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August 18, 2011

The BP Broadside

While Scioscia Slept

by Steven Goldman

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That popping sound you heard out of Anaheim this week was not the closing fireworks at Disneyland, but the sound of the air escaping from a divisional race. The Angels were just two games behind the Rangers after beating the Blue Jays at Toronto on Friday, but since have dropped five straight, including three against the Rangers at home. In the first three games of the four-game series, the Angels were outscored 19-10, scoring four, three, and three runs, respectively.

Some of the letdown in the Rangers series has been bad timing; the Angels opened the four-game set on the back end of their rotation, so the rookies Garret Richards and Tyler Chatwood (who may moonlight as a character in a Jane Austen novel) started the first two games, a problem compounded by Richards straining his groin and departing after just two-thirds of an inning. Ervin Santana pitched and lost Wednesday, while Jered Weaver will complete the series, but should the Angels salvage the series’ final contest, trimming one game off of what is now a seven-game deficit will hardly have much impact.

This state of affairs, in which the Angels failed to take hold of a winnable race, is attributable to the lack of flexibility on the part of manager Mike Scioscia and a strange passivity on the part of general manager Tony Reagins and owner Artie Moreno. I don’t want to beat on the Jeff Mathis issue too much given that it’s so glaringly obvious, but you can’t escape the fact that what was until recently a close race was shaped by Scioscia’s choice of backstop/suicide weapon. Mathis, Hank Conger, and Bobby Wilson total up to -0.3 WARP this season. The Angels have often been within a couple of games of the Rangers, a space exactly the dimensions of the better catcher that the Angels don’t have—and/or Mike Napoli.

The historian Barbara Tuchman’s book The March of Folly concerns the “pursuit of policy contrary to self-interest.” According to Tuchman’s schema, in order to qualify as “folly or perversity” a policy “must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, and not merely by hindsight” and “a feasible alternative course of action must have been available.” Both conditions are met by the decision to embrace Mathis. More, Tuchman identifies “wooden-headedness, the source of self deception”:

It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs. It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts. It is epitomized in a historian’s statement about Phillip II of Spain, the surpassing wooden-head of all sovereigns: “No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence.”

Hey, Mike Scioscia, if the King Phillip fits, wear him—it takes a peculiarly stubborn mind to fail to recognize that even the greatest defensive glove cannot hope to make up for such massive offensive deficiencies—but that’s not the only problem. There are other strangely uncorrected flaws in this year’s operation. On Sunday, the Angels took themselves out of the top of the ninth inning in a tie game when a Mark Trumbo grounder with one out and Bobby Abreu on third resulted in a bizarre double-rundown that ended with Abreu out between third and home and Trumbo out between first and second. While this was an unusual play, it is not wholly uncharacteristic of Angels baserunning, which has been noted for a certain sloppiness this year. Our team baserunning report shows them as a middle-of-the-road team when running, with negatives in both the stolenbase and advancing on air outs opportunities.

As of the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, the Angels were just two games behind the Rangers. They had then the same problems they have now: an offense that has scored just 3.9 runs per game, tied for second-to-last in the league, a shaky young closer who needs assistance, and a starting rotation that has a wonderful top three but is having a hard time coping with the failures of Joel Pineiro and Scott Kazmir to perform given the inconsistency of their rookie replacements.  And, of course, there was the matter of obtaining a catcher who satisfied Scioscia’s perverse defensive priorities while also occasionally putting good wood on the ball. Yet, the Angels did not make a move.

The Angels have often been profligate off-season spenders only to pull up short when it came time to seal the deal. Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, Don Baylor arguing with management to bolster the team was an annual July tradition.  Their failure to do so led to embarrassments such as Jim Fregosi losing playoff games with the likes of Chris Knapp and John Montague. It was not a trading season overly deep in talent, nor is the Angels system drowning in top prospects once you get past Mike Trout, who was no doubt untouchable, and properly so. Despite this, teams with more remote chances than the Angels were able to make acquisitions.

Mike Scioscia has had a long and successful tenure in Anaheim, and has replaced Gene Mauch as the franchise’s iconic manager. Now, it seems as if the old boy may be suffering from hardening of the arteries; any manager who refuses to act when a player’s deficiencies are so apparent is problematic, as is a manager-general manager dynamic in which the latter will not push the former to replace that player by providing him with an unassailable alternative. Having not done that much, Reagins chose not to do anything at all. That the Angels made not even a token gesture on behalf of a club that was so close was a stunning gesture of surrender that has now been fulfilled in their current losing streak. That they meekly ducked out of the room at the same moment their opponent was adding the two most desirable relievers on the market in Mike Adams and Koji Uehara shows that only one side was playing to win.

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

Related Content:  Angels,  The Who

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Giving Scioscia a contract through 2018 was inexplicable.

Aug 18, 2011 01:29 AM
rating: 4

Agreed. He's not the genius many make him out to be.

Aug 18, 2011 04:51 AM
rating: 3

Rangers fans got 40 years worth or articles like these - articles that made the front office sound like buffoons (rightfully so) and comments that their division rivals were playing to win while Rome (well, Arlington) burned.

I'm a Rangers fan and always have been, so I keep wondering when they are going to go back to being the same old Rangers. With every day that goes by, that era gets more distant in the rear view mirror. I'm just so glad to see these same sorts of articles wrtten about division rivals instead.

Aug 18, 2011 05:17 AM
rating: 2

You have Jon Daniels and Thad Levine to thank for that!

