Update: I've modified the arithmetic with the help of some newly discovered catching statistics tracked by Baseball Reference. The conclusions remain the same.

A Fanpost by mattwelch over at Halo's Heaven pretty much explodes the common perception (common at least among the Angels broadcast team) that Jeff Mathis "calls a great game," or more precisely, a better game than Mike Napoli. Catcher ERA is a favorite target for statheads, and I tend to agree. Good pitchers are good pitchers, and likewise for bad ones. The guy catching the balls behind the plate won't change that. I'll even contend with mattwelch's opinion that "I'd rather see Jeff Mathis catch Ervin Santana." Mathis only caught Ervin five times in 2007, when he was bad, and Napoli only caught him four times in 2008, when he was good. That does not even begin to approach statistical significance.

But instead of ERA, I'd like to talk about base runners. How good (or bad, as the case may be) are these two at preventing runners from advancing? Is Mathis so much better than Napoli that he deserves his reputation as a defensive catcher?

So let's count the number of bases the two Angel catchers give away but give them credit for bases they "save." First, we'll see who has the disadvantage of more base runners in order to "weight" the final result. Fortunately, Baseball Reference keeps track of how many "stolen base opportunities" (SBO) a catcher has had to deal with.

Mathis: (3003 SBO)/(1936.3 IP) = 1.551
Napoli: (4046 SBO)/(2566.3 IP) = 1.577
Mike Napoli's job has been about 1.6% busier per inning than Jeff Mathis's over the years. To make the rest of this easy, BR also has a stat called Runner Bases Added (RBA) which tracks how many runners advance on a catcher via stolen bases, passed balls, or wild pitches. They also track Runner Kills, the total number of runners caught stealing, picked off, or otherwise thrown out trying to advance. We still need to account for errors, which I will assume are worth one base each. Catcher interference is rare, but I'll throw it in just because I can.

Mathis: (321 RBA - 67 RK - 24 E - 3 XI)/(1936.3 IP) = 0.117 B/IP
Napoli: (423 RBA - 72 RK - 22 E - 6 XI)/(2566.3 IP) = 0.126 B/IP
But remember that Mathis's numbers need to be scaled up slightly to account for the fewer base runners he's had to deal with. This puts his B/IP at 0.119 to Napoli's 0.126.

In other words, Jeff Mathis saves just seven more bases per 1000 innings than Mike Napoli. For perspective, 1000 innings is nearly a full-season of duty for a starting catcher. That difference is within the margin of error of the crude arithmetic--it is small enough to be of no practical consequence.

But wait! you may be thinking. Perhaps base runners fear Jeff Mathis. Perhaps only the fastest and the most daring base runners challenge his arm, and therefore, the situation disadvantages Mathis from the start. Well, it doesn't look that way. Runners have tried to steal on Mathis 6.36% of the time, as opposed to 6.53% of the time for Napoli. That's not fear. Players run against the best catchers less than 4% of the time. And if you believe in being "clutch," Napoli has actually done better throwing runners out in high-leverage situations than Mathis.

These guys are bad. When I ran Jose Molina, a solid defensive catcher, through the calculation above, I got 0.090. His brother Yadier, probably the best major-league backstop in the game today, scored a 0.046. The current Angels receivers don't live in the same world as these guys.

But Mike Napoli can fucking hit. Even in the midst of a brutal slump (perhaps because he's losing playing time to Mathis?), he's still rocking a .856 OPS, highest of any catcher not named Joe Mauer. His .960 OPS led all major-league catchers in 2008. He's good enough to be an enviable DH, and he probably will be before too long. But the fact that he can put up a .900+ OPS while playing the most difficult defensive position in the game at least tolerably well makes him enormously valuable.

There's no need to compare Napoli's offensive numbers with Mathis, because we all know that Jeff Mathis doesn't really have any offensive numbers. He's a replacement-level hitter on a good day, and since he's already 26, he's not likely to get much better. There's nothing wrong with having a replacement-level hitter for a second catcher if he's also a good catcher. Jeff Mathis is not. He's a hitting catcher who doesn't hit, which is to say, he's worse than useless.

The Texas Rangers have a similar case in Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Like Jeff Mathis, he was once a highly regarded prospect. He was also (at the time) the centerpiece of the Mark Teixeira trade with the Atlanta Braves. This is most likely the reason Ron Washington has stuck with Saltalamacchia to a fault (you can read all about it here). The Rangers expect him to come around, but a hitting catcher who doesn't hit is a liability, and the manager has no excuse when there are better options available. At least Mathis is not the Angels' #1 catcher, but Mike Scioscia's irrational mancrush on him has led me to deeply question his reputation as a "catching guru." The Angels throw out 23% of opposing base runners while getting thrown out 27% of the time themselves. You heard me right, Mike Scioscia is getting beat at his own game.

Jeff Mathis is probably a nice guy and all, but he's bad at baseball. He may have a purpose in life, but it's not as a backup catcher. The team can suffer through the rest of the season with him on the roster and not damage their playoff hopes, but he's arbitration eligible this winter and for God's sake, do not give him any money. I hope the Angels front office can think through their passion and dump him. Mike Napoli is the starting catcher; they need his bat in the lineup more often. Try out Ryan Budde or Bobby Wilson as a backup. They can't hit worse than Mathis, and they can only be better defensively. Or how about getting creative and signing a free agent, like maybe this guy? (Dear Jose: We're sorry we traded you away for a sack of baseballs, and we miss you. Please come back, or at the very least send someone like you. --Love, Mike Scioscia)

