I don't quite know how to describe this season. In a lot of ways, my feelings towards this team are like their current record of .500. The highs have been high, like last night, and the lows have been low, resulting in an almost .500 feeling myself. Mike Trout has found a way to be even better than his normal demigod Mike Trout self. Andrelton Simmons has made major strides with the stick, making him a complete player. The bullpen has been a revelation and the starting rotation held together with Elmer's glue and duct tape has found a way to keep the team in games. Other than that, the season's been filled with some inconsistent play, injuries, underachievement/performance, and some more of Scioscia's questionable decision making. They have somehow found a way to survive those things.
Yet here we are, one game out of a Wild Card spot and postseason birth with forty-six games left on the schedule. So how have they done it? What is their strength? Pitching? Hitting? Run-prevention? Perhaps some luck? I decided to try and find specific trends. Note, this was written throughout the day and ventured into the game so the stats and everything will be a bit different.
Just using FanGraphs model of WAR for a basis, the Angels offense ranks 18th based off of fWAR as a total offense. This actually surprised me, I would have thought they’d be lower honestly. When you pull apart some of the other numbers, you can see why. They are 26th in batting average at .245, 23rd in OBP at .314, 29th in SLG% at .391, only ahead of the Giants. That’s a team OPS of .705 or Mark Trumbo this year for some reference. They are 28th in wOBA at .304 just ahead of the Padres and Giants. 21st in wRC+ at 91. They have a mediocre ISO of .146 which is 28th. They don't walk at a high rate with a BB% of 8.2% which is actually tied with the division leading Houston Astros for 19th in MLB, but they don't strikeout a lot either with a team K% of 19.7%, 24th in the majors. They don't hit home runs, they are tied with the Chicago White Sox for 24th overall at 124 dingerz. They don't score runs either, again at 24th overall in runs at 495. For some perspective, the two Major League leaders in runs are the Astros, 664, and the Washington Nationals with 617. Surely, with all of the speed on the team, you'd think they would be a great baserunning team, right? Well, not exactly. Again using FanGraphs baserunning tool, BsR, they're 23rd in the majors with a -4.1 BsR.
In fact, if you are looking for some glimmer of hope, the only category the Angels are good at, stolen bases, they lead the sport in with 103. No other team has more than 100. Cameron Maybin has 25 stolen bases, Ben Revere has 17 in limited playing time, Andrelton "The GOAT's Accomplice" Simmons also has 17. Mike Trout has found a way to steal 13 bases and Eric Young Jr. stole our hearts and 8 bases during his short time here.
So in short, they don't hit for power, they don't get on base at a high clip, they're not highly efficient on the basepaths, and the only thing they excel at is stolen bases (while also leading the league in caught stealing). So the reason they’re at .500 as of August 11th is definitely not because of the offense.
Heading into the season, I wrote this little nugget to try and prognosticate the 2017 Angels. My main focal point was directed at the teams improvement on defense after the acquisitions of guys like Martin Maldonado and Danny Espinosa. I was kind of right, but not to the level I was expecting. Again, using FanGraphs, the Angels are 4th overall in FranGraphs’ defensive metric. But peeling that general stat down tells yet another story. They are 13th in Defensive Runs Saved, DRS, with 9. They have a team Ultimate Zone Rating, UZR, of 14.2 which is 7th best. They also have the 4th lowest amount of errors in the Majors with 57.
Defense is certainly an important part of having a well-rounded, competitive team, but I don’t think it tells the whole story. One of the other major aspects of that aforementioned piece was the impact the defense would have on the pitching staff. Would they save runs? How much would it help them outperform what would likely be a pretty mediocre FIP? The answer? Eh, sorta. As of today, the Angels staff has a team ERA of 4.18, 11th in the game, with a team FIP of 4.41, which is considered below average. That's a difference of 0.23, last years was a difference of 0.34 for comparison's sake. So it actually went down, meaning the pitchers are pitching closer to their actual level of production. But the big difference comes in the starting pitching with a 4.31 ERA and 4.80 FIP. That .49 difference is huge, half a run makes their actual ERA 12th in the league compared to their FIP which is ranked 23rd.
The bullpen has had the reverse effect. The relief ERA is 3.96, 12th in the game, is higher than their FIP of 3.76, 7th in the game. This could be due to the smaller amount of innings and some bad luck, but we all know the bullpen has been great, their numbers could be even better.
So the defense is definitely a strength and a reason the team is playing well, but it hasn’t been a big enough improvement from last years team to make me think it’s the reason they’re playing so well. Well, relatively speaking. So that just leaves one more area to look at.
The Angels cumulative pitching staff fWAR is 7.9, 19th in the majors. But like I mentioned above in the defense section, this is misleading since the bullpen has been much better than the rotation. The bullpen has accumulated 3.8 fWAR in 384.1 IP, the starters have given 4.1 fWAR in 648 IP. Since this was such a stark difference, I'm going to keep the two separated.
Again, like I mentioned above, the rotation has an ERA and FIP of 4.31 and 4.80 (12th and 23rd) while the bullpen is at 3.96 and 3.76 (12th and tied for 7th). The rotation's been surprisingly good at pitching deep into games, their 648 innings are 10th best in the majors, but thaaaat's about it. They're 16th in K/9 with 7.43, 19th in BB/9 with 3.17, 7th worst in HR/9 with 1.49 per 9 innings, 18th lowest groundball percentage with 42.5%, 11th worst in HR/FB rate with 15% (that's a lot), and 26th in fWAR with a lowly 4.1 fWAR.
Here's the knight in shining armor: the bullpen. While they've been a little unlucky, see their FIP above, they've still been a rock solid group. They're 9th in K/9 with a 9.39 rate, 2nd best in BB/9 with 2.81 BB/9, a stat I personally found shocking, and overall 7th in fWAR with 3.8. Home runs are a concern, thanks Bud, they give up 1.19 HR/9 which is the 17th worst but have a pretty good 12.1% HR/FB rate.
So when looking at the pitching, the staff as a whole gives up a lot of home runs, that's been the team's kryptonite all year. The rotation's pretty average-to-mediocre, but the bullpen has bailed them out with a surprising performance this season. If you had told me the bullpen would be a strength heading into the season, I wouldn't have believed you. One guy claimed off of waivers, Blake Parker, two signed to minor league deals, Yusmeiro Petit and pre-All-Star break Bud Norris, and one recently traded David Hernandez in a minor deal with the Atlanta Braves. Can't help but feel like an "eh" rotation and a great bullpen will be the recipe for success moving forward as starting pitchers don't pitch deep into games anymore. Eppler will need to continue to sprinkle his magic on the bullpen moving forward.
So what are you left with? A very-below average offense whose only strength is stealing bases (along with Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons). A very good defense. An average to slightly below average rotation with a very good bullpen and that's about it. Trout and Simmons are too busy carrying the team on their collective backs, Kole's in a season long slump, Pujols is disintegrating before our very eyes, and the pitching is hanging in there.
I guess to answer my original question, I’m still not sure how the team is still in contention, but maybe that’s the point of the #TOD? The American League is a madhouse right now and no one seems to know what the hell is happening. This is baseball madness and it’s a perfect time for a Team of Destiny to make a cameo on the season. I think it also goes to show how amazing Trout and Simmons have been. Seriously, I know we shout their praise everyday in the HaloLinks, but we are really fortunate to have two legitimate stars play for us every night.