Five Questions: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

1. What’s with this Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim stuff, anyway? Has Arte Moreno lost his mind?

The Angels, much like the Yankees, A’s, Dodgers, and Red Sox, have become one of those teams where the front office is more often the story than the team itself. In the 2003/2004 offseason, new owner Arte Moreno surprised everyone by snagging free agent prize Vlad Guerrero, surprise Kelvim Escobar, and booby prize Bartolo Colon, thus producing the Angels’ first division win in 18 years.

Cheers quickly turned to jeers when Moreno changed the team’s name to the overlong and unmellifluous “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim”, allegedly for marketing reasons. In support of the name change, he spent richly on billboard advertising throughout Los Angeles proper extolling the virtues of the “City of Angels”. Ugly and geographically vague though it might be, Arte has a valid point: he’s not selling the team to the fans here, he’s selling it to ad buyers.

Retrograde purists demanding the team hang onto the Anaheim appellation are an apparent minority; even more season tickets flew out the window this year than last, with entire price ranges already sold out. Naming the team after the metropolitan area makes financial sense: the Mets, the successor National League team to the Brooklyn Dodgers, are not the Queens Mets.

All this nomenclature noodling has the Dodgers counterpunching. Naturally, they aren’t pleased about sharing what they perceive as their market with the AL interlopers, providing great offseason theater for those of us who recognize this sparring as Marketing 101. That, of course, is what Arte knows best — that and media deals.

Perhaps the most intriguing event about the Angels to escape national coverage is the Dodgers’ announced 2006 move to KCAL, presently the Angels’ home station. This will force Moreno to find a new broadcaster for the Angels. Calling the TV contracts inherited from Disney “little league”, Moreno has already expressed interest in starting a cable network; this is no small thing. Remember that News Corp rejected the Eli Broad/David Checketts bid for the Dodgers, because along with it came a demand for Fox Sports West — the primary moneymaking end of the Dodgers/Fox combination.

However much money Frank McCourt might be making now, it’s almost certainly less than if he owned both the Dodgers and FSW. In short, if you thought Arte Moreno had some money to throw around on players before, watch out. The best organizations in baseball have been both good businesses and good teams. Arte clearly aspires to have both, making these heady times for Angels fans.

2. Is this rotation any better?

To answer that question, let’s start by taking a look at how the 2004 rotation actually performed. Later on, we’ll look at individuals’ 2005 projections and stack them up:

Pitcher            W-L     IP   ERA  dERA   K/9  K/BB   G/F  VORP
Bartolo Colon    18-12  208.1  5.01  5.03  6.83  2.23  0.91  22.2
Kelvim Escobar   11-12  208.1  3.93  3.85  8.25  2.51  1.14  53.2
John Lackey      14-13  198.1  4.67  4.16  6.53  2.29  1.11  29.3
Ramon Ortiz        4-5   79.0  5.47  4.96  8.25  2.51  1.14   6.0
Aaron Sele         9-4  121.2  5.03  5.18  3.25  0.90  0.94   7.4
Jarrod Washburn   11-8  149.1  4.64  4.70  5.18  2.15  0.96  22.4

Notes:

  • dERA is mostly from Jay Jaffe’s 2004 DIPS, except for those pitchers used in multiple roles, Ortiz and Sele, for whom I calculated dERA based on their starting splits.
  • All stats are strictly as starters. Ortiz and Sele use mlb.com’s starter/reliever split stats.
  • For Ortiz and Sele, I calculated VORP with Tom Meagher’s assistance, for which I thank him.

Last year’s offseason acquisitions of Colon and former Blue Jay Escobar couldn’t have turned out more differently. Colon the acme of dashed expectations, claims that an ankle problem hurt him through mid-July (an injury the Angels denied through June 9 and said was fixed as early as June 17). While it was partly true that he pitched better in the second half, his only genuinely good months were July, when he posted a 3.48 ERA, and September, when he posted a 4.34 ERA. Escobar, on the other hand, was the 14th best pitcher by VORP in the majors last year, and the fifth best in the league. Ortiz and Sele, both gone in 2005, cycled through the rotation and the bullpen. Lackey and Washburn seem to be roughly the same pitcher; both continue to tantalize and frighten by turns.

