For some it’s Groundhog Day, for others it’s the sighting of a specific bird species, while for those still in the MTV demographic it may be the arrival of Spring Break. For my fellow residents of San Francisco, however, the 49ers trip to Super Bowl XLVII provided baseball fans with the perfect yardstick of progress. While it may not have been true in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s, to my eye San Francisco is now a baseball town first. It was fun and a nice diversion to live in the city that sent the 49ers to New Orleans but, frankly, the Super Bowl’s primary purpose each February is to serve as a harbinger for the reporting of pitchers and catchers to Spring Training.
And if Spring Training is about to begin, than it’s time for me to dust off the 30 Teams in 30 Days preview series that I compiled for the 2012 season.
There is a lot going on between now and Opening Day. My book, Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball comes out on March 7 and associated with the book’s publication, there will be various media events and appearances in different cities. I’ll pass along those dates as they approach; today I’ll start with a big one I’m enormously excited about.
The week before the book drops (publishing lingo!), I’ll be a presenting speaker at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, in Boston. Thanks to Bill Simmons’ attendance over multiple years, you may be more familiar with the conference by the moniker he tagged it with, Dork-a-Palooza. Fittingly then, among panels such as The Nerds Won (featuring Michael Lewis, Mark Cuban, Nate Silver and others) I’ll be presenting a lecture titled Sports Analytics as an Alternative Asset Class. You can see a summary of the presentation (or any other lecture) by clicking on the presentation title here: http://www.sloansportsconference.com/?page_id=5400
Just as exciting, during another portion of the conference, Trading Bases, will be a topic of discussion among the Predictive Sports Betting Analytics panel. (described here: http://www.sloansportsconference.com/?page_id=460 )
If the conference is live-streamed or when the presentations are video archived, I will provide links.
Now, let’s get to the start of the 2013 preview series.
(Please note that the final projection at the end of this piece, and for all teams going forward, will change to some degree over the next six weeks due to injuries, playing time adjustments, etc. Prior to Opening Day, I will present the final projections in a traditional standings format.)
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Los Angeles Angels
What They Did: 89-73, 3rd Place AL West
Actual Runs: Scored 767 runs, Allowed 699.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 88.5 (0.5 below actual)
Restated: Scored 786 runs, Allowed 690.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 90.6 (1.6 above actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Significant deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the Angels, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 91 games.)
I would have voted for Mike Trout.
I appeared on a podcast on the eve of the playoffs last fall and subsequently got called out on Twitter for being a Cabrera-truther. That wasn’t entirely accurate but I cop to being wishy-washy on the podcast. I should have stated unequivocally that, like virtually everyone in the sabermetric community, I would have voted for Trout as the AL MVP. However, I differ substantially from the majority of modern baseball analysts in that I absolutely refuse to condemn anyone who voted for Miguel Cabrera. Don’t let anyone with a computer, a respected platform, and indignant prose tell you otherwise: This was not Maury Willis over Willie Mays (1962) or Bob Welch over Roger Clemens (1990) or even a Hall of Fame vote for Jack Morris. Lumping a 2012 AL MVP vote for Cabrera with those arguments diminishes the injustice of the former examples.
In fact, rather than belittle those who voted for Cabrera, perhaps the sabermetric community ought to acknowledge their own role in shaping the judgment of today’s voters and consider it progress rather than lament the results. Think about what the sabermetric community has taught us over the last twenty years as it applied to the Trout vs. Cabrera case:
The Importance of OPS OPS, or On-base Plus Slugging didn’t even exist as a statistic twenty years ago. Today, OPS has made its way onto the back of baseball cards and on-screen graphics when a player comes to the plate. That advancement, that migration into the mainstream, is totally due to the influence of the sabermetric community. They taught both casual fan and the veteran reporter the importance of OPS over other significantly flawed summary statistics. Miguel Cabrera led the majors in OPS in 2012. Perhaps that influenced voters.
