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February 1, 2012

Heartburn Hardball

All That Heaven Will Allow

by Jonathan Bernhardt

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The most famous play of Peter Bourjos’s major-league career to date comes in the bottom of the fourth inning in the Bronx on August 10, 2011, with the Yankees already out to a 5-0 lead. Bourjos is set up in center and just a few steps towards right when New York infielder Eduardo Nuñez is late on a 3-2 fastball and lines it into the right field gap. Both Bourjos and Hunter break for the ball; it’s closer to Hunter, and he dives…inches short. Less than inches short. He’s so close to catching it that it almost looks like he tips it with his glove, but the ball continues on its course untouched.

Good thing, too, because as Hunter extends in mid-air to make a highlight-reel-worthy play on the ball, Bourjos comes streaking out of nowhere behind him and gloves the ball knee-high on the run, stops, plants, and delivers the ball back towards second, where the Angels almost double up a disbelieving Russell Martin. In the three, maybe four seconds between Nuñez making contact with the outside fastball and Bourjos retiring him, the Angels center fielder crossed from medium-deep center to make a play in front of the scoreboard in right and remained on his feet while doing so, allowing him to try for the double play. The putout makes highlight reels across the country; after all, it has a spectacular dive, an out, and a near-collision in the outfield. It’s not really important which of the outfielders was responsible for what.

That sort of play is the calling card of a fantastic defensive center fielder: a play on a ball well outside his expected zone of defensive responsibility made due to a combination of speed, a good first step, and a great route to the ball that left him in a position to make an outfield assist if the situation presented itself. It is not, however, the only play Bourjos makes in center field that inning.

When the bottom of the fourth begins, the score is only 3-0 in favor of the home team. The leadoff batter is Robinson Cano, facing Angels pitcher Garrett Richards for the second time. His first at-bat lasted three pitches before he put a double in the right field gap. His second at-bat lasts only one.

Cano takes Richards’ get-me-over fastball into the left field gap this time, and Bourjos charges after it. He has to decide how he wants to play the ball as he takes his first step: Will he chase the ball and try to make a catch on it, or will he circle behind it, keep the ball in front of him, and play it on a bounce? If he chases the ball and catches it, then all is right with the world. If he misses, though, left fielder Vernon Wells won’t be in position to back him up; the ball will roll to the wall. If he plays the ball on a bounce, he’ll be deep enough that Cano will at least try for two; he might be able to get him, or Cano might be in there standing. Bourjos has to decide—now—if he wants to try for the out and maybe give up a triple, or give Cano the hit and try to get him out at second.

Like he does when Eduardo Nuñez hits his Richards fastball into the right field gap, Bourjos decides to make a play on the ball. Unlike Nuñez’s liner, however, Cano’s has a nasty late break; as it leaves the infield it starts to hook away from the young center fielder, towards left field. If the ball stays straight, maybe Bourjos makes the play, maybe he doesn’t. But like Hunter will moments later, Bourjos dives for the ball…and just barely misses. It rolls to the wall before Wells can retrieve it, and Cano goes into third base standing with a triple. It takes the next Yankee batter, Nick Swisher, two pitches to drive him home with a single to right.

It’s an interesting half-inning for the Angels defense, and in this kind of context, “interesting” very rarely means “good.” Bourjos makes a poor decision on one ball and gives up an extra base, only to turn around and save another two later in the inning. Between those two plays, Eric Chavez doubles to deep center, and neither second baseman Howie Kendrick nor shortstop Erick Aybar can figure out who should take Bourjos’s relay throw. Both men duck, the ball skips between them and skids to the pitcher Richards, and Nick Swisher scores without a throw. During the Nuñez at-bat, the Yankee infielder pops a ball up in front of the visiting dugout; catcher Jeff Mathis never gets out of his crouch behind the plate, assuming the ball to be lost to the stands. Eventually it is, but only after bouncing on the rubberized surface near the on-deck circle. Later, with Brett Gardner batting, Mathis will allow something ruled a “Wild Pitch” that he probably could have gloved, and then, to make matters worse, completely lose track of the ball; it rolls to the backstop as he spins around in place, and the Angels are very lucky that it’s Eric Chavez standing on the basepaths and not Gardner himself. It ends up not mattering, though, because Aybar makes a wicked one-handed pick-up and throw on a Gardner infield groundball to beat him at first and end the inning.

