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October 3, 2012

Pebble Hunting

A Very Good Team and a Very Bad Season

by Sam Miller

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The day that the Angels introduced Vernon Wells, Arte Moreno told reporters the score:

If we win—if we get to the playoffs and get a shot at it—then we managed it right.

The day that the Angels introduced Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, or the day they introduced Zack Greinke, or the day they called up Mike Trout, or the day they signed Eric Hurley to a minor-league contract, or the day they didn’t do anything except file their expense accounts and clean out their inboxes, they could have said the same. Winning, of course, is the ultimate judgment. It’s the end of the story. It’s not the whole story, though, and figuring out just what, why, and how about the Angels’ season—or, more specifically, about the decisions that went into the Angels’ season—is a lot more complicated than Moreno's construction. 

There are two ways of looking at the Angels' season. They are just four games behind the best team in the American League. They are going to finish with 90 or 91 wins; our preseason PECOTAs projected them for 90. Going back over the past 12 years, 60 percent of teams that won 87 to 90 games made the playoffs. The Angels were a very good team and, but for the other teams that played better (duh), they could have made the playoffs.

But they won’t. That’s the other way to look at the Angels' season. They won’t. They took a team that won 86 games last year and signed the best free agent hitter available, and the best free agent pitcher available, and lost nobody of value, and they won’t make the playoffs. They added the best rookie in history, a player who is having the greatest season in franchise history, and they won’t make the playoffs. They added a dominant closer, and they won’t make the playoffs. They traded for the best pitcher available at midseason, and they won’t make the playoffs. And they removed Jeff Mathis, and they won’t make the playoffs. It’s the craziest thing.

So did somebody make a mistake with these Angels?

As regards the offense...
One way teams disappoint is scoring fewer runs than we would expect them to score. Twenty miles north of Anaheim, for instance, the Dodgers have had worse-than-expected performances from Hanley Ramirez and Adrian Gonzalez, seen their best hitter miss time with injuries, etc. This is not the Angels.

Player Position TAv (Projected) TAv (Actual)
Iannetta C 0.288 0.271
Pujols 1B 0.338 0.312
Kendrick 2B 0.266 0.266
Aybar SS 0.245 0.281
Callaspo 3B 0.263 0.273
Wells LF 0.259 0.256
Bourjos CF 0.252 0.238
Hunter RF 0.273 0.291
Morales DH 0.29 0.297
Trumbo UT 0.253 0.289
Izturis UT 0.257 0.227
Trout - 0.254 0.356

Simply counting plusses and minuses, that’s an even split. But, of course, teams have some agency over whom they play, and by putting the better players into the weaker positions, they have actually had six of nine positions outperform the preseason projection, and only two underperform. Weighting these by playing time, the Angels' core dozen have been 16 points of TAv better than we expected, on a PA-by-PA basis. Of their best starting nine, eight stayed healthy enough to get at least 500 plate appearances.

An offense that was league average last year is, this year, probably the best in the American League. They lead the league in road OBP, and in road slugging, and in road scoring. They lead the league in TAv. Just one of those measures might not give me total confidence, but put them together, and I’m convinced. So, add to that list above that the Angels got more offense than they expected and still won’t make the playoffs.

As regards the defense...
By Defensive Efficiency, the Angels lead the American League in defense. By Total Zone, the Angels lead the American League in defense. By UZR, the Angels lead the league in defense (by nearly double the runs saved by the no. 2 team). The Angels had the best offense in the American League, and the best defense in the American league, and the team’s strength was supposed to be its starting pitching, and five starters who would have started Opening Day for the Orioles, and they still won’t make the playoffs.

As regards the starting pitching...
“Everything is in place to make the Angels' rotation perhaps the best in franchise history,” an Angels beat writer wrote in January, and if that was a bit much—I pegged it as the third-best in a slideshow not worth linking to—it wasn't far off. Instead, the Angels' rotation was lousy. 