Speed is Overrated Maury Willis, despite his 104 steals, would never win an MVP today over a player that got on base more often (.384 to .347) and outslugged him by a mammoth amount (.615 to .373) as happened in 1962 when Willie Mays finished 2nd in NL MVP voting. Chuck Tanner would be vilified for sabotaging so many great hitting Pirates teams by letting Omar Moreno bat leadoff and get 700+ plate appearances a year just for the sake of getting 70+ stolen bases (and making another 20+ outs a year on the basepaths.) Today we know players like Moreno and Vince Coleman simply didn’t create much value – even when they played at their performance peaks. While I agree the pendulum may have swung too far (Trout’s league leading 49 stolen bases in 54 attempts had undeniable value) I think today’s analysts would agree that it’s better to cost Mike Trout a few MVP votes than going back to the days of extolling the value of say, Juan Pierre.
RBI’s are a Teammate Dependent Statistic An absolutely correct assertion and the sabermetric community deserves credit for relentlessly driving this point home to the average baseball fan. I read many well-reasoned (although indignantly toned) articles that scolded those who blindly give Cabrera too much credit for RBI opportunities that resulted from hitting 3rd in the Tigers lineup while Trout bats leadoff. You know what else is a teammate dependent result? Hitting into double plays. Look, if you’re going to dismiss or minimize Cabrera’s league-leading 139 RBI (56 more than Trout) you can’t also cite his league-leading 28 GIDP (21 more than Trout). I observed some extremely respected modern-day analysts make this exact mistake in logic, complete with the “indignant tone” I referred to above. I guarantee you if Cabrera played on the Mariners he wouldn’t hit into as many double plays because Seattle never has any players on base.
When it Comes to Defense, Your Eyes Lie This might be the most important one of all because so much of Trout’s support comes from those extolling his defensive prowess. For instance, Dave Schoenfield’s Sweet Spot Blog on ESPN – as forward-thinking an outlet as possible – named Trout the best defensive player in all of baseball in 2012. Here’s my take: Mike Trout positively wasn’t even the best defensive player on his team. Let’s discuss this. Probably the number one topic of derision by the sabermetric community since the year 2000 is the quality of Derek Jeter’s defense. They convincingly and incontrovertibly have exposed Jeter’s defense as below-average to abysmal by citing his range while holding constant various contributing factors. Let’s use those same tests on Mike Trout: When Mike Trout played centerfield for the Los Angeles Angels last year, on a per-inning basis he caught fewer balls (and had fewer assists) than Peter Bourjos. When he played left field, he caught fewer balls, etc. than Vernon Wells. Yes, Vernon Wells! When Trout played right field Torii Hunter outperformed him. Mike Trout had above-average putouts compared to all American League outfielders but the Angels sport an extreme fly ball, low-strikeout pitching staff in a home park that suppresses homers; that inflates the success of all the Angels outfielders. When you hold constant for the pitching staff, the opponents, and the venue however, Mike Trout was second best at every outfield position he played on his own team behind three different players. What about those four over-the-fence home runs he robbed opposing players of which the Sweet Spot said amounted to “a chunk of Trout’s 23 Defensive Runs Saved”? Like Jeter diving into the stands and emerging with a bloody chin, they represent incredible feats of athleticism and perhaps unfairly create an image in the minds of fans of a superior defender. In Trout’s case they also contributed mightily to his WAR. In reality however, those catches didn’t help the Angels win a single game because the combined score in the four games he made those highlight-reel plays was 32-11.
I would have voted for Trout because I prefer a best-of-Ryan Braun-like batting line combined with best-of-Jimmy Rollins-like baserunning skills plus participation in baseball’s best overall defense to Cabrera’s Triple Crown achievement. But I beg other like-minded analysts to lose their outrage because, this being February, it’s apt to point out, Cabrera’s win was not the equivalent of Forrest Gump over Pulp Fiction.
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Last year, the Mets provided the most interesting exercise in critical reasoning in evaluating a team’s prospects from one year to the next. Recall the Mets entered the 2012 season without the services of down-ballot MVP candidate Jose Reyes who led the 77-win team in 2011. Subsequently, expectations were for the Mets to struggle to win 70 games in 2012. But a closer examination revealed the Mets weren’t replacing their All-Star shortstop with a replacement level shortstop. Because of position shifts, the 2012 shortstop came from second base in 2011 and the second baseman was 2011’s first baseman. On the margin, the Mets were replacing an above-average hitting shortstop with a league-average hitting first baseman. That was actually not much of a drop-off. As such, the Mets were vastly underrated at this time last year.
