Can struggling teams go on a run?
OK, the Toronto Blue Jays did it. They revived their season by winning 11 consecutive games.
Can any of baseball’s other crashing disappointments do the same?
The season is almost half over — not a good sign for the struggling Angels, Royals, Dodgers and Nationals. On the flip side, more than half the season remains.
Here is my ranking of those four teams, in reverse order. The team with the worst chance of a turnaround is listed first, the team with the best chance last.
33-43, fourth in AL West, 11 games back
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The Angels don’t play like a Mike Scioscia team. I’m not sure if Scioscia is failing to connect with the players, if general manager Jerry Dipoto and owner Arte Moreno gave him the wrong players, if it’s a combination of both.
Whatever, the product is ugly.
The only way this team can win is if it hits like crazy, but the Angels rank eighth out of 15 in the AL in runs per game. Josh Hamilton, a phantom all season, is currently out with a sore wrist. Albert Pujols is batting .258 with a .777 OPS, which actually is slightly ahead of where he was at the same point a year ago. Problem is, Pujols is physically compromised, so it’s difficult to imagine him finishing as strong.
The loss of left-hander Jason Vargas, who is suffering from a blood clot in his left armpit, robbed the Angels of one of their few reliable starters. The rotation ranks only 10th in ERA in the AL, and there is little reason to expect improvement — except perhaps from righty Jered Weaver, whose ERA stands at 4.65 after seven starts.
The Angels could get hot again offensively, the way they did when they won eight straight games from May 18 to 26. But seriously, can anyone see them passing the Athletics and Rangers? At the moment, the Mighty Morenos trail even the Mariners.
35-38, third in AL Central, 6½ games back
So much for the impact of George Brett as interim hitting coach.
The Royals are 14-9 since Brett and Pedro Grifol replaced Jack Maloof and Andre David as the team’s hitting instructors, as opposed to 21-29 before the change. But the team is actually scoring fewer runs, dropping from 3.98 to 3.74 per game.
Pitching and defense are the primary reasons the Royals are near .500. Yet, even the pitching is something of a mirage.
While the team leads the American League in ERA, it is only 11th in Fielding Independent Pitching, which measures the effectiveness of pitchers based on results that do not involve fielders. What’s more, the Royals’ pitchers have the league’s sixth lowest strikeout rate, and their opponents’ batting average on balls in play is the fifth lowest.
In other words, they’re getting lucky.
Some rival executives criticized the Royals’ blockbuster with the Rays as a reach, reasoning that the Royals were not good enough to sacrifice a prospect such as Wil Myers in a win-now deal.
I disagreed with that assessment initially, but not now. I’m skeptical that the Royals can catch the Indians, much less the Tigers.
32-42, fifth in NL West, 8½ games back
My feeling now is the same it has been all season — they’re bound to play better. Of course, it would be nice to see it already. The Dodgers’ longest winning streak is three games — and they did it once, from April 5 to 7.
Few teams boast a trio of starting pitchers as formidable as Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Hyun-Jin Ryu. And the Dodgers, according to rival executives, want to add yet another starter in a trade.
Meanwhile, right fielder Yasiel Puig is providing energy and high-end performance. Center fielder Matt Kemp is close to returning, and left fielder Carl Crawford eventually will be back as well.
So, what’s the problem?
For one thing, the top four teams in the West all are .500 or better, increasing the Dodgers’ degree of difficulty. What’s more, third base remains a major hole for LA, second base isn’t much better and the bullpen ranks next-to-last in the NL in ERA, ahead of only the Phillies.
Still, there is little doubt that the Dodgers are underperforming, especially now that Greinke and shortstop Hanley Ramirez are back.
While I obviously was premature in my prediction a month ago that manager Don Mattingly would be fired, I still hear from too many people in baseball that something is missing with this club.
The Dodgers are still capable of igniting. But only two NL teams — the Nationals and Marlins — are scoring fewer runs per game.
37-38, second in NL East, six games back
Why do I give the Nats the best chance of a turnaround?
Because they’re chasing a flawed Braves team. Because the rest of their division is weak. And because Washington truly is bound to improve.
As Tom Boswell recently wrote in the Washington Post, the Nationals’ offense simply can’t be this bad.
The Nats ranked fifth in the NL in runs last season, averaging 4.51 per game. This season, with mostly the same cast, they’re 14th out of 15, averaging 3.47 per game.
Injuries are part of the problem. Catcher Wilson Ramos has appeared in only 14 games, right fielder Jayson Werth missed nearly a month, left fielder Bryce Harper last played on May 26 and now Werth might be out again.
Other gnawing issues also have surfaced, from right-hander Dan Haren to the failures of the young bench players to the regression of the bullpen, even after the addition of free-agent closer Rafael Soriano.
Still, there is too much talent for the Nats to continue struggling, provided Harper, right-hander Stephen Strasburg and Co. stay reasonably healthy the rest of the way. The team also has several young arms in the minors who either could provide major league help or bring back other pieces in the trades.
I will not be surprised if they win the division.