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How the Hell do the Angels Keep Winning?

Two (possible) answers to the mystery that has puzzled statheads for more than a decade

Bad. Stupid. Ridiculous. Sucks. Albatross.

You could spend hours gawking at Angels fans’ reactions to the offseason trade that brought Vernon Wells to Orange County. But one term sticks out from the Halos’ word cloud of despair: Mathis.

Since taking over as the Angels’ primary catcher in 2008, Jeff Mathis has been the worst hitter in baseball, and it’s not even all that close. In a span covering 1,053 plate appearances and nearly four seasons, Mathis has hit .195, with a .256 on-base percentage and a .294 slugging percentage, collecting 274 total bases. By comparison, Adrian Gonzalez has racked up 294 total bases … this season alone.

In tapping Mathis for the starting catcher’s job in Anaheim, the Angels shoved aside Mike Napoli, who wound up with the rival Rangers after a three-way trade. In just 87 games with Texas this season, Napoli has smashed 22 homers, tops among all major league catchers. He also leads all catchers in wOBA, wRC+, and OPS. He’s first in slugging, second in OBP, and second in weighted runs above average. Among all players at any position with at least 300 plate appearances, No team perplexes, confounds and confuses baseball analysts more than the Angels. The numbers almost always seem to argue against their success. Almost every year, they find a way to win anyway.

Statheads like to use a metric called run differential to measure the sustainability of a team’s won-loss record. If a club wins 90 games, but fails to score more runs than it allowed, that’s often a sign that luck was on its side. And if that team goes into the next season fancying itself as a contender and refusing to make any upgrades, it can be in for a nasty surprise.

An instructive recent example: In 2007, the Seattle Mariners scored 794 runs and allowed 813, totals which under normal circumstances would peg them as a 79-win club. Thanks to a flukish 5-2 record in extra-inning games and other strokes of luck, they won 88 games instead. But that offseason, the M’s didn’t stand pat. They made a blockbuster trade, sending five players to the Baltimore Orioles for ace lefty Erik Bedard. Over the next 3½ seasons, Bedard pitched well enough, but he just couldn’t stay on the field. Meanwhile Adam Jones, the key prospect in the deal is now the centerpiece of the Baltimore rebuilding project. Seattle’s general manager, Bill Bavasi, had confused one season’s record with sustainable success, strip-mining his supply of young talent for a win-now solution. The M’s crashed in ’08, losing 101 games and costing Bavasi his job.

This type of regression happens all the time in baseball. Or at least it does to teams not named the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. In 2004, two years after winning their first World Series in franchise history, the Halos won the AL West with a 92 wins, just one more than their expected record. The next season they won 95 games and their second straight AL West crown, banking two more victories than their run diff erential might have predicted. Again, not a huge deal. Except this streak has kept going …and … going … and going. The Angels are in the midst of an eighth straight season in which they’ve won more games than their runs scored and runs allowed totals would suggest.1 With 32 games to go this season, the Angels sit at 71-59, two games back of the Rangers in the West and three games better than their expected record.

The Angels’ strength starts with their excellent defense, especially up the middle. Howie Kendrick has saved more runs with his glove than any other second baseman except Dustin Pedroia. Peter Bourjos has been a revelation in center field, so great defensively that he demands new color schemes to quantify his skill. When it comes to catching the ball, the Angels are your annoying hipster friend, setting the trend before almost anyone else. Since the start of Mike Scioscia’s managerial tenure in 2000, only two teams — the Mariners and Giants — top the Angels’ 327.1 fielding runs saved. They’re at it again this year, placing third in MLB with 37.1 fielding runs saved.

The starting pitching has also been superb, with Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana forming one of the best trios in the game. The story of the Angels’ season has been Weaver, who leads the American League with a sparkling 2.03 ERA. But he does owe much of his success to factors we might be tempted to call sheer luck. His batting average on balls in play is just .250, well below league average in the .290s. His strand rate, a stat that tracks the percentage of runners a pitcher leaves on base and is often influenced by bullpen performance and other factors beyond a pitcher’s control, ranks second in the majors at 83.7 percent (league average is in the low 70s). His home runs-per-fly ball rate is MLB’s third-lowest at 4.6 percent; major league average has hovered a bit below 10 percent in the past couple years. Normalize all these numbers to league-average rates, and Weaver goes from Cy Young candidate to just another good starter: His 2.03 ERA balloons to a 3.60 xFIP.