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Jeff Mathis nearly throws out Nick Punto attempting to steal center field.
I've been extremely busy lately with a big project at work, and it takes just about all the time I have to spare to follow the team each day. But, I did promise a breakdown of the pitching staff, to see who's pulling their weight and who's not. A disturbing trend is developing, namely, Angels starting pitching kind of sucks. No big deal while the offense is on an incredible high and pumping out 7-8 runs every night it seems, but you can't count on that lasting forever. Especially in the playoffs. Right now the Angels lead MLB in a stat that sounds good on paper but falls apart when you think about it: come-from-behind wins. Last night's 11-run blowout affair capped their 32nd in that department. But what a lot of come-from-behind wins usually mean is that crappy starting pitching is getting bailed out by the offense, and to a lesser extent, the bullpen. And that's pretty much where we stand at the moment. During their recent 35-game tear the typical game ends with a 7-5 Angels win. Those are steroid-era numbers. I may sounds unashamedly pessimistic for picking on the pitching when the team is doing so well, but I think my previous comments have been pretty high on the Angels all year, even when that wasn't cool. They're a good team, and I'm almost certain they'll win the West, which is why I'm especially bothered by the pitching in the playoffs. Now the numbers.

Name                    RAR   WAR  Worth   Paid  Value
Jered Weaver	       25.9   2.6  $11.8   $0.3  $11.5
John Lackey*           17.8   1.8   $8.1   $5.4   $2.7
Brian Fuentes	       10.6   1.0   $4.7   $4.9  -$0.2
Jose Arredondo	        8.2   0.8   $3.6   $0.2   $3.4
Matt Palmer	        7.3   0.7   $3.2   $0.2   $3.0
Shane Loux	        6.0   0.6   $2.8   $0.3   $2.5
Darren Oliver	        5.9   0.6   $2.6   $2.1   $0.5
Sean O'Sullivan	        3.7   0.4   $1.6   Neg.   $1.6
Joe Saunders            3.3   0.3   $1.4   $0.3   $1.1
Justin Speier           2.7   0.3   $1.2   $2.8  -$1.6
Ervin Santana           2.6   0.2   $1.1   $2.2  -$1.1
Kevin Jepsen            2.0   0.2   $0.9   Neg.   $0.9
Nick Adenhart           1.8   0.2   $0.9   Neg.   $0.9
Kelvim Escobar*         0.9   0.1   $0.4   $5.8  -$5.4
Dustin Moseley          0.8   0.1   $0.3   $0.3   Neg.
Jason Bulger            0.6   0.1   $0.3   $0.3   Neg.
Scot Shields           -0.5   0.0  -$0.2   $2.9  -$3.1
Rafael Rodriguez       -0.5   0.0  -$0.2   Neg.  -$0.2
Daniel Davidson        -0.6  -0.1  -$0.3   Neg.  -$0.3
Fernando Rodriguez Jr. -0.9  -0.1  -$0.4   Neg.  -$0.4
Anthony Ortega         -2.3  -0.2  -$0.9   Neg.  -$0.9
Rich Thompson	       -2.3  -0.2  -$1.0   Neg.  -$1.0
                       -------------------------------
                       93.0   9.4  $41.9  $31.0  $10.9

Figures through 94 games.
* Salary includes a fraction of signing bonus. ** Neg. indicates a negligible sum.
Not a lot of surprises here. Injuries have forced the Angels to rely on replacement players who, coincidentally, pitch like replacement players. The difference in "worth" and "value" for the whole staff is made up almost entirely by Jered Weaver. Shields and Escobar are the two big losses, but Speier and Santana still have a chance to redeem themselves in the second half. I honestly don't see how this group of guys can pitch any worse than they have so far, so they have to get better, right?

There is good reason to believe this. The Angels have an average FIP (better than the Rangers, even) but a horrendous ERA, and the difference of the two is +0.20. Combined with a relatively high BABIP and low LOB%, it makes sense to conclude that the Angels have been a tad unlucky on balls in play. With improved health and better luck, they should do better. Today's ELO-adjusted odds give the Angels an 83% chance of winning the West, with an 87% playoff probability overall. I think in light of this, picking up an ace starter would have to be made with only the playoffs in mind, much like the Teixeira trade last year. No, I don't like the current pitching staff's chances in the postseason, but would I feel much better with Roy Halladay starting Game 2 of the ALDS than Jered Weaver? Not enough to sacrifice Weaver's arbitration years, as well as Brandon Wood and God knows who else. The playoffs are a crapshoot anyways, just look at the pitching staff that won the World Series last year. Some bullpen help might be in order, but the division won't be any easier to win next year, let alone the year after. My unprofessional recommendation for a blockbuster trade this year is just say no.
Here is the view of Angels position players (with 100 PA or more) from the sabersphere (i.e. Fangraphs):

                    RAR   WAR  Worth  Paid  Value
Torii Hunter        27.6  2.8  $12.4  $7.1  $5.3
Chone Figgins       22.8  2.3  $10.3  $2.4  $8.0
Juan Rivera         20.9  2.1   $9.4  $1.3  $8.1
Mike Napoli*        14.3  1.4   $6.4  $0.8  $5.6
Bobby Abreu         10.6  1.1   $4.8  $2.0  $2.8
Kendry Morales       8.4  0.8   $3.8  $0.5  $3.4
Erick Aybar          6.8  0.7   $3.1  $0.2  $2.9
Howie Kendrick       6.0  0.6   $2.7  $0.2  $2.5
Maicer Izturis       1.9  0.2   $0.8  $0.7  $0.2
Vladimir Guerrero*  -1.4 -0.1  -$0.6  $6.1 -$6.7
Jeff Mathis*        -1.5 -0.1  -$0.7  $0.2 -$0.9
Gary Matthews Jr.  -11.8 -1.2  -$5.3  $4.1 -$9.4
                   -----------------------------
                   104.6 10.6  $47.1 $25.5 $21.6
* Figures do not include defense.
RAR and WAR, as usual, are runs and wins above replacement level. Ten runs above replacement are worth approximately one win. The column I call "worth" is the dollar equivalent of those wins (in millions of dollars, of course), which is typically taken to be about $5 million per win. The "paid" column is that player's annual salary prorated through 66 games according to Cot's (note: for Kendry, I included a portion of his $3M signing bonus). The column I call "value" is the difference of "worth" and "paid," i.e. how much profit (or loss, ahem, GMJ) the player has yielded for the team. These figures do include defensive performance, except for the Napoli and Mathis (Fangraphs doesn't know how to value catcher defense) and Vlad (most of his PA have come as a DH), and are adjusted for positional value (a left fielder is expected to hit better than a shortstop, for example). The table is sorted according to "worth."

