The luckiest team in baseball. That's what they call us, "they" being Sabermetricians in general, and especially our immediate rivals here in the AL West. Every year the specifics change, but the refrain remains the same. Last year we were "lucky" because Joe Saunders played over his head and our record was better than the numbers said it should be. This year we're lucky because our whole offense is having a "career year." Our team BABIP is too high, etc.
So are "they" right? Just how lucky have we been? Let's explore those questions a little.
On one level, they are absolutely correct. We are fantastically lucky to have Arte Moreno as an owner. He spends money, his main goal is winning and putting butts in the seats. He keeps his nose out of day to day operations, but isn't too busy to interact with the fans. Of the thirty owners in baseball right now, he just might be the best, and we lucked into him, pure and simple.
If that's what they meant, then most of us Angels fans probably wouldn't have a problem with it. But that's not what they mean. Their thinking runs more toward our players' performance on the field. Posts like this are common:
are all having career years this year so far, all of them. Thats not really a young group of players either… this has to slow down
Is this person correct? I would argue he is not.
Kendry Morales- Kowbell is 26 and has never in his career been given a real shot at the major league level. He tore apart A+ and AA at 22 and hit well in AAA at 23. He struggled his first 200 or so PA in the majors, but that could be expected from a 23-year old rookie. Additionally, his poor numbers were largely a result of poor luck-it's not as if his plate discipline was bad or he lacked power. The next two seasons were an exhibition in positional roadblocking. The Angels had a young first baseman already, and had no real reason to let Morales go. So he sat in AAA and put up numbers largely similar to those he is putting up right now while making brief jaunts to the MLB where he mostly sat on the bench. It should also be noted that the numbers being put up right now aren't very far off the mark of what was projected 4 years ago by Clay Davenport based on Morales production in the Cuban League from ages 18-20.
With all that in mind, can putting up these numbers in his first full season in the majors really be called a "career season?"
Chone Figgins- A career season for Figgins? At first glance, his .815 OPS is significantly above his career average of .750. Then again, Figgins has done this before- he put up remarkably similar numbers in 2007. His batting average is high, but not really that much higher than it was in his 2004 and 2005 campaigns. The real story is in Figgins' walk and K numbers.
Figgins has been an interesting study in player improvement. Every year his walk rate has increased, from 7.8% in 2004 to 12.4% now. His pitch selection is vastly improved over where he was. He tends to hit a lot of line drives. The big question is where you put his power and hitting ability. As one looks at his career, his ISO has hovered around .105 for essentially his whole career except for last year when it dipped to .042. His speed rating for last season was also much lower 5.6 as opposed to its usual level around 7.5-8.
From this we can make the conclusion that Figgins was probably playing injured much of last year. A leg injury would explain the lack of driving power as well as his lessened speed. So, given correct readings of Figgins plate discipline and power, is he really playing above his head? No, he is not. He appears to be only due to his poor season last year.
Maicer Izturis- Mighty Mouse has indeed been good this year, but it's not like we don't have a precedent for this. In 2006 and 2007, at ages 25 and 26, he put up OPS of .770 and .750. His current OPS of .787 seems out of place only if you average those seasons with his abysmal 2008 campaign OPS of .691, and his first 325 PAs that he collected during partial age 23 and 24 seasons. So is this season really outside of Izturis true ability level when you consider that he is currently in his prime at 28 and therefore expected to put up his best seasons? No.
Juan Rivera- Once again, we simply turn back the clock and look at his past few seasons. Juan Rivera is a guy who could never get playing time, while ironically being a person who NEEDS regular playing time to produce. When he finally got that playing time in 2006, during his age 27 season, he did not disappoint. Then he suffered one of the horrifying freak accidents that occasionally happen to players, and had his shin snapped in half during winter league. He spent the next two seasons recovering. Even then, when one looks at his base numbers from 2008, his power and walk rate, he was actually pretty close to his 2006 level. His essential features as a player were still there, he just hadn't gotten his swing back yet. Once one understands this, it comes as little surprise that his 2009 numbers are almost identical at this stage to his 2006 level.
Torii Hunter- Legitimately having a career year.
Mike Napoli- Napoli is another guy who, for one reason or another, hasn't been able to put a full season together. He's had other guys in front of him, he's been injured, all kinds of things. Still, to say that Napoli is having a career year is to ignore that his OPS was nearly 80 points higher last year, and that he too is still evolving as a hitter. BABIP is higher, but that's probably because he's striking out less and getting a little less lucky with more homers being doubles off the wall rather than over the fence. His core number of XBH was 30 last year in 274 PA, and is 29 this year in 289 PA. Not a whole lot of difference there. Career year? No.