Aug 18, 2011 06:33 AM
rating: 5
John Carter

It is long overdue for someone here to look at the Jeff Mathis issue more mathematically. Take catcher's ERA a step further and look at the RA or FRA for each Angels' pitcher over these last five seasons when Mathis has caught and compare it to the RA/FRA when Napoli has caught and when Conger has caught. Doing it on a pitcher by pitcher basis is more fair, if one catcher usually drew Weaver and Lackey, while another usually drew Kazmir and Saunders. Let's see if the diffence could possibly outweigh Napoli's hitting superiority - or even Conger's.

As I recall, Bill James' studies of catcher ERAs done long ago, didn't show a huge advantage to the catchers with the great defensive reputations. But that was a long time ago - not sure if my memory is accurate about that.

Aug 18, 2011 05:31 AM
rating: 0
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I agree with the Mathis assessment, but enough with Napoli. The guy is a complete choke with RISP - again (last night) a DP when a base hit could've broken the game wide open. How many HRs does he have? How many RBI does he have? The guy is a "mop-up" artist and not the answer to the Mathis woes. Please, lets try to be more objective - the Napoli comparison is old and relatively weak.

Aug 18, 2011 06:36 AM
rating: -7
David Coonce

If you're reading Baseball Prospectus with any regularity I think by now you know how completely useless the RBI stat is.

Aug 18, 2011 07:08 AM
rating: 1

Your comment is not supported by the facts. In 2011, in game situations considered late and close, Napoli is hitting .270/.325/.568. In high leverage situations, he is hitting .244/.354/.561. With runners in scoring position and 2 outs he is hitting .280/.438/.760

I have no doubt you recall specific situations when he failed in crucial moments, but as with all anecdotal evidence those memories drown out the reality. There is factual evidence that in some cases he has failed to drive in key runs, but no more than any productive hitter does, and of course given the sample size hardly a signifier of much.

Many fans have picked on particular players they recall having failed when they were watching and assume they choke. I knew a Mets fan who thought Strawberry only homered when games were out of reach. That was factually incorrect, but no amount of clear evidence could change his mind. He knew what he saw and assumed it reflected TRUTH.

Incidentally, if you look at Napoli's career stats in "clutch" situations, you have a better point, but even in that case you are oversimplifying.

Aug 18, 2011 07:44 AM
rating: 15

Even if this were true, a choking Mike Napoli is more dangerous than Mathis at his best.

Aug 18, 2011 07:57 AM
rating: 10
Vince Galloro

"Back in the late 1970s and early 80s, Don Baylor arguing with management to bolster the team was an annual July tradition."

If so, it seems that Baylor was at least 16 days too late every year.

Aug 18, 2011 07:57 AM
rating: 0

Other than catcher - unsurprisingly ex-catcher Mike Scioscia's blind spot - were there any other holes Reagins could have filled? I don't recall any of the Replacement Level Killers being Angels other than Mathis. Their bullpen overall has been solid, too, hasn't it?

So to buff up the Angels' pennant chance, Reagins would have had to bring in a very good player. Which I don't think was even available (no, I do not count Beltran; hitting far better than PECOTA figures he should, and anyone surprised by his now being on the DL hasn't been paying much attention the past few years). And to get him, Reagins would've had to move Trout, or perhaps shred the entire rest of the Angels' farm system.

Reagins has handled the past few months exactly as he should. The off-season, well ...

Aug 18, 2011 09:15 AM
rating: 2

I have to agree. The Angels could have gone after another starter. Other than that, they have the same team as was hitting well & winning before the Rangers buzz saw hit them. Carlos Pena was there but they wouldn't offer any players or pay any money for him. I think it's more of a case of not being able to compete with Texas straight up.

Aug 18, 2011 10:44 AM
rating: 2

Really? This team could easily hide an under-performing Jeff Mathis IF Vernon Wells was putting up average numbers. Blaming the Angels demise on a light-hitting catcher? Put the blame where it belongs, squarely on the shoulders of the $25M dollar man, Vernon Wells! There are plenty of issues between Scioscia and Reagins too, but all would be masked if Wells was pulling his weight.

Aug 18, 2011 14:04 PM
rating: 1

But light-hitting catcher is putting it very mildly. He's one of the worst hitting catchers of all time. You can't hide his ineptitude, even with a 2005 Vernon Wells.

Aug 18, 2011 14:08 PM
rating: 4

The Angels have been on a bad streak, but no one thought they'd be this close to the Rangers in mid-August in the first place. This is a fair criticism of management- Mathis and Wells are really inexplicable - but looking at the last 12 years, I wouldn't count Scioscia's Angels out in the future. He's shocked fans with jettisoning Rodney and Kazmir the first week of the season and have remained in the hunt this far playing plenty of kids.

Aug 18, 2011 14:40 PM
rating: 0

Aybar hitting .107 in August .202 since the All-Star break.
Wells hitting .138 in August
Callaspo hitting .209 in August
Wilson hitting .190 in August

Long time Angel fans are used to August or late summer swoons.

If Reagins' feet aren't held to the fire by Arte, the local Press, or the fans then all is for naught. Excellence only comes by expectation and if no one acts like they expect the Angel's to succeed, then why should they try? Perhaps all Angel fans care about are Friday fireworks and rally monkeys.

No one expected this year's Angels to compete and I for one hope they go down in epic August/September failure so that no one in the organization holds any false hopes regarding this current roster and their chances of success next year.

The current status of the Angels has very little to do with Mr. Mathis.

Aug 18, 2011 17:44 PM
rating: 1
John Carter

Another possible way to measure catcher defense is to see if there is an increase in strikeouts with one catcher catching the same pitcher vs. another. Strikeouts are probably a better measure of success or failure than RA or ERA, anyway.

Aug 18, 2011 20:39 PM
rating: -2
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