Billy Eppler has an interesting background in both scouting and analytics, and his latest comments seem to reinforce the notion that he is taking this two-pronged approach to baseball operations.
Recently, he joined Fangraphs’ David Laurila to discuss the Angels organization from top to bottom. Regardless whether you embrace sabermetrics or not, every Angels fan needs to read this in order to understand Eppler’s direction and mindset moving forward.
There are too many interesting tidbits to touch upon all of them here, but below are the highlighted portions I found to be most intriguing.
On run prevention and defense up the middle:
I think everybody has noticed that the position players who have walked in the door have all been solid average, or better, defensively. That’s something that is important to us. It goes back to that belief, to that philosophy, that both sides of the baseball impact winning.
The ballpark we play in, the ballparks in the American League West, and even others we’ll play in — going to Minnesota, going to Cleveland, going to Dodgers Stadium — a number of games will be in run-scoring environments that are depressed. Because of that, there can be a little more impact on the run-prevention side of the game.
For a position player, offense is half the game. Defense is the other half.
I’ve taken the liberty of checking Angels’ team opponents in 2017 and matching it to basic park factors (Fangraphs’ most recent is the 2015 iteration), and it turns out the Angels play 124 out of their 162 games in depressed run scoring environments. That is, parks where there are below-MLB average runs scored per game.
Now, the Mariners moving in their fences for the 2016 season may decrease this number to 114 games, but for parks of the Angels, Astros, A’s, Dodgers, Mets, Rays, and Marlins (teams the Angels play against in 2017), runs scored are all below-league average.
This means having position players’ strengths be defense, contact, and baserunning is an especially smart strategy for clubs who play the majority of their games in pitchers’ parks, which the Angels do — by a lot.
On acquisition of versatile pitchers:
With the uncertainty, or at least with the questions we ended last season with, we had to take a unique approach to our pitching this winter.
At the end of the day, we’re trying to get 27 outs. We’re taking a mindset of, ‘How many of these guys can go out and get us four out, or six outs, or eight outs?’ It doesn’t matter how you do it. All that matters is that you get 27. It doesn’t matter if your starter goes seven innings, and here comes your ‘eighth-inning player’ and your ‘ninth-inning player.’ It also doesn’t matter if your starter goes three-and-a-third innings, and you have these multiple-inning relievers in your bullpen to pick up the rest, with maybe a guy remaining for the ninth.
They don’t have to fit into a starter bucket or a reliever bucket. They can fit into a bucket of guys who can get multiple outs.
This strategy is very interesting, but I worry that this will be a strategy that may not be repeatable over a 162 game season. Players that pitch multiple innings often require rest, and if multiple are ineffective then they might have to push the reset button on the experiment.
However, they do have veterans like Bud Norris and Yusmeiro Petit, as well as up-and-coming options in Pounders, Campos, and Smith. If it works, then they have veteran grit and cheap, controllable assets to help win games. And who knows, they might have even unlocked a market inefficiency.
On the ‘Office of the GM’:
Our group, our ‘Office of the GM,’ is essentially comprised of our pro-scouting director, amateur-scouting director, international-scouting director, director of quantitative analysis, director of baseball development, director of minor-league operations, and then, within our front office, we have our two assistant GMs. We also hired a new director of baseball operations this winter, from the Tampa Bay Rays, a young man named Andrew Ball.
So he’s poached the new scouting director Matt Swanson from the St. Louis Cardinals, international scouting director Jason Smith from the Cleveland Indians, and director of baseball operations from Tampa Bay. Those are pretty good organizations to be picking front-office personnel from.
On drafting Matt Thaiss with the 16th overall pick last year:
He sees the ball really early. To use an expression from one of my mentors, he can quit on the baseball. That gives us the idea that he can recognize spin, and pitch type, very quickly. That will help improve his decision-making ability as the pitchers he’s facing become more and more talented. His bat-to-ball ability — his general eye-hand coordination — is strong, as well. Basically, he has the ability to recognize and to contact.
Through our internal analysis, we recognized an ability to impact the ball at an above-average rate. Along with that, we had very strong reports from a character and makeup standpoint at all. There was no pushback from anyone in the draft room because of [where he’ll be on the defensive spectrum].
Thaiss excelled at the plate in his first professional year and has all the tools to be a solid MLB hitter. He still has work to do as a first baseman on the defensive end, but that familiarity comes with increased repetitions. Learning a new position takes time, so one has to be patient with regard to Thaiss’s defensive expectations.
On balancing the MLB club and the farm system:
Staying competitive while building for the future can be done with strategic and sound investing and, obviously, very competent and thorough personnel. You have to remain committed towards improving your 25- and 40-man rosters, but also be mindful of investing in the draft and internationally with some heightened aggressiveness.
We’ve committed to building our farm system by maximizing our investment, not only in the playing personnel, but in the coaching staff and performance staff. We are trying to build a culture and a standard, and we’ve implemented a few programs that we feel will help create that environment. All of our efforts as a department circle back to our internal standards and the expectations we have for our baseball operation.
Here is where Eppler’s background really shines through, and one can reasonably infer that he knows what he’s doing.
The Angels are in an interesting position: they are trying to make the most of this “transition year” while trying to reinvigorate the farm system. With the #10 pick in this June’s draft and the ability to re-enter the international talent pool, Eppler has assembled a blueprint to get this organization back on-track.
Now, he and his team must execute it.