That’s probably the most important lesson of that bottom of the fourth inning for the Angels: even if they’d played defense to perfection, it likely wouldn’t have changed much. Cano on second isn’t much different than Cano on third, Nuñez was eventually retired, though it took some doing, and Chavez didn’t score either way.

The real problem that inning for Los Angeles was on the mound; when the Yankees hit five very hard line drives into the outfield, more often than not they’re going to score some runs. The “pitching and defense” philosophy of roster construction has the words in that order for a reason.

***

In fairness to Los Angeles, it should be noted that 23-year-old Garrett Richards is not expected to anchor the Angels’ rotation in 2012. He was only pitching that August night in the Bronx because staff ace Jered Weaver was serving a six-game suspension for throwing at catcher Alex Avila during a game against the Tigers a week prior. While not the highest-regarded arm in the organization, Richards is the closest of the Angels’ young pitching prospects to a regular spot in the majors, and with the departure of Joel Piñeiro to free agency and the trade of Tyler Chatwood to Colorado for catcher Chris Iannetta, the competition won’t be as fierce as it might have been. He’ll be battling Jerome Williams and whatever free agents Los Angeles general manager Jerry Dipoto brings in between now and then for the fifth-starter job.

Barring injury, the top of the team’s 2012 rotation is locked up: Weaver is the ace, Dan Haren the number-two, and big-ticket free agent C.J. Wilson is in the third spot. There are arguably better top threes in baseball—Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and San Francisco come immediately to mind, and the Yankees might be joining them after their antics this offseason—but the Angels are up there. Then there’s Ervin Santana, who will be the fourth starter going into camp. Santana’s a bit of a wild card; he hurt and then re-hurt his UCL in 2009 en route to an ERA over 5.00 in only 139.2 IP but has pitched over 200 innings n each of the past two years, keeping his ERA under 4.00 both times. Looking under the hood, those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt: he allowed 3.73 runs per nine innings in 2011, for example, but FRA says that would look more like 4.48 runs per nine but for the defense behind him.

Additionally, last season was the first in Santana’s career in which he induced more groundballs than fly balls: 43.5 percent to 37.9 percent. His career rates, including last year, are roughly the reverse: 38.2 percent groundballs to 42.4 percent fly balls. The remaining 19.4 percent of batted balls in play off Santana are line drives; in 2011, that number was down to 18.6 percent.  If his 2011 is for real and Santana has come back as a better groundball pitcher, that’ll only help him and the Angels, but it’s safer to assume he’ll look more like the guy he was for the first 1000 innings of his career. That said, he only turned 29 in December and shouldn’t be far removed from his prime, so by no means is regression a certain thing. His strikeout and walk rates improved in both full seasons since the setbacks in 2009, so assuming he stays healthy, keeps the ball on the ground, and continues striking out two-and-a-half times more batters than he walks, he should be just fine.

Part of the reason for that is that in 2011, the Angels had one of the best defenses in baseball, ranking fourth with a 0.718 defensive efficiency. Their infield defense, specifically, was neck-and-neck with Philadelphia’s for the best in MLB—2011 FRAA puts Philly at 21.0 runs saved above average, led by Placido Polanco at third base (13.3 FRAA) and Chase Utley at second (8.6); the Angels come in just a half run short of that at 20.4. While most of the Angels regulars acquitted themselves well (Howie Kendrick’s -2.3 FRAA from second base the lone negative in that group), the majority of their value came from Alberto Callaspo, a man who entered the season with four years of major-league experience and 3524 defensive innings under his belt—for a career FRAA of 0.0.

