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2018 Angels Season Preview: The Starting Rotation

A closer look at the collection of arms that will make up the six man rotation.

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Los Angeles Angels Photo Day Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

As the breadth of baseball data has grown more granular over the years, the role of the pitcher has become more and more specialized. We know, for example, that a one-inning reliever will generally be more effective on a per-inning basis than a starter. We also know that a starting pitcher’s effectiveness diminishes each time he gets through the batting order.

One theory that especially gains attention during the postseason is the relative drawbacks to having your best pitcher start on short rest. The data, of course, says the trade-off is not worth it, as the fatigue factor generally makes him no more successful than the next best, fully-rested pitcher. But what do we know about extra rest? Most of the research has proven inconclusive, saying there is no obvious correlation to improved performance or health when teams employ six-man rotations.

Of course, most of that research lacks a meaningful sample size, as teams general only deploy a six-man rotation for a short period of time. The Angels are determined to buck that trend, boldly proclaiming that they will indeed roll with six arms on a full time basis. The inspiration, of course, comes from the arrival of Shohei Ohtani, who grew accustomed to pitching on a similar schedule in Japan’s NPB league.

The presence of Ohtani is not the only reason the Angels are electing to go with a six-man rotation. They feel strongly that their current collection of starters, all of whom are in various stages of recovery from arm injuries, could benefit from the added rest throughout the year. Does this theory have merit?

According to Eno Sarris, it does. While the research is now a few years old, this article finds that Japanese pitchers require Tommy John surgery at roughly half the rate of their MLB counterparts. While it is not definitive proof that five day’s rest automatically keeps pitchers healthier, the Angels do not have much to lose by trying.

For one, once you get past ace Garrett Richards, there is not much separating the Angels’ projected 2-8 starters. This lessens the risk of costing your best pitchers innings in favor of inferior starters (the Angels have already made known their intention to keep Richards on a more traditional schedule to maximize his starts).

Secondly, none of their projected starters have had a particularly heavy workload in the last two seasons, so none could have reasonably been expected to eat a large number of innings. If each guy is only expected to throw around 120 innings, why not spread out those appearances and see if the added rest keeps them all healthy?

As camp comes to a close, let us take a closer look at the arms that will making up the Angels’ starting staff in 2018.

Garrett Richards

As mentioned before, Richards is being counted on to lead this staff. Stem cell injections in 2016 allowed him to skip Tommy John surgery, but nerve irritation in his biceps interrupted his 2017 debut, preventing him from throwing another pitch in the majors until September. Once he finally took the mound, he looked to be the Richards of old, sitting upper-90’s with his fastball and spinning his nasty curveball by batters with regularity.

Now fully healed and free of restrictions, the 29 year-old righty might be the most important player on this team not named after a fish. While we never want to read much into spring stats, Richards has been absolutely filthy thus far, striking out 14 batters over 12.2 innings, allowing four earned runs.

Shohei Ohtani

The man who stole headlines this offseason now finds himself under the scrutinizing microscope of American sports media. There is no sugarcoating the rough start Ohtani has endured making the transition to baseball stateside. We knew his work with the bat would be an uphill battle. But it was his arm that had teams falling over themselves for his services, so his struggles thus far have been a surprise.

Reason for concern? Nah, not yet. It’s spring and his stuff is still as advertised. His control has been a mess, which likely explains the inconsistent radar gun readings, as he fought to keep pitches in the zone. While he leaked baserunners all over the diamond, he also had no trouble throwing the ball by anyone. What little contact he has allowed has been either struck hard or just dribbling by his fielders. That is not nothing, but also the types of rates you are bound to see in extremely small samples.

The 23 year-old is far from a finished product and the Angels are betting his talent overcomes his rough spring once the season starts. Most of his appearances have come in controlled, non-major league games. While the results are hard to ignore, this spring has been about the process, becoming acclimated to Major League Baseball. In his last start, an intra-squad game, he focused primarily on throwing his splitter. That is a likely explanation for allowing five walks in 5.1 innings.

He is currently slated to start the third game of the season, against the A’s. While many will look towards his ugly spring stats and argue he should start the year in the minors, the truth is that was never going to happen. Ohtani is not an ordinary prospect and was brought into the organization as a free agent. Like any free agent that might have a rough go of things starting life with their new organization, he deserves the benefit of working through his struggles.

