August 10, 2011
Prospectus Hit and Run
What the Halo?
Back in mid-May, when we were all younger and more handsome, if not smarter, I predicted that the Rangers would pull away from the Angels—who led the AL West by a game and a half at the time—once injured sluggers Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz returned to the lineup. The two teams stayed close, but when Texas opened up a five-game lead while reeling off a 12-game winning streak that carried through the All-Star break, the division looked to be in their control. The Halos have refused to go quietly, however, and they remain in contention. They came to the Bronx last night just a game and a half out of first place and took the series opener from the Yankees in dramatic fashion, with Bobby Abreu socking two homers—including a two-run ninth-inning shot off Mariano Rivera.
Not including Tuesday night's games (none of the following stats do), here's how the two AL West rivals have done since the end of the Rangers' streak on July 20 as well as the way it's affected their Playoff Odds:
The two teams have closed ranks despite the Rangers outscoring opponents by nearly twice the margin as the Angels in that span, 24 to 13. You can chalk up much of Texas' failure to maintain a wider lead to a pair of blown saves by Rangers closer Neftali Feliz, but don't overlook the fact that the Angels have now gone an AL-best 29-14 since June 18, half a game better than the Yankees and Red Sox.
They've remained relevant largely due to pitching and defense, yielding an AL-low 3.64 runs per game thanks to the league's second-lowest home run rate (0.75 per nine), fourth-lowest walk rate (2.8 per nine), and third-best Defensive Efficiency (.708), and in spite of the league's fifth-lowest strikeout rate (6.6 per nine). Some of their run prevention owes to their ballpark, but even so, the team's Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency is second in the majors at 1.8 percent.
The team boasts an outstanding one-two punch at the front of its rotation. Jered Weaver's 1.78 ERA leads the AL, and while it's well ahead of his peripherals (2.56 FIP), he still rates as the league's most valuable pitcher; his 4.6 WARP is 0.1 ahead of Justin Verlander. He's in the midst of a six-game suspension because of his part in the theatrics that ensued when the two aces went head-to-head on July 31, so he won't face the Yankees this week. Dan Haren has rebounded from a shaky 2010 split between Arizona and Anaheim, posting the league's best strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.7) and second-best walk rate (1.3 per nine) while cutting last year's swollen homer rate in half, to 0.6 per nine; his 2.81 ERA, which is actually higher than his 2.70 FIP, ranks sixth in the league, and he's seventh in WARP. Meanwhile, third starter Ervin Santana has been as hot as any pitcher in baseball lately, allowing three earned runs in his last 34 innings spanning four starts—a span that includes his July 27 no-hitter against the Indians—and reeling off nine quality starts out of 10 with a 1.81 ERA.
The back of the rotation is a bit messier. Rookie Tyler Chatwood's 4.10 ERA masks ugly walk and strikeout rates (4.3 and 4.8 per nine, respectively), but the 21-year old has averaged just a whisker under six innings per start. He's done this despite accruing just 78 innings of experience between Double-A and Triple-A before his mid-April recall, which had the benefit of hastening the end of the Scott Kazmir era. Furthermore, he's fared better than Joel Pineiro, who after missing the first month of the season due to shoulder woes, has pitched his way to the bullpen thanks to three disaster starts in his last four turns, an overall 5.31 ERA, and the majors' second-worst strikeout rate of 3.7 per nine. 23-year-old power righty Garrett Richards, who began the year sixth on the team's top prospect list, has been recalled from Double-A Arkansas to debut Wednesday, but despite his 96 MPH heat, he's whiffed just 6.4 per nine this season.
Despite the back end's imperfections, the rotation boasts the league's best ERA (3.33), home run rate (0.7 per nine), and quality start rate (63 percent). The bullpen has been quite solid as well with the league's third-best ERA (3.39) and lowest rate of inherited runners scored (23 percent) despite middling peripherals. The team is 47-4 when leading after six innings—about 2.5 wins better than expected. 23-year-old rookie Jordan Walden took the closer role from the erratic Fernando Rodney early in the year and hasn't given it back. He's whiffing 9.6 per nine and has allowed just one homer in 45 innings, and while he's converted just 25 out of 32 save opportunities, the Angels have recovered to win three of those blown saves. Free agent lefty Scott Downs has posted a 1.45 ERA while allowing just two out of 21 inherited runners to score, and fellow lefty Hisanori Takahashi has gotten a good chunk of the high-leverage work as well, but the rest of the unit is in such a state of flux that—and I wish I were joking here—Horatio Ramirez has even been spotted on the roster. Rodney, who just returned from six weeks on the DL due to upper back woes, is slated to return to a setup role, but the question I'd like to know is why fellow righty Rich Thompson has been wasting away in low-leverage duty given his 9.9 strikeouts per nine and other decent peripherals; his 2.89 FIP backs up his 3.15 ERA, yet during this 12-6 spree, he's entered just one game when the Halos were ahead and another when they were tied, the latter in the 10th inning.
