend toward better K rates in the majors. Going back over his last seven major league starts, he has struck out 38 men in 46 1/3 innings, or 7.4 K/9. Compare that to Burnett's 7.8 K/9, Bartolo Colon's 7.9 K/9, or even CC Sabathia's 8.3 K/9, and you can see there's a real ability to get strike three emerging there. If Nova can settle in at that level, and he did strikeout 7.1 per nine innings in Triple-A last year, he could well emerge as a mid-rotation stalwart, which perhaps he already has.

Joel Piñeiro from 2004 to 2008: 5.34 ERA, 1.99 K/BB

Joel Piñeiro from 2009 to 2010: 3.64 ERA, 3.23 K/BB

Joel Piñeiro in 2011: 5.31 ERA, 1.48 K/BB

One of these things is not like the others.

Just three of Piñeiro's last 14 starts have been quality and three of his last four have been disasters, resulting in a 0-3 record and a 14.85 ERA over those four outings. That's why Piñeiro has yet to be officially announced at this starter for this game, the one vacated by Weaver's suspension. Piñeiro would be on turn, but the Angels might choose this occasion to pull the plug on him.

A rain-out Tuesday night is unlikely to make that moot as the Angels won't return to the Bronx this season, so a double-header Wednesday or Thursday seems likely. Less likely is a make-up on the shared off-day of September 15 given that the Yankees have a night game in Seattle on the 14th.

Bartolo Colon (8-6, 3.33) vs. Tyler Chatwood (6-8, 4.10), Thursday, August 11, 1:05, YES

Joe Girardi and Boone Logan saved Bartolo Colon from possible disaster in Boston on Friday night. Colon had allowed just two runs in the first four innings of that game, but both came on hard-hit balls by lefties (an RBI double by Jacoby Ellsbury and a David Ortiz home run). In the fifth, Colon loaded the bases with two outs on a walk to Ellsbury and a Dustin Pedroia infield single. Hardly earth-shaking stuff, but with lefty masher Adrian Gonzalez due up, Girardi decided to manage the game like the postseason and called on his LOOGY Logan despite the fact that Gonzalez had ground out and flied out in two previous trips against Colon. Some might have written that off as a Coffee Joe moment, and a Gonzalez hit off Logan surely would have brought howls, but with Jon Lester cruising for the Sox, a rested bullpen, the division on the line, and Colon already at 94 pitches, the move seemed justified. Logan struck out Gonzalez on three pitches, the Yankees took a 3-2 lead in the next half inning, and went on to win the game to take a one-game lead in the division.

With that, Colon failed to reach the sixth inning in his second-straight start, that after failing to reach the sixth in just two other starts all season. Colon wasn't awful in either start—he allowed two runs in both, walked three against eight strikeouts combined—but he was inefficient in both, averaging about 100 pitches for five innings. Earlier in the season, efficiency was one of Colon's strengths, with 100 pitches typically getting him through seven frames. Dig:

First 8 starts: 13.75 pitches/IP

Last two: 20.6 P/IP

The latter is a small sample, but I'm inclined to be sensitive to signs of decline from Colon, who has thrown more innings than in any season since 2005, and that could be one.

Tyler Chatwood is a 21-year-old rookie right-hander who was selected by the Angels in the second round of the 2008 draft. Last year, which he largely split between High-A and Double-A, he was named the Angels' organizational pitcher of the year. He throws a pair of fastballs around 93 miles per hour, has an excellent curve ball, and rounds things out with a changeup and a cutter, a repertoire which, at least on paper, sounds a lot like Phil Hughes'. In general, Chatwood has acquitted himself well as a 21-year-old rookie with almost no Triple-A experience, but it's hard to get to enthused about a pitcher with a below average ERA+ and a 1.5 WHIP who has struggled all season to keep his strikeout total above his walk total. Chatwood has turned in a quality start in just shy of half of his starts, which fits. He has never faced the Yankees.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

2011 Record: 63-52 (.548)
2011 Third-Order Record: 60-55 (.520)

Manager: Mike Scioscia
General Manager: Tony Reagins

Home Ballpark: Angel Stadium

Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-100; LH HR-95
RH Avg-99; RH HR-102

Who has replaced whom:

• Vernon Wells (DL) has replaced Reggie Willits (mL) on the roster and Russell Branyan in the lineup
• Howie Kendrick (DL) has replaced Hank Conger (mL)
• Andrew Romine (mL) has replaced Alexi Amarista (mL)
• Bobby Cassevah and Horacio Ramirez have replaced Trevor Bell and Kevin Jepsen

25-man roster:

1B - Mark Trumbo (R)
2B - Howie Kendrick (R)
SS - Erick Aybar (S)
3B - Alberto Callaspo (S)
C - Jeff Mathis (R)
RF - Torii Hunter (R)
CF - Peter Bourjos (R)
LF - Vernon Wells (R)
DH - Bobby Abreu (L)

Bench:

S - Maicer Izturis (IF)
L - Russell Branyan (1B)
S - Andrew Romine (SS)
R - Bobby Wilson (C)

Rotation:

R - Jered Weaver*
R - Dan Haren
R - Joel Piñeiro
R - Tyler Chatwood
R - Ervin Santana

Bullpen:

R - Jordan Walden
L - Scott Downs
R - Fernando Rodney
L - Hisanori Takahashi
R - Rich Thompson
R - Bobby Cassevah
L - Horacio Ramirez

15-day DL:

IF - Freddy Sandoval (left oblique strain)
RHP - Francisco Rodriguez (right labrum damage)

60-day DL:

1B - Kendrys Morales (second surgery on fractured left tibia)

Typical Lineup:

S - Maicer Izturis (IF)**
S - Erick Aybar (SS)
R - Torii Hunter (RF)
L - Bobby Abreu (DH)
R - Vernon Wells (LF)
R - Howie Kendrick (2B)/S - Alberto Callaspo (3B)
R - Mark Trumbo (1B)
R - Peter Bourjos (CF)
S - Jeff Mathis (C)

* Weaver is serving his six-game suspension for throwing at the Tigers' Alex Avila during this series.

**You might notice that I don't have Izturis listed in the Angels starting defensive alignment above. That's because, while he is the team's everyday leadoff hitter, he hasn't played consecutive games at the same position in two and a half weeks. Instead, he's largely alternating between second and third base with the occasional day at shortstop, DH, or on the bench.

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