Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 4/27/12

It’s April 26th, so it’s just too early to jump to any conclusions based on what has happened thus far in 2012. There are 140+ games still to go in the season, and as we’ve seen before, the standings at the end of April often don’t look like the standings at the end of September. Three weeks of baseball shouldn’t have changed our minds too much about what we believed to be true before the season began. That the Angels are 6-12, and that Albert Pujols has yet to hit a home run, should not lead us to believe that the Angels are a bad team or that Pujols run as an elite hitter has come to an end.

However, April counts too, and it couldn’t have gone much worse for Anaheim than it did. Not only have they struggled out of the gates, but Texas has blitzed through the American League, and currently hold an 8 1/2 game lead over the Angels in the American League West. Even if we still believe that the Angels are capable of outplaying the Rangers over the rest of the season – and we should – the hole they have to dig out of has become so large that winning their division has become significantly less likely.

For instance, here’s a few examples of what it would take for the Angels to win the AL West by a margin of one game, with all of these scenarios needing to begin immediately:

Angels play .600 baseball (97 win pace) over remainder of season, finish with 92 wins. Rangers play .531 baseball (86 win pace), finish with 91 wins.

Angels play .575 baseball (93 win pace) over remainder of season, finish with with 89 wins. Rangers play .510 baseball (83 win pace) over remainder of season, finish with 88 wins.

Angels play .550 baseball (89 win pace) over remainder of season, finish with 85 wins. Rangers play .483 baseball (78 win pace) over remainder of season, finish with 84 wins.

Before the season began, most projections had the Angels as an 89-93 win team, so if we assume that April has taught us nothing more than what we knew about their roster than we knew at the end of March, then we’d probably expect the Angels to play somewhere between scenario B and C, finishing with a win total in the mid-80s. It’s possible that they could catch fire and end up with 90+ wins, but that’s an unlikely bet at this point.

For some recent historical perspective, here are the teams who posted a winning percentage below .400 in their first 18 games of the season last year, followed by their rest-of-season winning percentage and end-of-year win totals:

Boston: 7-11 (.389), 83-61 (.576) in next 144, 90-72 overall
Houston: 7-11 (.389), 49-95 (.340) in next 244, 56-106 overall
Minnesota: 6-12 (.333), 57-87 (.396) in next 244, 63-99 overall
Seattle: 6-12 (.333), 61-83 (.424) in next 244, 67-95 overall
NY Mets: 5-13 (.278), 72-72 (.500) in next 244, 77-85 overall

Boston is the example that the Angels are hoping to follow, minus the whole September collapse thing. As they showed last year, a slow start doesn’t have to end your season, and can be overcome with strong play throughout the summer. However, that slow start also didn’t leave the Red Sox with enough margin for error, and having another slump later in the season proved to be too much to overcome.

What if we look back two years?

Chicago White Sox: 7-11 (.389), 81-63 (.563) over next 144, 88-74 overall
Cincinnati Reds: 7-11 (.389), 84-60 (.583) over next 144, 91-71 overall
Pittsburgh: 7-11 (.389), 50-94 (.347) over next 144, 57-105 overall
Kansas City: 7-11 (.399), 60-84 (.417) over next 144, 67-95 overall
Baltimore: 2-16 (.111), 64-80 (.444) over next 144, 66-96 overall

Perhaps we should amend the paragraph above and note that Cincinnati is really the example that the Angels are hoping to follow, as they turned their season around and ended up winning the NL Central. In fact, they made up exactly 8.5 games over their final 162 over St. Louis, so even had the Cardinals gotten off to a Rangers-like start to the season, the Reds still would have been able to run them down and take the division. On the other hand, though, the White Sox season shows the perils of an early hole, as they played well over their final 144 games but didn’t gain any ground on Minnesota – the difference in the final standings turned out to be exactly the size of the gap they built over their first 18 games.

However, things are a bit different this year, as the addition of a second wild card lowers the barrier to entry for post-season baseball. The 2010 White Sox would have finished just one game behind Boston for that second wild card spot had the system been in place then, and likely would have adjusted their end-of-season strategy to try and make up that small difference. At the very least, they’d have been in contention all year, even after their slow start.

And, of course, last year’s Red Sox would have won the second wild card, and their season would not have ended after Game 162. Under the current system, at least two and possibly three of the teams that started slow over the last two years would have ended up playing post-season baseball. Given the hole that the Angels have dug for themselves, a 20-30% chance of at least getting into the one game playoff should be encouraging.

The Angels have played poorly, but not as poorly as their record would indicate. In fact, the next time someone tells you that that their offensive struggles to this point in the season show that they don’t have the bats to be a legitimate contender, point out that their offensive batting line (.252/.303/.376) is nearly identical to that of the vaunted Tigers offense (.244/.305/.389). Once Ervin Santana stops giving up home runs at a record pace and Albert Pujols remembers how to hit balls over the fence, the Angels will start winning games. Can they win enough to overcome the early lead they’ve given the Rangers? Probably not, but the new playoff structure should give them at least a fighting chance to still get into the post-season.

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