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May 8, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Every Thing That's Been Wrong with the Angels

by Sam Miller

There’s no Grand Theory here. I just keep getting asked—by people at church, family members, Ben—why the Angels have been so bad, and I just stutter a bunch of stuff about Albert Pujols’ legs, and Josh Hamilton’s slump, and Jered Weaver’s injury, and small samples. But it’s not just Albert Pujols’ legs, or Josh Hamilton’s slump, or Jered Weaver’s injury. Or even small samples. Of the 14 players who had starting jobs with the Angels on Opening Day—the nine regulars, and the five members of the starting rotation—11 are underperforming their PECOTA projections. Of the three who aren’t, Mike Trout is perceived as underperforming, and Peter Bourjos might soon be underperforming, as he sits on the DL and waits as games pass him by. And this doesn’t even include the bullpen, which has the American League’s 13th-best ERA, despite a pitcher’s park and a good group of defenders behind it.

So if somebody says it’s because of Hamilton, push back. If they say it’s because of Pujols, argue! It’s nearly the whole team, and this is simply an accounting of how it’s the whole team:

Chris Iannetta
Expected WARP (pro-rated for 31 games): 0.4
WARP: 0.0
Iannetta had one of the Angels’ best lines until he took an 0-for-6 in the 19-inning loss to the A’s. He sat out the next three games with “general soreness” and he’s hitless since, dropping his line to .203/.305/.367. His walk and strikeout rates, and his isolated power, are close matches for his career totals. He’s always been a low-BABIP guy, but his .228 mark is tied with Albert Pujols for 21st-worst in baseball. In his current 0-for-19 streak, he has hit one line drive.

Albert Pujols
Expected WARP: 1.3
WARP: 0.6
As noted above, Pujols has a .228 BABIP. Unlike Iannetta, he’s not historically a low-BABIP guy, but the recent history suggests that “historically” is becoming irrelevant to evaluating Pujols. Through 2009, he had a .317 career BABIP. Since then, over the course of three and a half seasons, he has a .281 BABIP. He won’t finish the year with a .228 BABIP, but given his inability to run, and his increasingly limited tendencies at the plate, he might be the easiest hitter in the game to defend against, the anti-Trout.

He has one hit to right field this year—not one homer, but one hit. In his career, he has gone to right field 20 percent of the time; in 2012, that figure dropped to 15 percent, and this year it’s down to 10 percent. This despite nearly all teams now employing heavy shifts against him that leave the second base position unoccupied. He can’t run. He has a .167 BABIP on grounders (career: .260), and the highest groundball rate of his career. It’s hard to tease out exactly how much of this is related to his lower-body problems, whether the foot pain affects his swing (he says no), and whether his lack of footspeed influences teams’ defensive shifts against him.

Howie Kendrick
Expected WARP: 0.5
WARP: 0.3
Strangely, this debit is almost entirely due to baserunning. Kendrick has hit a bit better than we expected, and it’s too soon to really think about his slightly below average defensive stats. But he has been the worst baserunner in baseball this year, giving back 3.2 runs. His baserunning had been in the plus column in six of his seven major-league seasons, so this is probably the easiest fix on the roster.

Erick Aybar
Expected WARP: 0.4
WARP: 0.1
Aybar bruised his heel landing on first base in early April and missed 18 games. In his place, Andrew Romine and Brendan Harris hit .185/.217/.262. PECOTA projected a .257 TAv for Aybar, and he has a .257 TAv.

Alberto Callaspo
Expected WARP: 0.3
WARP: 0.2
Callaspo missed 19 games with calf tightness. In his place, Luis Jimenez, Harris, and Romine hit .236/.267/.292. Callaspo is back and, like Aybar, his .255 TAv is pretty close to his projected TAv, so this is fixed. Unresolved is the problem of who will replace one of these guys (or Kendrick) when the next injury strikes, as the Angels’ middle infield depth is a lot thinner than it was when Jean Segura, Maicer Izturis, and Alexi Amarista were all around. On the other hand, who really has shortstop depth? And how much different would this conversation really be if the Angels did still have Izturis or Amarista, both of whom have been terrible?  

Mike Trout
Expected WARP: 1.0
WARP: 1.3

Peter Bourjos
Expected WARP: 0.3
WARP: 0.7

Mark Trumbo
Expected WARP: 0.4
WARP: 1.1

Huzzahs all around for these three.

