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2017 Angels season preview: Health, not effectiveness, will be primary issue for starting rotation (with graphs!)

If these dudes stay healthy, there’s no question they give the team a solid chance night in and night out.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Angels Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

I need not to discuss the 2016 injuries for the ump-teenth time, but I think we all realize that health is mighty important to any ballclub. Out of the eight starters the Angels started with last season, four suffered season-ending injuries (Heaney, Richards, Tropeano, Shoemaker), one missed more time than expected (Skaggs), one never pitched (Wilson), one was ineffective (Weaver), and one was traded (Santiago). That’s all eight! And you wonder why the Angels didn’t do so hot. Go figure, huh?

But the good news is that the health, at least for now, is back: Garrett Richards benefited through the wonders of a stem cell procedure and is back better than ever, Matt Shoemaker is incredibly unfazed by ‘the incident’, and Tyler Skaggs is poised and ready to put together his first full season since Tommy John surgery in 2014. And thanks to research done by Jon Roegele at The Hardball Times, we know that younger pitchers and longer recovery times yield better results. Skaggs was young and opted for a longer recovery time of 18 months, so he should be in the clear.

When healthy, these three pitchers make for a solid trio atop the Angels rotation. Let’s take a look at the Angels’ starting rotation to open the season, in almost fully confirmed starting order.

Ricky Nolasco

Nolasco didn’t do himself any favors in August, but he broke out in September in a big way, pitching his way to a 1.85 ERA and a 3.00 FIP. So the question suddenly became, is this the new normal for Nolasco or is this simply a mirage of being traded? It may have sounded silly back then, but I wrote about him back in August, concluding that I wouldn’t be surprised if he is a 4 WAR player in 2017. In the end, it all goes back to his pitch selection, Charles Nagy, and throwing more sinkers.

If you visit Nolasco’s career pitch selection page (courtesy of Brooks Baseball), you’ll find that Nolasco has never thrown nearly this many sinkers in his career. In the month of September 2016, he threw sinkers (the thin gray line, by the way) about 34% of the time, leading to the legitimate possibility that this is the new Ricky Nolasco.

It’s always possible that hitters adjust to a pitcher’s changes, but Nolasco is an outlier in this regard. He might be a Shoemaker now, someone who is so unique that hitters can be handed a scouting report days before and still cannot figure him out. With a 1.29 GB/FB rate in September and 4% less hard contact surrendered, Nolasco could be a force to be reckoned with. Eating 190+ innings and possibly being the Angels’ top starter is not something to be laughed at any longer.

Matt Shoemaker

While The Cobbler’s first seven starts left much to be desired, he threw more splitters at a clip north of 40% and enjoyed terrific success the whole way. Throwing more splitters leading to more off-balance hitters is no coincidence. As the graph below shows, Shoemaker has figured out how to repeat his success: throw the darn splitter.

Now take a look at his swinging strike percentages this season.

Do you think there’s a correlation between these two graphs? Me thinks yes.

Unless you have never played Wii Sports Baseball, you know that the splitter is unanimously the toughest pitch to hit. Perhaps batters were a bit better in the second half because they could better identify the splitter, but his post-July results were still a solid pitcher. And since this is a rolling 15-game graph, this does not do him enough justice as to how elite he was during May and June.

So, a quick recap: an awful 9+ ERA April, a Cy Young caliber May and June, a solid-average July, August, and September. Take that April out and you get a pitcher straddling the line between very good and great. Oh yeah, did I say splitter yet?

Garrett Richards

The MLB poster boy for the wonders of modern science, Richards evaded the grips of Tommy John’s grasp following a 2016 UCL tear through a successful experimental stem cell procedure. Which has to bear the question: will he get injured again? For now, all signs point to no — when he was pitching with 100% effort, he touched north of 99 mph on the radar gun, per multiple scouts. And given that it’s only spring training, this lines up well with where he has been throughout his career, so you can see why there’s optimism. Richards has vowed to pitch with 85% effort, and given that all his pitches are behaving as usual, there’s no reason not to believe he won’t live up to form.

