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Entries in Los Angeles Angels (46)

Thursday
Dec082011

Wilson a Halo, Too

It's not often the case (OK, it has never been the case before today) that a player signs for nearly $80 million and he's not even the biggest free agent signing of the day for his team. But that's the situation left-hander C.J. Wilson happily finds himself in after agreeing to a five-year, $77.5 million deal to leave the Rangers for the division rival Angels. With Jered Weaver, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana already in the fold, L.A. might just have the best starting rotation in the game.

A former fifth-round pick who came up through the minors as a starter but pitched out of the bullpen in the majors until two years ago, Wilson turned in a quality first season as a starter in 2010 and then performed like an ace in 2011. He struck out 7.5 batters per nine innings, issued 4.1 BB/9 and had a 3.56 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) in 204 innings in his first go-around as a starter, and then whiffed 8.3 per nine, walked 3 per nine and compiled a 3.24 FIP in 223.1 innings this past year. As noted in August, Wilson's improvement was the product of getting more swings from right-handed hitters on cutters and sliders thrown out of the zone. Righties had a .333 on-base percentage against Wilson in 2010, but just a .296 OBP in 2011.

Another key to Wilson's game is his tendency to keep the ball down. The lefty has a 49.4 percent ground ball rate since 2010, versus the 45 percent average for starters. He prefers to hammer hitters low in the zone instead of above the belt:

Frequency of Wilson's pitch location, 2010-2011

Wilson has thrown just 23 percent of his pitches to the upper third of the zone over the past two years, compared to the 28 percent average for starters. His percentage of low pitches was 44 percent, well above the 39 percent average. And, as Wilson's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location shows, he's at his best when he stays low on the zone:

Opponent in-play slugging percentage by pitch location vs. Wilson, 2010-2011

As a starter, Wilson has allowed a .419 slugging percentage on high pitches, a .391 slugging percentage on middle pitches, and a .245 slugging percentage on low pitches. Keeping the ball low allowed Wilson to serve up just 0.5 HR/9 despite pitching in a park that increases home runs hit by left-handed batters by 19 percent and 14 percent for right-handed hitters. Angel Stadium is much more forgiving, with a 90 park factor for lefty homers and a 93 park factor for right-handed HR.

Wilson might not have one particular skill that stands out, but his blend of punch outs, ground balls and passable control has made him one of the better starters in the game since 2010. Wilson ranks 10th in WAR over that time frame, according to Baseball-Reference, sandwiched between Jon Lester and Gio Gonzalez. And, unlike most free agent starters, the 31-year-old's arm doesn't have a ton of mileage on it due to his time spent in relief (he has thrown 708 regular-season innings in the majors, and 52.1 during the playoffs). The Hardball Times' Oliver projects Wilson as a 3.8 WAR pitcher in 2012. If we apply the same aging and salary inflation assumptions made in the Pujols post, then Wilson would be worth about $76 million during the life of his contract, or nearly a perfect match to what he'll be paid.

Considering the substantial upgrade that Wilson provides over the likes of Jerome Williams, Garrett Richards or Brad Mills and the boost to L.A.'s playoff odds that those added wins to the roster provide, this move looks solid for Jerry Dipoto and company.

Thursday
Dec082011

Pujols a Halo

Score one for the Mystery Team. First, Albert Pujols appeared headed for South Beach. Then, it looked like he'd re-sign with the Cardinals. But today, the Angels swooped in and signed this generation's greatest player to a 10-year, $254 million deal that includes a full no-trade clause. As if that weren't breath-taking enough, L.A. then doled out five years and $77.5 million to C.J. Wilson. More on Wilson later, but first let's focus on one of the biggest free agent signings. Ever.

Pujols is already one of the game's all-time greats. With 89.1 career Wins Above Replacement through age 31, El Hombre takes a back seat to just Ty Cobb (112.5), Mickey Mantle (101.1), Rogers Hornsby (100.9), Babe Ruth (96.8), Hank Aaron (90.2) and Alex Rodriguez (89.7). His 170 OPS+ trails that of only Ruth (212), Ted Williams (193), Cobb (185), Lou Gehrig (183), Mantle (177), Hornsby (177) and Stan Musial (172). If Pujols had decided to call it quits instead of signing the sport's second-most lucrative contract ever, he'd rank as the 24th-best position player ever, by WAR.

Pujols isn't retiring, of course, and while he remains a superstar and a franchise-altering player, he is in decline. Over the past three years, his average has gone from .327 to .313 to .299, his OBP from .443 to .414 to .366, and his slugging percentage from .658 to .596 to .541. Run scoring has dipped across the game over that period, but his adjusted OPS has gone from 189 in 2009 to 173 in 2010 and 150 this past season.

"Decline" is obviously a relative term here, as Pujols' 150 OPS+ still placed 12th among hitters who qualified for the batting title. When you're a legend, your skills can erode a bit and you're still a stud. But it's still worth asking, what caused Pujols to be merely great in 2011 instead of a slam-dunk MVP? The answer appears to be downtick in fastball slugging caused by more ground balls hit.

