Five questions: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

A year ago, the Angels were going into the 2012 offseason with a solid pitching staff and a powerful but inconsistent lineup. They further strengthened their starting rotation and along the way levied a blow against a division rival by signing a good pitcher away from Texas. To augment the lineup, they signed, via free agency, the man who may be the greatest hitter of our generation. Then, about three weeks after the season started, they called up baseball’s best prospect and he went on to have one of the best seasons in the history of the game. Toward the end of July, they traded for a terrific starting pitcher and had what looked at the time to be about as good a postseason rotation as you could ask for.

They did all that so they could contend with the Texas Rangers, a team that has dominated the division the past few years, and make it to the postseason. However, all the money, signings, and trades still left them trailing Texas and Oakland at the end of 2012. They missed the playoffs even though they won 89 games.

So here we are, heading into 2013, and the Angels again spent big on offense in the offseason. Once again they struck a blow against the rival Rangers, this time by signing another of their free agents, the mercurial outfielder/power hitter Josh Hamilton. He is a game-changing slugger, but one whose staggering talent comes at the price of inconsistency on—and sometimes off—the field. They also made moves in the starting rotation again, with a little attrition thrown in this time.

Will these changes right the wrongs of 2012 and help the Angels make the playoffs? That may depend, at least a little bit, on the answers to these five questions.

How big a difference will Hamilton make, really?

While Hamilton, like the majority of baseball players, is not on the level of Albert Pujols, this still marks the second offseason in a row that the Angels signed the best available slugger on the free agent market. Hamilton will join Pujols and Mike Trout to form a fearsome threesome in the batting order.

Hamilton replaces Torii Hunter, the former Angels outfielder who is now with Detroit. Most people will expect Hamilton to put up better numbers than Hunter. But, last season, Hunter hit .313/.365/.451. That translated to a 132 OPS+ in what ESPN rated as the fourth toughest park to hit and score runs in. Meanwhile, Hamilton hit .285/.354/.577, a line that shows that he reached base almost as well as Hunter, but hit for quite a bit more power. Despite the superior slugging percentage, that gave Hamilton a OPS+ of 139, partly because he played half his games in what ESPN rated as the fourth best park to hit in.

For his career at Ranger Ballpark, Hamilton has put up a .315/.373/.592 slash line. For every other park, he has hit .292/.354/.504. His numbers so far in games he has played in Anaheim don’t really mean much since it’s a small sample size in relation to every game he has ever played elsewhere. And they especially don’t mean much since those numbers were against some guys who he’ll actually be playing alongside now. But overall, he seems to be like a lot of players in that he hits better in his home games than he does on the road.

The question will be how much better he can hit at home now that his home is in a bigger ballpark that has a history of suppressing run-scoring. We can’t guarantee the answer, but there’s actually a pretty good chance that Hamilton’s 2013 may not end up being much of an improvement for the Angels over the line Hunter posted in 2012.

How will Mike Trout follow up his historic 2012 season?

Since you come to The Hardball Times to find out stuff like this, we should let you know that this newcomer, Mike Trout, had a pretty good year last year and may be one of the better young players in the game. He hit .326/.399/.564 in his first extended look at major league pitching and played some spectacular defense.

Okay, it turns out he was the best all-around player in the game and you probably already know that.

You also probably know that he was only 20 years old in 2012. And most of you probably know that players tend to get better year by year as they reach their mid-20s, and by and large most peak sometime before they are 30. So, if Trout is like most players, he’ll get better over the course of the next decade and his best years are ahead of him.

But, he already showed last year that he is not like most players. He’s not even close to most players. Most players don’t hit as well as Trout did when they are 20 or 21. In fact, most players don’t ever hit as well as Trout did, no matter their age. We have to look at some of the best hitters ever, guys like Alex Rodriguez, Mickey Mantle and Albert Pujols- to find players who also had seasons as spectacular as Trout’s when they were 20, going on 21.