When Richards has been on the mound, he has been anywhere from good (2015) to very good (2016) to great (2014). Since becoming a full-time starter in 2014, Richards has had a 2.89 ERA in 410.2 innings, the second of which would have been higher had it not been for arm troubles and a freak knee injury. With a sub-3.50 FIP, it’s clear that Richards’ success is exactly that: he may not be a true ace, but he’s usually reliable and dominant for stretches. That’s not the most important stat, though.

With a large enough sample size, Richards has been a ground ball machine his entire career: you can tell by the differential between the blue and gray lines. With Maldonado to guide and Simmons, Espinosa and a much-improved Cron to field in the infield dirt, there’s no limit to what a healthy, pitch-efficient Richards can do this season.

Tyler Skaggs

For a long time, Tyler Skaggs was one of the top prospects in all of MLB. Unfortunately, health has prevented him from doing what he does best. As mentioned earlier, Skaggs is returning from TJ, but there are a few signs worth noting: in his start on Thursday, he threw 92 pitches in a minor league game, hit his usual velocity (90-93 mph), and said both his arm and body “feel great”.

Even though he showed flashes of brilliance once returning last year, Skaggs needs to be more consistent in order to succeed. How consistent he will be will go a long way into determining whether he is a number two, three, four, or five caliber starter in the rotation. But even Mike Scioscia has acknowledged before that Skaggs has the stuff of a #1, and the Angels would be thrilled to get that kind of production out of him.

Depending on how you view him, he’s anywhere between a #2 starter with injury issues or an injury-prone back-end guy. For the record, he’s got these career stats: a 4.60 ERA with a 4.15 FIP, a 3.16 BB/9, and a 2.1 fWAR to go along with a league-average groundball rate. In his defense, he is still a developing product that has still yet to pitch a full season, thanks to injuries out of his control. His most probable outcome is of a mid-rotation starter, health permitting.

Jesse Chavez

I’ve wrestled with whether or not to write about Jesse Chavez several times, ultimately concluding that he’s just not interesting enough. This might be the very reason that he continues to fly under the radar in the MLB landscape. Listed at 6-foot 1 but only standing in at 5-foot 8, Chavez was constantly overlooked his entire career, which is the only reason he was drafted in the 42nd round of the 2002 draft. When the Angels signed him, there was little to no league-wide chatter about it, many writing off Chavez as a mediocre swingman and little more.

Except for the fact that Chavez has started 47 games when given the opportunity (2014-15) and impressed, with a 3.83 ERA and a 3.87 FIP in 303 innings. Given the going rate for starting pitching, Chavez’s deal is smart ($5.75M + up to $3M based on starts made) and incentivizes him based on starts made. And if this wasn’t enough, Chavez is better at starting than he has been at relieving over the past three years. Jesse Chavez will never be the show-stopper of a rotation, but he not only serves a valuable role, but also provides the upside of a mid-rotation starter for a fraction of the price.

The Angels will be stoked if he can replicate anything close to what he did back in his A’s days.

This rotation won’t be a weakness if it stays healthy, but the important thing to remember is that this team plays in Angel Stadium and the AL West. I recently crunched the numbers and found this 2017 team plays 124/162 games in depressed run-scoring environments. That is, 76.5% of the games are played in pitcher-friendly parks. Given that, it makes a ton of sense to make major upgrades to the defense and as a byproduct, upgrade the pitching as well.

These pitchers are well qualified to be here, make no doubt about it. Every single team will crumble if they were affected by the train wreck that was our 2016 pitching injuries. But at the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that not every team carries a TJ-recoveree and a stem-cell proceduree, and it’s for that reason there’s more risk here than usual. JC Ramirez and Yusmeiro Petit will both be available as fill-in starters for stretches, and Alex Meyer is still working out the kinks in AAA. It’s all going to be okay.

Repeat after me: It’s. All. Going. To. Be. OK.