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Average Angels offense could turn into “Elite”

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The Angels are a few performances away from having a very good offense.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Without looking it up, would you guess the Angels had a position player core nearly on par with the likes of the Houston Astros, Tampa Bay Rays, or Washington Nationals? Well, with everything taken into consideration (batting, baserunning, and defense) the Angels ranked 12th in Major League Baseball as a unit.

What this makes this even more interesting, or surprising, is their levels of production from several positions: first base, catcher, third base, right field, and second base. Those positions, at least offensively, were either below-average or close to the bottom.

So for this post, I’ll dissect all of the positions, where the Angels currently stand, and what some potential options could do to transform the unit into a top 10 one (with defense included). I originally wanted to do this earlier in the offseason, for obvious reasons, but school/finals caught up with me so it had to be pushed back, but without further adieu, here’s where the Angels currently stand.

Edit: As I was working on this, H.T. Tennis posted an eerily similar article that follows the same premise of mine. However, mine will focus solely on offensive output (plus how Yasmani Grandal helps with run prevention as well).


Catcher:

This is actually a pretty fitting way to kick this off because it’s a position Eppler has stated is a position he’s interested in adding external help. As a whole, Halos catchers ranked 15th in fWAR at the position. That’s with some lesser known commodities like Martin Maldonado, Rene Rivera, Jose Briceno, and Francisco Arcia doing the bulk of catching in 2018. This ranking may surprise most, it surprised me, but it’s mostly due to their contributions with the glove.

Offensively, however, is another story. Halos catchers provided a mere .277 OBP (25th in MLB), a pedestrian .374 SLG% (17th in MLB), and equally uninspiring wRC+ of 80 (19th in MLB).

This does come with caveats, though, and it wouldn’t be fair to not mention them. Catcher was not a major source of offense in 2018. Major League catchers averaged a slashline of .232/.304/.372 and a wRC+ of 84. So the Angels, as a whole, were not far off from this. But that does not mean there isn’t room for improvement.

The Angels were linked to the best offensive catcher on the free agent market, Wilson Ramos, before the Mets got him on a steal of a contract. They’re also rumored to be in on top remaining free agent catcher, Yasmani Grandal. Grandal put up a slashline of .241/.349/.466 with 24 homeruns, a very solid 125 wRC+, and maintained his status as one of the best pitch framing catchers in the Majors. The work he’s done over the three years should overshadow his lapses in the playoffs this most recent postseason. Over the past full three seasons, Grandal is average at throwing runners out and average at blocking behind the plate, but he’s a sorcerer at giving his pitchers extra strikes.

This is a skillset that seems to fluctuate throughout the sport, but Grandal is the king in the most straightforward statistic: CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average). Here’s Baseball Prospectus to elaborate.

CSAA, stands for Called Strikes Above Average; a measure of how many called strikes the player in question creates for his team. In the case of catchers, we isolate the effects of the pitcher, umpire, and other situational factors which allows us to identify how many additional called strikes the catcher is generating, above or below average. For catchers, this skill is commonly described as “framing” or, in more polite company, “presentation.”

Out of all Major League catchers with at least 4,000 “framing chances”, Grandal was 5th in 2018 in CSAA, 4th in 2017, and 1st in 2016. Yeah, he’s pretty good at helping out the pitching staff. It was this recipe of defense and offense that helped Grandal propel the Dodgers’ catchers into 3rd overall on FanGraphs.

If we assume Grandal catches around 140 games again, like he did in 2018, followed by one of Briceno and/or Kevan Smith doing the rest of the work, the Halos could anticipate an overall slashline similar to what the Dodgers got from their catchers this year: .229/.342/.410. That is a drastic improvement over what the Angels received this past season.

Plus, just let these do the talking.

At the end of this article, I’ll show what upgrading the overall slashline would have done to the Angels’ end result, and a scenario or two of what guys like Grandal could do. But we’ll jump to the next problem position which has actually already been addressed.


First Base:

This position has actually already been attended to with the recent signing of Justin Bour, but it doesn’t take very much time to realize first base was a mitigated disaster for the Angels last year. It was a net negative last season for a position that is traditionally a huge source of power and offensive production.

Angels first basemen combined to hit .231/.279/.381 with an 80 wRC+, that line is nearly identical with their catchers output, and it ranked 28th in the game that resulted in a -1.1 WAR. Don’t look further than Albert Pujols as the main culprit, the future Hall-of-Famer literally limped throughout his second worst season of his career. His teammates who played first base did not fare much better. Jefry Marte, Luis Valbuena, and Jose Miguel Fernandez combined for a 77 wRC+, so even Pujols did need to get off of his feet, his backups didn’t help either.

