The offseason lull is underway, a majority of the big free agents have signed, reports and rumors have come to a standstill, and it all coincides with me having a week off to lay on the couch as I recover from getting my wisdom teeth pulled. No juicy rumors or fun for me, just a trade of backup catchers.
A lot has already been said of the moves the Angels have made and we all have ideas on how the team could get better from here until pitchers and catchers report in a few months. It’s mostly just a placeholder until the actual games start, gotta have something to talk about, something to spur some optimism for the looming season. We’d get stir crazy otherwise.
So when this little nugget came out from FanGraphs, I got excited. It helps put some moves into perspective, but mostly, hints at what Billy Eppler could be trying to do in his precarious position as the General Manager of the Angels. So I’m going to use that as a template for this post. But first, I’m going to take it back to the second week of November, before a few more of the Angels’ moves. That’s the keyword, “before” a few more Angels moves.
Jeff Sullivan posted his Angels offseason primer and while most fans, Angels or not, may want to believe it, they still pose as a serious threat. This after finishing the 2016 season 74-88. Reasons for optimism would seem hard to come by. But push a little further and you’ll find this gem.
I’ve mentioned the Angels’ preliminary 2017 projection a few times. Admittedly, even I’ve been surprised. It’s just one projection, based on imperfect depth charts that will change every week for the next several months, but the projections for the moment make the Angels look solid. By projected WAR, and projected WAR alone, the Angels are presently ninth in baseball, between the Cardinals and the Mets. They’re fourth in the American League, and second in the AL West.
Keep in mind, this was right after the Angels made the move to acquire Cameron Maybin to help solidify left field, but also right before their other moves. So it’s not like the Maybin acquisition swayed Sullivan, or the FanGraphs projection systems, into suddenly thinking the Angels were a threat to contend. A, hopefully, slightly above average left fielder was never going to be enough to put the Angels over the top in most fans minds.
It speaks more to what the Angels already had in place on the Major League roster. Mike Trout obviously accounts for a lot of hope (and WAR), Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun, Albert Pujols, C.J. Cron, Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Tyler Skaggs, and Cam Bedrosian don’t hurt either. Any chance at making the Angels competitive for 2017 was going to involve improving the overall depth of the club, second base, and the pitching staff. The Angels don’t have the farm system to sustain injuries or under-performances, something Eppler was going to have to take into consideration when constructing the team.
Now let’s flash-forward back to the present.
Andrew Bailey = re-signed, Jesse Chavez and Ryan LaMarre = signed, Danny Espinosa and Martin Maldonado = acquired, various waiver claims = uh...claimed? Alright, we’re back on track. This is where it gets interesting.
It might be hard to believe, but FanGraphs’ comprehensive team defensive metric (DEF) ranked the Angels 4th overall in Major League Baseball in team defense. Despite not having an everyday left fielder, second baseman, the injuries to Simmons/Cron, and having Yunel Escobar on the team, the Angels were just a tick behind the Kansas City Royals and just ahead of the AL Pennant winning Cleveland Indians. Yes, that Royals team who won back-to-back pennants along with a championship in 2015 using their incredible display of defense (more on that later).
This is how to benefit a pitching staff that lacks depth. I think a majority of us can agree that Richards, Skaggs, and Shoemaker have the potential to be solid if not spectacular, but with their respective health questions and the lack of depth after them, that’s where things get dicey. So, Eppler’s gone to great lengths to give them as much assistance as possible, leading to an emphasis on team defense. Building off of the 4th best defense in the majors, is a pretty good start. This is why we saw the pitching staff outperformed their FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) by such a wide margin, they were the second best team at outperforming their FIP, only to the Chicago Cubs. Represented in a graph from the article I posted at the beginning.
Again, you want to help your pitching staff overachieve? Give them one hell of a defense behind them. Digging a little further into the numbers, the starting rotation didn’t benefit as much (4.60 ERA vs. a 4.79 FIP and 20th in ERA), but the bullpen is what makes this number so extreme (bullpen ERA of 3.77 heavily outperforms their FIP of 4.35 and xFIP of 4.45. Big reason they were ranked 28th in the majors in bullpen WAR, but still ranked 18th overall in ERA).
So they were able to heavily outperform their FIP’s, that’s great because it means they did better than they were supposed to do. However, it’s still not a great position to be in. You want to follow the Cubs’ recipe: have quality pitching only to be further assisted by a terrific defense. That’s how your starters have a collective ERA of 2.96, while FIP suggests it was more likely in the upper 3’s (3.72 FIP to be exact).
So when you realize that Andrelton missed nearly a month and still recorded 18+ defensive runs saved (or DRS, a mark nearly 10 runs shorter than in his previous two seasons), Cron making strides as a defender at first, the Angels going from 16th ranked defensively from second base to a 8+ DRS shortstop in Espinosa, what will hopefully be an improvement in left field with Maybin, even though they finished 7th in left field defensive rankings, and the recent upgrade from Bandy to Maldonado at yet another up-the-middle defensive position, you like the odds that it’ll be even better in 2017. You add in a mix of healthy and better pitching and you get an increase in their chances to improve their ERA/FIP even further. And really, when you look at it, pitching was the main crux for the Angels in 2016.
The Angels ranked 9th overall in offensive production, 17th overall in runs (717), 9th in wRC+, and 1st in K% (meaning the lowest at 16.4%), not overwhelming, sure, but certainly not bad and things to work with. Yet another crux that effects this that I’m sure we’re all aware of? They were ranked 27th in baserunning (using FanGraphs’ BsR, Baserunning Runs, as the guideline) something Eppler has, again, looked to improve with this winters acquisitions. Cameron Maybin was worth 2.5 runs above-average in baserunning last season, Danny Espinosa was worth 5.1 above-average, and even Martin Maldonado is an improvement over Bandy by a significant margin (Maldonado: -0.3 vs. Bandy: -3.5). So Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, C.J. Cron, Kole Calhoun, Yunel Escobar, Jefry Marte, and a hopefully improving Andrelton Simmons (if the second half was the real Andrelton) are still in place in that offense. Then you add on huge upgrades, collectively, on offense, defense, and on the base paths with Espinosa over Giavotella/Pennington, Maybin over Nava/Ortega, and Maldonado over Bandy.
