It has been said that the playoffs bring the true character of baseball teams to the surface. That sounds like something that's been said anyway, which means it is halfway to becoming a truism. The true character of the LAA Angels is slowly being revealed by the New York Yankees and the 2009 postseason, and it comes in the form of Gary Matthews Jr.
Gary Matthews Jr. represents the truth about the Angels in a macrosense and the truth about Mike Scioscia in a microsense. The Angels are sold to us a scrappy bunch of upstarts, playing the game The Right Way in a feel-good package. They run and gun, they take extra bases and they play defense. Only one of these things is remotely true. The Angels, as J pointed out on the weekend, have baseball's 6th biggest payroll. The heart of their order (Abreu, Hunter, Guerrero) are all big dollar free agents brought in with owner Arte Moreno's millions. Two of these big money free agents rode into town long after the Angels inked one of the top free agents of 2006: Gary Mathews.
That the Angels can pay Gary Matthews $10 million dollars a year to sit on the bench and stew is astounding, and hardly a plucky underdog thing to do. There aren't many teams in baseball (and none in their division) that can afford such a mistake, let alone go out and pursue better options because Matthews, as it turns out, sucks.
Gary Matthews has become a pretty crappy baseball player. Blame it on a lack of playing time if you will, but he's inability to hit AT ALL cannot be overstated. Perhaps I'm guilty of selection bias (in 15 ABs versus the Jays this year, Matthews had two hits and 7 strikeouts), but I haven't seen Gary Matthews turn in a decent at bat pretty much ever. Yet there was Mike Scioscia, master tactician, calling on Gary to pinch hit for catcher Mike Napoli in the 8th inning with the two men on. Gary struck out, looking very bad in the process.
Scioscia almost HAD to pinch hit with Matthews there, as he had already removed Juan Rivera for a pinch runner earlier in the inning. Never mind that both Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera are among the Angels best hitters, Scioscia played for one run on the road and failed. Matthews later walked and scored (after a bunt!) the go-ahead before striking out with two men on in the 12th. It isn't really Gary's fault that he's not a good hitter, but Mike Scioscia's for continuing to let him do so.
It is easy for me, a self-sniffer, to sit back and question Mike Scioscia's in-game moves. Managing a big league team in high-pressure situations sure isn't easy. But Scioscia seems to possess a lifetime free pass based on the false assumption that he's a miracle worker, extracting wins from a shallow talent pool. The Angels do run and play aggressively on the basepaths, both to their credit and their detriment. As I've said over and again, putting pressure on the defense works against bad teams but good ones will make you pay.
In the post season, when your outs become an even more precious commodity, maybe bunting three times and producing one total run isn't such a hot idea. Perhaps removing two of your best hitters in the same inning isn't a great way to win a game. Maybe Mike Scioscia's record and the context in which he's achieved it is due some scrutiny? Just don't blame Gary Matthews, he's pretty much defenseless.