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January 31, 2011

Purpose Pitches

Anaheim's Winter of Discontent

by Christina Kahrl

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Los Angeles gives one the feeling of the future more strongly than any city I know of. A bad future, too, like something out of Fritz Lang's feeble imagination. --Henry Miller

Usually, criticisms of the state of affairs in Southern California hone in on well-worn complaints, like superficiality in achievement or personality, or a strangling inability to get anywhere despite all sorts of expense, or its lack of a coherent, organizing center. Or diseased bats that menace all who come in contact with them. And that's just the Angels.

Consider general manager Tony Reagins' lot as we head towards pitchers and catchers and the opening of camps in just a few short weeks. After all sorts of speculation, and after so many busy winters in past seasons, the Halos wound up with no Carl Crawford, and no Adrian Beltre. There was no late, spoiling cameo as the mystery third contestant in the Cliff Lee sweepstakes. There were -- initially -- no major trades for major stars who were on the move, not for Dan Uggla or Zack Greinke or Adrian Gonzalez. Up until a very short time ago, even the Dodgers, purportedly prostrated by McCourt squabbling, managed a more dynamic winter by re-inking Ted Lilly and adding Juan Uribe to their infield. In contrast, the Angels settled for letting people leave, while inking a pair of veteran lefty relievers to not-inconsiderable contracts. Between that and the anticipation that Kendry Morales would come back and bop, it made for fairly thin fare to make it through the winter with.

Suitably embarrassed after being serially spurned, the Angels of course couldn't leave Wells enough alone, sticking themselves with a pair of unsupportable propositions: that Vernon Wells is a reliable premium run-producer, and that Jeff Mathis is a regular backstop. Saying something doesn't make it so, no matter how often it gets said, and no matter how big the lie. However, once you get past the sticker shock, the trade should at least net them some defensive gains by swapping in Wells for Abreu. If you're feeling defensive about the deal in its merits beyond general gloveliness, you can argue that, on the basis of last season, swapping Wells (.291 TAv) for Hideki Matsui (.294) represents an offensive push. But we already know Wells is far from a sure thing to be able to bank on that sort of season.

A full season with Morales back really should provide significant offensive improvement if he simply keeps cranking True Averages in the .290s. In terms of impact, that's roughly equivalent to the Tigers adding Victor Martinez, and an upgrade on the dealt-away Mike Napoli in a regular slot. As far as the other moving parts in the lineup, if Peter Bourjos (projected for a TAv in the .240s) starts in center field, that represents another lineup slot committed to a low-OBP, low-powered regular who's being bet on to add fuzzy virtues like speed and defense and hustle. That's great, but the Angels are going to need runs.

The Angels having changed so little from their previous combinations of talent, beyond the virtue of getting Morales back in the lineup, you might also expect that there is still some room for improvement -- mostly as a matter of that sabermetric staple, regression. Consider what happened with the rest of the regular infielders in last year's lineup:

Dude and Year
Age
ISO
UBBr
SOr
TAv
Howie Kendrick, 2009 25 .152 4.8% 17.8% .267
Howie Kendrick, 2010 26 .128 3.9% 14.3% .264
Erick Aybar, 2009 25 .111 5.2% 9.7% .270
Erick Aybar, 2010 26 .077 5.8% 13.8% .243
Maicer Izturis, 2009 28 .134 7.6% 9.4% .277
Maicer Izturis, 2010 29 .113 8.8% 11.4% .258
Alberto Callaspo, 2009 26 .156 7.6% 8.0% .279
Alberto Callaspo, 2010 27 .109 4.7% 7.0% .248

Obviously, that's a lot of supporting cast players losing ground from one year to the next, with Kendrick's desultory disappointments perhaps rating as the closest thing to consistency. As a matter of happy accident alone, you might anticipate a bit of a move back towards previous standards, because this is a group of young veterans generally near the back end of the window for their statistical peaks. Something more like 2009 levels of production from all four would go far in giving the Angels an infield stocked with interchangeably useful hitters at second, short, and third.

However, because Kendrick and Aybar are both considered lineup staples, third base is the lineup's one great remaining conundrum. While Beltre would have fixed this, the Angels' variety of options shouldn't be discarded outright as far as playable alternatives. Izturis played through an injury-spoiled season as best as he could, while Callaspo's 30-point drop to a .248 TAv in his age-27 season was a product of his meltdown post-trade to the Halos, and tracked that plummeting walk rate.