Josh Hamilton
Expected WARP: 0.7
WARP: -0.4
It’s way too simple to say that Hamilton has played terribly because he’s swinging wildly at offspeed pitches out of the zone. He has always swung wildly at offspeed pitches out of the zone, or at least he did last year, when he oscillated between great and so-so. This is a whole other level of suck. What you might argue is that Hamilton’s approach has spectacularly low margins, and that putting stress anywhere on the system makes the whole thing fall apart. That, even if it can work for years, an inevitable decline in bat-speed or vision or hitting conditions or focus can have more disastrous results than for a different type of hitter.

Ben wrote during the offseason about about Hamilton’s cliff-falling potential, mentioning the research he did looking at Adam Jones’ likely aging curve:

What I found was that after a certain age, the low-walk hitters aged worse than the high-walk group. Not only did their production per plate appearance suffer a steeper drop, but their playing time tailed off more quickly, too. Because Jones was still just 26 when his extension was signed, I concluded that despite his impatient profile, the deal made sense for Baltimore… Hamilton’s employer, however, won’t have that luxury: his prime production is already past, and his decline phase is about to begin in earnest.

Hamilton has not, despite many narratives to the contrary, been swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone this year. He’s been swinging at a lot, but not more, cutting his O-Swing rate from 43 percent last year to 42 percent this year. (He’s cut his zone-swing rate by a similarly small amount.) He is not swinging and missing more this year; at pitches in the zone, the ones he wants to hit, he has improved from 77 percent to 80 percent. He is not the victim of pitchers suddenly discovering they can exploit his impatience; 45 percent of the pitches he has seen this year have been in the strike zone, compared to 40 percent last year. They are, at least, throwing him fewer fastballs.

So there’s a possible cause/effect issue here, where we don’t know if they’re throwing him more pitches down the middle because he can’t hit them, but in my experience teams don’t adjust to hitters nearly that fast. But, regardless, the point is that the narrative about Hamilton being on tilt and swinging at too many changeups out of the zone isn’t a great explanation for his struggles. He’s basically doing what he did when he was good; and now it’s not working, at all; which is encouraging, in the short term, suggesting the fundamentals of his economy remain strong; but would be extremely discouraging, if it persists, suggesting in that case that he has simply lost the ability to play baseball the way he used to. If you’re ungenerous with regards to random fluctuation over short time spans, you’ll look at this image and get pessimistic:

That’s Hamilton, on four-seamers, this year. Here’s Hamilton, on four-seamers, during the same stretch last year:
 

All in all, you’d rather see Hamilton struggling because he’s chasing too many pitches than because he has a slow bat.

Jered Weaver
Expected WARP: 0.8
WARP: -0.1
Weaver started two games before going on the DL after falling on and fracturing his non-throwing elbow. He was replaced in the rotation by Garrett Richards (for four starts) and Jerome Williams (for one). Neither of Weaver’s starts was encouraging, as he struggled with control (six walks in 11 innings) and velocity (six strikeouts). The three pitchers in Weaver’s spot in the rotation have averaged 5.9 innings per start and 5.88 runs per start; PECOTA had forecast 6.7 innings and 2.3 runs per start from Weaver this year. Without even considering the cascade effects on the bullpen that come from putting Richards in the rotation and shortening the average outing, we can say that the Angels have lost nearly two expected wins this year from this spot in the rotation alone.

Weaver is expected back this month. It’s fair to wonder about how effective he’ll be, considering the lost velocity, but his history of succeeding under 90 mph should earn him the benefit of the doubt. The Angels’ lack of rotation depth—they’ve now seen every pitcher on the 40-man roster, and none exactly opened any eyes—is likely to be an issue again, though.

C.J. Wilson
Expected WARP: 0.5
WARP: 0.0
Bryan Curtis did a great interview with Wilson this spring that cuts the legs out from any speculation I might try:

Did sportswriters try to get you to talk about the injury last season?
No, they weren’t smart enough to deduce that there was something going on.

You say we’re bad at getting inside your head. I think we’re probably bad at noticing a slight change in your arm motion. Or noticing you grimace in a way that any coach could spot from the bench.
Yeah. It’s funny. One of the raps that I got in Texas was, “You’re really trying to aim too much.” I’m like, that could not be further from the truth. I’m literally trying to throw the ball as hard as I can right down the middle.

