How good are the 2008 Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim?

As I write this, the Angels are 49-34, still holding onto first place. They have scored only 341 runs, while allowing 334. Their Pythagorean expected won-loss record is only 42-41. How are the Angels doing it? It’s pretty standard fare, really. They have relatively few blowout wins, not scoring more than 10 runs in any game (they’ve equaled 10 three times), suffered a few embarrassing blowouts (while getting replacement level pitching during John Lackey‘s injury) and have played well in the close games. It’s not a trend that we can expect to continue; either they will play .500 ball from here on out, or they will start to actually score more runs than they allow.

Last year the Diamondbacks played much better than their Pythagorean record, for much of the same reasons as the Angels, and this year are winning exactly as many games as you’d expect from their runs scored and allowed. For more on how the Angels have beat the odds, Matt Welch can do a better job explaining than I can in this post. One thing that stands out from Matt’s analysis is how despite having a pathetic offense, the Angels had been able to avoid being shut out or held to one run. Of course, that was before a four game stretch of one or no runs against the Dodgers and A’s.

Before the season, most fans, writers, and analysts, including this author, predicted the Angels to win the division. For the second half, should we expect the Angels to outscore their opponents or play like a .500 team? To answer this question I ran updated projections based on stats through the end of June.

The highlights

After a trade of 2007 Gold Glove winner Orlando Cabrera, the Angels found not one, but two excellent defensive shortstops. This has been a pleasant surprise, as before the season I had below average projections for them. Neither had much major league time at short (Cabrera rarely took a day off) and when I do defensive projections for shortstops, I don’t automatically regress to a mean of zero. If a player has limited experience, I regress to the mean of an average infielder, which would be somewhat below average as a shortstop. As a player plays more games at short, then I will regress to an average shortstop.

Anyway, boring technical explanation aside, Izturis, by my estimates has been +5 defensively and Aybar has been +8. That’s not per 162 games but actual figures. Combined they are about +25 runs per 162. I don’t expect them to continue playing quite that good, but their projection has changed for the better and with it the projections of the Angels’ pitchers (especially the groundballers).

Mike Napoli projects to hit .226/.336/.439; Jeff Mathis .218/.279/.349. Despite this, they will likely continue to split time. It’s not a horrible decision; Mathis is the better defender and they should both stay fresh all year this way. It’s not a platoon, with both being right-handed hitters. It seems like Mathis will play three days in a row and then Napoli three days in a row. I would not pretend to think I know even 1 percent as much about catchers as Mike Scioscia does, but I wonder if in this situation it would make sense to pair each catcher with a set combination of starting pitchers.

Casey Kotchman projects at .280/.345/.432, Howie Kendrick at .298 (all you need to know about him is his batting average). Maicer Izturis projects at .279/.346/.392 and Erick Aybar at .266/.303/.372. The biggest difference between the two is that Aybar swings at anything and Izturis is a patient hitter. I suspect that if both are healthy, however, Aybar will get the bulk of playing time and Izturis is more the utility guy. Chone Figgins projects to .285/.362/.387.

In the outfield Vladimir projects to .306/.380/.519, Torii Hunter .273/.333/.462, Garret Anderson .264/.309/.407, and Gary Matthews Jr. .257/.333/.406. Sitting on the bench and waiting for a turn are Juan Rivera (.270/.322/.444) and Reggie Willits (.266/.367/.343). Rivera is a superior hitter to any except Vlad and Hunter, and he’s not far off from Hunter. Playing him at DH would make sense, with left field going to Matthews or Willits. Reggie Willits’ superior on-base skills make up for his lack of power. He and Matthews project to put the same amount of runs on the board.

Add it all up, and the Angels should score more often in the second half, about 4.7 per game. This includes some at-bats for Robb Quinlan, and some at-bats for replacement level scrubs, some of whom will likely play due to injuries that have not yet occurred.

For the pitching, the projected ERAs are: Lackey 3.38, Weaver 3.68, Santana 3.72, Saunders 4.40, and Garland 4.72. It would be great if they all stayed healthy for the second half, but you can never expect perfect health. I am also including 61 innings of replacement level starting pitching. For the bullpen the leaders is Frankie Rodriguez (3.05), who hopes the close game opportunities will continue. He has a shot at Bobby Thigpen‘s save record, and not a moment too soon as he’s about to get a free agent payday. Scot Shields (3.30) isn’t bad either.

I have Oliver, Speier, and Escobar adding decent numbers in the 3.70 ERA range and Jose Arredondo at 4.48, a projection that will get much lower if he continues to have major league success. Throw in a few replacement level innings for the rest of the pen, and the Angels project to allow 4.4 runs per game.

Santana has improved his projection the most among the starters; it was 4.34 coming into the season. His excellent strikeout to walk numbers tell me it’s mostly real. Joe Saunders is having an All-Star caliber firsthalf, and it’s a good sign that his control has improved. However, his strikeout rate is very low. He’s improved his projection by a bit (0.15 points) but for the most part his strong first half is a fluke. He’s still a decent pitcher, just not a well-above average one.

John Lackey has improved on his already excellent 3.66 pre-season projection, and Jered Weaver has even improved a bit, from 3.84 to 3.68. I’m not sure how, that surprised me. Despite a solid first half ERA, Jon Garland‘s projection has gotten worse, from 4.39 to 4.72, as he no longer strikes anybody out.

Both the projected runs scored and allowed are higher than what the Angels have done this year. It isn’t all the Angels’ doing as scoring is down all over the American League. If the AL drop in run scoring is real and not a fluke, then the Angels should (obviously) score and allow fewer runs than my projections show. Any “regression to the mean” I have done is using the 2005-2007 league averages, not 2008. The ratio of runs to runs allowed, however, will be the same. The Angels project to play .529 ball, a 42-37 record the rest of the way and finish with a 91-71 record.

The Angels could do better, and play the best team they have available. This would involve playing Juan Rivera as often as possible and playing Garret Anderson about as often as Rivera has played so far. Maicer Izturis becomes the starting shortstop with Aybar used as a utility guy. It wouldn’t be a huge difference but adds a win, and who knows? Niney-two wins might be what it takes to win the division .

Then there’s the other option. Give in to their hate, and embrace the dark side. Sign the unemployed Dark Lord of the Sith to a league minimum contract. It’s probably too late for Bonds to get more than 200 plate appearances the rest of the year, as he would presumably need a few weeks to get into form and would not play every game. Still, his bat (projected currently at .237/.423/.455) would add enough power and on-base ability at the DH spot to make the Angels a .551 team the rest of the way, and finish 93 wins total. If you are familiar with my projections you might wonder why I have Bonds so low compared to his preseason projections. It’s because I’m not using 2004 in the updated projections; the CHONE system uses four years of data, 2005-2008 in the case of everything written above. For most hitters it won’t make a big difference, but removing 2004 has a little bit of an effect on Bonds.

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