A few positive observations. The Angels are on pace to blow away their total "worth" from last year ($78.0M) by almost 50% while keeping salary roughly constant. So far, Juan Rivera was the deal of the offseason for the club, with Abreu deserving an honorable mention. Figgins is almost as "valuable" as Rivera, and even more so than Hunter, and Aybar has earned more than 16 times his salary at short. Surprisingly, Kendrick has earned more than 14 times his salary, most of that coming from his defensive performance, and Napoli and Morales have both exceeded their pay by about 800%. Overall, this is solid performance from a lineup that has been the recipient of much griping, even in spite of some concerns I have about UZR (Fangraphs' defensive metric) undervaluing the Angels defense.

There are some not so positive things, of course. Because of his injury and subsequent ineffectiveness, Vlad has been a big drain. Jeff Mathis is worthless. And Gary Matthews Jr. is, well, even less than worthless. There's not much more to say about GMJ that hasn't already been said. His underperformance, along with Vlad's, almost negates the overperformance of the rest of the outfield. There's still hope that Vlad comes around, but I will continue to dream every night about GMJ being released.

Up next, a similar breakdown of Angels starting pitching.

Regression fallacy

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In a recent explosion of offense, the Angels have cruised to two lopsided victories over the San Diego Padres while scoring 20 runs and hitting 7 balls over the fence (4 of them by Torii Hunter). And this comes on the heels of a humiliating 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Tampa Bay Rays that finally deflated whatever air was left in the party balloons at the end of a disappointing 4-5 road trip. This just goes to show you, there is no such thing as momentum in baseball. And thank God for that.

We've already heard a lot about Scioscia's "chewing out" session after Thursday's game. If the Angels continue to win, we'll probably hear a lot more about how it "turned things around" and "inspired" the team to step up and "elevate" their game. Mark Gubicza said as much in a mindless rant during the 5th inning of Thursday's game. I'm paraphrasing, but he accused the entire offense (with the exception of Torii Hunter who had an RBI hit in the inning) of "not taking responsibility" for their play and "stepping up" to get that clutch hit. What the hell does that even mean? If baseball players had the ability to do that by sheer force of will alone, don't you think they would do it, like, all the time, maybe?

I'm not going to be the pushy stat geek and bring up the R2 value of the most recent study on clutch hitting (or the nonexistence thereof) or compute the kurtosis of team batting-average. You can get that lots of other places. But there are a few simple facts about statistics that border on obviousness. For example, you can't win every game is an expression of the statistical fact that, well, you can't win every game, just like you can't flip 500 coins and get 500 heads. The probability isn't actually zero, but it's so close to zero that it might as well be zero. Similarly, you'll often hear commentators (ahem, Rex) talking about players "going good," like the Force is with them. Players get hot and cold, and the industry secret to success is knowing how to deal with being cold. Sometimes when players slump they try to consciously change what they've spent their whole life learning how to do unconsciously: when to swing, when not to, when to release a slider, how to go back on a fly ball, etc. This approach rarely ends well at the big league level. Just ask Howie Kendrick.

This is called a regression fallacy. Highly random things, like coin tosses and batting averages, fluctuate naturally. Everyone knows this in baseball as streaking and slumping. But it is incorrect to attribute a cause to a natural fluctuation. This works both ways. Just like Howie didn't necessarily go from hot to cold because he did something wrong, the Angels didn't necessarily go from cold to hot because they did something right, in other words, there's no "stepping up." Of course baseball is ultimately played by humans who genuinely feel things like confidence and frustration, but that's not what makes a good (or bad) baseball team.

Oh great, another stat geek trying to tell everyone that everything they know about baseball is wrong, their favorite team sucks, all their hopes and dreams will come to naught, etc., etc. Well yes, maybe, but that's not my point here. What I mean to say is that, this season, the Angels are, have been, and will continue to be a good baseball team. A frustrating road trip doesn't mean the team has gone soft, and an exhilarating home stand isn't evidence that they've gained an edge. They're trying to win every day. I still think that, barring catastrophe, at the end of the year they'll have somewhere in the vicinity of 85-90 wins, which should be enough to edge the Rangers by a few games.

We've become so used to beating up on the Angels offense in recent years that we haven't noticed that it's actually become competent. It's not great, but it's at least average. Scoring 4 to 5 runs a night, as the Angels have on average, would give your team a decent chance to win a ball game if the pitching came through, and that's where the Angels have won their bread in recent years. Except for this year, where, while the starting pitching has been pretty good, the bullpen has been stupendously bad, and for no discernible reason. I still claim that this team's ultimate problem is in the pen, not in the batter's box. Without a healthy and effective Scot Shields, the Angels have lacked a late-inning fireman to come in the game and throw strikes. Pitching behind in the count has killed them with walks and hittable pitches. What is annoying is that this should be a reliable group of guys, although I still don't think Bulger is any good and Arredondo is just a kid. Get well soon, Scot. If you could take 6 of those bullpen losses and turn them into wins, the Angels would be 37-23, 12 games over .500 and 2.5 games up on Texas. That's made all the difference in our perceptions.