This is not a team that is going to win on the strength of its top-tier pitching. That said, your 2005 Los Angeles Angels rotation (listed in alphabetical, not rotation, order; numbers in parentheses are PECOTA projections):

  • Paul Byrd (130.2 IP, 4.87 ERA, 17.7 VORP): PECOTA doesn’t like guys coming off injury and seems to generally have trouble predicting their performance. Byrd’s got a Tommy John surgery two years behind him, and supposedly that’s when such guys often have their best years. Seen in spring training throwing a sinker he couldn’t before because it hurt his arm too much, I’m going to go stupid-Pollyanna here and say he’ll outperform this by a win or so, that is, he makes his 75th percentile projection (159.0 IP, 4.21 ERA, 29.7 VORP).
  • Bartolo Colon (168.1 IP, 4.49 ERA, 25.8 VORP) has seen his strikeouts drop significantly over the last five years. Despite a slight bounce back (crawling up from 5.75 in Montreal to 6.83 last year with the Angels) and the aforesaid late-season recovery from ankle problems, reports from Dominican winter ball say he’s put on even more weight in the offseason, not good for a guy already having joint trouble.
  • Kelvim Escobar (167.1 IP, 4.06 ERA, 33.9 VORP): here’s a guy who had his best year for control and fourth-best career strikeout rate last year, and still he gets no love from PECOTA. Maybe that makes sense. Prior to last year, he’s never been more than four wins above replacement. Still, I can see two mitigating factors. First, this predicts around six starts’ worth of downtime, which I think is excessive. Also, because Toronto never put him into a consistent usage pattern, I’ll suggest that PECOTA is unfairly punishing him for managerial choices. I’ll hesitantly call PECOTA overly pessimistic about his playing time and suggest gently that he’ll hit his 60th percentile projection of 180.2 IP, 3.76 ERA, and 41.0 VORP.
  • John Lackey (150.0 IP, 4.85 ERA, 16.8 VORP): When the first syllable in your last name is “Lack”, the epithets fly fast and hard if you lose — as Lackey did often last year. A couple good months in July and August prevented his decline into Hooverian depths of sucktitude, but he’s only shown flashes of the guy who took the ball in Game Seven of the 2002 World Series. The decline here is altogether too plausible, fueled in part by a serious loss of playing time. Whether that’s due to injury or incompetence, we’ll leave the audience to decide.
  • Jarrod Washburn (136.3 IP, 4.61 ERA, 18.1 VORP): last year, Wash fell prey to ribcage problems that kept him out for almost a month and a half in July and August. Normally an extreme flyball pitcher, Washburn radically increased his grounders last year as he began to throw more changeups and breaking pitches. If he can stay healthy, he’s got a decent chance of beating these numbers, but last year showed that was a big if.

So, assuming — and this is a big assumption — that all five of these guys make it through the season without more problems than PECOTA projects for them already, and that my mildly optimistic scenarios for a couple starters pan out, that means total VORP is 131.4. That’s a slight regression from last year’s 140.5, but it’s so close it’s almost a wash. Good performances by any of these guys — or heck, just consistent, improved health — could turn this around, though not dramatically so; there’s no Pedro Martinezes hiding in this bunch. So, I’m declaring no improvement.

3. Is this the year the bullpen falls apart?

One thing the Angels have done spectacularly well lately is to put together highly effective bullpens on the extreme cheap. This year, the club loses long-time closer Troy Percival, replacing him with 2002 postseason hero Francisco Rodriguez, pushing everyone down an inning. This means Scot Shields and/or Brendan Donnelly replace K-Rod in high-leverage seventh and eighth inning situations, and in the sixth, you’re likely to see some combination of Kevin Gregg and Esteban Yan. The Angels might pick up one more reliever somewhere in spring training, but for now we’ll ignore that possibility. Let’s look at their numbers to get a sense of these guys’ directions.

