There is an overwhelming feeling sweeping over the consciousness of Angel fans, a certain sense that we've been here before, seen these same storylines and results from our beloved team. It all just has a certain 2002 feeling doesn't it?
Despite having won four division titles since winning their one and only championship, no team has felt more like that magical 2002 team than this year's incarnation. Like the 2002 team, the 2009 roster is based on overall depth and production rather than reliant on one star (a la Vlad Guerrero the last few seasons) and has an uncanny knack for the comeback. If 2002 was the year that the Rally Monkey was born, 2009 has been the season that the Rally Monkey became a man.
But the similarities don't stop there:
- An undersized sparkplug at the top of the order - Eckstein in 2002; Figgins in 2009
- A slugging designated hitter in the twilight of his career - Salmon in 2002; Guerrero in 2009
- A rookie set-up man taking the league by storm late in the season - K-Rod in 2002; Jepsen in 2009
- A frustratingly inconsistent number three starter who could be an ace but usually isn't - Ramon Ortiz in 2002; Ervin Santana in 2009
- A catcher that can't hit but still plays regularly anyway - Bengie Molina (.596 OPS) in 2002; Jeff Mathis (.634 OPS) in 2009
- A soft-tossing starter who struggled all season before admitting that he is injured - Aaron Sele in 2002; Saunders in 2009
- A mish-mash of anonymous but somehow effective relievers - Weber, Donnelly, Shields, Schoeneweis, Cook, Pote, Levine in 2002; Jepsen, Bulger, Oliver, Palmer, Arredondo and Loux in 2009.
Frankly, the parallels are uncanny. All they are missing is Maicer Izturis inexplicably hitting three homers in the ALCS and it would be deja vu all over again.
But those similarities are all nostalgia based, and if we are really honest with ourselves, intended to foster some sort of hope that this current roster is somehow special. It's cognitive dissonance at its finest. If you take an empirical look at the two teams, suddenly they couldn't seem any more different.
The 2002 Angels built their reputation on an uber-aggressive offensive attack that relied on situational hitting. That team lead the league in batting average and was third in steals and sixth in slugging percentage. They definitely didn't have a great line-up, but they were still very good even though they featured so many players with unimpressive credentials at the time (Scott Spiezio, Adam Kennedy, etc.). But anything the World Champion Halo hitters could do, this year's Angel hitters can do better. The '09 Angels also lead the AL in batting average, but are currently a full eight points better in that statistic. As for steals, the Angels currently sit at second in the American League but have already surpassed the 2002 season total for steals despite having 47 games left to go. And when it comes to power, the 2009 Angels make the 2002 Angels look like wimps with the third best slugging percentage, besting the championship team by a considerable 30 point gap. So even though the offensive philosophy has remained the same from 2002, the 2009 Angels simply execute it better.
Where the two teams look like total polar opposites though is on the mound. Whereas the 2002 Angels won because of their pitching, the 2009 Halos seem to be winning in spite of their pitching. As of right now, the 2009 Angels are 12th in the American League in ERA, just a touch below the 5.00 mark which can't even hold a candle to the 2002 Angels' ERA of 3.69, the second-best in the AL that year. The World Champion Angels enjoyed career years from Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz on their way to the title, not to mention an impressive rookie season from John Lackey and a fine campaign from veteran Kevin Appier. But that is only half the story. What made the Angels so impossible to beat was their lights out bullpen. Even though most people hadn't heard of Al Levine, Ben Weber or Brendan Donnelly prior to 2002 (or after, really), they combined with Troy Percival to give the American League fits, allowing a microscopic 2.98 ERA as a bullpen, which is especially impressive when you consider that this was back in a year when pretty much the entire league was on steroids (as opposed to just half the league now). Compare that to this year's bullpen which currently sits at 4.90, and it is obvious to see why not everyone is buying the 2009 Angels as real championship contenders. With a bullpen like that, it is hard to believe the Angels are even .500, much less vying for the league's best record.
Though the comparison of pitching staff seems pretty damning for this year's club, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, intangible though it might be. Probably the key driver to the 2002 Angel championship was the team attitude that nobody believed they could win, which was actually a literal truth at the time. This year's team may not have that same excuse now that the Angels have risen to elite franchise status, but they do have the unifying bond of suffering through so much hardship in the form of an overwhelming wave of injuries and, most of all, the death of a teammate. That team spirit alone could easily boost the Angels' post-season fortunes much like the underdog mentality elevated the game of the 2002 team. After all, the 2002 Angels were never really the best team in the league during their regular season, but they came together in the playoffs when the pressure is on, and if there has been one infallible characteristic of the 2009 Halos, it is that they get going when the going gets tough. Will it be enough to take home the title? I'd sure like to think so, but only time will tell.