The Angels' offense is a considerably less robust proposition than their pitching. The raw rankings aren't pretty; they're second-to-last in scoring at 3.83 runs per game with a .250/.312/.382 line that ranks ninth, 12th, and 11th in its respective categories. They're 10th in both walks and homers, and even their .291 BABIP is a point below league average. Again, much of that is environmental; their one-year park factor, according to B-Ref, is 92, and once you boil down to True Average, they're a respectable eighth at .262.
They don't have much pop; just three players have more than eight home runs, and all of them are rather imperfect. First baseman Mark Trumbo (.261/.301/.495) leads the team in slugging percentage by a good 50 points but owns an appalling 82/13 K/UIBB ratio; that said, his production still tallies up to a team-high .296 TAv—tops among AL rookies with at least 200 plate appearances, if not as good as the marks Kendrys Morales provided in 2009 and 2010 before breaking his leg. Trumbo's most recent home run came against Felix Hernandez on Sunday: a 472-footer tied for the third-longest homer of the season. The execrable Vernon Wells is second on the team with 16 homers, but his overall line is so bad (.212/.246/.383) that the brain must forget it instantly as a defense mechanism. Torii Hunter, who has 14 homers, simply isn't what he used to be with the stick, hitting just .248/.319/.398, which doesn't wear as well on an aging right fielder as it does on a center fielder in his prime.
The Angels do at least have a few guys who can get on base. DH Bobby Abreu (.253/.367/.342) doesn't have much power left—he had just four homers coming into his Bronx bombing—but leads the team in OBP, one point ahead of Alberto Callaspo (.287/.366/.362) and eight points ahead of Howie Kendrick (.302/.359/.446). The latter got off to a hot start this season, a .322/.388/.520 line with seven homers through May 19, but since serving a stint on the DL for a left hamstring strain, he's hit a much more ordinary .283/.332/.377 with one homer and an unintentional walk rate (3.9 percent) that's about half of what it was prior. Utility-man Maicer Izturis (.268/.331/.382) continues to get on base as well.
Once you turn to True Average, the situation doesn't look quite so dire; in fact, the Halos are getting a .260 or better mark out of seven of nine positions:
Bourjous (.266/.318/.402) has been a pleasant surprise despite his 87/19 K/BB ratio, posting a True Average 44 points higher than his rookie season. It's tough to argue that he shouldn't be playing instead of Mike Trout, who hit just .163/.213/.279 in a 47-plate appearance stint before returning to Arkansas at the end of last month.
As ever, the real hole in the Halo is the continuing use of Mathis, the Replacement-Level Killer himself. He's hitting just.181/.226/.259 and throwing out 27 percent of baserunners while Conger is batting .214/.297/.357 but throwing out just 17 percent. The latter's deficiencies at preventing the steal add up to all of about two runs, assuming a steal is worth a quarter of a run and a caught stealing half of one; meanwhile he's been worth at least 10 runs more with the stick in less playing time. Complicating the situation is that Bobby Wilson (.182/.258/.273) still clings to a roster spot like a barnacle; he's out of options but has accumulated just 60 plate appearances, 25 of them in nine starts since the break compared to just six starts and 35 plate appearances prior. Now Scioscia wants to play him?
The Angels continue to run, of course. While their 98 steals are tied for fifth in the league, they've been caught 34 times (26 percent), and they're second-to-last in the AL at -2.2 EqSBR. They’ve managed to make up for it in other areas on the basepaths, however, with an overall 3.8 EqBRR that ranks fifth in the Junior Circuit.
Given their resiliency, it rates as a surprise that General Manager Tony Reagins did nothing at the trade deadline; at the very least, his team could have used another righty reliever and a lefty power bat off the bench, particularly since Rusell Branyan (.160/.283/.240 with one homer in 60 PA) has been such a nonfactor that he hasn't played since July 23 and has just nine plate appearances since the break. Then again, Reagins traded Mike Napoli for Wells and the entirety of his contract; perhaps Angels fans should thank their lucky stars he didn't trade Trout for Heath Bell.
While they lack the star power of Scioscia's earlier teams, this Angels club hasn't gone away yet. Tuesday night's win against the Yankees kicked off a 10-game stretch in which they’ll face New York and Toronto on the road then host the Rangers for a four-game set. As much as that will test their mettle, they can look forward to a relatively easy stretch after that with 14 out of 17 games coming against the Orioles, White Sox, Twins and Mariners, interrupted only by a three-game set in Arlington. Aside from the Angels series, the Rangers have 13 games against Boston and Tampa Bay over a comparable span. No, the West hasn’t been won yet.