Los Angeles Angels
What They Did: 86-76, 2nd Place AL West.
Actual Runs: Scored 667 runs, Allowed 633.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 84.9 (1.1 below actual)
Restated: Scored 669 runs, Allowed 647.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 83.6 (2.4 below actual)
As readers have noticed by now, as we reach Day 11 of 30 Teams in 30 (Week) Days, these previews are presented in a top-to-bottom projected-order-of-finish sequence. As the series moves today to the last remaining division in the American League, the West, the team name at the top of this page indicates the Angels will join the Tigers and Red Sox as 2012 American League division winners.
Sometimes running a business is fairly easy. Management doesn’t always need sophisticated algorithms and brilliant data analysis to figure out what’s hampering their organization’s success. Beyoncé didn’t need Destiny’s Child, Gossip Girl should return the setting of the show to the Constance Billard School for Girls on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and Star-Kist should “feed the tuna mayonnaise”. Add this to a list of obvious management conclusions: Entering 2012, the Angels need to score more runs than they did in 2011.
Last season, Los Angeles had the sixth-best record in the American League despite ranking tenth in runs scored. Or viewed through the prism of the team’s strength, despite allowing fewer runs to score than any other American League team except the Tampa Bay Rays, the Angels missed qualifying for the playoffs by five games and finished ten games behind the AL West division winner, the Texas Rangers. On offense, the Angels ceded runs to their AL counterparts at a number of positions but at first base and designated hitter the production gap was particularly glaring. Mark Trumbo started 143 games at first base for Los Angeles and produced a .254/.291/.477 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) batting line. Bobby Abreu hit .253/.353/.365 at DH.
The average AL first baseman hit .271/.340/.452 and the average designated hitter posted a .266/.341/.430 batting line. The Angels need a better batting average and much better on-base capabilities from its first baseman and far more power from the designated hitter slot. Angel fans may have wondered dreamily last October . . . if only there were a way for management to solve both those problems in one fell swoop. It would help, of course, if money were not a constraint.
Enter Albert Pujols and a $240 million, 10-year contract. In his worst year as a professional, Pujols hit .299/.366/.541 – numbers Trumbo can never dream of producing. Signing Pujols allows the Angels to move Trumbo to DH where his power will play quite well and will mark a sharp increase over the departed Abreu’s. If Kendrys Morales can return from a 20+ month absence brought on by a severely broken leg, freakishly suffered during a walk-off home run celebration to man the DH role, all the better. Morales has a life-time slugging percentage of .502.
That wasn’t the only place Los Angeles shored up their line-up. If not for the disastrous results behind the plate Minnesota endured after Joe Mauer got injured, Angels’ catcher Jeff Mathis would have ranked as the worst catcher in baseball. Mathis hit .174/.225/.259 which is not dissimilar to some of the better hitting pitchers in the National League. The Angels addressed this gaping deficiency in the off-season by acquiring one of the more underrated offensive catchers in baseball and, amazingly, did it from a position of weakness.
Before the 2011 season started, my model identified Tyler Chatwood, the Angels fifth starter as the worst of any regular starting pitcher in baseball. I know it’s in a book somewhere on my bookshelf but for the life of me I can’t locate it right now, so don’t treat this next sentence as fact but know that the details are close. Bill James once wrote that no pitcher in the history of baseball has ever won 150 games in his career and not struck out an above-average amount of hitters per nine innings. That struck me as an amazing statement when I first read it. An “average” major league ball player can carve out a long career. There is no shame in being average once you get to the major leagues and even below-average means you can be a fourth or fifth starter on a club for many years. Yet, every time I tried to find a pitcher (Jamie Moyer sprung to mind) to disprove James I failed. (If you do look for players, remember to consider what the average strikeout rate was during the period any particular pitcher won his first 150 games.)
Tyler Chatwood not only struck out batters at a below average rate in AA-minor league baseball – the highest level of baseball he’d played in before being rushed into the Angels rotation last year – he walked them at nearly the same rate. My model suggested that in the majors Chatwood would walk more batters than he struck out, a formula absolutely guaranteed to lead to disaster. As such, every single game he pitched, the model strongly recommended backing the opponent. Oddsmakers didn’t seem to understand how deadly a high-walk, low-strikeout pitcher is for a team's game-winning prospects.
Of course, the Angels promptly won six out of the first ten games Chatwood started. It’s true in every single endeavor that involves invested capital: returns aren’t linear and the market, any market, can remain irrational longer than you and I can remain solvent. (And you thought Bill James and John Maynard Keynes couldn’t coexist in the same baseball essay.) From June on however, the Angeles went 3-12 in Chatwood’s starts and he never even made it through the fourth inning of any start after August 11. By the end of the year, Chatwood had struck out 74 batters and walked 71, incredibly close to the unheard of sub-one-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio the model called for.
Somehow this off-season, the Angels turned Tyler Chatwood into Chris Iannetta by inducing the Colorado Rockies to trade their underrated catcher. This move isn’t as big as the Pujols signing, but it is a huge boon for the Angels’ fortunes. Not only did the Angels gain by subtraction in removing Chatwood from its rotation, but Iannetta brings a lifetime .235/.357/.430 batting line to Anaheim. (Don’t focus, as apparently Colorado did, on the .235 batting average. Iannetta isn’t going to beat out any infield hits. Instead note the superb batting eye which results in a .357 on-base percentage despite the low batting average and the above-average power. Then, look again at what Mathis hit as the Angels catcher last year.)
Although replacing Chatwood with a collection of long relievers may have been an upgrade, the Angels completed a second splashy off-season acquisition by inking C.J. Wilson to a 5-year, $78 million deal. Not only does adding Wilson to a rotation that already includes Dan Haren and Jered Weaver give the Angles the best 1-2-3 punch outside of Philadelphia’s Halladay, Lee, and Hamels, but it removed Wilson from the Rangers, the team the Angels are chasing for the division crown.
When a team signs big-name free agents it’s fun to play contrarian and mock the strategy of checkbook acquisitions. Maybe these pages will take that tone when we get to the Miami Marlins preview but it’s hard to find fault with the Angels’ strategy. Los Angeles certainly leveraged a massive regional television deal not available to the majority of teams in baseball and then threw massive amounts of money at the biggest free agent player and pitcher available, but they are going to get results for their efforts. (They also had the third highest attendance in the American League in 2011 – did that surprise you as much as it did me?)
The Angles, like the Yankees seemingly every year, are that rare team that has a chance to score more than 800 runs while giving up less than 700. That’s a huge spread that always results in 90+ wins and, in this day and age of expanded playoffs, a ticket to October baseball as well. Although my model has them on a par with the Yankees and just behind the Red Sox for most wins in the AL, the Angels have the highest upside; in a pool to select the team most likely to win 100 games this year, I’d take Los Angeles.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: You don’t sneak under the radar coming off an 86-win season and then adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to your roster. Still I think the Angels are mildly underrated. Not so much in the total wins arena – their quoted markets are mostly around 89 ½. But I’ve seen them listed in a few places – but not all – as underdogs to Texas to win the division. That’s where the pre-season value lies in backing the Angels.
90-72 – First in AL West
787 Runs Scored 699 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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