So in summary, Mr. Gubicza, don't blame "not taking responsibility" when things go bad. Blame something you can actually point to, like relievers not throwing strikes. You don't have to plot it or run a linear regression analysis or whatever. But it should be something you can actually tell someone how to fix, like, for example: throw more strikes. Otherwise, despite how many fancy-sounding words you use, in the end, you aren't saying anything more intelligent than "you suck!". I can give viewers that kind of commentary for much less than what Fox is paying you, but unfortunately, I can't do it with your greasy Superman coif. That costs extra.

Don't mess with Texas?

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Note: The stats below were current when this was drafted on 6/1. Since then, Texas has split its last 4 games while being outscored 23-18.

It's the burning question in the AL West this year: Are the Rangers for real? Texas swept the Angels in Arlington last month, in what ultimately proved to be a fairly non-competitive series. Angels fans have watched the standings nervously ever since. Currently the Rangers are 30-20, 4.5 games up on the 25-24 Angels. Can it possibly last?

My unprofessional opinion is, in a word, No. Allow me to explain.

  1. Park factors. This may come as a bit of a surprise, but the Ranger offense, at this point in the season, is a fake, a mirage created by their infamous hitters' park. Consider their offensive home/road splits:

    Home: .292 / .362 / .526 (.888 OPS)
    Away: .249 / .294 / .447 (.741 OPS)
    That's a 147 point swing in OPS. Just how big is that? It's almost the difference between Todd Helton at altitude (1.049 OPS) and Todd Helton at sea level (.872 OPS). According to ESPN's park factor report, Rangers Ballpark is currently generating 20% more offense than the average park. That's a lot, but it's not unheard of for this field. It was 22% above average in 2003 and 2004, and almost 25% above average in 2002. Last year it came in 14% over average--the highest in MLB. Only once since 2002 has Rangers Ballpark come in below average, and then it was just 2% below the mean.

    This stuff is real. Check out the career home/road splits for some current Ranger franchise players:

    Michael Young (5620 PA)

    Home: .324 / .372 / .483 (.854 OPS)
    Away: .280 / .324 / .409 (.733 OPS)
    Hank Blalock (3543 PA)

    Home: .303 / .370 / .530 (.900 OPS)
    Away: .246 / .300 / .412 (.711 OPS)
    Ian Kinsler (1869 PA)

    Home: .329 / .401 / .554 (.955 OPS)
    Away: .250 / .320 / .413 (.734 OPS)
    Pretty extreme stuff. All three of these guys have an OPS of at least 120 points higher at home than on the road, enough to turn a mediocre hitter into an All-Star. And with Kinsler, the split is almost twice as big. These aren't small samples either, there are almost 10,000 PA between them. Just for fun, let's see how Ranger posterboy Josh Hamilton did over his first full season in Texas:

    Home: .345 / .408 / .611 (1.019 OPS)
    Away: .263 / .331 / .448 (.779 OPS)
    In Arlington, he was Albert fucking Pujols. Away from Arlington, he wasn't much better than average. But park factors work both ways. Ranger pitchers must do worse at home, right? Well, that's not the way it's played out so far this year. Check out their pitching splits:

    Home: 4.73 ERA, 1.462 WHIP
    Away: 4.71 ERA, 1.437 WHIP
    Almost exactly the same, what's up with that? Do Ranger pitchers have some magical ability to pitch an extra 20% better at home to make up for the park factor? Of course not. The distribution of quality innings is not evenly split between home and away right now, but that will even out as the season goes along. Here's what the Rangers' pitching splits looked like when 2008 was all said and done:

    Home: 5.47 ERA, 1.547 WHIP
    Away: 5.26 ERA, 1.606 WHIP
    There's a little oddness in the higher road WHIP, but the ratio of total runs allowed at home, 511, to runs allowed on the road, 456, is about 12%. Even if Texas has a better staff this year than last, which I am willing to grant, they can't continue to perform equally well at home and road.
  2. Strength of schedule. According to ESPN's Relative Power Index, the Rangers have played the third easiest schedule in the American League. The Angels, by comparison, have had the hardest. This will also even out as the season goes along, and Texas will finally have to meet New York and Boston, who have had their number over the years, instead of beating up on Oakland and Houston.
  3. Injuries. The Rangers have been fortunate to have just about everyone healthy this season, but teams rarely enjoy that for an entire season. Already Josh Hamilton looks like he's going to be on the shelf for awhile, and they'll be in real trouble with a few injuries to their pitching staff, which brings us to...
  4. Nolan Ryan. Seriously, this guy is insane. The curmudgeonly, senile. you-damn-kids-have-it-so-soft-I-did-it-this-way-when-I-was-your-age kind of insane. No pitch counts? Is he trying to serially murder his pitching staff, or is that just an accident? Not everyone can throw 125 pitches a game, most of them over 95 mph, for 40+ games a year the way that Grandpa Nolan did back in the day. But modern pitchers also pitch longer and more effectively over their careers too, with less risk of exploding their arms like Sandy Koufax and Frank Tanana. They have a young staff as it is, but if they work them the way the old fart wants them to this year, they're in for some hurt over the long haul. And that's not just for this year.
I can't guarantee that the Rangers won't continue to luck out all season long and win the division, but I can say the odds are against it. Even at the beginning of June, I still hold by my pre-season prediction: the Angels win 85-90 games and win the AL West by 4-8 games. After the start they've had it might be on the lower end of that scale, but I'm not hitting the panic button. Yet.
With Brandon Wood hitting .337 / .417 / .726 (!) at AAA,and the team slugging only .413 through Saturday's game, it is understandable that Angels fans are clamoring for his recall. However, it should be obvious by now that, for the time being, the Angels consider him "organizational depth" -- they'll use him in place of an injured player, but they're not going to kick anyone off the current 25-man roster to make room for him. Are they nuts? The starting third baseman is slugging .359 (and only after a recent tear), their shortstop has a .314 OBP, and the second baseman is hitting just .247 / .290 / .384. Oh, and the utility infielders have OPSes of .614 and .576. Clearly they must be mad.

