The Angels' New Look April Rotation

What began as a low stakes battle for the Halo's fifth rotation spot morphed, seemingly overnight, into a preview of our new-look April rotation.  Injuries to Ervin Santana and John Lackey induced some understandable doom and gloom around the halosphere, but rotation candidates Dustin Moseley, Nick Adenhart, and Shane Loux all pitched well in the offense-friendly Cactus League, dampening calls for free agent signings and trades.  They've earned the backing of the front office, at least for the moment - but what can we expect from them against big league competition? 

While spring numbers aren't definitive, due both to small sample sizes and the uneven quality of competition, I'm a firm believer that they hint at developing trends. With that in mind, I thought I'd pop the hood and take a look at the stats our new rotation has thrown up over the past seven weeks to get a sense of what April will look like.  Call it fun with small sample sizes.

As points of comparison, I included Saunders' and Lackey's spring stats in all tables below.  Saunders serves as a good reference point for pitch-to-contact Moseley and Loux, and I continue to believe that Lackey serves as a very good comp for Adenhart's upside.

First, let's lay the groundwork for comparison by looking at the quality of lineups our pitchers dealt with this spring.  Below is the average number of MLB starting position players each faced in their spring appearances. If an opposing hitter was embroiled in a positional battle, I gave the pitcher the benefit of the doubt by counting that hitter as a starter.

Moseley -                         5.5 starters a game
Adenhart and Loux -      5 starters a game
Lackey -                           4.8 starters a game
Saunders -                      4.7 starters a game

Moseley's last start against a full lineup of Dodgers regulars pushed him to the top, though until Thursday night he, Adenhart, and Loux had all faced an average of five MLB starters in each of their spring starts.  Obviously they'll face a higher percentage of tough outs as April wears on, but for now, we can see that no one coasted through March converting only California League-bound teenagers into outs. 

Next, let's take a look at what kind of contact opposing hitters are making.  While most stat heads tout k-ratios as the best predictor of MLB success, the research I've done over the last year leads me to think otherwise: when compiling the ‘08 best prospect list, I was struck by the degree to which Jordan Walden's, Trevor Reckling's, Anthony Ortega's and Sean O'Sulliven's best months correlated with spikes in groundball ratios rather than with k's per nine.  Below, I rank our hurlers according to groundouts over flyouts, and also include slugging against and homeruns allowed per nine to flesh out the picture.

                             GO/AO          Slg.A         Hr/9
Saunders:            3.38            .435           0.69
Moseley:               3.15            .351           0.38
Loux:                     2.62            .506           1.37
Lackey:                 2.00            .551           2.50
Adenhart:             1.67            .351            0

Moseley has posted the strong groundball ratio that made him so effective in the first half of '07 - he had a 2 to 1 groundball ratio and a 2.60 ERA over those three months - and has given up only one homerun all spring.  Loux is also getting tons of ground balls, but more of them leaked through the infield for hits - that's bad luck on balls in play. His SlgA and Hr/9 numbers are disconcerting, but they're primarily the lingering footprint of one bad start.  Nick's groundball ratio is solid but not spectacular, which is what we've come to expect from him.  Remember, his fastball is notable more for its horizontal tail than sink, so that means fewer grounders and (hopefully) more jam-shot pop-ups.  Together, these guys are going to keep the defense busy, but they're all doing what they need to do to limit solid contact and convert outs.

Here's how well each of our pitchers has fooled hitters over the past month using K/9 and K/BB:

                          K/9          K/BB
Moseley           6.75          2.25
Adenhart         6.23          3.60
Loux                 5.49         1.50
Lackey             4.00         2.67
Saunders        3.46         1.67

Unsurprisingly, none of our guys are racking up the K's.  Moseley has done his bit, helped primarily by good command and a curve that's been dynamite at times this spring despite never making it into scouting reports as an out pitch. He'll likely regress in April towards his career K/9 of 5.3, which will ding his overall numbers a bit, but it shouldn't be catastrophic so long as he keeps the batted balls on the ground (at his most effective in 2007, Moseley's K/9 was a paltry 4.9). Adenhart's breaking ball has also been an outstanding weapon this month, leading to his decent K/9.  Maintaining consistency with that pitch will be one of the keys to Nick's season (the other, obviously, is fastball command). If he's able to do that - something he didn't do last year - then I see no reason why his K/9 can't stay at 6 or above. Loux'  K/9 this spring is a shade higher than his '08 line in AAA, where he posted a 5.02 K/9.  He'll regress, but like Moseley, if he keeps the balls in play on the ground, the results shouldn't be catastrophic.

Now on to pitcher efficiency in the form of walks and hits per inning pitched, or WHIP, and BB/9.

                        WHIP       BB/9
Adenhart         1.15        1.73
Saunders       1.23        2.08
Lackey            1.33        1.50
Moseley          1.38        3.00
Loux                 1.78       3.66

This is where Nick really shined.  The question is whether he can maintain anything close to his current 1.73 walks per nine innings.  Last year he posted a 4.6 BB/9 in AAA - look no further then that for an explanation for his lackluster season.  It's almost certain that he'll yield more walks in the majors this year - how many more will determine his success.

Moseley is going to give up a fair number of base hits, but I like his chances of maintaining a decent WHIP if he matches his historically good control and groundball ratios.  He shouldn't go up too far from where he is now.

Loux looked like the weak link as March ended, so if this were still a competition for the rotation slot, he'd likely be the first guy voted off the island.  However, he's had just one truly bad start out of six, with the rest of the bloat in his WHIP deriving from a statistically unlikely number of groundballs leaking through the infield.  Moderate regression there and in his historically excellent control (2.5 BB/9) should put his WHIP in 2008 Jon Garland territory or below - a somewhat scary looking 1.50, but acceptable due to lots of groundball double plays and very few extra base hits.

To conclude, let's take a look at our guys' outcomes in the form of ERA, batting average against, and OPS against.

                       ERA     BAA       OPSA
Adenhart:     3.12     .250       .672
Saunders:   3.46      .283      .762
Moseley:      3.75      .266      .675
Loux:            4.58      .342      .915
Lackey:         6.50     .304      .902
 
Adenhart's ERA is stellar, but it would be overly optimistic to expect the 22-year-old to keep it in the low 3's next month. His BA against is perhaps a tad too good to stick against better competition, so we should expect that to adjust upwards a tick against more MLB regulars.  That and a few more walks should nudge his overall numbers in the wrong direction come the regular season, but there's not much in his peripherals to suggest his fine March showing was due to luck  - so, barring a loss of command, he should be fine.
 
While Moseley's BA against is 10 points lower than his 2007 career best, it does mirror his strong first half of that year, which is the last time he was completely healthy.  His spring OPS against is even more promising - he's kept the walks to a minimum, and opposing players are having a difficult time lifting the ball enough to achieve any significant power.  Like Adenhart, he's established a solid baseline performance, so the likely regression against better competition shouldn't be too painful.

Loux has struggled more than the other guys - he yielded all of those groundball singles before his March 27th start, but it was the cookies left up in the zone during those bad four innings that really killed his numbers.  I think it's likely his BA and OPS against drop this April, while his ERA stays more or less the same - in other words, he's got a decent shot at replicating Garland's '08 season.

So what's the take-away here?   I think our guys have a good to great shot at competently holding down the fort until our big guns return.

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