Callaspo will go into camp this year with a career FRAA of 14.7, because that’s what he was worth to the Angels in 2011; the only third baseman in baseball better than he was light-hitting defensive wizard Jack Hannahan in Cleveland. Last year was the first season in his career that Callaspo played all his defensive innings at one position, third base, though he spent the vast majority of the previous season there as well.

But can Callaspo repeat his 2011? The Angels hope so, but we’ll see. Some players consistently rate well on defense, and some consistently rate poorly, but a lot of players’ ratings change from year to year, along with the guys around them and in the dugout. Scott Rolen, easily one of the best third basemen of the past 20 years, went through stretches like this all the time: 0.6 FRAA for St. Louis in 2003, followed by 20.7 in 2004, then 5.8 the next year, 11.7 the year after that and so on. This is not some quirk limited to FRAA; UZR and Total Zone act the same way. That’s why it’s never a good idea to take a one-year sample of any defensive statistic too seriously. Once a player has put together a body of work across a number of seasons, it’s easier to get a better idea of how he ranks; Ozzie Smith is the best career shortstop of all time by FRAA at 154.2, and Derek Jeter is the worst at -247.3, but Jeter still managed one or two seasons in there that FRAA liked more than some of Smith’s.

(As an aside, Jeter’s -247.3 career FRAA is one of those monumentally horrible counting stats that can only be achieved by fantastic players. What that number says is that for his entire career, compared to his peers, Derek Jeter was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad shortstop—but he was good enough at the plate to be an excellent player anyway. He was so good at the plate, in fact, that Jeter ranks in our database as the fifth-best shortstop since 1950 as well as the worst regular fielding shortstop in the league at just about any given point in time from 1998 onwards. That is, of course, if you put all your faith in FRAA. Total Zone believes he only cost his team a much more respectable -151 runs across his career.

Finally, that -247.3 number is almost 78 runs worse than the next most egregious entry on the list, -169.7, which belongs to another future first-ballot Hall of Famer: Chipper Jones.)

But while Callaspo was phenomenal at third and Maicer Izturis, Eric Aybar, and Howie Kendrick were their usual dependable selves in the middle infield (2.3 FRAA for the three of them in 2011), the Angels got nothing out of Mark Trumbo and company at first base; just about every metric has them breaking even. So owner Arte Moreno and Jerry Dipoto went out and got the best defensive first baseman on the market, a guy who has played premier defense for most of the last decade by any metric or eye-test out there.

And as it turns out, Albert Pujols is a pretty good hitter, too.

***

With Pujols’s move to Anaheim this offseason, two of the best infields in baseball are competing against one another in the AL West. The Texas Rangers weren’t quite at the level of the Angels last year defensively, but they were better in 2010, and both squads have a lot of continuity up the middle flanked by new, impact faces at the corners. For the Rangers, most of that impact came last season, when they added Adrian Beltre to play third and acquired Mike Napoli from the Toronto Blue Jays to split time between catcher and first base. The identity of their everyday first baseman is somewhat up in the air for the upcoming season, since of the two guys who got the most time there last year, Mitch Moreland is recovering from wrist surgery (and is actually a right fielder) and Chris Davis is currently a Baltimore Oriole. The general assumption is that the first baseman will be some combination of Moreland and Napoli, with possible guest appearances by designated hitter and noted team player Michael Young. Should things get truly dire on the injury front, the Rangers have Brad Hawpe lurking in Triple-A.

