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The Angels’ blistering start has regular season outlook looking increasingly promising

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Yes, the games do count in April. Why do you ask?

Cleveland Indians  v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

For a team whose manager instructs his players to “turn the page” early and often, the Angels have fared remarkably well thus far this season.

At eleven wins and three losses, they find themselves sitting atop the AL West standings with the third-best winning percentage (.786) in the majors, trailing just the Mets and the Red Sox.

AL West Standings, as of April 12, 2018
MLB.com

Their methodology to ascension thus far has been to hit the living daylights out of the ball, encapsulated by a league-leading 137 wRC+ and a .290/.347/.481 team slash line. That’s 9 Corey Seagers worth of production, to put it in perspective.

They have outscored opponents by 45 runs on the year and executing the running game better than others with a 2.7 BsR mark, which places the Angels first among all teams.

With an average team exit velocity of 89.2 mph (tied for 5th-best) and a .361 xwOBA (also 5th-best), it has become abundantly clear that the team’s strategy has been to out-slug opponents to mask a snake-bitten rotation that has already landed J.C. Ramirez, Matt Shoemaker, and Andrew Heaney on the DL.

Angels’ starting rotation: 0.4 fWAR

Shohei Ohtani, as a pitcher: 0.6 fWAR

To begin the year, projection systems begun to doubt the viability of Ohtani, setting most win probabilities in the low to mid-80s. Fangraphs’ Steamer projected the Angels at 84 wins to begin the year. Thanks to the manner in which the Angels have started the season, that all has changed.

Fangraphs’ Steamer

Visualized another way, here is how the percentage of making the postseason has changed since the beginning of the season for AL teams.

Fangraphs

As you can see, the Angels have nearly doubled their odds from the beginning of the season. They went from a 27.1 percent change of making the postseason to a 51.1 percent chance in the span of just over two weeks.

Even though these probabilities are subject to change on a daily basis, the wins and losses that are already recorded do not change. And that is an important piece of information because each game is an independent outcome to another one, such as flipping a coin. The Angels have locked in the games they have played so far, and all additional games will be projected at the probability that they were at the start of the season, holding all player production, health, and usage assumptions constant.

We cannot expect them to hold the division lead over the Astros, whose collective talent level is much higher: 11 games higher by such projections, if we are to be exact. Since research has indicated that one standard deviation in baseball is six wins and two standard deviations is a 95% probability, the empirical evidence points to the Astros being significantly more likely to win the division than they are to lose it.

But the Astros’ unfathomably astronomic talent level should not preclude optimism for the team’s success in the early going.

For all the talk of the disheveled starting rotation, the team has a strong front of the rotation headed by Ohtani and Richards as well as an assortment of arms in the early to prime stages of their careers—Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, Nick Tropeano, Jaime Barria, and Parker Bridwell.

Finding versatile bullpen arms such as Noe Ramirez, Jim Johnson, and Luke Bard have stabilized the middle innings in a major way. Keynan Middleton has locked down high leverage situations, and while Blake Parker started shaky, he has begun to find his groove in recent outings. All in all, the Angels bullpen has been quite effective (8th in fWAR, .315 xwOBA) given the price tag.

The bottom line is that the Angels aren’t a one-trick pony. They have built a nice headwind for themselves, winning every series they have played in so far. The path forward, however, won’t be easy. They will face a much, much larger challenge later this month, taking on the Red Sox, Giants, Astros, and Yankees in a span of thirteen days.

They still have to play well, of course, but they have built themselves some margin for error. That’s not something that every team can say.