For example, when Rodriguez was 20, turning 21, he hit .358/.414/.631. It was unbelievable. It was the best season ever by a shortstop, and as Tom Verducci noted in Sports Illustrated the next spring, Rodriguez had done it despite playing most of the year with a bad hamstring. He looked like a player who could hit .400 with 30 home runs and 30 steals his next season. We know some things about A-Rod now, things that have taken our focus off of how incredible he was when he started out. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was a phenom in his first full season.

He followed his historic first full season by hitting .300/.350/.496. That’s not too bad, but it was a regression nonetheless. It was spurred in some part by a 50 point drop in BABIP from his first full season to his second. Maybe that could mean something since Mike Trout’s BABIP in 2012 was .383, and although his minor league averages were also high, that rate may be hard to maintain and he may also see a drop in his second year.

But, when Mickey Mantle was 20, turning 21, he hit .311/.394/.530 and his BABIP the next season dropped only about 25 points, and he was still able to come pretty close to repeating his earlier numbers by putting up a .295/.398/.497 line.

And when Trout’s teammate, Albert Pujols was 21 and in his first season, he hit .329/.403/.610. The next year he kept being awesome, and hit .314/.394/.561, which is probably only about the difference of a homer here, and a few doubles there.

This small sample of players who hit as well as Trout when they were 20 were able to follow up their remarkable first full seasons with some pretty nice numbers the very next year. None of them exceeded their first seasons’ numbers, even though they should have been developing more as players.

And all this is trying to show (and probably showing it poorly) is that it is extremely difficult to have the kind of year Trout had last year- even for the greatest players in the game. Even if you’re the same player from one year to the next and because of your age you should still be improving, that improvement may not be linear.

A lot of baseball guys are trying to guess what Trout can provide in 2013. Dave Schoenfield of ESPN thinks the kid could do just as well, while Shane Tourtellotte shows that Trout will be defying history if he matches his 2012 totals.

No one knows for sure what Trout will hit in 2013, but losing some points off of his BABIP and regressing to a line of about .290/.370/.490 with 20 home runs in 2013 would still be a great year. But as great as those numbers would be, it wouldn’t be as great as last year. For the Angels, it might be unrealistic to expect better production in 2013 than what they had in 2012 out of their center fielder, even if he continues to be one of the best players in the game.

What’s become of the pitching staff?

Back in December, the Angels traded the redundant Kendrys Morales to the Seattle Mariners for starting pitcher Jason Vargas. Vargas had a 3.85 ERA last season for the Mariners, to go along with a 1.18 WHIP. Both those numbers were better than what he’d shown previously in his career, but management has to hope that going from one pitcher-friendly park to another will mean he has at least a good chance to duplicate his 2012 performance.

They also traded Jordan Walden to Atlanta for Tommy Hanson. Unlike Vargas, Hanson is coming off of a down season compared to what he’s been able to do in the past and has dealt with injuries lately. His new team will hope he can return to the form he showed from 2009-2011 when he was solid despite pitching in a park that’s better suited for hitters than what he’ll find in his new home. Joe Blanton is a free-agent addition who will likely be the Angels’ fifth starter and has been a serviceable, if unspectacular pitcher, during his career.

Those three replace Zack Greinke, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana. Greinke, Haren and Santana combined with C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver last year to form what looked like one of the best rotations in baseball. But Haren was out of form and battled some injuries throughout the year. Santana allowed a gazillion home runs and posted a 5.17 ERA. And then Greinke, though he pitched well, turned out to be a half-season rental who is now playing for the Dodgers.

The names are not nearly as sexy in the Angels rotation going into this season as they were last August. And what’s worse, the new additions are not locks to pitch a combined 600 innings. That means Jerome Williams‘ large figure looms as a potential spot starter who could again fall into a role in which he ends up pitching nearly 150 innings, just like he did last year on a big-name staff.

Big names don’t always guarantee success, as last year is proof. But as noted, Vargas is coming off a career year and Hanson is an injury risk. There’s about the same chance, maybe even better, that Haren and Greinke put up better numbers for their new teams than do Vargas and Hanson do for the Angels. If that happens, then the Angels’ years of relying on the strength of their rotation are ending.