If Los Angeles just needed a bat to help them compete against Texas, Prince Fielder might have been a fine fit for them, perhaps even a bit cheaper (though the contract Scott Boras wheedled out of Detroit owner Mike Ilitch indicates otherwise). They didn’t just need a bat, though; they needed a first baseman. Pujols singlehandedly changes the balance of power between the two teams, not just because of what he brings on the offensive side of the ball, but what he can do on defense. If he stays healthy, the Angels will have a complete defensive unit all around the bases, all of whom at least hit above average for their positions. Howie Kendrick, their biggest liability, was one of only seven starting second basemen in the league to OPS over .800 last year. As well and good as pitching and defense is, the reason the Angels weren’t in the playoffs last year was that they couldn’t score runs. Pujols scores runs, but even he doesn’t score enough runs to make the Angels the sort of offensive juggernaut the Tigers are expecting when Miguel Cabrera, Fielder, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila, and Jhonny Peralta are in the same lineup. Okay, so the Jhonny Peralta part is kind of a joke, but only kind of: he did have a .287 TAv last year from the shortstop position.

To answer the question of why the Angels can’t seem to score any runs, we return to where we started: the Los Angeles outfield.

Jerry Dipoto didn’t create the mess his outfield is currently in, but he does have to live with it for the time being. Vernon Wells might be one of the most overqualified defensive left fielders in baseball, but Wells simply cannot perform consistently at the plate at this point in his career. The best thing the Angels can hope for is that he rides out the next few years on this Aubrey Huff-redux kick he’s been on since 2006, where he’ll TAv over .290 for one season, then drop down below .250 the next, then pop back up around .290, then return again to .250. By the pattern he’s established for himself, last year’s .247 TAv was such a down year at the plate that he could be in the conversation for the Silver Slugger in left come the end of the 2012 season, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

In right field, there’s Torii Hunter, the other aging ex-center fielder that the recently-fired Tony Reagins agreed to pay too much money for a little too long. Hunter might not even have the saving grace of being a standout defender at his position; he’s not bad, per se, but he’s clearly lost a step. As a hitter, he’s been middling; again, not bad, but not great. One of the two men is likely to find his playing time in the field vanish as 2012 goes on, assuming Mike Trout, Angels top prospect and probably the most complete hitting prospect in baseball this side of Bryce Harper, forces Anaheim’s hand and hits his way onto the major-league squad. If that happens, Wells or Hunter will be relegated to a very expensive fourth outfielder fight, with Bobby Abreu, Mark Trumbo, and Kendrys Morales competing for at-bats in the DH spot. Considering the contracts of all three of those guys total just over half of what Hunter and Wells are making this year, they’re the ones that will probably either revisit Triple-A, ride the bench, or get dealt to another team.

The good news is that after this year, Hunter is no longer Anaheim’s problem; he’s owed $18.5 million this year and is a free agent once the 2013 offseason gets underway. Wells, however, will be on the roster until the conclusion of the 2014 season, and he will be earning over $21 million in each of those years. Yes, he has an opt-out clause every year for the rest of the deal’s life. No, he’s not going to exercise it. Why would he?

The final piece is Bourjos, who was a perfectly acceptable .271/.327/.438 hitter last year. If he can do that as a center fielder on a regular basis, he’ll be fine. If instead he slips back towards the .204/.237/.381 line he put up in limited action during 2010, he could be in trouble, but there’s no particular reason to believe that’s going to happen. His batting average on balls in play was .338 last year, but that’s in line with his high minor-league BABIPs and is generally consistent with his profile as a player: super-speedy guys get on base more often on balls in play because they’re capable of beating more throws to first.

At the very least, a Wells/Bourjos/Trout outfield should provide great defensive value with at least a single major-league hitter between the three of them; were the Angels to decide to trade Bourjos and play Trout in center, they might do even better on the offensive side of the ball than that. But as it’s currently constructed, while the Angels’ outfield will take runs away from the opposition, they’re not going to score too many either.

On the whole, however, things are looking up for the Angels: they’re the same sound defense-and-pitching squad that won 86 games last year, but now they’re looking like they’re ready to take the next step. And all they had to add was a catcher who can hit, their rival’s ace, and the best player in baseball.

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