In 2009, Pujols led the majors by a wide margin with a .748 slugging percentage against fastballs (including sinkers). His slugging percentage fell nearly 100 points against those pitches in 2010, to .653, but that still ranked 11th among MLB hitters. In 2011, he slugged .545 against fastballs/sinkers. Again, that was still way above average (.431 in '11), but it placed a comparatively modest 39th among big league batters.

Back in 2009, Pujols clobbered any fastball in the upper two thirds of the zone. As his in-play slugging percentage by pitch location (including home runs) shows, low and away was the only save haven for hurlers:

Pujols' in-play slugging percentage vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2009

Pujols still pummeled high fastballs in 2010, but he became more susceptible to pitches thrown below the belt:

Pujols' in-play slugging percentage vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2010

This past year, Pujols' heat map basically flipped from high-and-away to low-and-in. He didn't show as much discipline against fastballs, chasing 30 percent out of the zone compared to 24-25% in past seasons, but that didn't really hurt him as he slugged .523 on out-of-zone heaters (better than in '09 and '10, and 220 points above the MLB average). Pujols' continued decline against fastballs was mainly the product of his struggling to lash pitches high in the zone:

Pujols' in-play slugging percentage vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2011

In a related note, Pujols' ground ball rate increased sharply on fastballs thrown high in the zone. First, take a look at the league average ground ball rate for hitters by pitch location against fastballs. It's what you'd expect: the higher the pitch, the lower the ground ball rate.

Average ground ball rate by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkersNow, look at Pujols' ground ball rates vs. fastballs by location. He just about never chopped a fastball into the grass on a high pitch in 2009:

Pujols' ground ball rate by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2009

He hit a few more grounders on low pitches in 2010, but he continued to loft high fastballs: 

Pujols' ground ball rate by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2010In 2011, though, Pujols began rolling over on some fastballs that he previously belted:

Pujols' ground ball rate by pitch location vs. fastballs and sinkers, 2011

His ground ball rate on high fastballs nearly doubled, from 19 percent the previous two seasons to slightly over 35 percent. Pujols went from just about always hitting high fastballs skyward to hitting more grounders than the league average (34 percent). That played a big part in Pujols' overall ground ball rate increasing from 38 percent in 2009 and 2010 to just under 46 percent in 2011.

Pujols' high fastball issues and concern that the Angels just signed him through age 42 aside, it's important to view Pujols' contract in its entirety instead of simply panning it as a deal that will be an albatross at the end. There's little doubt that Pujols won't be worth his salary as he pushes past 40. But could the surplus value (that is, the difference between what his production is worth and what he's being paid) that he provides at the front end of the contract make up for that?

The Hardball Times' Oliver projects Pujols as a 5.7 Win player in 2012. If we use that as our starting point and assume that Pujols declines by a half-win per season, and that the cost of a win (currently around $5 million) increases five percent each season, then Pujols figures to provide the Angels with about $205 million in value over the life of his contract:

 

That the Angels are willing to pay Pujols $250-$260 million could mean any number of things. Could the club have overestimated the value of a decade of Pujols at first base? Sure. But they could also think that he's more of a six-plus win player at the moment (he'd have to be a 6.4-6.5 WAR player in 2012 for the above calculations to reach $250-$260 million in total value), that his decline phase will be more gradual, or that the value of a win will be higher than the 5% inflation per year I allowed.

There's also the "win/revenue curve" argument to be made. Pujols is a legitimate four-to-five WAR upgrade over the likes of Mark Trumbo/Kendrys Morales. That's huge, and pushes the high-revenue club much closer to the playoffs. Before L.A.'s free agent frenzy, Oliver projected the Angels as eight wins behind the Rangers in the AL West. With an extra 4-5 WAR from Pujols and 3-4 WAR from C.J. Wilson, the Angels are suddenly in a dead heat with or slightly ahead of Texas. The wins that L.A. added to the roster bring them far closer to a playoff berth and the financial windfall (estimated at around $40 million by Baseball Prospectus) that comes with that playoff appearance.

It's near impossible to think of a scenario in which Pujols' mega-deal goes in the history books as a bargain, and the Angels do have to worry about re-signing Howie Kendrick (free agent-eligible after 2012), Erick Aybar and Dan Haren (both under control through 2013). But bad cash tied up with Torii Hunter and Bobby Abreu (a combined $27.5 million in 2012) soon comes off the books, and Vernon Wells' epically bad contract ($21 million annually) expires after 2014. When you consider what Pujols' signing does for the Angels' hopes of contention and that a big chunk of payroll expires in the coming years, it's not a totally crazy contract.

Thursday
Dec012011

Angels Swap Chatwood for Ianetta

Jerry Dipoto began his tenure as Angels GM by acquiring a high-OBP catcher and ending the long national nightmare known as "Now batting, Jeff Mathis." L.A. picked up Chris Ianetta from the Rockies in exchange for right-handed starter Tyler Chatwood. Colorado then inked Ramon Hernandez to a two-year, $6.5 million contract to serve as a stopgap to prospect Wilin Rosario.