These are the ERA numbers of the old guard on the left, compared to the new pitchers, listed on the right. Oliver projections are for 2013.*

Pitcher	        2012	Career 	Oliver		        2012	Career	Oliver
Ervin Santana	5.16	4.33	3.89	Joe Blanton	4.71	4.37	3.71
Zack Greinke	3.48	3.77	3.03	Jason Vargas	3.85	4.35	3.49
Dan Haren	4.33	3.66	3.44	Tommy Hanson	4.48	3.61	3.57

Even with rather optimistic projections for Blanton and Vargas, it looks like this may be another area where the Angels would be foolish to expect a dramatic increase in production over what they had last year.

Will Albert Pujols continue his decline?

Pujols had a season last year that would have been great for almost anyone. Unfortunately, the standard he has set for himself is just too high.

He hit .285/.343/.516 in 2012, with 30 home runs. That’s pretty good. The problem is, we are only used to astounding, amazing, and historic when it comes to the numbers Pujols has posted. Pretty good is for mortals. So, do we have to lower the bar, or should we be expecting a bounce-back? There’s little doubt he could have big years left in his career. But, there’s also a good chance that we are seeing him decline, and that his decline will continue with occasional periods of his greatness thrown in.

To stave off a further reduction in production, perhaps Pujols could find a way to return to the selectivity at the plate that he has demonstrated in the past. According to Fangraphs, Pujols, during his plate appearances in 2012, swung at 36.4 percent of pitches that were outside the strike zone. For his career, that percentage is 22.9.

Even though he was chasing way more pitches than he used to, his overall contact percentage was about the same as it has always been. He was able to do that because his contact rate on those pitches outside the zone has grown in the past three years to last year’s peak of 77 percent. Meanwhile, his swing rate at pitches inside the zone was pretty much in line with what he’s done in the past. Due at least in part to that more aggressive approach last year, Pujols also took fewer walks. His base on balls percentage was only 7.8 in 2012, compared to a 12.7 rate for his career.

So again, it appears that Pujols has become more aggressive at the plate in the past year or two. Nevertheless, due to his incredible skill with a baseball bat, he still makes a lot of contact. But, the tradeoff looks like it could be a decline in power, especially if he can’t hit those borderline pitches that he’s swinging at with increasing regularity as hard as he hits pitches in the strike zone.

Another thing that may keep him from posting the type of power numbers he has in the past is his home park. Note his percentages on fly balls, ground balls, line drives, infield flies and home runs per fly ball in the table below for 2012 versus those percentages for his career (all numbers from Fangraphs)-

Pujols	2012	Career

FB%	39.9	40
GB%	41.3	41
LD%	18.8	19
IFFB%	12.1	12.9
HR/FB%	14	19.2 

Only one of those things is not like the others, and that’s the 5 percentage point decrease in fly balls leaving the ballpark. He now plays half of his games in a park that (you may notice this recurring theme) ESPN rates as one of the toughest for hitting homers.

If Pujols is trending toward a more aggressive approach at the plate, and if it’s a conscious decision, perhaps he can try and rein it in a little and, combined with maybe just a little more luck on a few fly balls, he can have a few more ball leave the yard in 2013. However, if he continues to chase, and continues to trade walks for putting more balls in play, his new home ballpark may play a role in suppressing his power numbers, at least from the levels we are accustomed to.

It would probably be the better bet to guess that Pujols can do better this year than he did last year, but it’s also probably not as safe a wager as it would have been in the past.

How could Paramount Pictures go with Tom Cruise over Mark Trumbo?

Mark Trumbo had a cup of coffee with the Angels in 2010, when he appeared in eight games. Jack Reacher loves coffee, has it every chance he gets, and has appeared in 17 of Lee Child’s novels. Trumbo goes to the plate looking to do one thing—punish a baseball. His aggressiveness means he will miss out on some walks, but his goal in each at-bat is to “go up there and hit the ball hard.” Reacher doesn’t quite know how to walk away from trouble. In any potential conflict, his natural instinct is to hit first and hit hard. Trumbo has played all over the diamond while Reacher has wandered all over the country. Trumbo is 6-foot-4 and about 230 pounds of pure beast. Reacher is about an inch taller, sometimes a little heavier, and almost as beastly. Reacher is also a baseball fan, but he prefers the Yankees over the Angels.

