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April 3, 2008
Thanks to a terrific outing by Joe Saunders, the Angels moved to 2-1 last night with a 1-0 win over the Twins. Saunders went eight innings, walked just one and struck out four, getting 14 of his 24 outs on the ground, including double plays in the seventh and eighth frames.
It's the other number I want to take a look at today, the one in front of that dash. This piece, and basically everything I write before August, comes with the caveat that the outputs that trigger ideas aren't very reliable. The Angels' scoring two runs or less in two of their first three games isn't meaningful, nor is it enough to build a conclusion around. This piece is about the process, not the results.
Think about lineup building for a second. Throw out all the received wisdom, throw out even what you know about sabermetrics or tactics, everything Bill James or James Click or Mitchel Lichtman might have taught you. Just get it down to first principle, which is this: the good guys should bat more than the bad guys. That's how you built lineups for kickball on the playground, or how your Little League coach put together an order. Good guys first, not as good guys next, guys playing because they have to play last.
Now add a little more information. "Good" can be measured in any number of ways, but we know that the most important trait for any hitter is the frequency with which he doesn't make outs. Outs are the clock, and any time that clock doesn't tick, good things can happen. So you want to have the guys who don't make a lot of outs batting well ahead of the ones who do. If you had no information other than that-my people call it "on-base percentage"-you'd put the higher numbers in front of the lower ones and take your chances. A lineup in which everyone batted in order of OBP, highest to lowest, wouldn't be optimal, but it'd get you a lot of the way there. At the least, a lineup should cluster those guys together, with the better OBPs hitting high and the lesser ones hitting low. At this point, issues such as power, speed and handedness can come into play, but the first principle should be the guiding one.
No team is going to bat guys in OBP order. However, something like 1-3-2-5-4-6-7-9-8, where the numbers represent OBP rank among starters, is what you want to shoot for, more or less. If you're the Cubs, it's hard because your best OBP guys don't look like #1 or #2 hitters, and your #1 and #2 hitters don't have much OBP. Most good teams can fill those spots reasonably well.
The Angels…the Angels have a very peculiar approach. This was their lineup the first two nights; on the third, the top seven was exactly the same as well:
The number after each name is the player's PECOTA-projected OBP. The lineup the Angels have, using that method above, is 3-6-1-9-7-2-8-5-4. That means two of their top five OBP guys bat in the bottom two spots, while three of the worst five bat in the top five. I can't say I know for sure what "optimal" is, but I'm certain this isn't it. The Angels have their sixth-best OBP, a player who doesn't have very much power, batting second. They have their second-best OBP, a player who also hits doubles and some home runs, batting sixth. They have their worst OBP guy, a player with middling power, batting fourth.
There are a number of things that could be addressed here, but I want to focus on the #2 and #6 spots. Frankly, I think PECOTA's assessment of Gary Matthews Jr.'s. ability is out to lunch, a situation where the only good season of a player's career is having a deleterious effect on accuracy in a projection. Matthews remains a fourth outfielder who leveraged a batting-average spike in 2006 into a $55 million contract. In the years he doesn't hit .313-all but one-his OBPs have ranged from .314 to .354, and at 33 years old, he's well past the point of development, and in fact at an age when falling off a cliff is a possibility. His 2005 (.255/.320/.436) and 2007 (.252/.323/.419) performances are right in line with one another, and put the lie to 2006's .313/.371/.495.
Meanwhile, Kotchman finally had a complete healthy season last year (by his lights, anyway; he played 137 games) and hit .296/.372/.467. This is consistent with his minor league performance, and at 25, he's a fair bet to improve upon those numbers. A left-handed batter with excellent plate discipline, Kotchman has the swing to take advantage of holes created by a runner being held on first base, and in 2007 he began getting the ball in the air a bit more, helping lower his double-play rate. He was a better hitter, by far, than Matthews last year; he was a better hitter than Matthews when he was a prospect and Matthews a journeyman; he'll be a better hitter than Matthews from here on out.
We're seeing the Angels have to manage their way out of an organizational mistake, and doing a poor job of it. The Matthews contract was a mistake on the day it was signed, and the subsequent signing of Torii Hunter to a five-year, $90 million contract sealed that assessment. With Matthews on the roster, however, and having all the trade value of a first-grader's tuna-and-sprouts-on-wheat, there's an organizational imperative to play him, even at the expense of the offense. Last year, Matthews at least provided his inadequate offense while playing a good center field. So far this year, he's been the DH twice and the left fielder once, and he doesn't come within a time zone of acceptable at either spot. Reggie Willits, who gets on base more often, plays better defense, and is better at basestealing, has been relegated to a bench role so that Matthews can play-no, so that Matthews' contract can play. Juan Rivera is never going to see the light of day because of Matthews, and if the sole qualification is "offense," he's about as good a player. Kendry Morales, only 25 and coming off a good partial season with the Angels last year, is back in Salt Lake after seeming to figure it out last season. He'd make a better DH than Matthews will.
Gary Matthews Jr. is a decent fourth outfielder. At 33, he's a marginal center fielder. As a corner man or DH, he's a killer. All of these things were true on the day he signed his contract, of course, but the extra 30 hits in 2006 fooled the Angels. When he plays left field ahead of Willits, the Angels lose ground. When he DHs ahead of Morales, the Angels lose ground. When he bats second instead of Kotchman, the Angels lose ground.
Even in a weak AL West, the Angels don't have that much more ground to lose.