Why are the Angels Winning?
My kids disagree with Rich. They think angels are still in the outfield.
In his enjoyable article on David Eckstein, ESPN.com’s Jim Caple suggests that the Angels’ diminutive shortstop is one of the primary reasons Anaheim has climbed from a .463 team a year ago (75-87) to a .602 team this year (62-41).
Caple writes: “Baseball needs more guys like Eckstein. He may be 5-foot-7 but in this age of creatine and andro, he stands tall. He’s hitting .287. He’s stolen 15 bases. He’s scored 68 runs, most on the team, and driven in 51 out of the leadoff spot. He’s hit three grand slams. He’s one of the main reasons the Angels have rebounded from a sluggish start to move into a tie with the Mariners atop the AL West.”
Caple is not wrong to imply that David Eckstein has been a good player for Mike Scioscia’s ballclub. However, Eckstein is not the reason for Anaheim’s ascension. Strangely for a club winning more than 60 percent of its games, Anaheim hardly has a player on its roster who is really playing extraordinarily well, either for his position or for his expected performance.
Eckstein, for example, has an OPS .048 better than he had last year. However, that’s not all that large a jump for a second year player, and his base OPS as a 26-year-old rookie (.712) was not a very high hurdle to climb over.
So why are the Angels atop the American League West? Pitching and defense plus a lack of weakness in their offensive line-up. Let me take those up in order:
Pitching. The Angels’ starting pitchers are the second best staff (to Boston) in the American League, fourth best in all of baseball. Their best two hurlers, Jarrod Washburn and Ramon Ortiz were on the 2001 club, and they are both performing better this year. However, not a whole lot better. And certainly not unexpectedly better. While the improvements to last year’s rotation include the efforts of Washburn and Ortiz, the trade for Kevin Appier is also paying off. Ape has not been brilliant. In fact, on a support neutral basis Appier was better in 2001 as a Met. But by taking up the innings thrown in 2001 by Scott Schoeneweis, Appier has been a big plus for the 2002 Angels.
One quick side note on Appier. It’s only July 29, and he’s already had 3 different seasons. His first was good, his second bad, and his third his best so far. On May 26, he was 5-2 with a 2.98 ERA after 10 starts. Then, in his next 7 starts, Kevin went 1-5 with a 7.75 ERA (29 Earned Runs in 33.67 IP.) But in Ape’s last 4 outings, he’s 3-1 with a 2.57 ERA (8 Earned Runs in 28.0 IP.) That kind of inconsistency makes me wonder if Appier was playing through an injury in June?
More on the Angels’ pitchers. Their relievers’ numbers mostly are notable for having many pitchers doing better than average. Not one of them rates as one of the top relief pitchers in the majors. On a support neutral basis, the Angels’ bullpen ranks third in the American League, ninth in the majors. Ben Weber, Troy Percival, Scot Shields, and Dennis Cook are the best of Scioscia’s relievers. 39-year-old Cook is the biggest surprise in this group, as he looked like he was washed up in 2000 and 2001. As a 37-year old Met, Cook’s era was 5.34. Last year for the Mets (36.0 IP) and the Phillies (9.0 IP), Cook’s ERA was 4.53. This season, his ERA is 2.86, his best since 1998, and the second best ever for Cook in his 15 year career.
Defense. As strong a staff as Scioscia has in his starters and relievers, they are not doing it alone. The Anaheim pitchers are clearly being helped by one of the best defensive clubs in baseball. Bengie Molina - who is now on the DL, being replaced at catcher by his better-hitting brother, Jose - First Baseman Scott Spezio and Center Fielder Darin Erstad are all very good candidates for Gold Gloves. Ironically, because of their modest offensive numbers, it’s likely that no Angel will win a Gold Glove this season. But if Zone Ratings are to be believed, the Angels’ 1B and CF are truly outstanding. And no (qualified) catcher in the AL touches Bengie Molina (46.6%) when it comes to throwing out basestealers. Ivan Rodriguez (who does not qualify on an innings played basis, by the way) is not even close, at 31.6% caught stealing. Except for Right Fielder Tim Salmon, all of the other Angels’ regulars - 2B Adam Kennedy, 3B Troy Glaus, SS Eckstein, and LF Garret Anderson - are much better than average defensively at their respective positions.
Finally, the offense. The Angels have a rather average offensive ballclub. But with the exception of catcher, where Bengie Molina (.223 EqA) has been weak, they have no real holes in their line-up. Salmon (.309 EqA) has been the biggest surprise, though not really a huge surprise. His OPS in 2002 is .136 better than it was in 2001. However, Salmon was playing hurt in 2001 - reportedly “nagging neck and shoulder injuries” - and that clearly dragged down his performance. His 2002 numbers are in line with what he hit from 1993-2000. Although Salmon is about to turn 34, it doesn’t seem unlikely to me that he can keep up his current pace for a few more years, barring injuries. This is how the starters on the club compare in OPS from last year to this:
T. Salmon +0.136
A. Kennedy +0.066
B. Fullmer +0.064
G. Anderson +0.063
D. Eckstein +0.048
S. Spezio +0.024
D. Erstad +0.023
B. Molina -0.039
T. Glaus -0.121
As you can see, only Troy Glaus has really fallen off his 2001 pace. While Caple makes the case for Eckstein being the key cog in the Angels’ machine, it’s hard to see that his improvement really stands out.
Before I conclude, let me take one quick detour on Darin Erstad. It’s true that the seventh year outfielder is hitting a bit better than he did in 2001. However, both his 2000 and 2001 seasons are in line with his career hitting numbers. The year that really stands out for the former Cornhusker football player was 2000, when his OPS (.950) was .165 better than his career total OPS (.785), .268 better than his 1999 season (.682) and .259 better than his 2001 season (.691).
Back to the present. The Angels are winning with pitching and defense
and a modestly improved offensive team. As I showed in an
earlier article on Baseball Primer, Anaheim’s schedule is disadvantageous
in the second half compared with its AL West rivals, Oakland and Seattle. However,
if Mike Scioscia can continue to get a pretty good performance out of every
aspect of his ballclub, there is no reason that Anaheim won’t be making its
first post-season appearance since 1986.
Posted: July 30, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 6 comment(s)
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