After a strong start in regard to box office numbers, Paramount’s film Jack Reacher faded after a few weeks and will probably be considered a disappointment since it doesn’t look like a viable franchise that could churn out multiple sequels.

Trumbo had a strong first half last season, pulverizing the ball for a .306/.358/.608 line heading into the All-Star break. He appeared in the home run derby and hit some of the most impressive drives of the competition while using a compact swing combined with his brute strength. However, he faded hard after the break and hit only .227/.271/.359, leaving many to wonder if he can be a viable long-term fixture in the middle of the Angels’ lineup. Trumbo prefers to hit his way on base, and struck out 153 times last year, while he drew only 36 walks. He will have to find ways of fighting through tough stretches of poor at-bats so he can put together a more consistent season in 2013.

The Angels can expect at least 30 homers from Trumbo, but how the other stats shake out may be a lot more iffy. It’s safe to assume that he can end up with about the same contribution he had last year, and that is a recurring theme with the answers to these five questions. There is no doubt the Angels have some great players, but imagining them to win many more than 89 games this year would be optimistic.

In fact, Baseball Prospectus’ Pecota system predicts that the Angels will win 90. That could be enough to win the division and right the wrongs of last year.

References & Resources
*Oliver projections were developed by Brian Cartwright for the Hardball Times and are listed for every player at Fangraphs.

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Comments

  1. David Wade said...

    If it had to be an A list actor, maybe we could look at Hugh Jackman? 

    Chris Hemsworth would be ideal were he not so young.

    Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen would have been good were the Reacher novels around when they were at their toughest. 

    Anyway, his physicality is such an important part of the novels- it may have worked better if they had cast an unknown.  Perhaps a small-time actor who could pull off the physical demands.  Kind of like they did with Christopher Reeve in Superman.

    That’s a big risk for a studio to take, though.

  2. Dennis said...

    The Rock would have been a better choice than Cruise. However he did produce and direct so he got to make the call. Hugh Jackman doesn’t have the physical presence for Reacher. Needs to be someone large! Maybe Tyler Mane (Sabretooth in the first X-Men film)?

  3. Will H. said...

    Your point that more wins is not to be expected is not questioned by the fact that the Hunter whom Hamilton replaces will probably regress, so I guess I’m just thinking that Hamilton is a plus for them because he will more likely retain Hunter’s 2012 production than Hunter would have in 2013: in 2012 Hunter had his worst BB% in a decade, worst K% ever, worst ISO in 12 years… and yet he produced so well. A Babip 50 points better than he ever had might be one reason, but point is he is very unlikely to produce so well again given what he’s done in the past and his age… and that while Hamilton won’t likely top Hunter’s 2012, he is more likely to repeat it.

  4. David Wade said...

    Will H., I agree that in 2013 (and in years beyond), Hamilton will probably outproduce Hunter.  But I also agree with the contention in your last sentence- that the “2013 Hamilton” is more likely to repeat Hunter’s numbers from last season than the “2013 Hunter” is.

    But replacing Hunter’s production from 2012, though now a far more likely prospect with Hamilton there instead of Torii, won’t gain many more wins than they had out of the position last year.

  5. HP3 said...

    The man for Jack Reacher is Jim Caviezel of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Person of Interest.”

    Caviezel is 6’3”, athletic, and can kick some serious butt.

  6. Will H. said...

    Agreed, David. Don’t see their probability of their actual win total going up (which is kind of a stunning statement about the limits of FA spending…)

  7. David Wade said...

    Jim- I love it!

    HP3- Not a bad idea. 

    Will H- no doubt about FA spending.  As a Tigers fan, I actually think/ hope Torii, even if he puts up stats below last season’s numbers, can still outproduce what Detroit got from Boesch, et al in 2012.  Could be bigger upgrade than what Hamilton will give the Angels, as crazy as that sounds.

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