Best of all, there’s still reason to believe the Angels could improve these numbers by A) adding a quality fourth outfielder and B) getting a better year from Perez with the bat or upgrading over him altogether (Tony Wolters from Colorado is starting to sound better-and-better, especially when you look at his pitch-framing ability).
There it is, pitch-framing, the main incentive behind the Maldonado deal. Something the Angels, thanks to Jonathan Judge for this data, ranked 17th in the majors (per framing runs) last season. Perez finished with a -2.5 mark in framing runs, Bandy was -1.3, Maldonado finished with 2.1. If you’d prefer a more collective stat, Baseball Prospectus’ WARP (their equivalent of WAR) for catchers, should do the trick. Perez was -0.3, Bandy was 0.6, and Maldonado was 1.1.
We’ve discussed in great length pitch-framing in the past week, so I won’t go too much further into detail, but read this article that Stirrups posted the other day on the Diamondbacks attempt at finding the next catching value. It’s really interesting and sheds some light on how Eppler is further trying to aid the pitching staff. While the Angels weren’t as bad as the Dbacks in this department, Arizona was ranked 26th in framing runs, it’s still a pretty solid improvement. The Angels were going to have below-average offense from their catchers anyway, clearly Eppler viewed the improvement defensively and it’s potential impact on the pitching staff, as more important than a slight drop-off offensively, I’m beginning to feel inclined to agree.
Lastly, the improvement in groundball rate should also, literally, play into the Angels’ fielders hands. The starting rotation was dead last in the majors in GB% last season at 38.7%. Simply taking Weaver and the random assortment of other starters out of the equation will boost that, but you replace those guys with Richards (52.8%), Skaggs (45.6%), Nolasco + a sinker (43.3%), and Chavez (41.4%) and that number will jump up significantly (that’s a collective GB% of 45.8%, 7% better than last years starters). There’s a little more reason for optimism for the bullpen, they finished 21st overall in GB% (44.1%). This was a big reason I was a proponent of signing Brad Ziegler, but there are other groundball guys on the market that could make sense, it will be worth watching if Eppler makes this a point of emphasis moving forward.
So, quick recap, the Angels already had an amazing defense before adding onto that (not even by a small improvement, a significant improvement). They plugged up their black holes in left field and second base with cheap, short-term improvements. They’ll be getting their best starting pitchers back. They improved the depth/floor of the club, and the overall pitching staff, who already benefited from a great defense, and shall reap the benefits of having an even better fielding team behind them along with a better GB%. The only weak-link on the team is Yunel and his extremely poor defense and baserunning, something Eppler will have to address next winter. But he’s the man for 2017, we have to live with it.
This teams makeup reminds me of what the Royals and even Giants have done in recent years. They had a tremendous overall team defense, good-to-great baserunning, make a lot of contact, pieced together a competitive rotation and lineup, and used a shutdown bullpen to carry the team in October.
Ah, but therein lies the problem with the Giants in 2016 and the current Angels. A shutdown bullpen. So what am I going to look for from here until Spring Training? A couple of things.
The pitching needs more reinforcements, it’s that simple. Eppler did add Chavez, who’s more of a swingman, and he’s added a few guys in minor deals (John Lamb, Vincente Campos, and Brooks Pounders), but with the uncertainty of the health of Garrett, Tyler, and Matt, they’d be wise to continue adding in this area. The timing is just off since the free agent market is sparse, but potential swingmen Travis Wood, Trevor Cahill, Vance Worley, Brett Anderson, or Scott Feldman could fit the bill. If his contract demands are not outrageous, Ivan Nova would make a lot of sense after revitalizing his career in Pittsburgh. But pickings are slim, Eppler might have to bank on the health of his current staff.
The other big one is the bullpen, which simply lacks talent to be competitive. In an area where you want swing-and-miss, electric arms coming out the wazoo, the Angels bullpen was last in K’s per 9 (7.23). As of now, Cam Bedrosian is the only lights out pen arm on the team, and while there are fireballers in Keynan Middleton and Eduardo Paredes in the minors, it still lacks the talent and depth needed to be a successful one in the playoffs. Look for Eppler to add some talent here with their remaining payroll space, otherwise, the Angels could be in trouble (banking on Huston Street to return to form is beyond wishful thinking, in my opinion). Maybe they could land something at the deadline if they feel they have enough for a playoff push, but this is my #1 area of concern.
The last is for Eppler to continue making the depth better everywhere. This team particularly needs a quality fourth outfielder seeing as Maybin has missed a lot of time in 2010, 2013, 2014, and 2016. Whether Eppler looks for a big bat or more of the defensive-first profile remains to be seen, but he’ll most certainly add something in this department. Signing some more guys for the top levels of the minors can’t hurt since the Angels still don’t have the farm system needed to replace a player in the event of an injury.
So it’s not a great position for Eppler to be in, he has to cross his fingers everyone stays healthy (or at least avoids season ending injuries or prolonged injuries like last season) and the overall depth isn’t there, but you’re starting to see how Eppler is attacking this unique problem. Hell, he’s still in a position to make them even better, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this team compete for a Wild Card spot and if everything breaks the Angels way (unlike 2016), maybe even a Division Title. I’m pulling for a 2016 San Francisco Giants team and I think that’s realistic.