It's pretty easy to argue the Oakland Athletics are the best team in baseball, and maybe they are. After all, they do have the most wins, the best run differential and a rotation recently reinforced by Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. They could be headed for their third consecutive AL West title.
But don't count out those Los Angeles Angels, who quietly won 10 of 11 games heading into the break. They find themselves just a game and a half behind the A's and are no doubt thinking about earning more than just a wild-card spot.
So how did the Angels get to this position after finishing 18 games out the past season? Well, Mike Trout has solidified his position as the no-doubt best player in the game, but he was this great in 2012 and 2013 too, and it didn't get the Angels to October. Rebounds by Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton from disappointing 2013 seasons have helped of course, as has cutting out dozens of lousy starts from the 2013 group of Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jerome Williams.
But those improvements were countered somewhat by steps back and injury concerns from the veteran duo at the front of the rotation, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Rather, the biggest reason the Angels are 20 games over .500 at this point because of the emergence of a 26-year-old who can rightfully be thought of as the staff's ace: Garrett Richards.
Big arm, little production
For much of Richards' first two years in the big leagues, his reputation could be summed up as "great stuff without equivalent production." Very few starting pitchers can throw as hard as Richards: Of the 135 pitchers who threw at least 200 innings across 2012 and 2013, only five averaged more speed on their fastballs.