Learning From The Los Angeles Angels

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After a record-breaking offseason (the combined signings of C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols demolished the single-day spending record), which also included bullpen signings, replacing Jeff Mathis with Chris Iannetta, and extensions for Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar, the Angels seemed poised to overcome the talent gap that kept them from overcoming the Rangers for the division lead in 2010 and 2011. Chosen by many as early favorites to win the World Series, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have not lived up to expectations so far. What is less clear, however, is why.

The offseason acquisitions have not exactly been the problem. In fact, in the case of C.J. Wilson, they have been thing keeping the whole operation afloat. In his three starts, C.J. has won two out of three, his only loss coming against Oakland, where he only gave up four runs. Chris Ianetta has been excellent at the plate, hitting for a .374 wOBA, good for third-best on the team. Albert Pujols has been just alright, but he should be back to his dominant self soon. There are even some signs of him improving; on April 19th against the Athletics, he ripped three doubles.

April 21, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Los Angeles Angels first baseman Albert Pujols (5) reacts after striking out in the fourth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Angel Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

By far the most significant problem for the Angels has been their bullpen. Collectively, they have three blown saves (and three corresponding losses), with an ERA around 5. An interesting stat called WPA, which measures the difference between the win probability of your team before and after you enter the game as a pitcher (in order to measure your contribution to your team’s success), is perhaps most indicative of the Angels bullpen difficulties: the bullpen’s WPA total is -1.86, or -186%. By contrast, the Rangers bullpen WPA is 1.34, or 134%. Without counting Joe Nathan‘s innings, the WPA climbs to 165%. The difference between the bullpens is almost 300%, or enough of a win probability differential to turn three games completely on their head. To take this already speculative calculation further, you could argue that holding the bullpen equal cuts the Angels current 6-game deficit on the Rangers by half.

The starting pitchers, on the other hand, have been more of a mixed bag. Jered Weaver has been one of the top pitchers in the Major Leagues, maintaining an absurdly low 2.14 FIP, with only a slightly below average BABIP of .244, so we know he hasn’t just been benefiting from luck on balls in play. At the beginning of the season, I had thought Weaver’s consecutive years of declining peripherals such as strikeout percentage and walk rate would cause him to be less than elite this year, but so far he has proved me wrong. C.J. Wilson also has good traditional stats, maintaining a 2.37 ERA, but his 3.63 FIP and .189 BABIP suggest that he is due for a regression. Dan Haren is the exact opposite: a .357 BABIP is simply indicative of bad luck, and he should soon see vast improvements over his current 4.76 ERA.

The same cannot be said for Ervin Santana. A .250 BABIP suggests he might in fact be lucky on balls in play; however, he has been quite poor in every category that matters. Obviously he isn’t going to end the year with anything near his current 6.75 ERA, or even his 7.53 FIP; another ERA estimator, SIERA, suggests a more reasonable 4.59. Nevertheless, so far Santana has been a complete disaster, responsible for losing all three of his starts. Jerome Williams, the fifth starter, has also been quite poor, holding a 7.71 ERA through two starts this season. However, he has mercifully been limited in his starts, and help from AAA in the form of Garrett Richards is a welcome possibility for the Angels.

While the Angels pitching woes have them ranked 18th in the league in WAR, the hitting has been more of a bright spot, ranking 11th in the league in WAR. As soon as Pujols returns to dominant and not just average form, the Angels offense will surely crack the top ten. Up to this point, however, Pujols has managed just a 84 wRC+, meaning he is hitting about 84% of what the average major leaguer has up to this point. Obviously, the Angels expected better than “average” production out of Pujols, and his slow start is somewhat worrisome given his abrupt decline from superstardom over the course of the last two seasons, but my feeling is Pujols will still finish as the best hitter on the Angels.

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