August 27, 2003

Fallen Angels

It is August 28th and the defending World Series champions are down and they are out. After finishing last season 99-63 on their way to a magical post-season run that ended in the franchise's first championship, the Anaheim Angels are now 64-69, and find themselves 14 games back in the American League West.

For me, this is not all that surprising. Prior to the season I, like many other sabermetrically inclined baseball fans, predicted a substantial drop-off for the Angels. Of course, this is the same group of people who predicted Anaheim would be nowhere near the World Series last year, so we shouldn't get that much credit.

Here is exactly what I said about the Angels in my pre-season preview/prediction:

"Anaheim fans, I anxiously await your angry emails. I'm really sorry to put a buzz kill on your championship, but I just don't think the Angels will be able to repeat what they did last year. But don't worry about it, it's not like I have the authority to take away the World Series trophy or anything.

Anaheim's offense was almost entirely based on batting average last year, which is great when it is all clicking and the whole team gets hot like they did last year. The Angels led the AL with a .282 batting average and were 11th in walks and 10th in homers. I just don't think they can keep that up.

I see the Angels' offense as sort of like a house of cards. It can be very good, while being completely unstable at the same time. But once it gets disrupted in any way, it could all come crashing down."

While the Angels have certainly had some other problems this season, namely injuries, the volatile nature of the thing they are so heavily dependent on, batting average, is one of the big reasons why they are 5 games under .500 and completely out of the playoff picture before September.

Anaheim ranked 11th in the AL in walks last season and 10th in homers. This year it is much of the same, as they currently rank 11th in walks and 9th in homers. The big blow to their offense and to their season is the fact that they are currently 8th in the American League in batting average, after leading all of baseball in that stat last season.

Year      AVG      OBP      SLG     RS/G

2002 .282 .341 .433 5.25
2003 .271 .331 .423 4.71

Their batting average is down about a dozen points and it has taken both their OBP and SLG down with it. Overall, they are scoring 0.54 runs per game fewer than they did last season, which is a decrease of 11%. Of course, to be fair, their pitching-staff is also allowing about 10% more runs this year than last, but I want to talk about the offensive struggles today.

Another interesting thing about their offense is that the "little things" they did last year so well and that drew so much praise from media across the country, aren't quite working as well this season - or at least that is what you'd think.

Last year, Mike Scioscia was the king of the hit and run, the king of the stolen base, he was setting guys in motion and "making things happen" - and we all know how much baseball writers and announcers like that. That part of Anaheim's offense and the impact Scioscia had in that area were praised constantly as one of the main keys to their World Series run.

And this year? Not so much. I haven't heard a single thing about how brilliant Scioscia's managerial tactics have been when it comes to the running game and aggressive baserunning this year. Yet, look at these numbers:

Year      SB       SB%

2002 117 69.6%
2003 126* 66.9%

*Projected total for full season

The Angels are actually running slightly more often this year than they did last year. They are on pace to steal about 10 more bases. They are also getting caught at a slightly higher rate, which isn't all that unexpected when you are running more often.

Yet, I don't think I have heard a single broadcaster bring up the Angels' work on the bases as a reason for their record this year and I don't think I have read a single article opining that Scioscia's fondness of running and hit and running is the cause of their current place in the standings. I find it interesting that they are essentially doing the same things on the bases that they did last year and they are even doing it a little more this season, yet somehow it is no longer the reason for their record and their success (or lack thereof).

Of course, in reality, Anaheim's work on the bases was pretty far down on the list of things that caused them to win a World Series title last season. When seemingly everyone on the team is having a career year with the bat, hitting .300 and smoking balls into the gaps everytime there is a runner on base, it makes a lot of other things look good and important.

Same goes for the dominant bullpen they had last year and into the post-season. The fact that Scioscia's managing led to a successful stolen base or a nicely executed hit and run appears to be really key to victory when the offense is lacing hits all over the field and scoring runs in bunches, and then bullpen comes in and shuts down the opponent for multiple innings at a time. But when the pitching-staff isn't quite so stingy and the offense isn't on fire, the botched hit and runs and unsuccessful steals aren't so easy to swallow, and the fact that you were able to move up one base successfully 66.9% of the time doesn't seem like such a wonderful and impactful thing anymore.

No, the real reason why Anaheim won last year is not that they did any "little things" well, it is that almost all of their offensive players had career years, or at least extremely good years. And once they got into the post-season, the entire team was on fire, hitting a combined .320 in the playoffs. You add in a very good bullpen, some decent starting pitching, a nice defense and yes, some good baserunning, and that's the recipe for a championship, or at least it was last season.

Almost all of the everyday players on last season's team had significantly higher batting averages than they had the year before. Here are the difference between everyone's 2001 batting average (when the Angels went 75-87) and their 2002 batting average (when they won the World Series):

             2002    2001     +/-

Salmon .286 .227 +.059
Kennedy .312 .270 +.042
Erstad .283 .258 +.025
Anderson .306 .289 +.017
Fullmer .289 .274 +.015
Spiezio .285 .271 +.014
Eckstein .293 .285 +.008
Glaus .250 .250 .000
Molina .245 .262 -.017

Those are the 9 starters from last season's team. 7 of them had higher batting averages in 2002 than they did in 2001, one had an identical batting average in both years and one was worse in 2002. Not coincidentally, Anaheim's team batting average rose from .261 in 2001 to .282 last season, and their runs scored per game jumped up about 19%.

Now, take a look at the same comparison, but with 2002 and 2003, instead of 2001:

             2002    2003     +/-

Kennedy .312 .270 -.042
Eckstein .293 .254 -.039
Erstad .283 .252 -.031
Spiezio .285 .261 -.024
Salmon .286 .270 -.016
Glaus .250 .248 -.002
Fullmer .289 .306 +.017
Anderson .306 .325 +.019
Molina .245 .275 +.030

Not quite the complete opposite, but it's pretty close. Of the 9 starters (all of whom have remained with the Angels all three years), 6 of them have seen their averages drop this season, while 3 of them have had higher averages this year than last. That decline isn't quite as dramatic and widespread as the increases were from 2001 to 2002, but then again, the loss of teamwide batting average and runs scored isn't quite as dramatic as the gains in 2002 were either.

When I have commented on Anaheim's success in the past, some people have taken my comments as me saying they somehow don't deserve the championship they won last season. That could not be further from the truth. As someone who not only watched every game of the Angels' post-season run last season, but also had the unfortunate experience of being a fan of one of the two AL teams they demolished on the way to the World Series, I can say without question that the 2002 Anaheim Angels that were playing in the post-season were one of the best teams I have ever seen.

Now, maybe they got lucky that everyone got hot at the same time and maybe the 2001 Angels weren't that good and the 2003 Angels aren't that good, but what difference does that make? The 2002 Angels were good enough to win 99 games in the regular season and 11 more in the post-season, and that's all that matters.

Still, coming into this season, the foundation of the team's success was, as I said before, like a house of cards. Batting average fluctuates more than almost every other important offensive stat and the fact that the team's success was largely based upon extremely good batting averages by the entire team...well, it's not a big shock that the house came crashing down this season.

Link of the Day:

Eisenberg Sports - "A seemingly regular rant on baseball, college football, anything else that gets my attention, and the home of BAP"

Today's picks:

Milwaukee (Obermueller) +110 over Cincinnati (Wilson)

Colorado (Jennings) -110 over San Francisco (Hermanson)

Chicago (Buehrle) +155 over New York (Mussina)

Total to date: + 2,550

W/L record: 218-217 (2-1 yesterday for +235)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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