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If you were going to make a list about why the Angels might surprise in 2016, it’d probably start off something like this:

1. They have Mike Trout.

2. They have Andrelton Simmons.

3. You can’t predict baseball.

PECOTA projects Trout and Simmons to combine for 10.7 WARP, the second-highest total for any tandem in the majors (behind Clayton Kershaw and Yasmani Grandal)—and that’s with Trout projected for a career-low 7.4 WARP, 2.1 wins off his career average. When you employ two players this good—and, really, when you have Trout, with anyone playing Robin—you get plopped into the fringe contender bucket before the identities of the other 23 guys are revealed.

Let’s focus on Simmons, acquired from Atlanta for Erick Aybar, Sean Newcomb, and Chris Ellis in November, because he’s new and because there’s not a whole lot left to say about Trout, ignoring his exploits in the field of meteorology. He’s too obvious. Trout posted one of his finest offensive seasons last year, slashing his strikeout rate while adding nearly 50 points of ISO to his 2011-2014 power output, and he’ll probably steal 30 bases in 2016 just because he can. He even turned in his best defensive performance to date last season, per FRAA, at +9.9 runs, and . . .

Sorry, sorry. Back to Simmons. If the upgrade from former shortstop Aybar to Simmons isn’t clear enough at first blush, consider this table (or watch this video):

Player

2013-2015 FRAA (Avg.)

2013-2015 UZR (Avg.)

2013-2015 DRS (Avg.)

Simmons

16.0

19.9

30.1

Aybar

-12.9

-2.5

-4.3

By any of the three metrics, there’s something like a two- to three-win fielding gap between Simmons, the best defensive shortstop of our generation, and Aybar. Toss in the fact that Simmons is just 26 while Aybar is 32, and it’s a gap that will only close if Simmons immediately regresses toward something more Earth-like upon leaving Atlanta. Offensively, PECOTA actually gives Simmons (.252 TAv) a slight edge over Aybar (.249), and his age and once-promising power (he had 50 extra-base hits in 2013) hint that he might have another gear.

Perhaps not surprisingly, with Aybar entrenched at short and a generally old supporting cast flanking him (the average age of the LA’s starting infield since 2013 has been 30.4), recent iterations of the Angels’ infield defense have struggled:

Year

GB Def_Eff (Rank)

DP% (Rank)

2013

.748 (24)

11.3 (27)

2014

.741 (22)

11.3 (24)

2015

.743 (26)

10.1 (30)

On both turning grounders into outs and converting double play opportunities, the Angels have ranked near the bottom of the majors in each of the past three seasons—in part because their infield defense has been subpar, but also because their outfield defense has been excellent, and they’ve subsequently tailored their pitching staff into a flyball machine:

Year

GB% (Rank)

2013

43.4 (28)

2014

43.6 (28)

2015

43.4 (30)

With 2015’s pitching staff coming back mostly unchanged this season, PECOTA projects more of the same: a 43.3 percent groundball rate in 2016, a figure that will likely check in near the bottom of the league again.

It’s easy to criticize the Angels here. They went out and traded Newcomb, the last name in the farm system that even prospect hounds were familiar with, for a defense-first shortstop, then they followed that move by doing absolutely nothing to modify their pitching staff to get the new guy more groundballs. That’s a pitching staff, by the way, that’s already viewed as a weakness. You could easily argue that Newcomb, trade chip, would have been more effectively bartered to fill a more pressing hole, like third base or left field.

Those are valid criticisms, and when the Angels finish the season with 70-something wins despite the best efforts of Trout and Simmons, we’ll look back and wonder what they were thinking in the first place. But maybe there’s a silver lining here, too.

Consider first that groundballs are still a common occurrence, even on teams that try to avoid them. The Angels got 1,881 groundballs last year, and the difference in the amount of grounders they saw last season compared to the average team was just 164—or about one a game. Consider also that the Angels’ lefty-heavy starting rotation should coax teams to bat more right-handed hitters against them, which ultimately should result in a higher-than-normal percentage of those groundballs heading in Simmons’ general direction. Simmons’ value won’t be maximized in Anaheim, but he’ll receive plenty of opportunities to do his thing.

Consider finally the defensive spectrum, and the idea that the Angels have taken the stars and scrubs approach to the extreme. The Angels have Trout and Simmons manning hard-to-fill positions , but they’ve also left gaping holes at easier-to-fill positions first base, second base, third base, and left field—not to mention two- or three-fifths of the starting rotation, depending on your view of certain pitchers. What might look like organizational incompetence at first—and, shoot, it might be—could really be something headier, something bordering on a coherent path to success: Acquire really good players at the right end of the defensive spectrum and figure out the rest later.

Player group

2016 Projected WARP

CF Trout, SS Simmons

10.7

1B C.J. Cron, 2B Johnny Giavotella, 3B Yunel Escobar, LF Daniel Nava, SP Jered Weaver, SP Hector Santiago, SP C.J. Wilson

2.8

If Trout and Simmons, along with Albert Pujols, Kole Calhoun, and Garrett Richards, are able to keep things afloat through July, the Angels should easily be able to upgrade multiple positions for a playoff push. Why they haven’t done that already is a fair question, but the invitation is always there. That’s the upside of punting half your roster. Either way, Simmons makes the Angels significantly better right now, helping to stabilize a lackluster infield defense while incentivizing the Angels to add a groundball guy or two to the staff. Like Trout, Simmons is signed through 2020 on a team-friendly deal, affording his team half a decade to figure out everything else.

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jfranco77
3/09
It's amazing to think that Simmons could be +20 runs on defense, and their left side of the infield could combine for 0 runs saved.
dutt22
3/10
Maybe Simmons can play short and third.

In all seriousness, having Simmons should help Escobar some on his glove side, and my guess is that if he performs near where the fielding projections peg him, the Angels will move on to someone else relatively soon.
lmarighi
3/09
Liked the article, Dustin, but given that you acknowledged early on that the Angels have emptied their farm system, how are they going to "easily be able to upgrade at multiple positions"? The FA market is usually pretty bare in July, and the trade market would require them to have something that other teams wanted.
dutt22
3/10
Thanks, and this is a fair point.

I guess my point is that the Angels could be *so* bad at a couple positions that even minor-league filler or a bullpen arm could bring back an upgrade. But, yeah, fair point. It might not be easy.
sdsuphilip
3/10
I find it incredibly disappointing that outside of Simmons the Angels did absolutely nothing of consequence. Even signing guys like Rich Hill, Henderson Alvarez, Juan Uribe, Joe Blanton could have helped there ceiling and been cheap signings.