In Ianetta, the Angels pick up one of the most patient hitters in the game and a guy who could be described as Mike Napoli Lite (don't tell Mike Scioscia I said that). The big right-handed hitter, 29 in April, has chased less than 19 percent of pitches thrown off the plate over the past three years. Daric Barton, Bobby Abreu, Josh Willingham, Marco Scutaro, Geovany Soto and Jack Cust are the only hitters with 1,000+ plate appearances over that period that have shown more restraint. Ianetta's power and discipline make him a quality hitter for a catcher at any altitude, as his 102 OPS+ and 99 career OPS+ show, and Baseball-Reference's Total Zone rates him as around average behind the dish.

Ianetta's production will be worth more than his modest $3.55 million salary in 2012, but his acquisition and the possible return to health of Kendrys Morales mean that Hank Conger may be looking at another year at Salt Lake City. This trade shouldn't be seen as a condemnation of Conger, though. Because he was swapped, Ianetta can void his $5 million club option for 2013, and it's hard to believe that he won't test the market at that point. Conger has hit a combined .204/.284/.345 in 231 PA in short MLB stints over the past two years, chasing 33 percent of out-of-zone pitches. So long as the switch-hitter gets regular ABs next year to hone his approach, he should be ready to take over in 2013.

Ianetta's pick-up also means that Mathis' playing time will be mercifully cut, if he's not set loose with a non-tender altogether. Whatever Mathis' defensive merits are -- they don't show up in the admittedly limited defensive catcher stats at hand -- it's hard to overstate just how bad of a hitter he has been since breaking into the big leagues in 2005. His adjusted OPS is 50 percent worse than average.

It's just plain hard to find an epic out-maker who has gotten as many plate appearances as Mathis (1,360). There's a simple reason for that: when a guy can't outhit his battery mate, he's usually shown the door. Maybe they burn his bats just to make sure he can't swing them anymore, or suggest he look into green energy job as a human windmill. Mathis is one of just 26 hitters ever to post an OPS+ of 50 or lower while getting over 1,000 PAs, and he's the only guy since the 1980s:

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Scioscia loves Mathis, but Darwin hates him.

Colorado, meanwhile, traded two years of possible team control over Ianetta for five years of Chatwood. On the positive side, the soon-to-be 22-year-old ranked as the 76th-best prospect according to Baseball America prior to last year and managed not to get beheaded in the majors when he really had no place being there as a guy with all of 90 innings of experience in the upper minor leagues. That said, he's awfully raw. Chatwood barely struck out more batters (4.7 per nine) than he walked (4.5), and he was more of a modest ground ball pitcher (48 GB%) than a real dirt devil. It's not like he dominated on the farm, either, with 7.6 K/9, nearly five free passes per nine and ground ball rates that quickly went from extreme to average.

As a rookie, Chatwood basically flung 92-93 mph fastballs toward the plate and hoped for the best. That fastball, thrown nearly three-quarters of the time, was tagged for a .308/.406/.460 opponent line. He kept going to the pitch so often because he couldn't spot his curveball (thrown for a strike 54 percent of the time) or changeup (49 percent). The curve was too often buried well out of the strike zone...

Chatwod's curveball location, 2011

...and the changeup missed to the arm side... 

Chatwood's changeup location, 2011

With a predictable, fastball-heavy approach and spotty secondary stuff, Chatwood had an especially hard time keeping left-handed hitters off base. Lefties had a .410 OBP against him, the fourth-highest mark for a righty starter against lefty batters (Charlie Morton, Kyle Drabek and Esmil Rogers ranked 1-3).

This isn't to be totally negative about Chatwood, but rather a realization that he's basically a Double-A pitcher trying to survive at the highest level because he was promoted so aggressively. It could be a while before he's an asset, and even there you have to go more on faith in scouting reports and his youth than any hard evidence.  Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said as much to MLB.com's Thomas Harding: "He's young, he has a power arm, he's a tremendous athlete, and from what we have gathered, he's ultra-competitive. We're not looking at his numbers because of his age and where he was at when he reached the big league level."

To temporarily replace Ianetta, Colorado signed Hernandez to an inexpensive two-year deal. Hernandez is 35, has bad knees and has averaged about 90 games per season in recent years, so there's a chance his career does a mile-high nosedive. But he has been on Ianetta's level as a hitter when he's in there (103 OPS+ since 2009), and the Rockies have the 23-year-old Rosario in mind as their long-term backstop. Rosario has serious power, though he might not be ready for prime time after striking out nearly five times as often as he walked at Double-A Tulsa with a .284 OBP and then putting up a 2/20 BB/K ratio late last season in the majors. It might be best if he opens the year at Triple-A and works on his plate approach while Jordan Pacheco splits time with Hernandez, lest Rosario become Miguel Olivo Jr.

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