Let's stop and think for a second. First of all, even Matt Wieters, pretty much the consensus top hitting prospect in all of baseball, is still chilling in AAA. His team could certainly use him, their catchers are Chad Moeller and Gregg Zaun after all. But the Orioles are content to keep him in the minors for now. Trying to cheat him out of a year of arbitration? Maybe. But if he's as good as they say he is, they'll just end up signing him to an Evan Longoria-type contract after a year or two. More likely Baltimore management has identified a few things they want him to work on. Tearing up the minor leagues is not an indicator of immediate success in the majors. Dallas MacPherson destroyed PCL pitching last year, just like Wood is doing now. The Marlins DFA'd him at the start of the year, and now he is playing in Japan. The difference is that D-Mac was over the hill for a minor leaguer, while Wood still has time to grow. The Angels are not breaking with any precedents by keeping him in AAA.

At least Wood is playing everyday and seeing pitches. Even playing two-thirds of the time in the major leagues would not give him the experience he needs. I've always said that his walk rate will be the key to his success. Seeing 20 pitches or so every day is the only way he's going to develop the discipline he needs to reach his potential. If he's not getting that in the big leagues, the Angels would only be holding him back by keeping him there.

Okay, so why not just boot one of the starters? Chone Figgins has no power for a third baseman, so he's the first candidate. However, he does have a .375 OBP, he's 19-for-22 in stolen bases, and he's scored 27 of the team's 211 runs. In other words, he's playing a big role in the offense that no one else on the team can fill, with the possible exception of Bobby Abreu. But Abreu is not as young or as fast as Figgins, and he has power potential, even if it hasn't shown up yet, so his bat works better lower in the order.

Well, Wood can play short too, why not replace Erick Aybar? I'm going to defend Aybar's right to play short and blame his throw-the-bat-at-the-ball moments on Mike Scioscia's direct orders to make contact and move someone over. Recently, Scioscia has been placing Aybar second, where his bat is woefully inadequate. But this isn't really Aybar's fault -- he has an OPS of .730, actually higher than the .710 OPS of the average AL shortstop. Relative to his position, he's not hurting his team at the plate. When you factor in his superior glove and good speed, you have one of the more valuable shortstops in the league. I really fault Scioscia's poor management of the two-hole here. He wants his #2 hitter to make contact, move guys over, bunt, steal, all of the typical small ball stuff. In recent years he's stacked the position with players like Aybar, Izturis, and Kendrick: aggressive contact hitters who make a lot of outs. On top of that he asks them to do things like sacrifice with no one out in the second inning. Add it up and you get a .303 OBP from #2 batters this year, and .302 OBP last year. Three-zero-two! That's as bad as Yuniesky Betancourt batting second every day for an entire year. Talk about a hole in the heart of the order. The Angels would be much better served with someone who can actually get on base hitting second, like Abreu or even Napoli. A "productive out" is a booby prize; not making an out is always the better outcome. Aybar can take his bat to the bottom of the lineup where it looks much more adequate.

Honestly, batting order is not as important as we think it is. The difference between the best-possible and worst-possible lineups is no more than one or two wins. Tinkering won't make a bad offense good or a good offense bad. But one or two wins can be all the difference in the world for a team fighting for a playoff berth, so optimizing the lineup is an important higher-order correction. Please Mike, for the love of God stop with the contact plays at the top of the order.

I see only one possible roster shuffle that includes Wood but doesn't break something else that's already working. That's removing Howie Kendrick from his starting role, putting Figgins at second (his natural position), and replacing him at third with Wood. The way Kendrick has scuffled at the plate this season, a move like this might not be too far away, but I'm going to hold off on stumping for it. For now. He might still work things out. Just please don't bat him second.

So to those at the Brandon Wood NOW! Political Action Committee, I say, keep it calm. The offense is scoring 4.9 runs per game this year -- even better than last year. Losses happen. Shutouts happen. Sweeps happen. The real problem is still in the bullpen. Maybe I'll start taking donations for a Rich Thompson NOW! campaign.

The bell tolls for thee

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Regardless of your feelings about the Red Sox, it was tough watching David Ortiz this week. Not because I feel sorry for him; he'll make more money this year than I will in my entire life. It was tough because he is an unpleasant reminder of the eventual fate of all big sluggers, including, possibly, one Vladimir Guerrero. They can't all be Barry Bonds and walk off the field nearly at the height of their powers, in the midst of a storm of controversy, PED-use allegations, indictments on federal perjury charges -- okay, bad example. But Ortiz was 1-for-the-series in Anaheim this week, the only hit being a bloop single to right field barely out of Kendrick's reach. The futility culminated with a spectacular 0-7 performance with 3 K's on Thursday afternoon, including 12 runners left on base. He was credited with an RBI for his bases-loaded HBP on Tuesday, so I guess there's something to be said for putting a 300-pound body in the batter's box just to take pitches, even if he is about as effective as Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar both sewn up into one jersey and forced to crowd the plate. But I could gain a bunch of weight and do that too, and no one is offering me millions of dollars for my time.

It's hard to believe this guy is just a little more than two years apart from hitting 54 HR in a single season. But he's 33, and big-bodied one-tool players have not aged well historically. Excepting a resurrection like Carlos Delgado seemed to experience last June, Ortiz will become the new Cecil Fielder: this decade's cautionary whale for big men on the wrong side of 30. Sorry Travis. Ryan, you're next. Prince, you're big enough to fill even your daddy's shoes. But what about Vlad?

