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May 8, 2013
Every Thing That's Been Wrong with the Angels
There’s no Grand Theory here. I just keep getting asked—by people at church, family members, Ben—why the Angels have been so bad, and I just stutter a bunch of stuff about Albert Pujols’ legs, and Josh Hamilton’s slump, and Jered Weaver’s injury, and small samples. But it’s not just Albert Pujols’ legs, or Josh Hamilton’s slump, or Jered Weaver’s injury. Or even small samples. Of the 14 players who had starting jobs with the Angels on Opening Day—the nine regulars, and the five members of the starting rotation—11 are underperforming their PECOTA projections. Of the three who aren’t, Mike Trout is perceived as underperforming, and Peter Bourjos might soon be underperforming, as he sits on the DL and waits as games pass him by. And this doesn’t even include the bullpen, which has the American League’s 13th-best ERA, despite a pitcher’s park and a good group of defenders behind it.
So if somebody says it’s because of Hamilton, push back. If they say it’s because of Pujols, argue! It’s nearly the whole team, and this is simply an accounting of how it’s the whole team:
He has one hit to right field this year—not one homer, but one hit. In his career, he has gone to right field 20 percent of the time; in 2012, that figure dropped to 15 percent, and this year it’s down to 10 percent. This despite nearly all teams now employing heavy shifts against him that leave the second base position unoccupied. He can’t run. He has a .167 BABIP on grounders (career: .260), and the highest groundball rate of his career. It’s hard to tease out exactly how much of this is related to his lower-body problems, whether the foot pain affects his swing (he says no), and whether his lack of footspeed influences teams’ defensive shifts against him.
Huzzahs all around for these three.
What I found was that after a certain age, the low-walk hitters aged worse than the high-walk group. Not only did their production per plate appearance suffer a steeper drop, but their playing time tailed off more quickly, too. Because Jones was still just 26 when his extension was signed, I concluded that despite his impatient profile, the deal made sense for Baltimore… Hamilton’s employer, however, won’t have that luxury: his prime production is already past, and his decline phase is about to begin in earnest.
Hamilton has not, despite many narratives to the contrary, been swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone this year. He’s been swinging at a lot, but not more, cutting his O-Swing rate from 43 percent last year to 42 percent this year. (He’s cut his zone-swing rate by a similarly small amount.) He is not swinging and missing more this year; at pitches in the zone, the ones he wants to hit, he has improved from 77 percent to 80 percent. He is not the victim of pitchers suddenly discovering they can exploit his impatience; 45 percent of the pitches he has seen this year have been in the strike zone, compared to 40 percent last year. They are, at least, throwing him fewer fastballs.
So there’s a possible cause/effect issue here, where we don’t know if they’re throwing him more pitches down the middle because he can’t hit them, but in my experience teams don’t adjust to hitters nearly that fast. But, regardless, the point is that the narrative about Hamilton being on tilt and swinging at too many changeups out of the zone isn’t a great explanation for his struggles. He’s basically doing what he did when he was good; and now it’s not working, at all; which is encouraging, in the short term, suggesting the fundamentals of his economy remain strong; but would be extremely discouraging, if it persists, suggesting in that case that he has simply lost the ability to play baseball the way he used to. If you’re ungenerous with regards to random fluctuation over short time spans, you’ll look at this image and get pessimistic:
That’s Hamilton, on four-seamers, this year. Here’s Hamilton, on four-seamers, during the same stretch last year:
All in all, you’d rather see Hamilton struggling because he’s chasing too many pitches than because he has a slow bat.
Weaver is expected back this month. It’s fair to wonder about how effective he’ll be, considering the lost velocity, but his history of succeeding under 90 mph should earn him the benefit of the doubt. The Angels’ lack of rotation depth—they’ve now seen every pitcher on the 40-man roster, and none exactly opened any eyes—is likely to be an issue again, though.
Did sportswriters try to get you to talk about the injury last season?
So, Wilson says—and I think this is absolutely correct—that we never really know what physical things a player is dealing with, and we never really know what performance things a player is dealing with. We can tick off the checklist of the first things to look at:
And yet four times in six starts he has walked as many or more batters as he has struck out (in each case, at least four walks), and he has recorded just one out later than the sixth inning, and he leads the AL in walks. So it’s obviously not all peaches.
What it seems like is that Wilson is periodically fighting with his mechanics in the middle of innings. Four times this year he has unintentionally walked back-to-back batters, for instance. Six times he has unintentionally walked multiple batters in an inning. Overall, batters are hitting .286/.414/.444 against him with runners on base, and .216/301/.297 with the bases empty. (The league average OPS is typically 20 or 30 points higher with runners on base.)
Wilson has allowed a .364 BABIP with runners in scoring position and .254 with the bases empty. You’d expect those numbers to regress a lot, but, interestingly, not necessarily all the way. In his career, Wilson has allowed a .331 BABIP with runners in scoring position, and .274 with the bases empty. (It’s over about 1,000 plate appearances for the shorter half of the split.) League average difference the past few years has been a couple points in the other direction. That’s fascinating!
Within that group has been a decent core of relievers: Ernesto Frieri, Dane de la Rosa, Scott Downs, Michael Kohn, Burnett, and Richards. Those six should all be healthy and available once Burnett returns from the disabled list in a week, and Ryan Madson is now throwing off a mound, too.
So that’s the deal. A whole team playing badly, and in all sorts of different ways. They're 27th in baserunning. Opponents are 23 of 27 stealing bases against them. They've been worse hitting with runners in scoring position, and their opponents have been better hitting against them with runners in scoring position. They're slightly underperforming their run differential. Etc. If the Angels miss the playoffs again, we’ll probably remember one reason more than any other, like how last year’s Red Sox were the Bobby Valentine debacle and last year’s Blue Jays were injuries and last year’s Phillies were too old too fast. But it takes a lot of things going wrong to underperform by 20 wins, so stop asking me about it at church unless you’ve got nowhere else to be for a while.