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April 30, 2013

Western Front

Walked By an Angel

by Geoff Young

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You probably know that the Angels' expensive, aging stars aren't hitting. Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton have combined for a .231/.305/.344 line through the season's first 3 ½ weeks; they have been out-homered by that deadly Milwaukee tandem of Yuniesky Betancourt and Yovani Gallardo.

It's fun to say these things out loud, if only because we won't always be able to do so. And while the slow starts of Pujols and Hamilton have contributed to the team's poor showing, and the offense overall has been below average, the Angels find themselves in fourth place as April draws to a close because they have done a lousy job of preventing runs.

Before holding an anemic Mariners offense to two runs on Sunday, the Angels were one of three American League teams to allow more than five per game. Even after that performance, they rank among the junior circuit's worst:

Team

R/G

IP

H/9

HR/9

BB/9

K/9

ERA

Astros

5.92

215.2

10.7

1.5

4.0

6.3

5.51

Blue Jays

5.00

232.0

9.2

1.1

3.6

7.1

4.46

Angels

4.96

217.1

9.6

1.3

3.9

6.8

4.72

Indians

4.86

193.0

8.3

1.4

3.8

8.3

4.57

Athletics

4.73

231.0

9.3

0.9

2.8

7.2

4.32

Mariners

4.41

241.1

8.5

1.4

2.5

8.1

4.21

First off, these are the only teams that have allowed more than league average (4.31) runs per game. Four of the six play in the AL West. If you think this says something about the division, consider that the league's best staff belongs to the Rangers, who are allowing 3.20 runs per game, a full third of a run better than second place Boston.

Returning to our table, the Astros, as we might expect given their paucity of big-league talent, are in a class by themselves. The Blue Jays are... well, my pre-season pick to win the World Series this year. We'll speak of them no more.

Then come the Angels, who, until recently, had the AL's highest BB/9. While throwing strikes doesn't guarantee success (see Athletics and Mariners), it usually is a better strategy than not throwing them.

In Anaheim, Garrett Richards and Jerome Williams are limiting their walks and getting good results. Joe Blanton is catching way too much plate and getting hammered (his 3.0 BB/9 is undermined by a .379/.418/.645 opponent batting line that actually was worse before Saturday night's start in Seattle). Michael Roth, Dane De La Rosa, and Tommy Hanson get passing marks as well. Most everyone else, though, has been plagued by substandard control.

Starter C.J. Wilson (5.2 BB/9) and closer Ernesto Frieri (6.8 BB/9) have been the chief culprits. In their defense, Wilson and Frieri aren't known as control artists. Wilson led the AL in walks in 2010, while Frieri owned a career 4.5 BB/9 entering the season.

Jason Vargas had been a part of the problem, too, until his most recent start. This is noteworthy because the ability to throw strikes has been Vargas' primary asset throughout his career. He averaged 2.8 BB/9 before 2013, but was at 4.2 through his first four starts.

I know, I know, it's four starts. But Vargas' highest BB/9 over any four-start stretch last year was 3.3, from July 16 to July 31. This is hardly cause for alarm, but Vargas has already done something that he never did in 2012, so it at least deserves our attention. The last time he had a 4.2 BB/9 over four starts was from May 18 to June 3, 2011.

So it happens, just not very often. And last time, at least he wasn't giving up many hits:

Dates

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

K

5/18/11 – 6/3/11

23.2

20

11

11

3

11

16

4/5/13 – 4/23/13

21.2

34

14

14

2

10

10

Could be something, could be nothing. After I started writing this, Vargas walked two batters in eight innings against the Mariners to bring his season average to a more respectable 3.6 BB/9. Seattle has scored fewer runs per game this season than any big-league team not being torn asunder by Jeffrey Loria, so there is little incentive to walk its batters (as one wag commented when Vargas was traded to the Angels, “Now he gets to pitch against the Mariners”), but still.

Connoisseurs of irony will note that Vargas lost Sunday's game at Safeco, 2-1, on two solo homers. This is the man who tied an MLB record by allowing 26 road home runs last year and who received a “large benefit from Safeco Field.” His old ballpark now has new dimensions, but both bombs on Sunday would have left either version.

Wilson's problem, meanwhile, is that his at-bats last forever. He walked a season-low two batters in his most recent start (again in Seattle), but needed 110 pitches to work 5 1/3 innings. Of the 26 batters he faced, 11 saw five or more pitches.

