Reggie Willits (shown at Provo in 2003) is the feel-good story of the summer.
The Angels are half-way through the 2007 season, sporting a 50-31 mark (.617). The only major league team with a better winning percentage is the Boston Red Sox at 49-30 (.620), who’ve played two fewer games.
Despite pre-season predictions (mostly from the dogmatic sabermetricians who think there’s only one way to win a ballgame) that the Angels were doomed because they didn’t acquire a “big bat”, so far the critics for the most part have crawled back into the woodwork.
Can it still go wrong?
The worst thing that could happen would be a season-ending injury to Vlad Guerrero. Losing aces John Lackey or Kelvim Escobar would also be catastrophic, and the bullpen would be sorely tested should they lose Scot Shields or Francisco Rodriguez. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera, whose leadership and all-around productivity is the epitome of Angels-style baseball, is another vital part whose loss would be hard to replace.
But the main reasons for their success to date — the best start in Angels franchise history — can be credited largely to Bill Stoneman’s team-building philosophy, a philosophy that’s been incessantly bashed over the years by people apparently blind to the fact that the Angels during his tenure have been the most successful in their 47-year history.
Some people endlessly demanded that Stoneman unload the farm system to acquire a “name” player, usually some aging star like Randy Johnson or Todd Helton or Miguel Tejada or Mike Sweeney. Had they done so, young stars like Scot Shields, Casey Kotchman, John Lackey and Howie Kendrick would be long gone.
Stoneman protected his young assets, and it paid off this year as the Angels survived the inevitable injury wave by dipping into a rich farm system. How many teams can say they have six quality starting pitchers?! The Angels had Joe Saunders at Salt Lake paralleling starts with Bartolo Colon, knowing that he was the most fragile pitcher on the staff. Recently Saunders was called up when John Lackey was pushed back for the first time in his career due to injury, and Jered Weaver suffered from a lower back problem.
Chone Figgins — often a target of stathead abuse — started the year on the DL after breaking his fingertips in spring training. No problem. The Angels survived by using Maicer Izturis, Robb Quinlan, even unpolished Brandon Wood for a few games.
Garret Anderson has suffered all season from a nagging hip flexor injury. No problem. The Angels survived using Reggie Willits, a singles/walk hitter with no pop who fit in perfectly with Stoneman’s offensive philosophy. Willits is now mentioned as a possible rookie of the year candidate, and has been featured recently in both USA Today and The New York Times.
Howie Kendrick broke a finger when he was struck by a pitch and went on the DL for a month. No problem. Erick Aybar stepped in at 2B until Kendrick returned. Aybar, often mentioned in trade talks, has also filled in at SS, 3B, and the outfield.
But the most important factor, in my opinion, is that the Angels are back to playing the “Contactball” style of play that’s been so successful for them in recent years.
I coined the phrase “Contactball” in November 2004 to describe the Angels’ unique offense philosophy. Contactball flies in the face of stathead dogma which places on-base percentage on a pedestal to be worshipped.
A frequent complaint by the statheads is that Contactball doesn’t work "if you don’t get on base." But they seem to be missing the point — the object of the game isn’t to draw a walk. The object of the game is to outscore your opponent.
So the Angels don’t obsess with walks. They obsess instead with scoring runs as efficiently as possible.
The Angels will gladly trade a run for an out. Sabermetric orthodoxy considers this heresy, that an offense should never trade an out for anything.
But you can’t argue with the results.
(Well, you can if you’re intellectually dishonest or pigheaded, but I digress …)
Using the Sortable Team Stats feature on MLB.com, as of this morning we find some interesting facts:
- The Angels lead the 30 major league teams in batting average (.290).
- The Angels are 25th in walks (241).
- The Angels are 27th in strikeouts (410).
- The Angels are 12th in slugging percentage (.424).
- The Angels are 2nd in stolen bases (76).
- The Angels are 5th in runs scored (412).
Among the major league leaders in runs scored despite a very low walk rate?!
Say it ain’t so!
Well, it is.
The explanation is really simple. The Angels understand the importance of producing runs. They don’t wait around for a couple walks and a three-run homer. The fact of the matter is that a walk doesn’t advance a runner, unless it’s a force. But a hit does. So does a “productive out”, a phrase considered an epithet in the sabermetric world because it flies in the face of their commandment that “Thou Shalt Not Waste an Out.”
One of the Contactball columns I wrote looked at a team’s efficiency in generating runs, measured by how many outs it takes to produce a run. As noted, statheads complain that “You can’t score if you don’t get on base.” But that argument is flawed, because it misses the point.
First off, no system works 100% of the time. If David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez go in a slump together, the Red Sox stop scoring. To suggest that only one system works perfectly is just being dishonest. But let’s look at the facts.