It’s also worth noting that the Angels, as a team, had an OBP of .313, 20th in baseball with first base being a main culprit (.279 OPS was 29th in baseball at the position).

This position gets all that much more glaring when you consider the Major League average of .250/.328/.432 and a 105 wRC+ at first base. Eppler clearly saw this as a problem and decided to address it early with the Bour signing. The 30-year had a down year by his own standards, but he was still able to post a .227/.341/.404 line with 20 homeruns and an almost ridiculous 14.6% BB%. It’s a far cry from his averages from his first three full seasons (.272/.345/.497), but it’s a pretty significant sized leap from whatever Halo first basemen contributed in 2018. Bour’s mix of patience and power will be a welcomed addition as our own Rick Souddress argued shortly after the deal was announced. There is some debate about Bour’s fit on the roster, especially with Pujols still under contract for three more seasons and Ohtani being limited to DH for 2019, but there was no doubt that first base needed some thump. If we get something even close to 2015-2017 Bour, Eppler will look like a genius for signing him for $2.5 million.


Second Base:

If you looked at FanGraphs’ positional rankings, you’d be surprised to see the #9 ranked Angels in this article. But much like catcher, this is a position propped up on defense thanks to Ian Kinsler and David Fletcher. And, again, much the catcher position, the offense was underwhelming. A .232/.291/.363 line with an 82 wRC+ is the only one in the top 10 ranking that is below average.

The Kinsler acquisition didn’t provide the spark we had hoped for as fans and while Fletcher came up and acted as a sort of sparkplug for the team, he was still below average and carries some disheartening StatCast numbers. His Hard-Hit percentage, pitches hit over 95 mph, sat at 20.4%, which is in the same territory as light hitters such as Jarrod Dyson, Jon Jay, Jose Iglesias, and Travis Jankowski. This is mostly to do his ability to square the ball up with the barrel (Brls/PA% was second to last in the sport among hitters with at least 150 batted balls in play). His 4.9% BB% doesn’t exactly foreshadow a high on-base percentage either.

Fletcher’s .275/.316/.363 line is almost identical to the league average of .254/.317/.395 and while he doesn’t have eye-popping numbers like the Jose Altuve’s of the world, he always seems to making plays with his “baseball IQ” and, man, he’s pretty darn solid at the keystone position with his glove.

However, this need is lower on the totem pole and unlike the other positions, has at least one interesting prospect possibly waiting in the wings in Luis Rengifo.

Rengifo broke out after being acquired from Tampa Bay for CJ Cron last year. The 21-year old flew through the Angels’ system, starting in High-A and ending the season in AAA Salt Lake City. While he wasn’t as dominant as he was in the lower levels, he maintained strong walk and strikeout rates (11.4% BB% and 14.2% K% in AAA) and still offers a nice amount of upside given his age. My favorite comp is another former Seattle Mariners farmhand and current Arizona Diamondback in Ketel Marte.

The job looks like it’s Fletcher’s to lose in Spring Training with Zack Cozart returning from injury to play third base. But even the newly minted Angels skipper, Brad Ausmus, isn’t making any promises for any second baseman in camp.

If Fletcher’s bat doesn’t take that next step forward, there’s an injury, or Fletcher need to shift to third base in the event Cozart struggles, there’s a good chance we’ll see if Rengifo’s bat can ignite the offense a bit. You never want to put that sort of pressure on a 21-year old who hasn’t even played in the Majors, but Rengifo will get a chance to solve a possible position of need and it has been a while since the Angels have had a prospect with that sort of potential.

Regardless, this seems like a position that should be filled-in internally. Fletcher brings plus defense and baserunning while Rengifo brings youthful upside, Eppler and co. would be better off allocating their resources elsewhere. Like, perhaps, third base...


Third Base:

Troy Glaus was a 4x All-Star, 2x Silver Slugger winner, 2002 World Series champion and Series MVP, all while blasting 320 career homeruns in an injury-shortened 13-year career. You know what else he was? The last really big offensive threat the Angels had at the hot corner, and it’s been a much discussed position since then (2005). Chone Figgins was the really the last major “plus” at the position, but that was nearly a decade ago.

Fast-forward to present day? Well, things haven’t entirely changed with the signing last winter of long-time Cincinnati Reds shortstop, Zack Cozart.