The name not mentioned is Brandon Wood, out of options and hope after a season-long disasterpiece as a core component in last season's hot corner replacement-level killers. A 12:1 K/UBB ratio is some brand of special, but Wood's .121 True Average was the worst ever in Retrosheet-recorded history by any player to get as much playing time as he did last year (243 PAs). But as horrific as that was, Wood's translated performances as a prospect were nothing like that level of horror -- instead, they suggest another guy with an OBP problem, and a .240/.300/.460 line (and a .260 TAv) with good defense at third base would still be a worthwhile alternative to the current crew of options. But can the Angels find that player in Wood? Or is it going to require a change of scenery?

Speaking of specific pistons to failed to fire, the rotation has its own empty jersey to try to breathe new life into. You might anticipate that Scott Kazmir cannot possibly be as bad in 2011, for example, at least not in terms of his full impact on the Angels' season; if he continues to pitch this badly, he won't get 20 starts to wreak his damage in, let alone 30. Unfortunately, last season's performance isn't one that lends itself to simple statistical misfortune: Posting a SIERA of 5.31 put Kazmir among the 10 worst pitchers in baseball. Can pitching coach Mike Butcher fix him? If so, he would underscore an underrated area of strength. Last year's rotation ranked fourth in the AL in SNLVAR despite just a partial campaign from Dan Haren (3.44 SIERA), added to the big three of Jered Weaver (2.97), Joel Pineiro (3.94), and Ervin Santana (4.29). The Angels' possession of the division's best rotation may be the most overlooked bit of info in AL West prognostications, but getting Kazmir sorted out would put an exclamation point at the end of that proposition.

Maybe there's some form of faith that these things really will just get better with lots of hard work, whether among the infield crew, or from Kazmir. In The Literal Meaning of Genesis, that old cutup St. Augustine cautioned us against taking mathematicians seriously, especially when they tell you the truth; by tradition from the non-canonical Book of Enoch, we got mathematics -- and wisdom, and written language, and meteorology, and even cosmetics (good makeup?) -- from a bunch of fallen angels, who may or may not be redeemable (apparently Olympic judges await us all). These Angels will make do as best they can, trying to tap into the unrealized or squandered potential of Wood and Kazmir, because really, what choice do they have? In each case, they're salvage projects where the answers will have to be achieved through scouting and coaching, because for both there is no certain recovery to be dredged up from the data.

Which brings me to my last point. Predictions of the Angels' fall from the grace of contention have been issued repeatedly, year after year, as the A's, Mariners, and Rangers have each been in vogue like so many sabermetric fashions. The A's had defense and pitching and brains, and then the Mariners seemed to have all of those things, yet in both cases the too-soon predictions of contention became the latest analytical fads dropped like pet rocks. The Rangers did finally succeed because, beyond getting defensive, they doggedly built up a farm system to sustain any success while landing two key outfielders, Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, in deals that should rank as career-makers for Jon Daniels.

But one of the most reliable reasons why analysts have kept picking the Angels to lose is their reliable annual outperformance of their expected record, because we resort to regression like a bad habit. It's what is supposed to happen. But even last year, in their fall to 80-82 and a third-place finish, the Angels were the AL's best overachievers in the standings, finishing six games better than expected in Clay Davenport's third-order winning percentage. While not quite of the same standard as their three-year run of finishing a combined 34 games above their expected record in 2007-09, Mike Scioscia's squad is still averaging 10 wins above expected record over the last four campaigns.

How did they do it this time? Beyond that rotation, it wasn't with an especially good bullpen, since they were mid-pack by various metrics. The defense rated ninth in the circuit by PADE. The lineup rated an awful 26th in team-level True Average, behind not just 11 AL clubs, but also 14 NL teams that counted their pitchers' hitting instead of a DH's production. Nor did they do it with execution on the little things, the sort of classic inside game Scioscia weds to a canny calculation of the odds; per BIS' Manufactured Runs, they were just eighth, and they ranked next-to-last in the majors in Equivalent Baserunning Runs.

At some point, this kind of reliable outperformance of expected record has to be accepted as something more than a consistent surprise. If it is instead a reflection of the value of one of the game's few aggressive offensive tacticians in an age of extraordinary tactical stasis, the Angels still have that going for them. That, the strength of that rotation, and fixing a pair of otherwise irretrievably broken ballplayers might add up for grounds for a bounce-back mountain that puts the Angels back on top in a still-weak division. It isn't something I'd bet on, but then again, the Angels have been defying our expectations for so long that it would be foolhardy to discount them as dead already. As Henry Miller also said, "The world dies over and over again, but the skeleton always gets up and walks."

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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