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August 26, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Five Myths About the Angels' Impending Shakeup

by Sam Miller

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So now it’s somewhat official: Somebody on the Angels is going to get fired after this season. “Where’s your money?” a friend asked me the other day. Shoot. I really don’t know.

What I think I do know is that a lot of the assumptions people have about where your money should be are wrong. So these are five myths about the Angels’ impending shakeup.

Myth 1. Somebody is going to be fired because the Angels’ long-term future has been so badly messed up.
If somebody gets fired it’ll be for one/two/three of three reasons: The Angels have been a big-market team that missed the playoffs four years in a row; the Angels invested everything they had in these past two years to try to make the playoffs and managed only to get worse; and next year’s team, if this year’s team is a good indication, might suck. The fact that the Angels’ long-term outlook is darkened by a barren farm system and backloaded contracts is, indeed, a significant concern. But if the Angels were on pace to win 98 games this year, the Angels would not be firing their manager or their GM. They would be planning to take future problems on in the future. So, here’s the equation:

Bad 2013 + Horrible Outlook = Firings
Good 2013 + Horrible Outlook = No Firings

Cancel the Horrible Outlook out of each equation and you’re left with the truth: This isn’t about the 10th year of the Albert Pujols deal, and it isn’t about the fact that the Angels have given away first-round draft picks like mid-2000s Brian Sabean at a baby shower. It’s about right now.

Myth 2. Somebody is going to get fired because the Angels signed Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to ludicrous contracts.
Oh, certainly you can argue they’re both irresponsible contracts. Albert Pujols, for instance, is still owed more ($212 million) than Clayton Kershaw is reportedly even asking for. He has had his OBP and home run totals drop in five consecutive years; do you know how many players have done that in major league history? Good, put the answer in the comments. And Hamilton is owed $106 million for the next four years, including $32 million in each of the final two. How about this game:

  • Player A (it’s Josh Hamilton, in 2013): .233/.289/.421
  • Player B (it’s Vernon Wells, in 2012): .230/.279/.403

But here’s the thing: Pujols’ salary wasn’t irresponsible for 2013, and neither was Hamilton’s. They’re making $33 million. PECOTA projected them to produce 10.6 WARP, and for Albert Pujols to be the best player in baseball. PECOTA thought they were the best position player duo in baseball, other than Pujols and Trout. You might have been opposed to that deal for Hamilton. No, you certainly were opposed to that deal with Hamilton. Everybody hated that deal. But you hated it because the back end was awful and the front wasn’t going to be good enough to justify the back end. You didn’t think that Josh Hamilton was going to be replacement level immediately. You didn’t think that replacing Wells with Hamilton was going to be the Angels’ problem in 2013.

Put it this way: If Hamilton had signed for two years and $25 million, we all would have loved it, and he would still be killing the Angels right now. If Pujols had signed for nine years and $125 million, we would have been flabbergasted at the bargain, and he would still be killing the Angels right now. Somebody is going to get fired because Pujols and Hamilton have been horrible, but not because Pujols and Hamilton were signed for too much money. The problem with those deals was all in the distant future. And the distant future is not (see no. 1) the reason anybody is going to lose his job.

Myth 3. But if the Angels hadn’t signed Josh Hamilton, they could have signed Zack Greinke. They needed pitching more than an outfielder.
Sure. That’s what you say now, because Josh Hamilton is awful and Greinke has been good. But it didn’t have to turn out that way. Hamilton could have been the guy who played well; Greinke could have been the one who sucked. There are way too many possibilities to assume, after the fact, that only one made sense.

But yes, the Angels did need pitching. And, back when it all started and Kendrys Morales was still on the squad, they did need pitching more than they needed another outfielder. That’s a legitimate point, and one that, reports suggest, Dipoto tried to make. But it’s also not the move that doomed the Angels to a top-five draft pick next June. Even if the Angels had signed Greinke instead of trading for Jason Vargas, they still would have needed two starting pitchers to round out the rotation. Which means they still would have been chasing guys like Tommy Hanson and Joe Blanton to give them 400 innings, and it still would have been brutal. Furthermore, even if they had kept Kendrys Morales and everything else had remained the same, they still would have lost Peter Bourjos to injuries for most of the year, and Albert Pujols to injuries for the second half, and they still would have ended up giving J.B. Shuck 102 games and counting. Which is to say that, unless the Angels wanted to depend on some minor-league free agent that the friggin' Astros had no use for, it turned out the Angels really needed an outfielder!

The fact that the minor-league free agent that the friggin' Astros had no use for turned out to be significantly better than Josh Hamilton is why it’s so unfair to judge GMs based on outcomes.

Myth 4. Arte Moreno ordered the Pujols and Hamilton signings, so Jerry Dipoto is not to blame.
If Jerry Dipoto was opposed to the Pujols and Hamilton signings, it was for the same reasons you were: All that money for all those years. But we’ve been over this: the problem this year isn’t the money and the years, but the performance; the problem in distant years is the money and the years; and the reason somebody is going to get fired is this year, not distant years. I don’t have any reason to think that Dipoto was sad that Albert Pujols was going to be on his team in the short term, and I don’t have any reason to think that he thought Josh Hamilton was going to be absolutely terrible immediately. So he’s as much to blame as anybody, which is to say, not really to blame because nobody saw this coming.

Myth 5. But obviously Mike Scioscia should be fired because this team is badly underperforming.
Measuring manager contributions is tough. But the Angels are underperforming by about 20 wins or so this year. Unless you think managers are worth something close to 20 wins, then this isn’t all, or mostly, on him. Maybe some of it is, but good luck finding which some. And once you concede that most of the 20 wins aren’t his fault, and that the Angels are perfectly capable of underperforming by, say, 17 wins by chance and awfulness alone, then a) you must allow that for all we know they’re also capable of underperforming by 22 wins, and Scioscia has actually been worth wins this year and b) it stops mattering all that much, because somebody was going to get fired if this team won 79 games, too, and they dropped that far with or without whatever Scioscia was or was not worth.

It’s easy, from where we’re all sitting, to fire famous people. It’s just hard, based on what we actually know, to come up with good reasons why.

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

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