                                 2004 Actual           2005 projected
Reliever                IP   ERA    K/9  K/BB  VORP    IP   ERA  VORP
Brendan Donnelly      42.0  3.00  12.00  3.73  15.3  49.3  3.28  15.8
Kevin Gregg           87.2  4.21   8.62  3.00  18.2  92.1  4.38  14.3
Francisco Rodriguez   84.0  1.82  13.18  3.73  37.6  85.1  3.29  24.4
Scot Shields         105.1  3.33   9.31  2.73  31.5  95.2  3.73  22.2
Esteban Yan           87.0  3.83   7.14  2.16  17.7  66.3  4.39  10.4

Donnelly’s fluke 2004 injury (a nosebleed requiring surgery) hampered him throughout most of 2004, except in September when he sported a 2.51 ERA and an 11.3 K/9. Aside from Donnelly, though, the possibilities for improvement from the Angels’ bullpen diminish rapidly:

  • Gregg was horribly inconsistent, with a dominating 0.59 ERA in April and a 2.12 ERA in May, but never again would he post a single-month ERA below 5.00. His 3.10 dERA leads me to think he’s terribly unlucky on H/9 last year, but his .178 LD% (line drive percentage) shows a lot of solid hits. He needs to miss more bats or he’s going to find himself in Salt Lake this year.
  • Yan’s been terrible throughout most of his career; Hyperion seemed the only answer. His ERA (3.83) nearly halved in Comerica, and amazingly, his dERA (3.94) kept pace. Yan shares a .178 LD% with Gregg, making his 2004 look very fluky.
  • Expecting some regression from Shields seems reasonable, though I don’t think this much is in the cards, as he retained strong peripherals.
  • Even dismissing PECOTA’s pessimism about K-Rod’s abilities, if Scioscia runs him the same way he ran Percival, it’s likely he’ll end up with far fewer innings than even this lightweight estimate. Percy missed about three weeks in June due to hip troubles, but even accounting for this, it’s altogether possible that Frankie will only see 50-60 innings as a closer, a huge waste of talent.

I’m going to say yes, the bullpen will significantly regress, with a possible collapse if things go truly bad. This may be the first season in four years the Angels don’t have the best bullpen in the division, an honor that might go to the A’s.

4. Do the Angels have a plan at 1B?

Darin Erstad’s job at first base has to be one of the most puzzling things known to modern man. If the goal was to keep him healthy, it mostly worked; even though his hamstrings sent him down in May anyway, he managed to hit .295/.344/.400 for 22.7 VORP over 543 plate appearances, a big improvement over his 2003.

But with Casey Kotchman finally looking ready for the big club (as opposed to last year’s abortive .224/.289/.276, 128 TPA line), Erstad — or rather Stoneman — has got a lot of explainin’ to do; Ersty’s the worst hitter of any starting first baseman in the AL. Add to this Stoneman’s signing of Cuban native Kendry Morales — whose future is at DH or 1B — and you get the clear impression of a club with binge shopping problems. If Kotchman does even halfway well in spring training, the decision to keep Erstad on the team is going to be a tough one. How well does veteran leadership work from the bench?

5. How good is the Angels’ outfield defense?

Since fielding metrics vary wildly, I’ll show 2004 numbers from three different systems: MGL’s UZR, Rate2 from Baseball Prospectus, and PMRR, taken from Chronicles of the Lads, and itself based on David Pinto’s Probabilistic Model of Range published in Baseball Musings, translated to runs saved. (For PMRR, here are links to LF, CF, and RF.)

Player             UZR    Rate2     PMRR
Garret Anderson    -17       94   -18.80
Steve Finley       -28   92/107*   -5.58
Vladimir Guerrero  N/A      103    -0.75

* In Arizona/LA

There’s no question that Garret Anderson has lost a step or ten because of arthritis; he claims to be better now, but the Angels took no chances and moved him to left, where he might be acceptable. Steve Finley got weak Rate2 scores in Arizona in 2003 and 2004, but he was slightly above average in Dodger Stadium last year. Nobody’s mistaken Vladimir Guerrero for a first-rate fielder, even in right; he has been known to take bad routes, and more than once I’ve seen him bobble catches. Overall, this is a mediocre defensive outfield that can be painful to watch at times, but the 2005 group should represent a modest upgrade over last year’s woeful performance.

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