The current ZiPS projections are not terribly kind to Guerrero, who aged a year in one day when we learned that he's really 34 and not 33. ZiPS has him hitting around .300 / .365 / .490 this year, with 15-20 HR. That's still pretty good, but it's not the heart-of-the-order terror Angels fans expect him to be, and it is presumably only downhill from there. This leaves big questions about his future contract status. Given that teams are shying away from high-priced veterans, Jayson Stark suggested that Guerrero will be an unpopular free agent candidate, which could work in the Angels' favor. Vladimir Guerrero is not David Ortiz; when he was younger, he was a lean, athletic five-tool outfielder who once stole 40 bases in one season. He's obviously not that now -- last year it looked like his knees couldn't even bend -- but just maybe he's the kind of unique player who can bounce back and put the final polish on his legacy. He could be a low-risk, high-reward kind of investment. Then again, Red Sox fans probably think the same thing about Ortiz. The first thing hitters lose when they get old is bat speed, and Guerrero is such an aggressive and wild hitter that even a small loss could make him completely ineffective at the plate. He wouldn't even be good for taking pitches, which is something most other old-ass sluggers can still do well. Just ask Jim Thome.

Obviously I don't know the answer to the question, otherwise I would have been hired by some major-league front office for much more than I'm making now. The Angels have a tough situation ahead of them: do they remain loyal to one of the few greats in franchise history, or do they play the risk-averse economic downturn card? Do they play hardball, and does he end up signing with another team on the relative cheap? In any case, as much as I'd love to see Guerrero ride off into the sunset, someone else is going to have to become the big bat in the lineup very soon. Maybe if Brandon Wood gets a little more seasoning -- but that's another argument in itself.
Those are the words of Jeff Francoeur, spoken like a player with a career .312 OBP. And actually, Jeff, many ballparks do put OBP up on the scoreboard. The quote comes from a recent ESPN.com article by Jerry Crasnick, which everyone should read, including, I hope, the Angels front office. The media did a little song and dance about the Angels emphasizing plate discipline in spring training this year, but plate discipline is not a switch you can flip in a hitter's mind. It's a skill that takes years to develop, if a player develops it at all. And it is certainly not going to suddenly manifest itself in a player who has already reached the big leagues.

Plate discipline is not just about taking walks, although walks are almost always a sign of good plate discipline. It's about swinging at hittable pitches, making pitchers work for their outs, pressuring them with guys on base, among other things. Most importantly, plate discipline usually results in more extra base hits -- the numbers always show that most home runs are hit in deep counts. High OBPs cause more runs both directly (by making fewer outs) and indirectly (by the other means listed above).

Emphasizing plate discipline is also not just about moneyball or sabermetrics or pleasing kids who like calculators. This is the way the game is changing. To resist it would be like making starters throw 350 innings every year just because "it's the way they did it in my grandpa's day." Thanks Tim McCarver, but with modern medicine and pitcher management, Sandy Koufax could have pitched well into his thirties without exploding his shoulder. Wouldn't that have been worth watching?

Currently the Angels have a walk rate of 8.4%, 25th overall, which is just a shade better than the 8.0% mark they put up last year. Most of the walks end up going to four players: Figgins, Abreu, Hunter, and Napoli, who have taken 49 of the team's 77 unintentional walks. Chone Figgins is proof that change can happen. His walk rate has improved every year he's been in the league and he's currently drawing walks at a fantastic 15.0% rate. His other offensive numbers will come up sooner or later, but right now he's not hurting the team with his .368 OBP at the top of the order. I heard Torii Hunter say on XM Home Plate the other day that he feels he shouldn't swing at the first pitch after just watching Abreu take five or six pitches. Maybe there is some truth to that, since Hunter is currently walking 9.5% of the time, quite a bit higher than his 6.9% career average. He looks a little differently as a hitter than he did in Minnesota. As for Abreu, the Angels needed his bat after losing Teixeira, even if he isn't hitting balls out of the park.

I can't read Crasnick on Francoeur without thinking of Howie Kendrick. Francoeur practically looks like Adam Dunn compared with Kendrick, who's walked 32 times in 1102 big league plate appearances. This season he's walked just twice, the same number of times he's been hit by a pitch. Believe it or not, Howie is actually swinging less than he has at any other point in his career. It's like someone (i.e. Mickey Hatcher) told him to try taking more pitches, but he hasn't really developed the skill to be a selective hitter. He ends up taking when should have swung and swinging when he should have taken. Even with three seasons under his belt, he looks more confused at the plate than ever. Maybe in his case he would be better off just being the hitter he is. He might never post an OBP over .330, but 50 doubles and a .320 batting average is no small achievement either. Hopefully he straightens himself out soon.

As for the Angels as an organization, they'll need to continue emphasizing plate discipline to their young players for a much longer period of time than spring training. Brandon Wood will be their critical test. With plate discipline, he could be Evan Longoria, but without it, he'll be Kevin Kouzmanoff. I am personally not upset that he's been sent down to AAA again. He needs to see pitches every day. The future of the franchise depends on it.

Definitely Maybe

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Aside from last Friday's horrific bullpen fail, which I had the displeasure of witnessing in person (more on that another time), the Angels have really come to life over the last ten days. The team continues to get performances from their overmatched AAA-caliber starters that I can only describe as "gutsy"; Matt Palmer's outdueling of the Yankees $161-million man on Saturday is the best example. The offense continues to pour on the runs at a rate last year's 100-win team could have only dreamed about for two-thirds of the season, even without an "impact bat" like Teixeira or Guerrero. The bullpen is only the reason the Angels are 6-2 in the last ten days instead of 7-1 or even 8-0. But 6-2 ain't bad, and a win tonight brings the team to .500. No small accomplishment considering that this team is still waiting for its marquee players to return.