Cozart limped through 58 games with the Halos to the tune of a .219/.296/.362 with a 84 wRC+ before suffering a pretty brutal season-ending shoulder injury in Seattle. All-in-all, it was actually relatively close to his career norms, but still disappointing for $12 million a year.

To add insult to literal injury, third base is absolutely packed in today’s game. Seriously, try to make a top 10 list, it’s pretty tough to leave off some guys. Anyways, it’s so packed, the Angels finished 24th in the game (and that was only that bad because of Fletcher’s cameo saving the overall number from the bleak numbers posted by Cozart and Valbuena).

Much like first base, third base is traditionally a position of power and above-average offense, it really wasn’t much different in 2018 with the league average slashline of .251/.324/.425 and a 102 wRC+. Cozart doesn’t seem like a good bet to approach those numbers and the only other in-house candidate, Taylor Ward, is far from a sure thing either. The Angels could look to add here and shift Cozart over to second base, but that scenario looks pretty unlikely. It looks like the Angels will be in for another below average season at third base.


Right Field:

I think I can speak for most people when I say that Kole Calhoun has been a fan favorite since becoming the everyday right fielder in 2014. He had been able to post average-to-slightly-above-average offensive numbers on top of awesome defense in right field next to Trout. But then, 2017 happened. Calhoun’s numbers dropped precipitously from his rock solid 2016 season. There was hope Calhoun had begun to make adjustments during Spring Training when he began spraying the ball all over the field, but it did not translate into the regular season. And, boy, did it not translate.

Calhoun hit .145/.195/.179 in his first 185 plate appearances before going to the disabled list with an oblique strain. Calhoun was the worst hitter in Major League Baseball at that point. After some much-needed time on the DL (probably more mental than anything) and some major tweaks to his batting stance, Calhoun was absolutely en fuego during the month of July hitting .322/.378/.759 with a Major League leading 10 dingers. He backed it up with a strong August (.274/.345/.453, a very similar line to his best seasons) before falling off again in September/October (.125/.271/.227).

In total, Calhoun’s final line was .208/.283/.369 and a 79 wRC+, much improved from what it looked like it would be, but that overall line, along with abysmal showcases from Jabari Blash, Michael Hermosillo, and Chris Young, resulted in a paltry .196/.274/.355 line and 74 wRC+. It was the worst offensive production from the position in the sport and was 28th in the game in total thanks to Calhoun’s still strong defensive play. Compared to the league average of .255/.332/.427 and 106 wRC+ across the game, there’s plenty of improvement to be had.

Much like with Cozart at third base, it sounds like the team will have to bet on Calhoun’s batting stance adjustments and overall second half numbers to be a better indication of what he’ll provide going forward. Otherwise, the Angels might well below average here again and the projected depth behind him, Peter Bourjos, Jarrett Parker, and Hermosillo again, doesn’t exactly provide a lot of confidence. We’re probably just better off hoping young rising star, Jo Adell, is ready to take over the reigns sooner rather than later.

(It’s worth noting that the new Angels hitting coach, Jeremy Reed, was one of the guys credited for the changes in Calhoun’s stance. Look at how dramatic the change was)

The Rest:

This seems like a lot of negative news and as Angels fans, I’m not sure how much more bad news our hearts can handle. So here comes some bright and shiny rays of optimism! F*** yeah!

The Angels have franchise players at a few spots: shortstop, center field, designated hitter, and left field.

Andrelton Simmons is a franchise shortstop. While he’s not the hitter that Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Xander Bogaerts, or Trevor Story are, he has turned into a very good hitter to pair with his otherworldly defense. Like cheese and wine.

Thanks to this potent combination, Simmons helped the Angels finish 4th overall at shortstop. The batting line of .288/.334/.416 and 107 wRC+ doesn’t look like much, but compare it to the league average line of .255/.314/.409 and 95 wRC+ and Simmons looks like blackened swordfish vs. trout on the menu. Speaking of Trout...

Trout was truly a man among boys in the center field. His .312/.460/.628 line and 191 wRC+ were easily MVP worthy, what’s scary is they could have been even scarier if he didn’t miss time with a nagging wrist injury or the tragic and untimely death of his brother-in-law. Because of the 20, or so, games missed and the production his backups provided, the Angels finished 2nd overall for center fielders, but, again, this doesn’t tell the whole story.