There are real reasons for Weaver’s excellence that go beyond mere luck. Rich Lederer and Dave Cameron have both catalogued factors that work to his advantage. Lederer noted that Weaver generates pop-ups on nearly one-sixth of his batted balls allowed, the highest rate in all of baseball. A high pop-up rate can improve a pitcher’s BABIP without the benefit of luck. Cameron wrote that Weaver ranks 73rd among 74 qualified pitchers in groundball rate since the start of the 2009 season, ahead of only Ted Lilly. Though many of those nongrounders are pop-ups, Weaver also generates copious fly balls. Fortunately, he pitches in a ballpark that’s murder on left-handed power hitters. And then there’s that defense, which sucks up balls in play and squelches potential rallies, a big boost for a pitcher like Weaver who’s only a moderate strikeout guy. Those who questioned Weaver’s logic in taking the Angels’ recent contract offer of five years, $85 million when he could have snagged more in free agency should note that Weaver likes pitching near his hometown, in a stadium that’s perfect for his approach, on a team that was, is, and likely will be among the top defensive clubs in the league.

Still, the Angels are a flawed team. They are tied for just 23rd in OBP at .312 (27th in 2010), thanks to a free-swinging approach that has been a team hallmark under hitting coach Mickey Hatcher. Only five teams have walked less often this year than the Angels, who’ve drawn a free pass in just 7.4 percent of their times at bat. Going back further, the Angels have walked just 7.7 percent of the time in the past decade, making them the fourth-most hacktastic team in the game. Making matters worse, their usually dependable bullpen has sprung leaks this season: The Angels place just 19th in relievers’ Win Probability Added. Even the team’s normally excellent baserunning has let it down this season, hovering near league average.

Scioscia
So what gives? How do the Angels continue to defy the odds? This is a problem we haven’t totally solved yet. But I do have two theories.

One possibility is that team defense has a cascading effect that raw numbers can’t quite detect. A great defense does more than help a pitcher’s batting average on balls in play and his ability to prevent runs. It shortens innings. That lets a starting pitcher go deeper into games with less stress on his arm. More innings for starters takes pressure off a bullpen. A fresher pen then enables a manager to use his best arms in high-leverage situations, instead of relying on lesser relievers to put out fires because his more talented teammates are spent. Less stress on pitchers’ arms can also decrease the risk of injury, thus preventing a team from having to call up Triple-A piñatas or spend valuable dollars on replacements.2

A second possibility is Mike Scioscia. When a team fares better than expected every year for eight seasons, it might be that the manager is executing strategies that give his team an edge that others lack. Studies have been murky in isolating the effects that managers have on their team. We can look at tactical moves, which can reveal managers who know when to use one-run strategies (such as bunting or stealing bases) and when to play for the big inning. But the best managers might make a bigger impact in other areas, such as motivating his players to succeed, or simply putting the best nine guys on the field at any given time.

All of which brings us back to Jeff Mathis. Even the most hardened analyst would concede that Scioscia’s found great success in his nearly 12 years as manager of the Angels, and that not all of it should be attributed to the Angels’ very productive farm system, or their various successful trades and signings. But Scioscia’s experience and expertise as a longtime major league catcher may have skewed his opinion of Mathis (and Napoli) and their relative contributions to run prevention. Keith Woolner has argued that a catcher’s ability to call a game isn’t a statistically significant skill. PITCHf/x expert Mike Fast counters that catchers can make an impact with their ability to set a target and frame pitches, a skill for which Scioscia has often praised Mathis. Whatever defensive benefits Scioscia believes Mathis brings, there’s no way they make up for the catcher’s historically bad offense. That the Angels felt so confident in Mathis that they flipped Napoli and defended it as a way to reclaim a tiny portion of the net salary they were taking on with Wells only makes it worse. If the Angels had kept Napoli and dumped Mathis, it’s very possible that they, and not the Rangers, would be in first place right now.

Fortunately for the Angels, Scioscia has changed his mind. Setting aside the pressures of playing a guy making $23 million this season, he relegated Wells and his disastrous bat to platoon duty, creating playing time for top prospect Mike Trout. He then did the unthinkable, planting Mathis on the bench. “It’s tough to absorb no offense from one position,” Scioscia explained, as all other living beings on the planet slapped their heads in no-duh fashion. The day that Wells took a seat (and the day before Scioscia benched Mathis), the Angels were on the verge of falling eight games back of Texas. Then this happened, triggering a six-game winning streak that’s brought the Angels back from the dead.

Axing two impossibly bad hitters from the lineup can only help, while also underscoring Scioscia’s ability to be intellectually flexible. Still, a rational actor would see a slate of six games and conclude that any number of other factors were more responsible for a season-saving winning streak than a couple of benchings. This winning streak, like the team’s success this season and for the better part of a decade, remains one of the more unknowable mysteries of the universe.

But what’s life without a little mystery. Even one as confounding as the Angels.

Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Check out the Jonah Keri Podcast at JonahKeri.com and on iTunes, and follow him on Twitter @JonahKeri.


Previously from Jonah Keri:
The Road Map for a Cubs Resurgence
Six Teams You Don’t Want to Face in the Playoffs
Trade Deadline Losers
Trade Deadline Winners

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Filed Under: Jonah Keri, Los Angeles Angels, People, Teams

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri