Know your enemy: The Los Angeles Angels

Every Yankee fan knows that the Angels have beaten up on the Bombers more than any other team in the last decade. In fact, they were the only team with a winning record against the Yankees during the Joe Torre era.

It’s not just that they had the Yankees’ number until the 2009 ALCS — it’s also how they did it. Prior to the instant classic that was ALCS Game 2, a friend of mine and I agreed that watching the Angels play the Yankees is like watching one team play baseball while the other team plays the game backwards. They Angels don’t play AL East-style baseball and the Bombers always look surprised when Chone Figgins goes from first to third or Bobby Abreu is slapping a double into right.

Here are the facts: The California Anaheim Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim won 97 games in 2009. They did it with an offense that scored the 2nd-most runs in the Majors, while putting up a 1st place .285 batting average (I’m not a fan of BA either, but admit it, that’s impressive) and a 3rd place .792 OPS. They were also a terror on the basepaths, swiping 148. Only Tampa and, of all teams, Texas stole more.

But wait, there’s more. Of the 10 players who led the team in at-bats, eight batted .290 or better. Of that same list, seven got on base at .350 or better. Granted, only two of the players slugged over .500, and that list doesn’t include free-agent and possible zombie Vladimir Guerrero, but a team that can use hits to get on base that effectively is dangerous.

Pitching appears to be the Angels’ weakness numerically. Other than Saves, where they ranked 2nd, they weren’t a top five pitching team in any statistic, a big weakness for a playoff team. However, this so-called weakness is deceptive. Not only did the Angels pitching staff suffer the tragic loss of Nick Adenhart just prior to the start of the season, but every one of their key pitchers started the season on the DL.

Once healthy, the pitching staff was solid. Jared Weaver and John Lackey are as strong a duo as one can find almost anywhere in Baseball, while Joe Saunders was serviceable whenever he wasn’t playing the Yankees. The Angels have perhaps fewer off-season questions than any other perenial contender, they play in the AL West and I’m still not sold on Texas.

Without further ado, the players:

C

Mike Napoli .272/.350/.492 VORP: 25.8

Jeff Mathis .211/.288/.308 VORP: -9.3

Mike Napoli is young, affordable ($2 million per year) and a solid hitter at any position, especially catcher. Jeff Mathis is the kind of player who should only see the field in a playoff game if the Angels training staff suddenly can’t find Napoli’s rotator cuff because it was eaten by cannibals.

I’ve long believed that Mike Scioscia is the AL West’s Ozzie Guillen, a manager who has luck on his side to cover up what are actually indefensible decisions. Jeff Mathis started Game 1 of the ALCS, replaced Napoli in Game 3 and went 2-2, started Game 5 and went 3-4, and started Game 6 and went 1-2. I think he may have gotten more hits in four games than Mark Teixeira did the entire postseason. In the process, he covered up what would otherwise have been a dangerous — and perhaps completely insane — Mike Scioscia decision. Angels fans may argue that Scioscia knew which of his players were hitting and played them, but in reality he got lucky.

The Angels are fortunate to have a plus hitter in Napoli at what is usually an offensive hole for most teams, or what I like to call a Molina. Despite that, Mathis started 78 games at catcher in 2009. Who had the lowest VORP of any player on the 2009 Angels? Jeff Mathis.

1B

Kendry Morales .306/.355/.569 VORP: 39.8

BALCO All-Stars alert! Kendry Morales’ OPS+ in 2008? 72. The most homers he hit in a season prior to 2009? 5, which he accomplished his rookie season in 2006. It should therefore come as a surprise only to human beings who eat food and breathe air that in 2009 Morales put up an OPS+ of 137 with 34 homers in 2009. The only reason he didn’t lead the Angels in VORP is because the statistic penalizes him for playing first base. And he wasn’t half bad a first, putting up a UZR of 4.9.

The Angels tried to keep Mark Teixeira after the 2008 season, but he left for greener pastures. Morales filled in after Tex’s departure and exceeded all expectations handsomely. It’s impossible to predict players who outperform to such a magnitude, but Bill James is expecting another 30 homer, 100 RBI season.

2B

Howie Kendrick .291/.334/.444 VORP: 16.5

Maicer Izturis .300/.359/.454 VORP: 22.3

Both of these guys embody what I think Angels Baseball represents. They put up OPS+’s of 102 and 107 respectively, while stealing 24 bases between them. Izturis can do everything in the infield except catch and play first. Kendrick is a legit Yankee killer with a career .426 average againts the Pinstripes.

Izturis is the better fielder. His UZR at 2nd in 2009 was 6.6 versus only 1.7 for Kendrick. Kendrick saw nearly 30 more games at 2nd than Izturis because Izturis started nearly 30 games at short. Izturis is a slightly better hitter, meaning that Kendrick’s role on the team is a little uncertain heading into 2010. Despite that, the Angels are well served to keep two players who give them better than average offense and defense at several infield positions.

3B

="http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/f/figgich01.shtml">Chone Figgins .298/.395/.393 VORP: 37.8

I need to retract completely my statement that Chone Figgins may have been an affordable option for the Yankees in left. Larry was right to criticize the statement. This guys is the Angels’ Jimmy Rollins. He’s overrated. I would have known this earlier had I researched the comment even one iota.

Similar to the comparably overrated Jacoby Ellsbury, Figgins steals bases to compensate for an eye-popping lack of power. Unfortunately he’s been caught 26% of the time in his career, which is just on the bad side for someone whose game is so dependent on speed. As a result, what stands out is that he has only had an OPS+ above 110 once in his career. Thank you, but I’ll keep Johnny Damon.

Figgins rates as an excellent fielder at 3B. He put up a 16.7 UZR in 2009 and an 8.9 in 2008. He’s versatile as well. He can play 2B and the outfield, but he only rates as an asset at the hot corner.

Figgins is the first of several signature Angels who are free-agents this offseason. Rumors are that the Angels are prepared to cut ties with him because he will be too expensive. If they decide to let him go they can turn to Maicer Izturis to replace most of his production. Their OPS+’s were almost identical. The major difference is that Figgins steals more bases than Izturis, but with more than 10 in only 100 games Iztruris is quick enough to fill in, particularly at less than $2 million per year.

SS

Erick Aybar .312/.353/.423 VORP: 29.7

Shocking! Another Angel who hits for average, gets on base a decent amount, and has ABSOLUTELY NO POWER AT ALL. That’s a .111 ISO, for those of you keeping score at home. Its not Melky-bad (.080 ISO — hit the weight room Leche!) but this guy doesn’t hit a lot of doubles.

That’s just about the only knock on Aybar, though. His total offsensive output is just a hair above average. He’s a good defender. He’s only 25. He cost the Angels only $460 thousand last season, but was worth $17.1 million, according to Fangraphs. (No, really, here’s the link. I was stunned too.) He’s not going anywhere, and is another all-around player who can be expected to perform is SoCal.

LF

Juan Rivera .287/.332/.478 VORP: 22.4

Rivera is a product of the Yankee system. His 2009 WARP1? 1.6. His 2009 salary? $3.25 million. Johnny’ Damon’s 2009 WARP1? 4.0. HIS 2009 salary? $13 million. Rivera’s 2009 value? $15.1 million. Johnny Damon’s 2009 value? $13.6 million. And Rivera only turns 31 next season. Of course, the Yankees would probably pay him $11 million per season.

With 25 homers and 88 RBI in 2009, the injury-prone Rivera is a decent OBP away from being an excellent hitter. He’s already there when his low price tag is taken into consideration. In addition, Rivera is a strong fielder, with a 2009 UZR of 12.7 in left. He’s another Angels player who is young, affordable, and above-average on both sides of the ball. Is anyone else noticing a trend here?

CF

Torii Hunter .299/.366/.508 VORP: 41

I’m not sure what’s worse, the fact that Hunter has a girl’s name or the fact that its spelled with not one, but TWO i’s. If I were a 6’2″, 205lbs professional athlete, making $18 million per year, with that name, I’d dot each i with a heart and act tough around anyone who looked at me funny when I did.

The Angels have taken a lot of flack for Hunter’s contract. And they should. Since arriving in Los Angeles of Anaheim Hunter has made $36 million but has only been worth $27.6 million, according to Fangraphs. He’s been overpaid by nearly three Juan Riveras.

Add Hunter’s name to the growing list of players whose charismatic style inflates their reputations. In 2009, Hunter won his 9th consecutive Gold Glove. As far as I can tell this happened because the voters have forgotten the names of every other outfielder in the AL. I knew that Hunter was overrated as a defender but I was stunned to see just how overrated. According to Fangraphs, Hunter last posted a positive UZR in 2005!

Hunter stands out as an enigma on the Angels. Perhaps with the exception of Chone Figgins, each of their core players is affordable, young and solid all-around. Hunter is none of these things and his contract makes him untradeable.

RF

Bobby Abreu .293/.390/.435 VORP: 35.6

Abreu’s power continued to decline in 2009. His .435 slugging was the lowest of his career since he became an everyday player. He also hit only 15 homers last season, which is tied for the lowest in his career. His OBP jumped up from his Yankee days, when he routinely put up a .370 line, which is why he kept his value up.

It’s unclear where Abreu goes from here. The conventional logic (which tends to be coventionally stupid in baseball) is that contact hitters like Jeter can perform late into their careers but power hitters, which is what Abreu was once upon a time, start to struggle when the long-ball stroke is gone.

Abreu hasn’t hit more than 20 home runs since 2005. During most of that stretch he hit roughly 40 doubles or more, until last year. In 2009 Abreu hit only 29 doubles, the fewest he’s hit since his rookie season. Angel Stadium rates as a slightly above-average hitters park. Bobby will be 36 next season. His power numbers may continue to decline.

Abreu earns every bit of his bad reputation in the field. His UZR is Torii Hunteresque, having last put up a positive number in 2003. His worst year? 2008,when he was a Yankee. Apparently the short porch scared him into posting a -25.6 UZR.

The Angels wasted no time re-signing Abreu to a two-year, $19 million deal this offseason. According to Fangraphs, Abreu was worth $11.1 million for the Angels in 2009. In 2008 he was worth only $5.6 million with the Yankees. If Abreu performs at the average of his ’08 and ’09 stats over the next two years he’ll give the Angels $16.7 million worth of value in 2010 and 2011.

DH

Vladimir Guerrero .295/.334/.460 VORP: 15.6

Once upon a time Vlad the Impaler was one of the most exciting players in the Majors. He was a perennial threat to hit 35 homers with an OPS of .950 or bett
er, which was incredible because he swung at everything. “Cannon” did not do his arm justice in the outfield. It may be painful to watch him run today, but he once stole 40 bases. All of this is gone. On the plus side, along with Jorge Posada, he is one of the only players who doesn’t wear batting gloves.

The Angels brought Vlad in to add power to their attack after the 2003 season. He delivered over the next four seasons, winning the MVP in 2004 and never putting up an OPS+ below 138. Sadly, if Vlad is currently only 34 years old I’m Scarlett Johansson. He started to break down in 2008 and only managed 100 games as a DH in 2009. Vlad and Hideki Matsui will both apparently turn to glass if they play the outfield again.

Vlad was never worth less than $10 million in his first five years as an Angel. Last season he was only worth $3.4 million. Simply watch Vlad run out a grounder these days and it becomes hard to imagine he has more than a season or two left in the tank, if that. It’s equally difficult to see him sign with any team for less than $5 million a year. Will the Angels overpay to keep him?

SP

John Lackey ERA: 3.83 WHIP: 1.27 VORP: 33.5

Lackey is the biggest free agent pitcher on the market this offseason. I’ve heard he’s looking for anything from A.J. Burnett money ($89 million, 5 yrs) to Barry Zito money (I forget, but something like 37 years, $870 million).

He’s certainly not worth Zito money (Barry Zito wasn’t worth Zito money), but is he worth A.J. money? That depends who’s buying. Entering this Season A.J. had a career ERA+ of about 111 and was 31 years old. Lackey is a year younger than Burnett and has a career ERA+ of 117. According to Fangraphs, Lackey was worth $17.6 million last year, more than A.J. and his salary. If Burnett was worth nearly $90 million to the Yankees, there is an argument that Lackey should be worth roughly the same to them. I’ve argued before and will argue here again that, provided he’s healthy, the current Yankees plus Lackey = 2010 Championship.

The concern with Lackey is his history of injuries. He’s had elbow problems in the past and the Angels seem to be happy to let him leave. Do they know something other teams don’t? It’s difficult to imagine the Angels pitching staff if he departs, just as it’s difficult to see a team that was already thin on pitching competing without one of its top arms, but the Angels seem to be OK with doing just that.
SP

Jered Weaver ERA: 3.75 WHIP: 1.24 VORP: 49.2

Whenever I see the numbers Weaver puts up with the Angels I get upset, until I remember that we had his brother Jeff. I get confused because the siblings insist on pitching in Andre Agassi’s mullet wig.

A solid pitcher every season of his short career, Weaver was the Angels’ ace in 2009. He’s also 27 years old. He only made $475,000 last season. He’s not going anywhere.

SP

Joe Saunders ERA: 4.60 WHIP: 1.43 VORP: 21.9.

There’s one on every team. Putting his loss in Game 6 of the 2009 ALCS aside, Saunders is actually a good pitcher for his price. His numbers in 2009 weren’t great, but they were in 2008, when he posted an ERA+ of 130. If he can put up the average of his 2008 and 2009 seasons for the next three years he’ll be an ERA+ 114 pitcher, John Lackey territory. He’s only 28 years old. He made only $475,000 last season. Along with Weaver he makes up a young, cost-controlled core of pitchers for the Angels.

SP

Ervin Santana ERA: 5.03 WHIP: 1.48 VORP: 10.2

Somehow, Santana is only 26 years old and makes $3.8 million. Weaver and Saunders need his agent. Santana is also erratic and injury-prone. His ERA+ has been as good as 127 in 2008 and as poor as 78 in 2007. He’s appeared in more than 30 games only twice in his career and only pitched 139 innings last year. As with the entire Angels pitching staff, he’s fairly inexpensive.

SP

Scott Kazmir ERA: 4.89 (1.73 w/ Angels) WHIP: 1.42 (1.05 w/ Angels) VORP: 16 (all w/ Angels)

Never much of a workhorse (he’s only pitched 200 innings one season), Kazmir was the lone bright spot on the Rays for years. He was a lock to have an ERA under 4 and to bedevil the Yankees the few times he faced them.

Last year he pitched badly in Tampa and the Rays traded him to the Angels, in part to avoid paying his salary which is due to expand beyond its current $6 million in 2010.

No one really knows what the Angels got. At only 25, Kazmir could become a key performer on the Angels staff if he can rediscover his former mojo from the AL East. He certainly started to do that with the Angels, but then trailed off during the postseason. Bill James is predicting a solid but not spectacular 2010. The Angels would be happy to get that kind of production from yet another young arm.

RP

Brian Fuentes ERA: 3.93 WHIP: 1.4 VORP: 12.4

Brian Fuentes made $8.5 million in 2009. He was worth only $1.6 million. Francisco Rodriguez made $9.1 million in 2009. He was worth $1.5 million. Mariano Rivera was worth $8.9 million. Conclusion? Closers are overpaid. That, and the Angels refused to overpay Rodriguez by $7.6 million so they could overpay Fuentes by $6.9 million. Congratulations?

Call Fuentes the Joe Nathan of the AL West. His numbers aren’t very good to begin with, but just as with Nathan, Fuentes looked positively overmatched in the playoffs. He looked terrified on the mound and his performance reflected it. There are a lot of bad things to be said about K-Rod, but he certainly has confidence.
Conclusion

The Angels are a perplexing team. Unlike the Yankees or the Red Sox, there is no one on this team that jumps out at me, at least not now that Vlad is on the decline. Instead, the sum seems to be greater than its parts. With the exception of Lackey, Weaver and Hunter, none of these guys would be more than better than average players on any other team. However, a team of better than average players comes together
well.

I’m not sure how much credit I want to give Mike Scioscia for the Angels’ success. On the one hand, you can’t knock success. The Angels have made the playoffs six times in the last 10 years, including 2002 when they won the World Series. Scioscia has been the manager during this entire stretch and the Angels consistently get outsized performances from unsuspecting players. There is a treand there.

On the other hand, the Angels do absolutely everything that costs a team outs, like stealing too many bases, making reckless decisions on the base paths, playing for the hit and run, etc. Furthermore, his in-game decisions during the ALCS were bad. Finally, he seems like the kind of manager who is too smart for his own good. I mean, Jeff Mathis? JEFF MATHIS!

I’m going to give Mike the benefit of the doubt here. He’s the MLB equivalent of Mike D’Antoni. He has a style of play (for better or worse) and excels at getting players to buy into that system. The Angels have a proven track record of getting strong performances from players. That is Scioscia’s responsibility. He’ll benefit, even if its just a coincidence.

The Angels appear to be ready to lose a plus arm, and two bats that are difficult to value. In that respect they are actually in better shape than both the Red Sox and Yankees, who risk losing more valuable players.

The Angels also benefit from playing in a weak division. At times Texas has appeared to be on the brink of challenging them, but that has yet to materialize. I doubt it will next season. The weak competition allows the Angels to mix and match more than their AL East counterparts during the regular season. Combine their shrewdness with the youth of most of their players and they seem poised to stay contenders, at least in the AL West, for years to come.

Before I close, I came across this photo while searching for links for this post. That’s pretty much how I imagined Derek Jeter spent his offseasons.

2 thoughts on “Know your enemy: The Los Angeles Angels

  1. JGS

    I've always thought the "WAR converted to deserved salary" scale was way too simplistic. Maybe I'm misunderstanding how it is calculated, but I think they just take total MLB payroll and divide by total MLB WAR and using that they determined that teams spent approximately $4.5M per win above a .300 winning percentage. Wouldn't that figure be HEAVILY skewed by the teams at the top of the payroll scale, most notably the Yankees? The Marlins won 87 games with only one player making more than $4.5M, and no one else really coming close. They didn't pay anywhere near that much for their 38 wins above a replacement-level team, whereas the Yankees no doubt paid far more apiece for their 54.

  2. I'm inclined to agree, but it can be difficult to find and research the best available statistic for these pieces. VORP and UZR have what I consider to be serious flaws as well. For example, VORP assumes all replacement players come from the same pool. It doesn't actually adjust to each player's position. Instead, certain positions are given the benefit of the doubt and others are penalized. This creates a bias, which is surprising given that it would be fairly simple to adjust on a position-by-position basis. A call-up first basemen is not a call-up catcher. UZR doesn't take into consideration anything hit in the air to an infielder, which is why guy's like Tex and Jeter rank so poorly in it. Your criticism of WAR coverted to deserved salary is right on the mark. If I were making the Stat I would use a scaling mechanism to reflect average payroll across teams. My rule for using a given sabremetric is if it more or less does what it should and is widely recognized. So far, WAR – Salary, VORP and UZR are 2 for 2, flaws aside. I heartily welcome suggestions on better statistics to use.

Comments are closed.