Let’s apply that same logic to the 2013 version of the Los Angeles Angels. As noted above, the Angels scored 767 runs in 2012. However, they played half their games in a ballpark that suppressed offense by 9%. Taking their entire schedule into account, the Angels recorded a 2012 Park Factor of 96. This means, to normalize their runs to a league-neutral context you must divide their 767 runs scored by .96 resulting in 799 runs. Do that for every team and it turns out the Angels had the highest-scoring offense in baseball. So where are they going to find improvement this year?
To Angels fans, there’s a simple answer. They will say off-season free-agent signing Josh Hamilton is an upgrade over the since-traded Torii Hunter. That statement is correct. Josh Hamilton makes the Angels a better team in 2013 than Torii Hunter. And due to aging curves and skill sets the difference is even more pronounced in 2014, 2015 and so on. But, like the Mets last year, it’s important not to be blinded by names. The relevant question for our purposes is: Will Josh Hamilton in 2013 improve on Torii Hunter’s 2012 production? Hunter, although unnoticed by virtually all national media, had a tremendous season at the plate for the Angels – at age 36, in fact, he had his best season ever as a pro.
Hunter hit .313/.365/.451 in 2012. While Hamilton is a lifetime .304/.363/.549 hitter, he’s now on the wrong side of 30 and more importantly, he accumulated those stats playing half his games in Arlington (park factor: 112). In 38 games in Anaheim (half a season of home games) Hamilton has hit just .260/.325/.440. While there’s no doubt Josh Hamilton has a better chance of duplicating Torii Hunter’s 2012 production in 2013 than Torii Hunter does, I still project a drop-off, possibly notable, in right field production for the Angels. In fact, I see the same problem replacing Kendrys Morales’ production at DH as well as drop-offs from Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, due to regression and age respectively. That could be a problem if light-hitting Peter Bourjos is going to get 600 plate appearances – 400 more than in 2012. (On the positive side of projections, a full season of plate appearances from a healthy Chris Iannetta would keep back-up catchers Hank Conger and John Hester safely on the bench.)
On defense, Hamilton will certainly not catch as many balls in right field as Torii Hunter would, but thanks to continuity at the other seven fielding positions, the Angels regression from the best defense in baseball (tied with Seattle) may be minor. Still, it’s not going to get better.
Elsewhere on the other side of the scoring ledger, the Angels have only made two changes to a rotation which was, once you adjust for park factors, mildly below average. Joe Blanton and Jason Vargas will replace Dan Haren and half-seasons each from Zach Greinke and Jerome Williams. Even if that’s an upgrade (thanks, largely to Haren’s very disappointing season in 2012) – and I remain skeptical it is – there is no way Jered Weaver is going 20-5 again with a sub 3.00 ERA. Weaver has managed to use the pitching-friendly confines of Anaheim to get the most out of his below-league average strikeout rate and extreme fly ball tendencies – to the point of repeatedly mocking my projections – but with his fastball velocity dropping to a career-low last year, I’ll stick my neck out once again: Weaver will finish 2013 with an ERA above 4.00 and the Angels will struggle to win a majority of the games he starts.
The 2013 Angels are one of the more fascinating teams in baseball. The presence of Mike Trout, (at a salary of less than $1 million) means his production per dollar of salary negates every other inefficient contract the Angels are carrying. Trout, Pujols, and Hamilton sounds, on the surface, like a team that is a lock to score 800 runs. If they do, they will easily make the playoffs. Realistically, there is at least a one-year window for everyone on the Angels to peak and win 95 games. But it’s more likely they’ll scratch their way to an upper-80s win season backed by a top-tier run scoring and, at best, league-average run suppression. Just like 2012.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Not only are the Angels the oddsmakers’ favorite to win the AL West, they are also, more or less, the co-favorites to win the World Series as well. (roughly 7-1, along with the Tigers, based on early Vegas odds). Their opening total wins market of 91 ½, reflects a lot of positive expectations baked into the market for Los Angeles. It’s not necessarily misplaced, just a bit too optimistic. There’s material value on the under.
88-74 – First in AL West
763 Runs Scored 693 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. It is available for pre-order from a number of on-line booksellers. Here are three you can currently choose from:
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