Right now, the best OBP in baseball is the Red Sox at .355. The worst is the White Sox at .309. The mean is somewhere in the low .330s, which is consistent with an earlier Contactball article I wrote in which I noted that the major league OBP seems to float consistently around one-in-three.
So Boston’s .355 means that 355 out of 1,000 batters reach base. Chicago’s .309 means that 309 out of 1,000 batters reach base. The average is about 333 out of 1,000.
Put another way, it means that Boston puts only 22 more batters on base per 1,000 (2.2%) than the average. Chicago puts only 24 batters fewer batters on base per 1,000 (2.4%) on the average. The variance from the average really isn’t that big.
Which suggests that simply reaching base really doesn’t matter so much.
What does matter is what you do with those guys once they do get on base. It’s not about how many baserunners you have. It’s about how many runs you score.
The Angels choose to do it by advancing runners — stealing a base, swapping an out to move a runner into scoring position, going from 1st to 3rd on a base hit.
Boston does it with slugging percentage (i.e. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz), but interestingly they’re only #9 in runs scored (392) while the Angels are #5 (412). (Because the Red Sox have played two fewer games, I don’t consider this to be a statistically significant difference.)
The team with the most runs scored is Detroit at 471. Their AVG (.290) and OBP (.353) are very similar to the Angels, but their SLG (.472) is also the highest in the majors.
Which brings us to the next point … The object of the game is to outscore your opponent, but that can also be worded another way — the object of the game is to assure that your opponent scores less than you.
In other words … pitching.
The Angels’ 3.93 ERA is 8th in the majors. Boston is #4 at 3.75. Detroit is #18 at 4.50.
A popular sabermetric measurement is WHIP — (Walks + Hits)/(Innings Pitched). The Red Sox are #6 at 1.29. The Angels are #7 at 1.31. The Tigers are #21 at 1.43.
Another way to assure your opponents score less is to use your defense to stop them from scoring. This was a major problem for the Angels in 2006, when they gave up far more unearned runs than typical in earlier years.
The defense is better in 2007, but if you look at the ratio of unearned runs to total runs allowed by pitching staffs, you find that only 6.8% of the runs scored by Boston’s opponents are unearned, while it’s 8.3% for the Tigers and 9.3% for the Angels. Unearned runs tend to take a toll on a pitching staff, because it means more batters faced, and therefore more pitches thrown. Not only does it wear on the starting rotation, but it also wears on the bullpen.
Four of the Angels’ five starters — Lackey, Escobar, Colon and Weaver — have current or recent injury issues. The fifth starter, Ervin Santana, has been unreliable and inconsistent. The last thing you want to do is have pitchers with injury issues throwing more pitches.
In the second half, the Angels’ defense will need to improve, and the bullpen will need to get deeper. Hopefully Justin Speier returns soon, whose absence has frayed the bullpen depth. There’s not much that can be done about the defense, because the primary offenders — Vlad Guerrero and Chone Figgins — are vital to the offense. Garret Anderson will DH more when he returns, but so will Vlad and so will Juan Rivera when he returns around August 1.
In any case, the Angels’ offense should be fine. A healthy Garret Anderson and Juan Rivera are better than a late-season trade because these guys would probably add just as much as would acquiring a bat from another team, and they’re already on the roster so the Angels don’t have to trade prospects to acquire them. Casey Kotchman should continue to improve with experience.
I expect Chone Figgins and Reggie Willits to cool off. They’ve been the feel-good stories of the year, but right now their numbers are above their career averages. Their style of play does fit into the Angels’ Contactball strategy, though, so any slack in production by them should be offset by Anderson, Rivera and Kotchman.
More bullpen depth awaits in Triple-A. Jason Bulger, acquired in early 2006 for Alberto Callaspo, has been healthy and productive for Salt Lake. His 4.26 ERA is misleading because of a disastrous outing June 25 at Salt Lake in which he gave up five earned runs in 1/3 inning. Throw that out and his ERA drops to 2.87. He has 52 strikeouts in 31.2 IP, and has walked 17. I’ve written many times about how hitter-friendly is 4,500-foot Franklin Covey Field — Bulger’s home ERA is 6.48, but on the road it’s a stingy 1.80.
If Anderson and/or Rivera can’t deliver their expected contributions, options include Nathan Haynes, Tommy Murphy and Terry Evans. Brandon Wood has heated up lately, but he’s still not ready to consistently produce at the major league level, so it’s Figgins for now.
I don’t have the time right now to slice ‘n dice numbers as deeply as I’d like. That awaits the off-season. But I doubt that reams of numbers disproving sabermetric dogma would change the minds of those who think there’s only one way to win a ballgame. Oh well, I’ll just sit back and watch the Angels keep winning.
UPDATE 4:00 PM PDT — The Angels won today giving them a 51-31 (.622) record. The Red Sox lost today giving them a 49-31 (.613) record. So the Angels now have the best record in major league baseball.