The question is: can it hold up? If I was advising you on your fantasy team, I'd probably tell you to sell now. The Angels have the third highest BABIP in the AL (.321, one point behind Texas and Toronto) but the third lowest line-drive rate (17.4%, just ahead of Minnesota and Seattle). Only Minnesota hits more ground balls and fewer fly balls than the Angels, and only three teams hit those fly balls out of the park at a slower rate. Their walk rate is fifth-lowest in the AL even though they see the second-fewest strikes. Add it all up and you have a team that is scoring more runs than it should. On the defensive end, Angels' fielders rate toward the bottom end of most metrics, and Angels pitchers are second worst at striking guys out. That does not look good when combined with an unspectacular GB/FB ratio (1.08) and unsustainably low line-drive and home-run-per-flyball rates (17.7% and 8.4%). On a more positive note, the pitching staff has a higher than average BABIP (.315), and the bullpen BABIP is just stupid (.380!). Those both will come down, and by a lot, in the bullpen's case. Still, even though the bullpen should improve, overall pitching efficiency should decrease. Emphasis on the word should.

I'm not advising anyone's fantasy team. Fantasy people will often rely on highly random stats like BABIP to predict future performance: everything suggests that the Angels have overperformed recently, so they have to start underperforming so that everything averages out, right? Well, not really. If you flip a coin and it comes up heads ten times in a row, the chance of getting heads on the eleventh try is still 50%. It doesn't change because you got lucky, and the same is true of the Angels. They're just as likely to do well this week as they were last week. "Regression to the mean" isn't a cosmic force pushing statistics back toward their averages, it just means that if you flipped the coin a million times, you would almost certainly get half a million heads and half a million tails. Anything can happen on a single flip. The reason we watch baseball is because statistics tell us nothing about a single game or a single at-bat. Everyone knows this, but professional fantasy prognosticators need a product to sell you, and so many gurus are not as forthright about it as they could be. Who's going to pay for information like, "the Angels should starting doing worse...but maybe they won't...the only definite thing is that they'll probably do worse, maybe"? Worst horoscope ever.

Fortunately, all this whole analysis becomes irrelevant if the Angels have any luck with players returning from the DL. The Salt Lake Bees just need to hold the fort down for a few more weeks, and as much as my inner stat conscience knows the odds are against it, it's a lot of fun to watch guys like Loux and Palmer really reaching above themselves. So keep watching. Just don't put down any money.

Falling on Black Days

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I'll be helping out this season here at The Halo Is Lit, hopefully reviving some user activity, and maybe even contributing something worth reading once in awhile. Updates may be sporadic for a few weeks, but they should become more frequent as the season (and my life) moves along. I'll keep my thumb on the threads, and if we get a pulse, I'll try to pump some life into the conversations as needed.

I'll be the first to admit being bummed by the Angels' inauspicious 6-11 start. I'm nearly past the apathy over winning and losing that followed the heartrending loss of Nick Adenhart, which means that it's once again time to do what fans do: tell the Angels what they're doing wrong when they lose, but still find negative things to say about them even when they win.

This is not an easy task at the moment, because the team has suffered so much misfortune. When Anthony Ortega took the mound last night, Reagins and company had officially reached the tenth slot of the organization's rotation depth as it stood on the first day of the season. Ortega became the 8th different starter to be used only 17 games into the season and the 17th different pitcher overall. The 2008 Angels used only 7 different starters and 19 pitchers over the course of the entire season. An even more striking comparison is the number of starts made by pitchers outside of the projected five-man rotation: already 10 this season, and one more pass through the rotation will equal the total of 13 from last year.

But surprisingly, the starting pitching has actually been pretty good. Even after a poor showing this week, Angels' starters have a 4.19 ERA, not much worse than the 4.14 ERA the rotation put up last year. And even with the grievous loss of Guerero, the offense itself is still competent enough to be mediocre. It's averaging almost 4.9 runs per game, which is slightly better than last year's average of 4.7. Granted, this is a small sample, but the fact that the Angels can scrap together a tolerable rotation and a mediocre offense after losing five starting pitchers and their most potent bat is really a testament to the strength and depth of the Angels organization. It's hard to find fault here.

I wish the same was true of the bullpen. Two words are applicable here: they suck. At least to this point they have. Their 7.52 ERA is almost one run per game worse than the perennial AL bullpen butchers: Texas and Baltimore. And both those teams play in absolute bandboxes. The Angels' pen has blown 4 saves and owns 6 of the pitching staff's 11 losses, and even that number is deceptively low. Almost every game the Angels have played has been eminently winnable when the starter left, but the bullpen has blown just about every chance of winning said games.

Last night's game was an example of what is becoming a standard formula. Ortega pitched a shaky five innings, got screwed a little by the defense, but the game was still relatively close 5-3 affair when he left. Hard to ask more from a kid who's hardly pitched above AA. That's still a very winnable scenario against such crummy opposing pitchers as Carlos Silva and Miguel Batista. When it was all over, the Angels had plated 8 of their 15 total baserunners. This time last year, they win that game. This year, Mike Scioscia had no choice but to watch Jason Bulger pour gasoline all over himself in the pen, then let him walk out to the mound and dare Seattle to light him up.

Why is Scioscia running out of choices? You might think that because of all the injuries to the rotation, the bullpen is being overextended. That's maybe half true at best. The starters have done well enough that the Angels' bullpen has actually pitched the sixth least number of innings in the AL. They've carried as many as 8 relievers on the 25-man roster, so exhaustion is not an issue. Losing Darren Oliver to the DL after his emergency start hurts, but he only pitched four innings; he might have got hurt doing that in a long-relief situation anyways.

