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Tuesday, July 30, 2002

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,’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.

Rich Rifkin Posted: July 30, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 6 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Christopher Posted: July 30, 2002 at 12:37 AM (#605660)
The factor the Rally Monkey has played is noticably absent in this article, otherwise good analysis Rich.

One other big factor has been the Angels improvement in "clutch" situations. The overall team batting average has risen from .261 in 2001 to .279 this year, but with runners in scoring position the average has risen from .242 to .298.

Its been a great year for a team with no hope to compete.
   2. Shredder Posted: July 30, 2002 at 12:37 AM (#605670)
Interesting thing about Salmon, most of his numbers are in line with his career averages, but he is on pace to obliterate his career doubles mark. His 36 doubles in 2000 is his career high, and the only time he has topped the 30 mark since 1995. He already has 31 this year, and is on pace for 48. Garret Anderson has never had more than 41, averages 40 per 162 games, and is on pace to hit almost 60 this season. As a team, they trail only the Twins in that category. They are in the top half in triples and stolen bases as well. They've always had their share of fast guys, but their speed is really well balanced this year, and they've hit into the third fewest triple plays. They are also hitting really well with runners in scoring position. And they have a bench that has really stepped up with some key plays.

There have been a lot of games this season where normally I would have given up completely and gone to bed. With this team, I'm never convinced they are going to lose until the final out is recorded. With a couple of exceptions, they haven't blown anyone away, but they just keep scratching and clawing. They're really fun to watch. They've responded well to the pressure of this part of the schedule so far. The trip to the east coast is ALWAYS the killer for this franchise, so I wouldn't be surprised to see them limp back from Boston and New York. As disappointed as I have been in Glaus, the fact that they are winning while he is slumping gives me hope that he can break out of it and carry them for a few weeks. I think he and Lackey are really the keys. Can't wait to hop on that plane tomorrow to go home for the weekend series.

I don't want to get my heart broken AGAIN, but I really believe in this team. YES WE CAN!!
   3. Rich Rifkin I Posted: July 30, 2002 at 12:37 AM (#605671)
"One other big factor has been the Angels improvement in "clutch" situations. The overall team batting average has risen from .261 in 2001 to .279 this year, but with runners in scoring position the average has risen from .242 to .298."


I didn't know that about how much improved Anaheim has been in the "clutch." Good job in pointing that out. However, I should have figured that, as I did know one important fact that I forgot to mention in my story. That is, the Angels lead all 30 teams in major league baseball in Actual Runs Scored minus Estimated Runs Created. The estimates are based on the aggregate of their individual hitting statistics, not accounting for situational hitting and so on. And perhaps they don't properly account for teams with exceptional speed up and down the line-up, as Shredder notes the Angels have.

Shredder also stated that, "they've hit into the third fewest triple plays." I'm sure he meant double plays. The RC formulas do account for that. However, if a team is exceptional in that regard - due to its speed, as opposed to lack of opportunities to reach base - then maybe the RC formulation misses that. One way in which overall team speed will be missed by aggregating RC stats is this: routine singles will score more runners from second than on a team with average or slow speed; and routine doubles will score more runners from first base.

I am generally skeptical of my own ability to rate the good job managers are doing. Unless I see almost all of his games, most of the "good" evidence strikes me as anecdotal and hard to prove. It's easier, I think, to judge a manager who is making a lot of obvious blunders (like NL Manager of the Year in 2000, Bob Brenly). Nonetheless, I think the BBWAA of America will correctly name Mike Scioscia as the AL Manager of the Year this year. (His real competition will be from Ron Gardenhire and Grady Little.) Why do I like Scioscia? Well, the obvious is that he is "exceeding expectations." But on top of that, the games I have seen him manage have made me think that he 1) uses his bullpen well, 2) is getting the most out of his players, perhaps evidenced by their exceptional performances in the "clutch," and 3) his demeanor strikes me as the right balance of easy-going confidence mixed with positive energy. I don't see enough Anaheim games to judge his day-to-day game-calling skills.
   4. Shredder Posted: July 30, 2002 at 12:37 AM (#605672)
You're right, Rich. I did mean double plays. But in my own defense, I wouldn't be surprised if they were tied for fewest triple plays as well.
   5. Rich Rifkin I Posted: July 30, 2002 at 12:37 AM (#605674)
For what it's worth, the following is a list of all 30 teams in order of how much they have exceeded their xRC by their actual Runs Scored. The numbers come from Clay Davenport's Equivalent Average Stats:

Anaheim +33
NY Mets +26
Chi. White Sox +20
Kansas City +19
Arizona +14
Toronto +14
Colorado +13
Los Angeles +12
Pittsburgh +8
Houston +7
Boston +6
Atlanta +6
San Diego +6
St Louis +5
Chicago Cubs +4
Tampa Bay -4
NY Yankees -5
Texas -6
Minnesota -7
Seattle -8
Cleveland -8
Montreal -10
Baltimore -10
Cincinnati -11
Milwaukee -14
San Francisco -14
Oakland -23
Detroit -26
Philadelphia -29
Florida -31

The Angels, Diamondbacks, and Dodgers are the only teams among the top of this group who are in contention for playoff spots right now. The A's, Giants, and Reds are in the opposite camp. Generally, succeeding in this category is unrelated to overall team success. However, having watched almost all of Oakland's games this season, I find it no surprise that they are near the bottom. They seriously lack team speed, which cuts down on their chances to take the extra base safely, and so on. And a few of their players have had surprisingly poor performances this season with RISP. Ordinarily, you would expect a player to have a higher OPS with Runners in Scoring Position. But here are the worst offenders among the Athletics at having an overall OPS much higher than their OPS with RISP:

S. Hatteberg -201
R. Hernandez -156
J. Dye -42
E. Chavez -19
   6. Rich Rifkin I Posted: July 30, 2002 at 12:37 AM (#605676)
Aaron Cross pointed something out to me in an e-mail that I should have included in the piece. Dennis Cook is on the DL and probably done for the season. I never mentioned that in my article, because my effort was more of a look back than a look forward. Nonetheless, leaving it out was a mistake on my part.

Speaking of which, I know that Bob Brenly was not "NL Manager of the Year in 2000." He was not even a manager, then. And in 2001, I forgot that he lost out to Larry Bowa and others for the NL award.

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