Hard work puts Halos on the upswing
Disappointing campaigns appear to be in rearview for potential contenders
Here's to the Angels. A tip of the hat to you, fellas. They're back. At least they appear to be, and if you look at them from a certain angle, you can see that their 24-20 record is possibly the start of something more.
If 24-20 doesn't blow your socks off, pay closer attention. The Angels were 17-27 at this point last season and 19-25 two years ago. Both those seasons began with high expectations and a sense of optimism. But the Halos fell so far behind so quickly that their seasons were over almost before they began.
It's not just that the Angels are 24-20. It's how they got there. Albert Pujols is healthy again and hitting with confidence and power (12 home runs). Mike Trout is doing his usual thing, with 10 doubles, four triples and eight home runs. His strikeouts are up, but this is part of the adjustment period every young player experiences as scouting reports get around.
The Angels are third in the American League in runs despite Josh Hamilton having played just eight games. Once he returns from the disabled list, the Halos finally could have that Pujols-Trout-Hamilton combination performing at a high level.
They've also gotten solid starting pitching, especially from the front three of Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson and Garrett Richards. The Angels are 15-9 in their 24 starts. Tyler Skaggs has shown flashes of being exactly what the Halos hoped he would be.
And then there's 27-year-old right-hander Matt Shoemaker. He was summoned from the Minor Leagues when Hector Santiago was sent to the bullpen, and in two starts, he has beaten Cliff Lee and David Price. Shoemaker was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Eastern Michigan six years ago to fill out a roster at a low Minor League level.
Shoemaker has spent seven seasons in the Minors, including all or parts of the last five at Triple-A, and he is a reminder that the most difficult thing to measure in sports is heart and determination. He simply was going to figure things out.
Shoemaker is also a reminder that movement and location are as important as velocity. He's throwing strikes, challenging hitters and keeping them off balance. Shoemaker has also polished a nice curveball to mix into a catalogue that already had a fastball, slider and split-finger. Because he's throwing all four pitches at different speeds and because he's throwing strikes, he has a chance to get comfortable in the big leagues.
The Angels have gotten nice work from utility players Grant Green and C.J. Cron as well as 23-year-old right-hander Mike Morin, among others. In other words, their organizational depth has been tested in these first weeks and has passed with flying colors.
As general manager Jerry Dipoto has sorted through his bullpen options, that group has performed better, but it will be a work in progress for awhile. Meanwhile, the Halos keep winning. They've won eight of 11 to keep the A's in sight in the AL West, and they have come from behind 13 times, including five times in the last 11 days.
Those are the victories that build confidence and resilience, that send a message that this is a club made of the right stuff. Maybe a couple of bitterly disappointing seasons will make this little ride that much more special. Sometimes, things work out exactly the way they were drawn up. Sometimes, though, they don't.
Even if a GM has done a dozen things right, things can still come undone. There's always a human element. There's also an unknown element about good teams, a chemistry or a leadership factory or something.
This 24-20 start is a refreshing change. In Arte Moreno, the Angels have an owner who has given his baseball people the resources to sign big-ticket free agents and to put a first-class product on the field.
And in Dipoto, the Angels have a widely-respected GM, one who has continued to focus on the big picture, to build a great organization from top to bottom. As important as Hamilton and Pujols have been to the Halos, they simply can't win without getting contributions from products of the system like Green, Cron, Shoemaker and Morin.
Finally, there's Mike Scioscia. In his 16th season on the job, he remains as smart and organized and competitive as any manager. There's no way to have a conversation about the best managers in the game without including Scioscia. Four seasons out of the playoffs have eaten at him and driven him to get it right.
So Dipoto and Scioscia have been rewarded in these first weeks with a club that reflects plenty of their own competitive fire and resolve. The Angels are third in the AL in home runs, but they're first in triples and third in stolen bases.
Those numbers tell you this is an aggressive club, a club that has a couple of different ways to win games. So far, it's working. Here's to good, smart work rewarded.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.