So, Wilson says—and I think this is absolutely correct—that we never really know what physical things a player is dealing with, and we never really know what performance things a player is dealing with. We can tick off the checklist of the first things to look at:

  • Fastball velocity is steady;
  • Pitch usage is basically consistent, though he’s throwing more (and slower) sliders and fewer cutters, and more four-seamers at the expense of the two-seamer;
  • He’s throwing as many strikes as he threw last year;
  • His batted balls are, trajectory-wise, consistent;
  • His BABIP isn’t unusual.

And yet four times in six starts he has walked as many or more batters as he has struck out (in each case, at least four walks), and he has recorded just one out later than the sixth inning, and he leads the AL in walks. So it’s obviously not all peaches.

What it seems like is that Wilson is periodically fighting with his mechanics in the middle of innings. Four times this year he has unintentionally walked back-to-back batters, for instance. Six times he has unintentionally walked multiple batters in an inning. Overall, batters are hitting .286/.414/.444 against him with runners on base, and .216/301/.297 with the bases empty. (The league average OPS is typically 20 or 30 points higher with runners on base.)

Wilson has allowed a .364 BABIP with runners in scoring position and .254 with the bases empty. You’d expect those numbers to regress a lot, but, interestingly, not necessarily all the way. In his career, Wilson has allowed a .331 BABIP with runners in scoring position, and .274 with the bases empty. (It’s over about 1,000 plate appearances for the shorter half of the split.) League average difference the past few years has been a couple points in the other direction. That’s fascinating!

Jason Vargas
Expected WARP: 0.2
WARP: -0.1
Vargas has been about exactly as good as the Angels could have expected. Lower K rate, higher walk rate, and an unexpected drop in home runs per flyball might make somebody nervous, but Vargas hasn’t been the problem.

Tommy Hanson
Expected WARP: 0.4
WARP: -0.2
Hanson’s velocity dropped again, and now only six right-handed starters—Dylan Axelrod, Carlos Villanueva, R.A. Dickey, Jon Garland, Jason Marquis and Bronson Arroyo—are averaging a slower heater than Hanson. At his current trajectory he’ll be throwing more sliders than fastballs soon. In his most recent start, he got eight swinging strikes, a season high. Just two years ago, in 2011, he got at least nine swinging strikes in 14 of his 22 starts. He was an upside gamble, so you can support the acquisition, but now we know more. There’s no upside left, and it’s probably a better bet that his 4.18 ERA will go up than go down.

Joe Blanton
Expected WARP: 0.0
WARP: -0.3
Hitters are swinging at more of Blanton’s pitches in the zone. They’re laying off more of his pitches out of the zone. They’re making contact with more of the pitches they swing at in the zone. So that explains Joe Blanton.

Bullpen
The Angels have used 14 relievers, which is already absurd, and seven of those relievers have ERAs of 9 or higher, which is also absurd. They have used Michael Roth, who was a ninth-round pick 11 months ago. They have used Ryan Brasier, who has a 4.74 ERA in parts of three seasons as a Triple-A reliever, and who is right-handed. They have used Barry Enright, who was called up despite a 9.61 ERA (nine homers!) in 20 innings at Salt Lake. There are reasons for using this many pitchers that are out of the Angels’ control (extra-innings games, injuries to Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett, and Kevin Jepsen, and injuries and bereavement leave in the rotation requiring Garrett Richards and other relievers to make starts). And there are reasons for using this many pitchers that will continue to be a problem all year, namely that Ryan Brasier, Michael Roth, and Barry Enright are among the players the Angels are trying to get innings out of.

Within that group has been a decent core of relievers: Ernesto Frieri, Dane de la Rosa, Scott Downs, Michael Kohn, Burnett, and Richards. Those six should all be healthy and available once Burnett returns from the disabled list in a week, and Ryan Madson is now throwing off a mound, too.

So that’s the deal. A whole team playing badly, and in all sorts of different ways. They're 27th in baserunning. Opponents are 23 of 27 stealing bases against them. They've been worse hitting with runners in scoring position, and their opponents have been better hitting against them with runners in scoring position. They're slightly underperforming their run differential. Etc. If the Angels miss the playoffs again, we’ll probably remember one reason more than any other, like how last year’s Red Sox were the Bobby Valentine debacle and last year’s Blue Jays were injuries and last year’s Phillies were too old too fast. But it takes a lot of things going wrong to underperform by 20 wins, so stop asking me about it at church unless you’ve got nowhere else to be for a while.

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,  Josh Hamilton,  Albert Pujols

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