Erick Aybar- First off, the guy is 25 with a whole 2 partial seasons under his belt prior to this season. His minor league average for seasons ages 18 to 22 was .312. This is not a guy who came out of nowhere and is suddenly hitting .300. This is a top prospect who was always projected as a good hitter at SS, and continues to show improvement in his core numbers with more walks, less Ks, and better contact. Admittedly, he's been on fire the last month, but there's nothing wrong with being streaky. It's possible that his numbers will drop as the season wears on, but it's also entirely possible that they won't. Bottom line is that at this stage of the game to say he's having a career year is simply laughable.
So after going through item by item, we find one legitimate career season, unexpected and totally unpredictable. Beyond those hitters our team also features Bobby Abreu, who is having pretty much the sort of season one would expect, Vladimir Guerrero, who is having a horrific season by his standards, and Howie Kendrick, who has spent most of the season to date completely imploding but has lately set himself firmly on the comeback trail. There is also our supporting-cast types who have done nothing special. Luck-wise on the offensive front we've about broken even.
But if this was pretty much how you could have expected it to go down at the beginning of the season, why were so many people bagging on us as a team when the season began? The projection systems were unanimous in pegging us as an 85 win team, after all. And that was before Vlad blew up and the pitching tanked. We're on pace to score around 890 runs on the season, and our upper order projection was only 816. Obviously they completely underestimated us.
You might notice that quite a few of our hitters had down 2008 seasons. Since projection systems tend to weight the most recent season as most important they completely undershot many of our players. The other part is that many of our players don't have consistent track records which would make them easier to predict. They are either too young or have been injured in the past. And if one looks around, there were a number of people who were pointing out that our offense's upside was being underestimated. But the whole point of people using projection systems is to get a ballpark answer and work from there. If it was so obvious we were better than projected, why are so many people surprised?
It comes down to expectations. The Angels have had chronic offensive issues of one type or another since 2003. They've been able to stave it off and put up good numbers a few times, but the impression has stuck--Angel offenses aren't supposed to be able to do this, "this" being to have most of their offense remain healthy and produce at the level they are capable of producing at.
In 2003, half the offense went down with injuries post-break. In 2004, we got absolutely devastated by injuries to Glaus, Salmon, GA, B-Mo, Erstad and others. 2005, Steve Finley sucked balls, D-Mac was hurt, GA was hurt, Cabrera was awful, and Rivera and Kotch didn't show up until late in the season. 2006, Kotch goes down, D-Mac goes down, Figgins sucks, Mathis sucks, Kendrick doesn't arrive till the end of the season. 2007--Rivera goes down for the count in January, Figgins is out for the first two months, Kendrick is in and out of the lineup--and this was a GOOD year. 2008's problems have already been documented above.
The Angels have had so much crappy luck with their offense that it created the expectation of continued suckitude. This year is different not because we are suddenly incredibly lucky, but because, for ONCE, we actually got some things to break the other way on the offensive side. The truth is that offensively over the past few years we've had some of the crappiest luck imaginable, to the point that just breaking even appears lucky. In one area this is particularly true: Our offensive prospects.
It has been pointed out on occasion that the Angels have had a relative lack of breakout offensive prospects over the last decade. Our opponents fans have taken this as providence--clearly, they argue, our prospects were never that good in the first place, and therefore any current Angel prospects would have to significantly outperform their predecessors' numbers or be judged to have the same low ceiling.
It affected us too though, to the point where Erick Aybar suddenly figuring out how to hit has left us a little mystified--but it shouldn't. Aybar was a great offensive shortstop in the minors. In retrospect it makes sense. At 22 Aybar was probably called up a bit early from AAA, where he was having a poor (by his standards) half-season. He spent most of the next season and a half sitting on the bench, collecting a mere 250 PA. Small wonder then that he would struggle in his first season getting a majority of the ML ABs at his position.
One final note on this subject for those who claim we are undeservedly fortunate--it wasn't very long ago that the Angels farm system was considered the best in baseball. Mike Napoli, Casey Kotchman, Dallas Macpherson, Jeff Mathis, Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, Howie Kendrick, Brandon Wood, Kendry Morales, Sean Rodriguez--Some people appear to have convinced themselves that this entire group of young players, representing a whole half-decade's worth of top prospects, would be frittered away or flame out into sub-par major league role-players. Well, I'm sorry. Looks like you're just not that lucky.