For those of us who had been paying attention all winter, the Angels' 2016 has pretty much gone as expected thus far: decent starting pitching, spotty offensive contributions and a whole lotta buttercup. Still, the casual observers must be disappointed to see the team sitting two games under .500 a little over two weeks into the season, fourth place in the very winnable AL West. Take solace, Angel fanatics. Mike Trout is heating up, so some of our early misfortunes are already correcting themselves. Are there any other bright spots we can glean from the data of the season's first 16 games? With a little help from Brooksbaseball.net and Fangraphs.com, let's take a look.
Garrett Richards changing things up
During Spring Training, we heard stories about Richards trying to work in more off-speed pitches. This is not unusual, as every spring we hear about players working on one thing or another, only to completely abandon it once the games start to count. In this instance, Garrett credits Halo closer Huston Street for teaching him the proper mechanics behind the pitch.
In the early going, this does not appear to be another one of those typical spring training fluff pieces, as Garrett is actually using his new change piece, with positive results. Through his first four starts, Richards has thrown a change-up 37 times, more than twice the number of times he has thrown the pitch the last two seasons combined. He has generated swing-and-misses 24.32% of the times he has thrown the pitch, a higher whiff rate than even his devastating slider (17.8%). The league is hitting .200 against the pitch and the occasionally-wild Richards is throwing it for strikes 66% of the time.
Predominantly a two-pitch pitcher his whole career - and when you throw 98 with sick movement coupled with a wipe-out slider, it is really all you need - the thought of Richards adding a legitimate third pitch to his repertoire is an exciting one. As the undisputed "ace" of the staff, Richards has been snake-bit matched up against the league's other aces thus far, starting the year 0-3 despite a solid 3.00 ERA to go along with decent peripherals: 9.38 K/9, 3.38 BB/9, 0.75 HR/9. We will continue to monitor Garrett's usage of the change-up as the year goes on. As he improves the feel and command of the pitch, we could see him take his game to the next level and remove those quotation marks from his "ace" tag.
The Red Baron spreading the love
Kole Calhoun's light has shined the brightest in this young season, batting .316/.381/.439. Of course with any hot streak, you look at a batter's BAbip to see if it is pure luck we are dealing with and indeed, Kole Calhoun is batting .386 on balls in play. While no player is going to sustain that rate, Kole is at .311 on balls in play for his career, so it is not completely outlandish, either.
Last season was a strange one for Calhoun, as he launched a career-high 26 home runs and 83 RBI. This added power came at the expense of his formally well-rounded on-base game, as he also posted career lows with a .256 BA and .308 OBP. Since being moved from the top of the order two years ago, Kole had become increasingly pull-happy, while also watching his walk and strike-out rates trend in the wrong directions over the same period of time.
If Kole was making a conscious effort to be more of a middle-of-the-order run producer, perhaps this year he is pushing himself to go back to what made him successful in the first place. After pulling about 43% of his batted balls the last two years, Calhoun seems to have sacrificed a bit of that power in the young season to spray the ball around more: 31.1% pulled; 35.6% hit to center; 33.3% going the other way. He is also making small gains on pitch recognition, walking 7.9% while striking out 19% of the time. After posting career-worst 6.6%/23.9% rates last year, the early returns are encouraging.
Of course the season is young and it is unwise to look for trends in the first month of the year, particularly on offense. That said, batted ball data does tend to stabilize more quickly than other numbers and Calhoun has had success with this approach in the past. Kole has only one long ball this year, a 404-foot blast off lefty Tommy Milone. With the power clearly still there, if Calhoun can find the right balance between SLG and OBP, this could be his best season yet.
Hector cooking with gas
One of the more obvious trends this season has been Hector Santiago's improved fastball velocity. Thus far Hector has average 92.3 MPH on his fastball, a full 2 MPH over his All Star 2015 season. This has come to the surprise of the league's hitters as they have swung-and-missed at 14% of his fastballs, a better rate than that of teammate Garrett Richards (8%) and flame throwers Stephen Strasburg (12.35%) and Max Scherzer (12.23%). To be fair, Santiago did his best work in his most recent masterpiece against the White Sox, whom whiffed at 22.67% of his fastballs, netting him a career-best 10 strike out performance. Still, he had a 10% whiff rate on his fastball in his first two starts, so he's definitely doing something right.
Where did this extra velocity come from? Back in January, Josh gave us a look at his offseason workout regimen and Hector certainly looked like a man on a mission. Of course, this could be explained away by Hector feeling good to start the year. The fact is some pitchers lose velocity as the year goes by while others gain MPH. Is Hector burning his bullets in the early going?
One positive to take away is that the extra oomph is not coming at the expense of his command, with a 2.61 BB/9 thus far. His control has not necessarily improved, as he is only hitting the zone 55.6% of the time with his fastball (58% in his career). Hitters simply can't keep up, making contact on 75.7% of fastballs in the zone (84.8% last season) and 59.1% of fastballs thrown out of the zone (76.9% last season).
We have seen Hector with this kind of velocity before, as he has topped out a 95 MPH in each of his big league seasons, but has never averaged above 91 MPH as a starter. If this is just early season adrenaline, expect Santiago to regress to his normal levels before long. If this is indeed the result of better conditioning (along with better maintenance from pitching coach Charlie Nagy), perhaps Hector is finally zeroing in on the consistency that has evaded him thus far in his career.