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August 2, 2002
On a Wing and a Prayer
The Angels Buck Trends
The Mariners, Athletics and Yankees finished well ahead of the rest of the American League in 2001, in part because the three teams ranked 1-2-3 in the AL in fewest runs allowed per game.
Few people remember that the Angels finished fourth in that same category.
As an Angels fan, I was pretty sure run prevention wouldn't be a big problem in 2002. I was more worried about whether the offense, which finished 13th in the AL in runs scored per game in 2001, would score enough to contend. Some observers counted on Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon to rebound, which could realistically boost the Halos to the middle of the pack in runs per game. Designated hitter Brad Fullmer was the only addition to the lineup over the winter, so Anaheim was depending on the same players--guys like Garret Anderson and Adam Kennedy and Bengie Molina--to improve dramatically.
What concerned me most was that recent Angels teams had not demonstrated much ability to draw walks or hit home runs:
The aberrant 2000 season aside, my suspicion was that the Angels might be in for more of the same in 2002: a daily struggle to score runs brought on by the lack of walks and home-run power.
The Angels started the season 6-14. Offense was indeed a problem, but poor run prevention also contributed to the franchise's worst start ever through that many games.
Fast forward to August 1. Anaheim ended the month of July tied for the wild-card spot and trailed the Mariners by two games in AL West. They have improved their run prevention quite a bit since late April, and currently rank third in the AL in fewest runs allowed per game.
Has the offense improved as well? It has, but not in the way you might expect. Anaheim currently ranks just 12th in the AL in walks and 12th in home runs. Despite that, they rank fifth in the AL in runs per game, on the strength of a #4 ranking in batting average. Perhaps their success is predicated on being by far the toughest team in the AL to strike out.
Looking at the numbers more closely shows:
There is a significant positive correlation between drawing walks and hitting home runs, and scoring runs. Anaheim's run-scoring prowess comes in spite of how they do these things, not because of it. How rare is this? What are the chances of reaching the postseason with this type of offense?
I looked at all American League seasons since the expansion to 14 teams in 1977. I omitted the National League for two reasons. First, although I have no data to prove it, I thought the strategy of intentionally walking #8 hitters in the NL to get to the pitcher might skew the team walk totals based on managerial propensities. Second, the AL has had the same number of teams for the last 25 years.
I searched for all AL teams since 1977 with a similar profile to the 2002 Angels--ranking 11th or lower in both walks and home runs. From 1977-2001, there were 53 AL clubs that ranked among the bottom four teams in both categories, with at least one team turning the trick in every season. None of the 53 finished among the top four teams in runs per game. The average AL rank in runs per game was 12th. The best finish in runs per game during a non-strike season was the 2000 Royals, who ranked fifth. The 1989 White Sox were the only other team to finish even as high as eighth. In other words, the evidence indicates that extremely low walk and extremely low home-run totals are a very bad combination for an offense.
If the low-walk/low-home-run daily double is bad for scoring runs, what effect does it have on winning games? Only seven of the 53 teams posted a winning season, a mere 13%. The average winning percentage of the 53 teams was .443, which translates into a 72-90 record over 162 games.
Examining just the seven winning teams reveals a bit more. Their average winning percentage was .537, the equivalent of an 87-75 record. Their team batting averages varied enough that I could draw no conclusions. I was a bit surprised to learn, however, that the seven teams struck out at a variety of rates. At first I thought that perhaps extremely low strikeout rates were the key to scoring runs without walks and homers. More balls in play would, theoretically, mean more total hits falling safely. No such trend appears to exist in this case. Anaheim has no helpful precedent in either department.
On the other hand, the seven winning teams all ranked well in run prevention. They finished an average of third in fewest runs allowed per game, a recipe that the 2002 Angels seem intent on duplicating.
The only team of the 46 non-strike clubs to make the playoffs was the 1984 Royals. They took advantage of a down year in the AL West to win the division despite an ordinary 84-78 record. You might recall the eventual world champion Tigers made quick work of Kansas City in the ALCS.
What relevance does all this have for the 2002 Angels? The 25 most recent AL seasons demonstrate that this year's Halos are bucking enormous odds. Anaheim is currently on pace for 96 victories. The franchise high is 93 wins, set in the division-winning 1982 campaign. With Boston on pace for 96 wins and Oakland on pace for 91 wins, it looks like it will take 95-98 wins to travel the wild-card route into the playoffs. No AL club in the last 25 years with such low rankings in walks and home runs has won that many games. No Angels team has ever won that many games.
If you are tired of labor talk and prefer to focus on the games on the field, here is your angle. America loves a Cinderella story, and there may be one taking flight right before our eyes. No matter what happens the rest of the season, the 2002 Angels bear watching. They are one of the most unusual teams in recent AL history.
Shane Demmitt works for Tempe Diablo Stadium, spring training home of the Angels. He recently passed the California bar exam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.