8/14/2014 7:31 P.M. ET
In home stretch, five Angels to keep an eye on
Everyone must contribute, but Trout, Hamilton, Wilson, Richards, Dipoto are critical
By Alden Gonzalez / MLB.com
ANAHEIM -- The offense hasn't hit full stride since the All-Star break, but "the Angels are finding ways to keep winning." They just took both ends of a two-game series against the lowly Phillies, putting them 21 games above .500, 5 1/2 games ahead in the American League Wild Card standings and two games out of first place in the AL West.
Only 43 games remain, with the next 10 coming on the road. And over the course of that final stretch will be five names worth keeping a very close eye on.
Left-handed starter Tyler Skaggs' forearm strain, which eventually turned into the Tommy John surgery that will keep him out until the start of the 2016 season, occurred roughly four hours after the non-waiver Trade Deadline came and went, leaving the Angels' general manager with only the August waiver wires to upgrade a suddenly vulnerable starting rotation.
"August is what it is," Dipoto said. "The idea in August is you have the opportunity to help your club out, but you can't change the fortunes of an organization in a short period of time."
The Halos have received solid starting pitching this year, with a 3.75 ERA that ranks fifth in the AL. But the margin for error is almost non-existent, because beyond the current quintet of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago, there isn't much of a safety net in their Minor League system.
So, Dipoto will keep an eye out for starting pitchers -- particularly those with expiring contracts -- who trickle down the waiver wire over these next 17 days. If they don't materialize, the Angels will continue to rely on a deep bullpen.
"If we can't have an impact, seven-inning-a-night starter, there are many ways to skin a cat," Dipoto said. "We're trying to add as much depth to the pitching staff as we can."
Maybe it isn't fair, because he was still really good in 2012, and '13 was a tough transition season, and he missed nearly two months this season.
But these are Hamilton's numbers since the All-Star break in 2012: .256 batting average, .319 on-base percentage, .447 slugging percentage, 45 homers and 167 RBIs in 290 games.
And here are his numbers over the previous 290-game stretch: .330 batting average, .384 on-base percentage, .610 slugging percentage, 76 homers and 244 RBIs.
The Halos are still waiting for Hamilton to go one of those hot stretches that used to define him; to recapture the groove he was in when the season was only two weeks old. Hitting coach Don Baylor has sent Hamilton DVDs of his swing from 2010 and '12, watched as he reintroduced the toe-tap in his load and worked tirelessly to figure out how Hamilton can be more effective against the Major League-leading number of breaking balls he's seeing.
He's convinced it's mostly mental, and believes Hamilton's current numbers -- .268/.342/.416 line with eight homers and 35 RBIs 119 games into the season -- may have had an impact on his psyche.
"It's more confidence than his swing at this point," Baylor said. "I think he just needs to stack some hits together. Hitters get on a roll that way. Once he gets it, this club is going to take off and run."
Since the new millennium, only two pitchers won a Cy Young Award in a year in which they didn't make the All-Star team. One was Johan Santana, then of the Twins, in 2004. The other was Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, who did it in '10 -- and is now the biggest threat standing in Richards' way of joining the group.
"He should've been an All-Star," Albert Pujols said of Richards, "and I'm pretty sure he's going to have many opportunities."
Asked about Richards' rapid development, Pujols added: "I don't think he's the best in the league yet -- I mean you have guys like King Felix -- but he's pretty close, and I don't think it'll be long until this guy has a Cy Young in his hand."
Can this be the year, though?
The 26-year-old right-hander is still a dark-horse candidate, ranking sixth in the AL in ERA (2.54), tied for fourth in WHIP (1.01), tied for eighth in wins (12), seventh in strikeouts (157) and tied for fifth in Fielding Independent Pitching (2.64). And Hernandez's numbers -- a 1.95 ERA, 0.86 WHIP and 2.06 FIP -- are making him an MVP candidate, with the Mariners in the Wild Card chase.
As Richards said, "There's a lot of guys having good years."
But he is lined up for nine more starts.
It's been another great year for Trout, who turned 23 last Thursday. It's also a very different one. Here are five reasons why …
• He's hitting more home runs. Trout has 27 now, the same number he had last season and three shy of his career high set in 2012. He's on pace for 37.
• He's striking out more often. Trout ranks eighth in the Majors in punchouts with 130, six shy of 2013 and nine shy of '12. He's on pace for 177.
• He isn't running nearly as much, even though he's probably just as fast. Trout has only 12 stolen bases (in 12 attempts). Forty-four players have more. And Trout's pace is currently 16 -- less than half of the 33 he stole last year and less than a third of the 49 he had two years ago.
• His Angels are winning consistently. They're on pace for 95 wins, the most since they last made the playoffs in 2009 -- the year Trout was drafted out of high school.
• Trout looks like the MVP front-runner, partly due to the above-mentioned point but also because Miguel Cabrera, who beat him out for the AL's Most Valuable Player Award the last two years, is having an average season by his standards. Trout's .294/.382/.570 slash line may not jump out as much as his .323/.432/.557 mark from 2013, or his .326/.399/.564 mark from '12. But he leads the AL in OPS-plus and ranks second in the Majors in Wins Above Replacement -- trailing only a pitcher, Hernandez.
"Throw strikes" is a phrase that tends to follow Wilson around. He used to wear rubber bands that said it; some of the T-shirts for his charities are adorned in it. And it carries a sarcastic undertone.
"People from the stands always yell it," Wilson said. "Really great coaching advice from the guy in the 18th row who's had four beers and is like, "Come on, throw strikes!" And you're like, 'Aw, dang it, I forgot.' "
It was the easy place to go, as Wilson gave up 32 runs (29 earned) over a 23 2/3-inning stretch that put his ERA at 4.82 heading into his most recent start. Even Dipoto recently handed him a sheet of paper indicating that when he throws more than 61 percent strikes he has "an extremely high" winning percentage.
"I took it and was like, 'OK, dude, whatever,'" said Wilson, carrying a 59.2 strike percentage that is his lowest since 2007. "It sorts of validates the simplicity effect for them."
For Wilson, it isn't only about throwing strikes; it's about throwing quality strikes.
And for the first time in a long time, the 33-year-old left-hander did that against the Phils on Tuesday, an outing that saw him get ahead on 18 of 28 hitters, generate first-pitch outs on three occasions and give up two runs in 6 2/3 innings.
"That's in line with the way he can pitch and the way we need him to be," Halos manager Mike Scioscia said. "Hopefully he's turned the corner."
The Angels can only hope, because over the next six weeks, they'll need him to step up.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Gonzo and "The Show", and follow him on Twitter @Alden_Gonzalez. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.