The problem as I see it is the complete lack of performance in high-leverage situations. This is normally where Scot Shields has done more to help the team win over the last five years than anyone, but he's been worse than unreliable this year. That reliable person hasn't been Brian Fuentes either. Jepsen and Bulger have been awful, but really, they're just guys from AAA. Scioscia wouldn't be going to them in high-leverage situations if he was comfortable going somewhere else. On the other hand, Arredondo's peripheral stats look great. Justin Speier also seems to have resurrected himself. Or so we can hope.

So is all this bullpen nonsense a genuine catastrophe, or just statistical noise? Fuentes seems to have lost some hair on his fastball since last year, but more probably he's just an unlucky victim of an insane .497 BABIP. Arredondo has also been screwed by ball in play. Forget about Bulger, I can almost guarantee he'll be DFA'd when the starters start coming back. Jepsen will also likely pitch only garbage time the rest of the year, so he doesn't really concern me either. The Angels certainly need Darren Oliver back, but the real problem is Shields. He's walked 8 guys in less than six innings, and pitched behind in the count so much he's been hammered for 6 hits. He hasn't been helped by arsonists like Bulger coming in after him and then letting all their inherited runners score, but the coaching staff desperately needs to get Shields under control. Hopefully it's something correctable like his attack of wildness in 2007 and not a symptom of his age or prior workload.

It's not really fair to pin everything on one guy, but I will anyways: if Shields comes around, I think the Angels can at least tread water until the injured players start returning. If not, they're going to have to lean on Arredondo and try to salvage Speier or Jepsen for a 7th inning role. But the silver lining here is that the team is not getting killed night after night. They're playing in very winnable games and then losing them due to a combination of bad luck and an over insistence on a AAA-caliber middle relief corps. That isn't sustainable; like all bad luck, it will eventually average out, unless other problems pop up. Which makes it all the more frustrating to see batters and starting pitchers perform above and beyond, only to have their efforts shot to hell by an incendiary bullpen. The Angels could easily be a winning team right now. But at least the competition isn't steep, this isn't exactly the AL East. Raise your hand if you're actually worried about Seattle.

Who Makes the Team, Who Doesn't?

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As Brandon Wood continues to tear up Arizona, the Angels are going to have to make a couple decisions; 1)  Where will Wood play?  Third base with the major league club?  Shortstop down in triple-A?  2)  If Wood makes the major league roster, who doesn't?

After 18 games this spring, Wood has a team leading .730 slugging percentage (8 extra base hits) in 37 at-bats, while cutting down on his strikeouts.  So far this Cactus league season, Wood has struck out just 3 times which is a vast improvement from last spring when he struck out 22 times in 55 at-bats.  Having too much depth is a good problem to have if you're the Angels, but someone's not going to make the team.  As of today, the active roster looks like this:

1)  John Lackey
2)  Joe Saunders
3)  Jered Weaver
4)  Dustin Moseley
5)  Shane Loux
6)  Brian Fuentes
7)  Scot Shields
8)  Jose Arredondo
9)  Darren Oliver
10)  Justin Speier
11)  Jason Bulger
12)  Kevin Jepsen
13)  Mike Napoli
14)  Jeff Mathis
15)  Kendry Morales
16)  Howie Kendrick
17)  Erick Aybar
18)  Chone Figgins
19)  Juan Rivera
20)  Torii Hunter
21)  Vladimir Guerrero
22)  Bobby Abreu
23)  Gary Mathews Jr.
24)  Maicer Izturis
25)  ???

Who will fill the 25th roster spot?  Rob Quinlan, Reggie Willits, or Brandon Wood?  Each player has their strengths; Quinlan can play first and third base, Willits is a switch-hitting outfielder and Wood can play both positions on the left side of the infield.  Barring a late-spring injury or trade, two of these players won't be on the active roster come opening day.  The most likely scenario would be the club carries 11 pitchers which provides depth on their bench.  If this happens, Quinlan will surely make the team and Willits would probably take the final roster spot sending Wood to Salt Lake to get consistent at-bats.  However, the thinking is starters don't tend to pitch as deep into games early in the season as they will do later, causing a need for added pitching depth.  If the Angels go with 12 pitchers, Willits probably doesn't make the team.

To make the decision even harder, all three players are having a good spring with the bat.  As stated above, Wood is hitting the ball hard and often, while Willits has taken the Angels new hitting approach to heart by working deep pitch counts in his at-bats.  Willits is hitting .318, but has 6 walks to boost his OBP to .464.  Add in his 3 stolen bases, and Willits is making a claim as a useful bench player.

Daily Notes:

  • Outfielder Chris Pettit is having a fantastic spring.  Pettit has played in all 18 of the Angels Cactus league games, hitting .342 with a couple of stolen bases.  He's also shown his ability to get on base by drawing 5 walks (with just 2 strike outs) in 38 at-bats.  The 24 year-old has hit a combined .309 in his three minor league seasons, but last season at double-A Arkansas, Pettit hit just .248.  A return to Arkansas is likely in 2009, but he should expect a promotion to Salt Lake City early into the season if he continues to hit as he's has this spring.
     
  • Gary Mathews Jr. wants a full-time job.  In a LA Times article by Bill Shaikin, Mathews states, "My goal is to play every day."  He then added, "I hope that's here."  What does that mean?  If he's not playing every day for the Angels, would he waive his no-trade clause so he can play for another team?  For one reason or another, many Angels' fans don't like Mathews.  But the problem isn't with Mathews, it's with his contract, especially after this season's falling free agent prices.  Ten million dollars a year is too much for a part-time player.  Actually, it's too much for a full-time player with Mathews skill set and career numbers, but it's not his fault the Angels were willing to pay him so much.  I think most fans would be very happy to have him on the team if he were being paid the same amount as Rob Quinlan ($1.1M) instead of twice as much as Bobby Abreu.
     



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