Heading into the 2017 season, there were a few brave writers in the baseball community who thought the Los Angeles Angels could be a surprise contender. While they were coming off a 74-win season, there were reasons to believe. Their pythagorean expected win-loss record was 80-82, putting them much closer to contention than their actual fourth-place finish. Their position players finished with 21.6 fWAR, the ninth-highest total in Major League Baseball. Sure, nearly half of that was from Mike Trout, but he’s still on their roster doing Mike Trout things.
But that pitching, man. The Angels staff finished with 5.9 fWAR in 2016, dead last in the American League. Their 4.28 ERA was “only” fourth-worst in the league, but they had an AL-worst 4.62 FIP, in part due to the league’s lowest strikeout rate. However, they were without ace Garrett Richards for most of the season due to injury, and were due to get more innings from promising lefthander Tyler Skaggs.
Unfortunately for the Angels, 2017 has brought more of the same thus far. Both Richards and Skaggs are already on the disabled list, along with closer Cam Bedrosian, relievers Andrew Bailey and Mike Morin, and first baseman C.J. Cron. We could also include out-for-the-season types like Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano, but you get the idea. The pitching staff hasn’t been the problem yet, per se, but their offense hasn’t given them much room for error.
While the Angels’ 17-19 record suggests they are holding steady, things aren’t quite that rosy. They started the season 6-2, and are 11-17 since then. Ten of their 17 wins have come against the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners, AL West teams that have also struggled to open the season. With injuries continuing to mount in Anaheim and the offense struggling something fierce, the Tigers have one of their best chances in years to finally steal a road series from the Angels.
Game 1: RHP Michael Fulmer (3-1, 2.77 ERA) vs. RHP J.C. Ramirez (3-2, 3.74 ERA)
J.C. Ramirez is a well-traveled MLB veteran at this point, having spent time in seven organizations since signing as an amateur free agent in 2005. However, he’s still relatively green, in that he only has 160 MLB innings under his belt. He has gotten a chance to start for the first time this season thanks to the Angels’ injury woes, and has made the most of it thus far. Ramirez has limited opponents to a 3.74 ERA in five outings, and his 3.28 FIP suggests that the unheralded righthander has been somewhat unlucky. FanGraphs’ Eno Sarris notes that it’s not all smoke and mirrors either, though his command is still a bit spotty. With a two-seamer that has averaged over 97 miles per hour this season, expect plenty of ground balls from Tigers hitters.
Game 2: RHP Jordan Zimmermann (3-1, 6.21 ERA) vs. RHP Matt Shoemaker (1-2, 5.21 ERA)
Shoemaker, a Michigan native, has had an up-and-down career with the Angels. He finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2014, posted a 4.46 ERA in 2015, then rebounded with a 3.3 fWAR season last year. The see-sawing has continued thus far in 2017, as Shoemaker has allowed a 5.21 ERA in his first seven starts. Shoemaker’s typically excellent command has failed him; his 11 percent walk rate is more than double what he managed last season, resulting in a career-worst 1.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has dominated the Tigers in his career, though, limiting them to a 1.01 ERA in four meetings.
Game 3: LHP Daniel Norris (2-2, 4.55 ERA) vs. RHP Ricky Nolasco (2-2, 4.31 ERA)
Typically, Ricky Nolasco has been a pitcher that has never been able to live up to some gaudy peripheral numbers. In 1746 1⁄3 career innings, Nolasco has a solid 3.88 FIP and a 4.52 ERA. The opposite has been true this year, however, as Nolasco’s 4.31 ERA is nearly a full run lower than his 5.28 FIP. He has been allowing home runs in bunches thus far, with 11 dingers surrendered in just 39 2⁄3 innings. His strikeout and walk numbers are still solid — he currently has a career-best 5.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio, in fact — the seemingly random home run spike is reminiscent of what we saw from Anibal Sanchez in 2015.
Game 4: RHP Justin Verlander (3-2, 4.25 ERA) vs. RHP Alex Meyer (1-1, 7.62 ERA)
Standing 6’9 and armed with a fastball that can reach 97 miles per hour, Alex Meyer cannot be a comfortable at-bat for an opposing hitter. Add in Meyer’s wonky command and it’s amazing hitters are able to stay in the box at all. He has owned the Triple-A level (especially when he was with the Minnesota Twins), but has not been able to translate those skills to the MLB level yet. He earned another big league start after striking out seven Oakland A’s hitters in his last outing on May 9, but still walked five. He has issued 12 free passes in 13 innings this year, and has allowed 11 runs.
Who’s hot (non-Mike Trout division): Luis Valbuena
The versatile infielder missed the first month of the season, but has looked in midseason form since returning at the beginning of May. He has reached base 10 times in his first 25 plate appearances, including six hits. Valbuena’s presence helps lengthen a lineup that has struggled to score, with just 135 runs in their 36 games played. He has hit a robust .254/.344/.472 against right-handed pitching over the past three-plus seasons, and will pose a real threat to three of Detroit’s four starters this weekend.
Who’s not: Danny Espinosa
After a breakout season of sorts in which Espinosa hit 24 home runs and posted a career-high walk rate, the Angels were hoping that he could maintain his slugger-like production while adding a few singles to the mix. Instead, things have cratered. Espinosa has struck out 41 times in 117 plate appearances this season, a 35 percent clip. This is a significant jump over 2016’s already elevated 29 percent strikeout rate, and he hasn’t provided enough power to mitigate the high volume of whiffs.
How the Tigers win this series
The short version is they don’t. Angels Stadium has been a house of horrors unlike any other for the Tigers in recent memory, one that Detroit has been happy to escape with a single win in most years. They are just 5-19 in Anaheim since the start of 2010, and have been outscored 113-60 in those games. You have to go all the way back to 2010 to find a series in which the Tigers won multiple games in Anaheim (they split four games). The last time they actually won a road series over the Angels was in 2009.
But if the Tigers are to finally break through, they need to score runs. They have averaged just 2.5 runs per game in Anaheim over the past six years, a big reason why they have lost 19 of their last 24 games there. The Tigers are facing a shorthanded pitching staff, though, and will likely see both Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez return to the lineup. They hold a sizable edge in most of the starting pitching matchups in this series, but their offense is the unit that needs to take advantage.