This has been a mostly solid year for the Angels in the otherwise weak AL West. Oakland had a spectacular couple of months and had a few days of overtaking the Halos, but they regressed to what you’d expect from the influence of injuries and rookies. The Rangers have big bats and no pitching, and the Mariners have no nothing.
The Angels hitting is suspect, and has mostly struggled all year. To paraphrase Baseball Prospectus, “Vladimir Guerrero is the Angels’ offense.” That’s not entirely true, but it’s not entirely untrue either. They were expecting big bats from veteran Steve Finley and rookie Dallas McPherson, but Finley tanked and McPherson got hurt, leaving them only with Garret Anderson, who also has been battling injury, and while he has driven in his share of RBI’s, he hasn’t hit for power the way he has in years past. This means that Vlad has no protection in the lineup and you can expect him to be walked a lot — the curse of Barry. In the last two weeks of the year, the bats seemed to wake up a bit, with all members of the team getting hits and the run totals creeping upward, with ex-Yankee Juan Rivera making notable contributions in the final days. It will be tough for the Yankees if the Halos are both hitting their stride and well-rested, which they might be given their five-game clinch (during which they still went four for five against Oakland and Texas).
The Angels make up for lack of power with great pitching, great defense (Orlando Cabrera has been a major upgrade from David Eckstein), and extremely agressive baserunning. Leadoff pest Chone Figgins overtook Scott Podsednik in the last two games of the season to finish with 62 stolen bases. The Angels will always try to take an extra base, unless the runner’s last name is Molina. You’ll see lots hit-and-runs, and lots of balls in play. They don’t walk or strike out much. By keeping such intense action on the basepaths, they tend to distract pitchers and put pressure on the opponent’s defense to execute correctly, when they often don’t — such as when Vlad Guerrero (!) scored from second on a sacrifice bunt earlier this year.
The Yankees will want to get leads early, as the Angels have one of the best bullpens in the game. Their hold-and-save squad (committee Brendan Donnely/Kelvim Escobar/Scot Shields, and closer Francisco Rodríguez aka K-Rod) gives you as close to six-inning ball as you could hope for. When they’re on, both Shields and K-Rod have crazy, unhittable action on their fastballs and breaking balls. With that said, they both developed major control problems in the second half and blew several games, beginning notoriously with two meltdowns versus the Yankees in July, casting the myth of the mighty Angels bullpen into doubt. However, manager Mike Scioscia put injured starter Escobar in the bullpen when he returned in early September, and since then they’ve all been lights out. Shields and Escobar in particular have been pitching startlingly well.
However, getting early leads isn’t a given — the Halos also have a very solid starting pitching staff, who (I believe) have given up fewer runs than any other team this year. The leader is Bartolo Colon, who is the only guy on the general-awareness radar, but John Lackey (fastball/changeup/curve) and Paul Byrd (finesse) are both having great years. Only the Angels middle bullpen have shown themselves to be average, and we’re probably going to only see one of those guys in the postseason.
So it’s going to be run prevention versus monster bats, much as it will be in Chicago. The Angels’ starting rotation is better than the Yankees’, and if they can get leads, work pitch counts, and get to the Yankees middle bullpen, they should cruise through this series. If, however, the Angels get into one of their funks where they just can’t score runs, which they have several times this year, they could be in trouble, since as good as the Angels’ rotation is they can’t be expected to keep the Yankees down to two runs a game. I also think that the Yankees are really gonna want this one — this year has forced them to play hungrier.