Six of the 82 plate appearances in that entire contest lasted seven or more pitches, with Wilson accounting for half of those. In the fourth, he issued a nine-pitch walk to Mike Morse. In the sixth, he surrendered a single to Kelly Shoppach on the eighth pitch. And in the fifth, he struck out Justin Smoak swinging on seven pitches.

Wilson is throwing the same percentage of pitches for strikes (61%) this year as last, and he's actually throwing more first-pitch strikes (62% vs. 57%; his career mark is 56%). While it's nice that he's getting ahead of hitters, the fact that he isn't putting them away is troublesome. Or, if not troublesome, then at least irritating.

But spotty control is nothing new for the veteran southpaw. As we noted in the 2013 Annual:

The issue is strikes, and his 61 percent strike rate is an impediment. Only five AL starters (minimum 140 innings) threw fewer strikes than Wilson in 2012, and the five combined for a 5.18 ERA. Getting back to 63 percent, Wilson's 2011 rate, doesn’t sound like much, but it would put him in better company.

Wilson hasn't been awful; he has just been inefficient. And even in a league whose managers usually don't have to worry about lifting their pitchers when they're due to bat, this places an unnecessary burden on the bullpen. Among AL teams, and even after Vargas went the distance on Sunday, only the Astros' and Blue Jays' relievers have faced more batters per game so far than the Angels'. Only the Astros' have allowed more runs.

As for Frieri, wildness has always been a part of his game. It's an odd trait in a closer, but so far he is making it work. The same funk in his delivery that leads to walks also leads to a ton of strikeouts, and when you look at the all-time leaders in K/9 (minimum 100 IP), it seems like nitpicking to complain about the occasional free pass:

  1. Craig Kimbrel  , 15.7
  2. Kenley Jansen, 14.3
  3. Aroldis Chapman, 14.3
  4. Rob Dibble, 12.2
  5. Ernesto Frieri, 12.0
  6. Greg Holland, 12.0
  7. Brad Lidge, 11.9
  8. Billy Wagner, 11.9
  9. David Robertson, 11.9
  10. John Rocker, 11.7

Again, we are dealing with small samples, but it's worth noting that Frieri is getting ahead of hitters more often and resolving plate appearances more quickly this season than in the past. Intuitively, these seem like positive changes:

Year

PA

Pit/PA

Str%

S/Str%

1st%

2010

582

4.55

64

23

59

2011

1133

4.09

62

19

56

2012

1198

4.44

65

25

56

2013

163

3.88

62

31

71

I've also included his total percentage of pitches thrown for strikes (Str%) and percentage of strikes that are swinging strikes (S/Str%) because I find them intriguing. In the early going (and I can't stress enough that we're looking at a total of 42 batters), he isn't throwing more strikes than before, but he is getting more guys to swing and miss.

It's reasonable to expect Frieri's Pit/PA, S/Str%, and 1st% to return to their historic happy places, but what if they don't? What if he really has figured out how to get ahead of hitters and get them to miss more of his pitches?

Well, it's possible. He did add a cutter this spring. He still throws his 95-mph four-seam fastball more than 80 percent of the time, but the 79-mph curve and 83-mph slider have been replaced by a harder 87-mph cutter that has less horizontal but more vertical movement.

So yeah, maybe.

Did I mention that Frieri has faced only 42 batters so far this year? Keep the quicker plate appearances, more swinging strikes, more first-pitch strikes, and cutter in mind, but don't go nuts just yet.

And remember that wildness is a part of Frieri's game. As I noted in June 2012, “Frieri doesn't always know where his pitches are going, but neither do the guys he's facing.” You take the bad with the good, especially when it's that good.

* * *

There was a larger point to be made here, but I've forgotten what it was. Between starting this article and finishing it, I spent a weekend in Los Angeles cavorting with many bright and fascinating minds at the BP Dodger Stadium shindig. I learned so much from talking to Jason Parks and Doug Thorburn, among many others, that whatever was in my head before has since disappeared.

It's a little unsettling. The fact that the Angels are issuing so many walks early in the season seemed important a few days ago. Now it has been downgraded to interesting but only possibly important.

Meanwhile, Pujols and Hamilton aren't hitting. That might be more important after all. But it seems less interesting.

There are too many ways to examine a game, a month, a season. It overwhelms. How does anyone make sense of anything?

Then again, that's less of a baseball problem and more of a life problem. And, if you ask me, a good problem to have.

Oh yes, now I remember. Angels pitchers should throw more strikes.

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