Now, now, I know what you're going to say. Dear writer, are you feeding me blind optimism??
Nope, I would never do that. I realize that watching a team full of fringe major leaguers for any extended period of time will take its toll on any fan. But there’s genuine reason to be excited about the rotation, and that’s what I’ll be discussing in this piece.
Let me start by saying I consider myself neither an optimist nor a pessimist, but a realist. I like to make detailed observations through a combination of watching Angels games and the use of sabermetrics. I then construct an argument and do my best to back it up with concrete evidence in order to prove my point, making sure not to let my personal bias against a player interfere with my own hypothesis. Let’s get into it!
In terms of injuries, 2016 was an unlucky year for Angels starting pitchers.
It doesn't take much analysis to figure out that the starting rotation was one of the team's biggest weaknesses during the course of this season, largely due to the many injuries suffered to the team. While one can make the argument that every team should have organizational depth to account for injuries, it appeared the Angels had serviceable pitching to sustain these: they had eight starting pitchers in a five-man rotation!
Out of the 8 projected starting pitchers, 5 have had season ending injuries or didn't pitch (Heaney, Richards, Tropeano, Wilson, Shoemaker), 1 returned later than expected (Skaggs), 1 was ineffective (Weaver), and 1 was traded (Hector Santiago).
I don't recall a team having this much serviceable pitching depth and still have the nightmare season the Angels did. In fact, here are a few pitchers the Angels acquired in order to patch rotation holes.
- Tim Lincecum: 9.16 ERA, 2.37 WHIP in 38.1 IP, 9 games started. Of these 9 games, Lincecum lost 6 of them...
- Jhoulys Chacin: 4.98 ERA, 1.50 WHIP in 110.1 IP, 16 games started. Has been much better from the bullpen, so his ERA as a starter is much more inflated than this. He has been better recently, though.
- Brett Oberholtzer: 8.31 ERA as an Angel...enough said.
- David Huff: 11.81 ERA, can anyone top that?
Garrett Richards is on track to rejoin the rotation!
Richards' stem cell procedure has yielded encouraging results. Today, he threw off a mound in a simulation outing and it reportedly went very well, per Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register.
Richards is done. Seems happy. 20 pitches. 4 hitters. 3 groundouts and a ground ball single. #Angels— Jeff Fletcher (@JeffFletcherOCR) September 28, 2016
Richards is undoubtedly the team ace, and him being back gives the team a chance to be competitive once again. Over the last 3 seasons, he has put up an ERA of 2.61, 3.65, and 2.34. Richards will be an integral part of the Angels' contending plans.
Matt Shoemaker figured out how to pitch again.
His 9+ ERA in April didn't make him a popular topic of discussion, and many were scratching their heads as to why he was even on the team. After Shoemaker came back from AAA, however, he begun the most impressive stretch by an Angels starting pitcher since Garrett Richards' 2014 season. He sure surprised a lot of folks! These links detail his awesomeness: Here, here, and here.
But his April was so bad that his May-June felt dedicated to bringing ERA down to a respectable level. He finished out the year with a respectable 3.88 ERA (3.51 FIP) and 1.23 WHIP in 160.1 innings pitched. With the exception of his horrible April, Shoemaker certainly pitched like a top of the rotation pitcher the rest of the way - a line drive to the head derailed his season (It looked ugly, but Shoemaker is now healthy, happy, and looking forward to next season) - and he will look to replicate his impressive May/June/July stretch moving forward.
Tyler Skaggs has successfully returned from Tommy John surgery, and it seems like he has improved with each start.
Skaggs's first two starts were brilliant and he was hoisted on the pedestal as a top of the rotation pitcher. Skaggs's next two starts were downright awful and he was thrown to the ashes as a mediocre, injury-prone arm. The reality was that he was somewhere in the middle and that's where he has continued to be, making progress since he returned to action in late July. Skaggs has thrown 48 innings in 9 starts to a tune of a 4.13 ERA (3.85 FIP) and a 1.44 WHIP. His command has been shaky at times since he has been pitching for the first time in nearly two years, but it had been improving lately. Word is that he will pitch later today...
Skaggs has proven to be a capable, middle of the rotation arm so far in his return to the Angels - and is only going to make improvements to his pitching as next season goes on.
Ricky Nolasco has been much more than an innings eater.
When he was acquired in the Hector Santiago trade, Nolasco was pegged to be the back of the rotation innings-eater of the Angels rotation. Since coming over, he has been the Angels' best starting pitcher - and with the way Nolasco has been pitching recently, one could make the argument that he is the ace of the rotation right now. It turns out that Nolasco has made a change in his pitching repertoire; his performance isn't a fluke! Thanks to pitching coach Charles Nagy, Nolasco has been increasing the use of his sinker with encouraging results:
He carries a 3.21 ERA in 73 innings pitched (11 starts), and his peripherals show that this performance is sustainable: his WHIP is down to 1.068 and hits/HR's/walks per nine innings have all decreased. Combine this with better fielders, a pitcher's park, a change of scenery, and an increased use of the sinker, and you can see why Ricky Nolasco has been thriving so far as an Angel. If he can put together the quality and quantity in innings pitched next year, the Angels could have themselves an even nicer surprise on their hands.
Alex Meyer is exactly the guy we thought we'd see so far.
The main piece the Angels acquired in the Santiago trade, and the results have been promising so far. In 5 starts as an Angel, Meyer has posted a 4.57 ERA (and a 3.93 FIP), a 1.385 WHIP, and an electric 10.8 K/9 so far. He has worked with pitching coach Charles Nagy to make his delivery more consistent, even checking YouTube videos in order to regain his college form. He has already put up a positive bWAR since the trade, something that not even Hector Santiago can say.
Meyer was injured most of this season, which is why he had pitch limits during his starts. At times, Meyer can lose his command and pitch efficiency. However, the movement on his pitches and their tendency to fool hitters is reflected in his strikeout rates. Many fans and the experts questioned this trade when it occurred, and for good reason. Alex Meyer was a 26 year old in the Twins system, was injured all of this year, and has command issues because of his lanky frame. But he was close to the majors, his upside is undeniable, and GM Billy Eppler has found a significant piece for 2017 and beyond. For now, Meyer will slot in as the last member of the rotation, giving us hope that he can continue progressing and become even closer to the pitcher that we imagined he could be.
Bottom line: The Angels 2017 rotation is a lot better than you think it is
New pieces are here to strengthen the rotation; Shoemaker is going to be our beloved Cobbler, Richards will return, Skaggs is more than a back-end guy, Nolasco is well on his way to being better than Santiago was with us, and Meyer could be a nice surprise in his first full season in the majors. I'm warning you people, don't sleep on this 2017 rotation ‘cause it could be pretty darn good - and it’ll definitely be a lot better than you think it is.