Tyler Skaggs

Like Richards, Skaggs’ comeback last season was interrupted by an unrelated injury. Suffering an oblique strain after five starts, Skaggs found himself on the shelf until August. He had mixed results over those final two months, finishing with a 4.30 ERA but a very encouraging 8.0 SO/9 and 3.0 BB/9.

Those peripherals continue to be strong this spring, though he has been tagged with three home runs in the desert air. Like Ohtani, it would have been preferred that Skaggs’ numbers were more indicative of his stuff, but we should always keep in mind that pitchers especially are working on specifics during spring rather than worrying about outs.

Now 26 years-old and two full years removed from Tommy John surgery, the Angels hope that this is the year the lanky lefty puts it all together.

J.C. Ramirez

One of last season’s pleasant surprises, Ramirez made the unusual jump from the bullpen to the starting rotation. While hardly dominant, he provided the injury-ravaged rotation a sorely-needed 147.1 league-average innings. Not bad at all for a guy they grabbed for free off waivers just a year earlier.

Alas, he succumbed to the injury bug himself before the season was through, tearing a ligament in his pitching elbow. The tear was similar to the one suffered by Garrett Richards, leading Ramirez to take the same stem cell-infused route to recovery. The results thus far have been positive, as he has struck out 11 batters against no walks in 9.2 innings this spring, showing the same big velocity he had before the injury. More importantly, his elbow feels normal and he is slated to start the year in the rotation.

Matt Shoemaker

Ol’ Shoey was among the walking wounded last year, seeing his season come to an end before the All Star break. Facing hitters for the first time this spring since having surgery on his right forearm, some questioned whether Shoemaker would even be a viable option for the rotation this year.

After a rough start to his spring training, Shoemaker had a promising appearance in his most recent outing, shutting down a line-up full of Indians’ regulars over five dominant innings. Armed with a nasty splitter, Shoemaker always seems to be on the cusp of greatness. Now 31 years-old, the Angels are just hoping he holds up for the season and shows glimpses of the dominance we saw in 2014 and 2016.

Andrew Heaney

Teams rarely make it through spring training unscathed, but it is especially concerning that Heaney is suffering from tendinitis in his surgically repaired left elbow. Word out of camp is they expect him to recover quickly to join the rotation. For now, we hold our breath.

That Heaney managed to pitch at all last season should be considered a success, even if his results were less than desirable. When he is right, he commands three quality pitches to keep hitters off balance. The aforementioned Eno Sarris recently broke down those three pitches in an Athletic piece, as he named Heaney one of his six pitchers to watch:

“The norm for sinkers is to seek out a low-spin pitch with lots of fade and sink. Heaney spits in the face of that and has a sinker that rises more than your average four-seamer... But he still has above-average fade, and last year, after coming back from surgery, showed above-average velocity.

The norm for curves is to seek high-spin, high-velocity, high-drop hammers that fall off the table. Heaney has that velo, but not that spin, and none of the movement. It looks kind of like a slider in the numbers. It’s his best pitch by results, and got more whiffs per swing (59 percent) than any other lefty starter’s curve did last year...

Then there’s the changeup, where you want a good velocity gap (check), good drop (check) and fade (nope). The good news here is that last year represented the largest velocity gap between the fastball and the changeup of his career. The pitch could be improving.”

Get well soon, Andrew.

The Depth

With Heaney sidelined, the Angels will open the season with five starters, as off-days will allow them to maintain a six-man rotation schedule through the season’s first two weeks. If Heaney is not ready by the time a sixth starter is needed, Nick Tropeano looks like the current favorite to take his spot. He has been dominant this spring, with a 3.12 ERA and 11 strikeouts across 8.2 innings. Tropeano, of course, is making his own comeback from Tommy John surgery and looks poised to make an impact this year.

Yet another find off the scrapheap, Parker Bridwell came out of nowhere last season to help anchor the Angels’ rotation. Despite missing too few bats, Bridwell showed poise and perhaps a little deception to give the Angels quality starts over the second half of the season. The team is understandably tempering their enthusiasm that his success last season is sustainable, starting him in AAA where he will be among the first choices once the need for another starter presents itself.

One of the guys he will compete with for that spot will be young right-hander Jamie Barria, who ranked number six in our prospect rankings. Barria is a low-ceiling, “pitchability” guy who opened some eyes this spring by striking out ten batters across 8.2 innings. He did not look out of place against major league competition and could probably slot in as a number five starter right now if needed. He is still only 21 years of age so there is no rush to get him his cup of coffee just yet, but if he continues last season’s trajectory, expect to see him log some innings for the Angels before long.