The “Fire Scioscia!” “Fire Hatcher!” crowd has all but disappeared from the fan boards in recent days, as the Angels have the best record in the American League at 63-40 (.612) despite losing Vlad Guerrero and Torii Hunter in July, not to mention all the other injuries and disasters that befell the team this year.
Despite the blather from the statheads who’ve condemned the Angels for not marching in goosestep to sabermetric fundamentalism, the Angels lead the A.L. in runs (590), hits (1,040), RBI (563), and batting average (.290). They’re second in on-base percentage (.353) but only seventh in walks (348), about 100 fewer than the Yankees (446). They’re third in slugging percentage (.451), even though they’re only tenth in homers (114).
I coined the phrase “Contactball” in November 2004 to describe the Angels’ offense philosophy. They emphasize putting the ball in play to move up runners and score them when an opportunity presents itself. The strategy works best when the Angels’ strikeout rate is low.
The Angels’ 644 strikeouts to date rank 11th in the A.L. Contactball is back.
I wrote a blog back in March called “Contactball 101” which discussed in detail the philosophy behind their approach. That was in the spring, when Mike Scioscia and Mickey Hatcher acknowledged their younger hitters were having “plate discipline” problems. Some people use the phrase “plate patience,” but from the Angels’ perspective they don’t mean walks, they mean looking for a pitch that fits the situation. Walks are a byproduct of plate patience, but walks do not create plate patience, a mistaken assumption by the statheads.
Angels hitting coach Mickey Hatcher said the emphasis includes some directives this spring for the younger players based on certain scenarios — take a strike when leading off an inning, see as many pitches as possible in your first at-bat against a pitcher, lay off breaking balls and change-ups to “keyhole” on fastballs in certain areas.
“It’s going to take us time but this spring training we’re really going to focus on that, especially down there with those (minor-league) guys,” Hatcher said. “They don’t even know what a pitcher’s throwing and they’re swinging. We preach it and preach it and we weren’t getting anything done with it. Now we’re going to make it mandatory.”
Over the winter, I built a spreadsheet to look at certain long-term trends in the Angels’ offense, starting with the 2002 world championship year. One was to look at the number of pitches (NP) taken by an Angels batter per plate appearance (PA), and compared it to the American League average. The results:
When I compiled this table over the winter, I was astonished to see that the number of pitches per plate appearance by the Angels had stayed remarkably consistent from year to year, and in fact in the period 2002-2008 the fewest number of pitches was in the championship year. But the 2002 team’s 851 total runs scored was the highest in that period; contrast with 765 in 2008.
The 2009 team, for the first time in that time frame, is actually seeing more pitches than the league average. And they’re currently on a pace to score 928 runs, which would blow away the 2002 number. That pace is unlikely to hold, but it’s still reasonable to assume they’ll top the 2002 total.
I suspect the reason why the 2002 team was productive despite their lower rate of pitches seen per at-bat was that they had a largely veteran lineup. As Hatcher noted, the younger hitters were struggling with pitch recognition. The 2002 lineup didn’t have youngsters like Erick Aybar, Kendry Morales, Howie Kendrick, Mike Napoli and Jeff Mathis in the lineup. Mathis still struggles to hit well, but the rest have come around, with Howie Kendrick batting .388 since his “time out” in Triple-A the latter half of June.
Let’s also give credit, of course, to the veteran presence of Bobby Abreu. Angels beat writer Lyle Spencer of MLB.com suggests that Abreu might be an A.L. MVP candidate, which I think is a stretch, but he certainly deserves consideration (along with Torii Hunter) for the team’s MVP. And Chone Figgins is having perhaps the best season of his career, with his .400 OBP setting the table for those to follow.
In any case, it’s time for the “Fire Hatcher!” crowd to step forward, admit they were wrong, and give him credit for helping the kids adapt to the big leagues. Just like he said he would in March.