This is how bad the Angels’ backup center fielders were. They brought down that sexy slashline to .267/.391/.519 and 148 wRC+. Still very, very good, but that’s still pretty alarming it goes down that far. You go from the mighty Trout godly numbers to more of an Aaron Judge or Jose Ramirez line, still awesome, but the depth behind the GOAT is pretty putrid. Still, Trout’s slashline absolutely dwarfs the Major League average of .249/.321/.400 and a 96 wRC+. It’s pretty silly, quite frankly.

The lack of depth also shows in left field where the Angels are a misleadingly ranked 22nd overall. Their overall line is .229/.312/.413 and a 101 wRC+. This doesn’t give Justin Upton the credit he deserves. Upton’s .257/.344/.463 and 124 wRC+ was a down year by his own standards, but it was easily above the league average (.253/.325/.420 and 102 wRC+). Still only 31-years old, Upton can easily improve on those numbers and it’s not outlandish to think he can. After left field was an issue for several years, Upton’s bat is a breath of fresh air (just close your eyes whenever he has to go back on a ball hit over him).

And, finally, DH. Shohei Ohtani didn’t have the PA’s others had and missed quite a bit of time due to elbow injuries, but he still finished with a .285/.361/.564 line and 152 wRC+. That’s comparable to Ronald Acuna Jr. and Manny Machado, only Ohtani’s park adjusted numbers are better.

Much like left and center field, this number is weighted down a bit due to his backups (Pujols namely). The Angels finished 6th out 15 overall American League teams (.262/.319/.474 and 117 wRC+ vs. the league average of .254/.329/.457 and 112 wRC+), but this number should improve with Ohtani solely being a DH next year and him, plus Bour, limiting Pujols’ playing time. It’s another position not to worry about.


Conclusion:

The Angels finished with the 12th best position player core in the game, but that’s in large part due to their defense. In offensive categories, they were 20th in OBP (.313), 12th in SLG% (.413), and 11th in wRC+ (an even 100). In terms of counting stats, they were 7th in homeruns (214) and 15th in runs (721). It would seem a major part of their issue is capitalizing on hitting all of those home runs by having so few runners on base. Their overall line was .242/.313/.413 and 100 wRC+, can they take the next step?

For simplicity, I’ll do two exercises. I’ll do the Angels’ slashline just from getting league average production from catcher, first base, second base, third base, and right field. Then, I’ll do the Angels’ slashline with Grandal’s numbers (minus about .1 in OBP and average, and about .3-.4 in SLG% due to backups and second/third stringers lowering the overall final numbers, which is actually a pretty solid estimate based on the numbers I’ve look at), along with the Steamer projections for some, hopefully, bounce back years from Cozart, Calhoun, and Bour (I will also regress Bour’s numbers like I did with Grandal). I’ll be using Fletcher’s slashline from Steamer as well.

If you replace the catcher, first base, second base, third base, and right field numbers with the league averages, you get a final output of .254/.329/.430. That line is almost identical to the Astros (.255/.329/.425) and would vault them into the top 7-8 in the sport. Again, that’s just getting league average production from several positions.

If you replace catcher with Grandal’s production, adjusted to take into consideration lesser players lowering the total output, along with the Steamer projections for Cozart, Bour, Fletcher, and Calhoun, you get: .252/.330/.428. A nearly identical line to replacing those spots with league average production. So, it’s definitely possible to reach this level without many more outside additions, just needs improvement from within.

This is all fine and dandy, but there are some things to keep in mind. It involves all of the very good players, Trout, Simmons, Ohtani, and Upton, maintaining these levels of production. It also needs bounce-back seasons from guys like Calhoun, Cozart, and Bour, along with an addition that would make an impact like Grandal. But I think the biggest thing I took away from doing this, is how big of an impact the depth pieces have on the overall numbers. Obviously, with these stats, the averages skew the final total even without large sample sizes, but it was still surprising to see just how much they effected the numbers. It’ll make the development of kids like Rengifo, Adell, Jahmai Jones, Jack Kruger, Brandon Marsh, and others that much more crucial.

While pitching will surely get placed underneath the microscope more than the offense, this should at least show the Angels aren’t far from a good group of position players. Trout, Ohtani, Simmons, and Upton is about as a good as any four in the game (I’ve commented before that it’s on the same level as the Astros core four), it’s just a matter of adding another star to that (hello, Adell), raising the overall floor around them with average or better players, and then continuing to increase the pool of talent on the 40-man roster along with the upper levels of the minors.