Thursday, April 10, 2008

10 Games In

After ten games and three series, the Angels sit at 6-4. It's been a bit of a roller coaster start, with standout performances on the mound by Joe Saunders and Jon Garland, and awful perfomances from Dustin Moseley and......Jon Garland. A couple of blow out losses have pushed the team ERA up a bit, but for the most part, all things considered, the starters have been fairly decent. Ervin Santana has been solid in two starts and has a 1-0 record to show for it. Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders have also tossed two quality starts. When John Lackey returns and replaces Dustin Moseley, the staff will look very strong.

The bullpen, on the other hand, has been shaky at best, not exactly a surprise. Darren O'Day is the only reliever with an ERA under three, but he's pitched a little worse than that suggests, allowing nearing two baserunners per inning. Frankie is hobbled, and it's affecting his velocity. Shields is still trying to work his way back. Speier had a chance to show everyone that maybe letting Frankie walk wouldn't be such a bad decision, and promptly gave up a two run bomb to Travis Hafner. Best case, Frankie gets healthy, Shields works to full strength, and this becomes a strong unit again, but for now, the bullpen is a weak link.

Offensively, the punchless Angels are tied for the AL lead in homers with 14, four coming from newly acquired Torii Hunter, including a walk-off grand slam the other night. Six different Angels have homered, and five have done it more than once. Hindered by a slow start last season, Chone Figgins is showing that his hot finish was no fluke. His 14 hits leads the AL, and don't look now, folks, but he has eight, count 'em EIGHT walks. He trails only Luke Scott in OBP, and that's in 20 more plate appearances. Of course everything in this post comes with the sample size caveat, but if the plate discipline is real, he could have a tremendous season. Staying on the infield, Howie Kendrick is showing that both his ability to hit for average, and his propensity for injury are real. His 429/467/571 start is terrific, but he's already missing time because of a hand injury sustained on a pitch that didn't even hit him. He's looked very good on defense as well. Meanwhile, Erick Aybar and Maicer Izturis, while getting it done in the field, have left their good springs in Tempe and are struggling at the plate.

In the outfield, Juan Rivera and Reggie Willits can't be happy the way things are shaking out, and you have to figure that at least one of them will be gone in a couple of months for bullpen help. But you just never know who is going to get injured, especially with four aging starters in the current outfield/DH rotation. The two have four at bats between them. The rest of the outfield has nine home runs collectively. Hunter, Matthews, and Guerrero have combined for seven of those homers, and all are hitting .300 or above. Behind the dish, Mike Napoli's underwhelming .231/.286 is nicely offset by his three homers (one a grand slam) and .615 slugging percentage. Jeff Mathis isn't going to hit, but he can play defense.

So at this point of the season, there haven't been any big surprises, outside of Figgins' sudden ability to take a walk or eight. Over his career, he generally draws about one walk every ten or eleven plate appearances, which isn't bad, but not ideal for a lead off hitter. This year he's up to one every five or six. I don't think anyone expects him to maintain that pace, but if he can keep it around 1/8 or so, that would be a fantastic ISO OBP, combined with a batting average around .300, that would put his OBP around .400 or above, a mark he's never surpassed in a season, not even last year when he hit .330. That's where it all starts. If he can jumpstart the offense like that, the Angels will be in very good shape, especially with a lineup that doesn't really give a pitcher a break until the 8th spot, and even then, you'll mostly have Mike Napoli and his power in that lineup position.

A big series up in Seattle starts tomorrow night. The games themselves aren't particularly important (though every game is somewhat important), but right now, the Mariners are trying to convince themselves that they're the team to beat in the West. If the Angels can go up into their building and take a couple of victories, it could help to sow the seeds of doubt that still linger around the Mariners. If the Mariners come away with a sweep, it will be a big boost of confidence that can take them through the early portion of their schedule. Both teams have their top three starters lined up, and both teams have bullpens that are really struggling, so it should be a very competitive series.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

UPDATED: On The Plus Side, UCLA Will Get Younger

UPDATE: Apparently the reports are false, for now. Love and Collison both say they haven't even talked to their families about their decisions yet, and as such, no decisions have been made. Either someone has made something up, or was bamboozled. Still, I'll leave this up in the event that a week from now, this information becomes relevant again.

Kevin Love? Gone
Darren Collison? Gone
Russel Westbrook? Leaning towards going.

And that's just the beginning.

According to both the L.A. Times and Brian Dohn, UCLA will likely take the floor next year without their three best players, which really isn't a surprise to anyone who's been following the team for the past few months. Love and Collison were expected to go before the season even started, and Westbrook's draft status has been on the rise all season.