If Dan Haren had had the ERA we projected for him this year, rather than the one he had, he would have allowed 24 fewer runs. If Ervin Santana had had the ERA we projected for him this year, rather than the one he had, he would have allowed 24 fewer runs. Those 48 runs are the difference between the best record in baseball and not making the postseason. (C.J. Wilson has allowed about 15 more runs than we expected; Weaver hasn’t, but he has pitched 30 fewer innings. In fact, the top four in the rotation have pitched about 100 fewer innings than PECOTA projected.)

As regards the bullpen...
The Angels’ bullpen in 2011 was cause for enough concern that the Angels were linked (perhaps uncredibly) to Heath Bell in the offseason, and the Angels did sign Latroy Hawkins (the 11th-best reliever available, in one dumb writer’s opinion) and trade for Ernesto Frieri (Wrath of God) early in the season. The result was a trunkful of recyclables, clanging noisily against each other at every turn in the road. The Angels ranked 11th in the AL in bullpen ERA (which is not park adjusted) and 12th in OPS+ against (which is).

Scioscia’s usage patterns throughout the year, courtesy of Dan Brooks' spectacular new bullpen graphs:


And so as regards the decisions the Angels made...
We sometimes talk about teams getting lucky, or about teams failing, or about teams being great, but there are really two parts of the team we’re trying to evaluate. The players on the field, and the front office. After this season, we can say that the Angels' pitchers failed. As a group, with a league-best defense and a tremendously friendly ballpark, they nonetheless allowed more runs than the average team. They failed. Haren and Santana were worse than they previously had been, and the bullpen as a group was poor. That’s about 90 percent of the Angels' story, on the field.

But what about the front office? Did they fail? Knowing what we know now, should the Angels front office have …

Done something about the offense? No. The offense looked like it would be good, and it was very good. Better hitters would have done better, of course, but realistically the offense was more than adequate.

Done something about the defense? No. The defense looked like it would be good, and it was very good.

Done something about the rotation? Probably not. We know now that Haren and Santana failed, but they were no worse bets than any other options the Angels would have been likely to get. More depth would have been helpful, I suppose, but a) how many teams go six or seven deep and b) it’s unlikely that any “depth” that could be stashed at Triple-A would have had the pull to replace Santana, who was the problem.

Done something about the bullpen? Ehhhh. The Angels brought back every non-Rodney part of a bullpen that had the league’s second-best ERA in 2011. They added Hawkins, and they added Frieri. The performance of the bullpen wasn’t a failure to plan; it was simply another example of the fact that bullpen performance is almost totally unpredictable, even at a team level. (The best bullpen in the league, for what it's worth, is anchored by Fernando Rodney. If your solution for a team is "fix the blowpen" or "fix the bLOLpen," you are, respectfully, saying nothing.) (This last point is, if you’ll allow me, actually great news for the Angels. Losing behind a bad bullpen is painful to watch, but it’s the easiest thing to fix. Just close your eyes, spin around a few times, and it’s fixed! More or less, at least.)

Maybe they should have brought up Mike Trout three weeks earlier, but more realistically Mike Trout was a) not thought to be physically ready, having barely played in spring training because of illness and b) not a player anybody was projecting to be worth two wins a month. More likely, the Angels could have reasonably expected him to be a few runs better than Wells or Bourjos over three weeks. More likely, the Angels were just trying to figure out a roster crunch that saw Bourjos get benched (totally unexpected), Trumbo moved to the outfield (almost totally unexpected), Abreu waived (not expected), and Wells benched (kind of expected). Sending Trout down for three weeks helped the Angels answer those questions.

***
On Sunday, I tweeted the following:

It’s a dumb tweet, really. Obviously the offseason matters, so what’s the point of making a prediction? Actually, what’s ever the point of making a prediction? But the point was this: even on the night the Angels were (effectively) eliminated, it was easy to see a team that was very well put together, and that might actually be the best team in the American League. Or they might be terrible. Stupid baseball. 

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

Related Content:  Angels,  Projections,  Predictions

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