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Bill Shaikin / ON BASEBALL

Angels won't walk away with a victory

October 03, 2008|Bill Shaikin

This could be the rare matchup that drives the purists and the stat-heads nuts. Live from Anaheim: The team most likely to swing at a bad pitch, against the pitcher most likely to throw one.

The Angels are the team. Daisuke Matsuzaka is the pitcher. Patience will be a virtue at Angel Stadium tonight, but only in the visiting dugout.

If Matsuzaka had to pitch against his teammates, he would wilt in the third or fourth inning. The Boston Red Sox would take a ball, take a strike, take a ball, take a strike, take him out early.

He will excuse himself in the middle innings, if you let him. He led the American League in walks. No major league starter has ever won at least 18 games and pitched as few innings as he did this season -- 168, or fewer than six innings per start.

And the walk is the best bet to beat him, a better bet than a hit parade. He also led the league by holding opponents to a .211 batting average, including .164 with runners in scoring position and .000 (0 for 14) with the bases loaded.

Yet the Angels plan to play to their strength, not prey on the weakness of the opponent. Mickey Hatcher, the Angels' batting coach, said he will not hold a hitters' meeting this afternoon to emphasize the take sign.

"You want them to step in the box and be able to do something," Hatcher said. "You don't want them to step in the box and say, 'We're going to take a pitch, and then we're going to swing.' "

We can hear the screams already. If a Little League hitter can take until the pitcher throws a strike, why can't a major league hitter do the same thing?

He can, of course. This is Hatcher's point: He does not want hitters so programmed to take a pitch that they lose their aggressiveness, that they hesitate to swing at a pitch in their favorite hitting zone. Don't swing at every strike, he says, but don't take a fat first pitch for the sake of running up the other guy's pitch count.

If you let a pitcher get ahead in the count, he argues, you're letting him dictate the rest of the at-bat by pitching to the corners of the strike zone.

"What good does it do you to take the first pitch," he said, "if that's the only one you can hit?"

Yes, we can hear this objection too: Why don't the Angels try this approach -- force the other guy to throw strikes -- before condemning it?

They did, Hatcher said, and it was not a rousing success.

Matsuzaka, remember, led the league in walks. Daniel Cabrera of the Baltimore Orioles was second.

So, the last time the Angels faced Cabrera, Hatcher said he did preach patience. In the first four innings, the Angels sent 13 men to the plate.

Ten took the first pitch. Seven took until Cabrera threw a called strike. One walked. One got a hit. None scored.

"It was ridiculous," Hatcher said.

Cabrera worked into the eighth inning, on 102 pitches. He walked two.

They are who they are.

The Red Sox put a premium on plate discipline. They value that skill as they decide which players to sign, to draft, to promote to the majors.

The Angels put a premium on contact hitting and aggressive baserunning. They're not going to turn into the Red Sox for a night, just because Matsuzaka is pitching. They can't change their stripes.

Chone Figgins, the Angels' leadoff hitter, takes pitches. So does Mark Teixeira, who showed up two months ago. That's about it for the home team.

And so much for the theory that Teixeira's approach magically would rub off on his new teammates, that they would see his success and work the count themselves.

Be like Mark? Since his arrival, according to STATS LLC, the average number of pitches per plate appearance is down for just about every player in the lineup -- down for Vladimir Guerrero, down for Garret Anderson, down for Torii Hunter, down for Howie Kendrick, down for Figgins, way down for Juan Rivera.

But, since Teixeira's arrival, the Angels have scored more runs per game, and that was the point of the trade.

The object of the game is to win, and the most runs wins.

Matsuzaka wins too, so the Red Sox do not fret even when he does not get into the seventh inning. He started 29 games this season. He won 18. He lost three.

He faced the Angels once.

He lost.

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bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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