As Nestor pointed out, there is a scenario in which up to eight players on this year's roster could be gone. Lorenzo Mata-Real is graduating. LRMAM will likely put his name into the draft and get evaluated before making a decision to hire an agent. Alfred Aboya has hinted that he may not return after earning his degree this year. Nikola Dragovic, hurting for playing time, may head back to Europe. And finally, Josh Shipp may decide that four years and the exit of the rest of his draft class is a sign that he's been around long enough.

So what happens if all of this comes to pass? Well, Ben Howland picked a good year to bring in a number one recruiting class, and he may not be done. There are some big man prospects that could fill out the class. It means that Jrue Holiday, Malcolm Lee, and Jerime Anderson are going to see a ton of playing time in their first year, which will be good for Lee and Anderson, since they're the only two likely to be back in 2009-2010. Sucks for Holiday, who will be around in a rebuilding year, then gone.

So next year's team will be interesting to watch, and great to root for, but I wouldn't expect too much. It took the Farmar, Afflalo, Shipp, Mata class two years to reach the championship game. UCLA will be down, but not out. Best of luck to all of those Bruins, whatever they decide.

Monday, April 07, 2008

I Remember How the Darkness Tripled: UCLA Bows Out Again

I've gotta say, I took this loss surprisingly well, probably because I was sober (unlike last year), and because even though the Bruins made a run or two, I never really felt like they were in the game. In all of their big comebacks this season, there was a sense of 'what the hell is going on' when the opponent was building it's lead. Those were games in which the opponents didn't look that great, but the Bruins clearly were simply not playing well. I didn't get that feeling on Saturday. I got the feeling that the Bruins were playing poorly because Memphis was forcing them to play poorly, and subsequently, I never really expected the big run that would make the game close.

For the third straight year, the Bruins fell victim to matchup problems. Derrick Rose was simply too big and strong for Darren Collison, and Rose was their smallest guy most of the time. Memphis drove to the basket very well, and created a lot of help situations that led to offensive rebounds and easy put backs. They torched the Bruins in transition. The Tigers' superior athleticism and ability to finish was really the Bruins' undoing on the defensive end.

When they had the ball, UCLA had a hard time holding onto it. They turned it over 12 times, often with sloppy plays or lapses in concentration. James Keefe dropped a rebound out of bounds with no Tiger within 50 feet. Russel Westbrook dropped on in bounds pass off his foot. Darren Collison stepped out of bounds on what could have been a fast break, one of his five turnovers in a game he'd really just like to forget. He made only one of nine shots, a floater at the end of the first half that pulled the Bruins to within three, giving us all hope at halftime. Only Russell Westbrook, with 22 points on 10-19 shooting made more than half his shots, and he did nothing to lower his NBA stock.

In the end, Memphis was simply more athletic and longer. I won't say they're more talented, because UCLA is very talented, but the matchups were simply not in their favor, and they had to play a top notch game to beat Memphis. As it turns out, they played one of their worst. But with a couple of days to reflect, I'd like to put a couple of myths to rest:
  1. Ben Howland does not need to do anything different. He's reached the final four for the third straight year. From 1981 to his hiring in 2003, UCLA reached two final fours. He's doing something right, and in a one and done tournament, too much emphasis is placed on one game. He doesn't need to teach a zone. He doesn't need to run a different offense. He doesn't need to manage time outs differently. He just needs to keep doing what he's doing. And you can argue that he needs better athletes, but can really argue with the guy who's bringing in the top recruiting class in the country next season?
  2. Kevin Love and Darren Collison are no more or less ready for the NBA than they were before the Memphis game. If you're draft expert, and you had these guys in your lottery/top 20 before the game, and have now dropped them, you're a really crappy draft expert. I'm not trying to argue that they are or aren't lottery picks. But you've had an entire season to evaluate them, and you've essentially boiled it down to one game. You're either wrong now, or you weren't doing your job back then, but either way, just stop it. You're embarrassing yourself. That goes for the all of the amateur draft experts on message boards across the country. Alex Rodriguez doesn't stop being a hall of famer after a bad week. These guys are the same players everyone was drooling over a week ago.
And so ends another season of Bruin basketball. We'll all wait with anxiety for the decisions from Love, Collison, and Westbrook. We'll all look forward to welcoming Jrue Holiday, Jerime Anderson, Malcolm Lee, and Drew Gordon. We'll all hope for an off season of improvement from Chace Stanback, and for the return to health of Mike Roll. But it was fun five month ride. Congratulations to UCLA on another successful season.