Angels could be on cusp of a great rivalry with Astros

Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani have given Angels fans more than just some April fun -- they might help initiate a great AL West rivalry with the Astros. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

HOUSTON -- A rival evaluator who has seen the Los Angeles Angels recently raved about them in conversation here this weekend. "They've got the best defense in baseball," he said, and that was just the appetizer of what was a seven-course assessment.

The Angels have the world's best player in Mike Trout and the most interesting man in the baseball world in Shohei Ohtani. They've got the best shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, and two excellent defensive catchers. Zack Cozart appears to have been an excellent signing, and second baseman Ian Kinsler rocketed a home run in his first at-bat off the disabled list. They've got The Machine, Albert Pujols, who is off to a good start after a winter of upgraded conditioning work.

But the Houston Astros have this generation's Hit Machine in second baseman Jose Altuve. They've got George Springer, shortstop Carlos Correa, and an incredibly deep and diverse lineup. They have got phenomenal athletes.

"That's athletes with a capital A," the evaluator said.

The Astros also have what could be the best rotation in baseball -- Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel, plus Gerrit Cole -- who is probably baseball's best pitcher this month -- along with postseason heroes Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton.

The Astros are the world champions and seemingly serious candidates to become the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to win back-to-back titles. The Angels lead the majors in runs scored, and while there is fragility in their rotation, they could represent the greatest threat to the Astros in the AL West.

All of this means that the Astros and Angels will share baseball's best rivalry this season. Oh, sure, the history between the Dodgers and Giants is long and storied, and was once so stacked with competitive bitterness that when Brooklyn arranged a trade of Jackie Robinson, he retired rather than play for a team he had learned to despise. The brawl between the Red Sox and Yankees the other day could be a sign that those teams are entering a special chapter in their AL East duels.

But the must-watch head-to-head games this summer will be those played by the Astros and Angels because of the talent, the personalities and the joy with which the teams play. Their first series of this season begins April 23.

• Verlander starts for the Astros on Sunday Night Baseball, facing the Rangers and Bartolo Colon, and Houston's decision to trade for the right-hander could turn out to be one of the great value deals of the last decade. Remember that Verlander passed through waivers early last August -- meaning any team could have placed a claim on him, although Verlander would have had to have approved any move given his no-trade clause.

Because he cleared waivers, the Astros made the move for him. As Michael Bonzagni detailed with help from the Elias Sports Bureau, Verlander has been extraordinary, ranking second among starting pitchers with at least five starts since Sept. 1 last year with seven wins as well as his 0.76 WHIP, and third overall with a 1.20 ERA.

• From Elias and Sarah Langs of ESPN Stats & Information: During the course of Colon's career, the oldest hitter he has faced is Eddie Murray, born Feb. 24, 1956, and the youngest is Richard Urena, born Feb. 26, 1996 -- players born almost exactly 40 years apart.

• The most interesting man in the baseball world, Shohei Ohtani, makes his third start of the season on the mound Sunday in Kansas City, and the Royals hitters will try to solve the pitcher who has been a baffling mystery to two other teams. In his first two starts this season, Ohtani generated a staggering rate of missed swings -- 23.5 percent -- which is significantly higher than any other starting pitcher, including Chris Sale (19.5 percent), Patrick Corbin (17.9), Max Scherzer (17.6) and Gerrit Cole (17.5).

• After Verlander won his first Cy Young award, he was asked what he wanted to accomplish in his career, and his response reflected a unique confidence and personal standard. "I want to do everything I can," Verlander said, "to make the Hall of Fame." As he starts against the Texas Rangers on Sunday Night Baseball, Verlander's Cooperstown résumé is impressive -- he needs only 10 more wins for 200 and 61 more strikeouts for 2,500 -- and his adjusted ERA+ is 124, in the same statistical neighborhood as Hall of Famers Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver and John Smoltz.

News from around the majors

Baseball's new generation of thinkers have rightly destroyed a lot of the pillars of the status quo in baseball, from how infielders and outfielders are positioned to how pitchers are used. Here's another candidate for reassessment: the longstanding practice of shooing pitchers away from popups.

San Diego lost last weekend when first baseman Eric Hosmer had to run 80 feet or so from his position and botched a popup as the pitcher pointed from the mound -- in keeping with tradition. Some pitchers might actually be really good at catching popups -- perhaps even better than some of the infielders -- so why are they not allowed to pursue balls hit in the air when they might be in the best position to make the play?

