Angels have weak link at closer

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Fuentes_Brian.standard[1].jpgThe Los Angeles Angels look like a solid championship contender this season.

They’ve got a good offense (1st in AL in hitting, 2nd in runs), speed on the bases (2nd in steals), a decent defense (6th in UZR) and a solid starting rotation that has improved with the addition of Scott Kazmir.

The weakness, if they have one, seems to be at closer, where the Angels replaced the record-setting (and expensive) Francisco Rodriguez with the crafty (and less expensive) journeyman Brian Fuentes.

Fuentes hasn’t been a disaster, saving 41 games. But he has blown seven save opportunities and been shaky enough at times to prompt manager Mike Scioscia to give rookie Kevin Jepsen some time in the ninth inning.

So, should the Angels replace Fuentes?

(Note: We’re not going to pin Wednesday night’s loss entirely on Fuentes, as he did have Nick Green struck out twice, only to be foiled by bad calls)

Eno Sarris breaks down the problem nicely over at Fangraphs, pointing out that Fuentes has pretty much given up on his curveball, and has lost velocity – and perhaps most alarmingly, a ton of movement – on his slider.

A case could certainly be made that Jepsen would make a better closer than Fuentes.

Jepsen does own the blazing fastball of a traditional closer (96.4 MPH this year), and with his two primary pitches coming down the pipe over 90 MPH (he owns a 90 MPH cutter that’s been worth 2.5 runs this year) he is a decent change of pace from Fuentes.

In fact, Jepsen profiles very differently from Fuentes in other ways. Fuentes is more of a fly-baller (46.9% fly balls), while Jepsen is inducing ground balls in bunches this year (58.6% ground balls). Jepsen is doing a great job supressing line drives (13.6%), and batters are centering Fuentes better (17.5%).

The big question is if Jepsen can continue to keep his walk rate down, as it was a bit of an issue in the minor leagues, and how well he can adjust to playoff pressure as a closer. For his part, he says he’s ready.

“Everybody has to have their first playoff experience — you’ve got to start somewhere,” said Jepsen, the setup man who has emerged as the team’s top reliever in the second half. “I can’t wait. I feel like I will feed off the energy, whether we’re home or away.”

I think it would be wise for Scioscia to take a long look at Jepsen down the stretch this month, and if he continues to look good, at least consider using both pitchers in save situations. Can’t hurt to have some insurance.

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Mike Trout has a torn thumb ligament, could require surgery

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Yesterday Mike Trout left the Marlins-Angels game after hurting his thumb while sliding head first into second base. After the game the Angels talked about it as if it were just a sprain. Trout had an MRI today, however, and the diagnosis is far worse: he has a torn thumb ligament.

While a treatment option has not yet been chosen, surgery is a possibility. A certainty is that he’ll miss, at the very least, several weeks of play. He has been placed on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

Trout, the reigning AL MVP and, without question, the best player in baseball, is batting .337/.461/.742 with 16 home runs, 36 RBI, 36 runs scored, and 10 stolen bases in 206 plate appearances this season. Even with the one of the weaker supporting casts in baseball, Trout had the Angels near .500 and in at least arguable contention in the AL West.

Without him, they are likely sunk. Without him, baseball is worse off.

Basebrawl! Harper, Strickland punch away, Nats-Giants fight

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SAN FRANCISCO — Nationals slugger Bryce Harper and San Francisco reliever Hunter Strickland both landed punches to the head during a wild brawl that erupted Monday after a hit by pitch.

Harper was hit in the right hip by Strickland’s 98 mph fastball in the eighth inning with Washington ahead 2-0.

Harper pointed the bat toward Strickland, charged the mound and fired his batting helmet wide of the pitcher. They started to swing away and they each connected as the benches and bullpens emptied.

At least two Giants players forcefully dragged Strickland from the middle of the brawl all the way into the dugout. Harper and Strickland were both ejected.

In the 2014 NL Division Series, Harper hit two home runs off Strickland. After the star’s second shot, in Game 4, he stared at Strickland as he rounded the bases.