I've never seen Scherzer catch a high pop in front of the mound, but knowing how competitive and athletic he is -- and having watched him catch footballs as part of his route-running workouts -- I'd bet on him catching popups over a lot of corner infielders. And in many instances, the pitcher has the better angle than the catcher to make the play because the pitcher is moving in, while the catcher has to move out in front of the plate, turn around and recalibrate. In the same way that an outfielder is given the right of way to call off infielders on pop flies just over the infield, pitchers should be able to wave off catchers.

Every spring, staffers haul an old-fashioned pitch machine out to home plate, shoot popups straight into the air and have catchers practice making this play. Why not include pitchers on this drill and see who is adept at catching popups, who is not, and reassess? Every team probably has pitchers who were former infielders and outfielders in their amateur days and are actually really good at tracking pop-ups.

• It was surprising that the Pirates' Clint Hurdle criticized the Cubs' Javier Baez out loud over a bat-flip the other day because most managers will refrain from commenting negatively about opposing players unless they are involved in some sort of beanball situation. But Hurdle's sentiments are in line with those of a whole lot of folks on other teams, who are greatly annoyed by what they perceive to be the look-at-me gestures of Baez and teammate Willson Contreras.

• The Braves' Ronald Acuna is regarded as baseball's next superstar prospect, and the outfielder is probably in his last days in the minor leagues. Just as the Cubs assigned Kris Bryant to the minors at the outset of the 2015 season to delay his free agency by a year, Acuna is playing in Triple-A, where he has started the season slowly. As soon as Acuna gets on a roll, he is likely to be called up to join an already intriguing Atlanta offense.

• Cubs manager Joe Maddon will probably never have to pay for a meal in Chicago again following the historic championship in 2016, but this could be a pivotal year in his Cubs' tenure. His contract expires at the end of the 2019, and after the team's sluggish 2017 performance, the chances of an extension could be greatly affected by what happens this summer.

Giancarlo Stanton's initial struggles distracted from the Yankees' greatest early-season concern -- a leaky bullpen. The Yankees' relievers were widely regarded as the best in baseball by rival evaluators, but so far this season Tommy Kahnle's velocity is down by 3 mph and he has more walks than innings pitched, while David Robertson and Dellin Betances have had tough moments. New York could probably win without a big year from Stanton, but they'll need more and better from the bullpen to keep up with the streaking Red Sox.

• A former player offered a really interesting idea for a possible leadership addition for the players' union: The Major League Baseball Players Association could hire someone who has worked as a general manager in recent years. That person would bring a lot of knowledge about MLB, about negotiations, etc., to the role.

• Last season, Aaron Judge hit .284 with 52 homers and 128 runs scored, and it looks as if he might have improved as he continues to master the art of hitting. Judge continues to demonstrate an acute understanding of the strike zone and early on again leads the AL in walks with 12.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

Friday: Karl Ravech addresses the question of whether Sho-Time is comparable to FernandoMania; Jessica Mendoza on the adjustments of Verlander and the Astros' four-man outfield; and Stephania Bell addresses injury questions around the Dodgers' Justin Turner, the Giants' Madison Bumgarner, the Red Sox's David Price, and the Mets' Michael Conforto.

Thursday: Keith Law opines on the Padres-Rockies and Yankees-Red Sox brawls and the way the pile moved in Fenway; Tim Keown, author of the extraordinarily detailed story of Ohtani's journey to the big leagues; and Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.

Wednesday: A great inside-the-game conversation with Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph, who was involved in two unusual plays within the span of three days -- a 1-2-5 double play and a question of whom to tag first in a rundown situation; Jerry Crasnick on the best rivalry in baseball in 2018 (it's not the Red Sox-Yankees); and Paul Hembekides on Gabe Kapler's start.

Tuesday: Boog Sciambi on Scherzer and pitchers catching infield popups, and Mark McGwire's view that he would've been a 70-homer slugger without PEDs; a chat with Mets' manager Mickey Callaway; and Langs plays The Numbers Game and mulls a mulligan for The Worst Prediction of the Year.

Monday: The Mets' Todd Frazier about the team's early play, his teammates and his post-career plans; Tim Kurkjian on the Mets, the Nationals and the unwritten rule that pitchers aren't allowed to catch popups; Todd Radom's quiz.

And today will be better than yesterday.