Most traditional theories suggest the Angels’ 63-41 record is justified or, if anything, a bit inflated. They’re outperforming their Pythagorean win expectancy by two games, they’re 17-13 in one-run ballgames, and they’re 6-5 in extra-inning games. Nothing too farfetched, but nothing suggesting the 2014 Angels are snake bitten.
That is, until I came across some interesting info in this week’s edition of The 30, Jonah Keri’s weekly power rankings at Grantland. Writing about the Rays, Keri discusses a theory known as “cluster luck.” Here’s a rudimentary cluster luck explanation, as relayed by Keri: teams have very little control of when they accrue hits on offense, and pitchers have very little control of when they allow hits. If C.J. Wilson allows seven hits in the first inning, that’s unlucky, but if he scatters those seven hits over seven innings, that’s lucky. On the flip side, if the Angels offense clusters six hits in the third inning, they’re going to score a few lucky runs, but if they get nine hits over nine innings, it’s possible they unluckily score zero runs. Typically, team’s will regress to the mean over a large sample. Earlier this season, Keri wrote how the Giants rode the second best cluster luck to a stunning 9-1/2 game advantage over the Dodgers — in the updated data, the Giants have regressed to 10th and now sit 1-1/2 games behind the Dodgers.
What does this have to do with the Angels? Ed Feng, someone way smarter than me, calculates cluster luck at THE POWER RANK. Per the updated data, the Angels rank only 25th in all of baseball in cluster luck, with a -20.02 figure. Figures below zero represent unlucky run clusters, while figures over are considered lucky. The Angels have actually been lucky on offense, scoring 14.20 more runs than expected, trailing only Oakland in that department. But for runs allowed, the Angels sit at -34.21, worst in baseball. Doesn’t that just feel accurate? The recent issues batting with runners in scoring position notwithstanding, the offense has had a fair share of big innings this year. As for the pitchers, it seems like opponents string together base hit after obnoxious base hit, particularly early in the season when the bLOLpen was still a thing.
I did some quick, problematic math with an assist from Baseball-Reference’s Play Index. For the purposes of the exercise, I defined a “big inning” as one in which a club scores (or allows) 3+ runs. The results support the cluster theory in regards to the Angels. They’ve scored 3+ runs in 59 innings this season — the average of the other 29 teams is about 46-1/3 innings. On the pitching front, the Angels have allowed 3+ runs in 51 innings this year — the average of the other 29 clubs is roughly 46-2/3 innings. There are problems sorting in this fashion, namely because I used “runs.” (I wanted to sort by hits per inning but couldn’t figure out how to do it on B-Ref, if it’s even possible.) For example, a team could walk three times then hit a grand slam for four runs on one hit, i.e. not a cluster of hits. Even still, big innings are often a result of several hits strung together, with a walk and the occasional error thrown in for good measure.
Oakland is by far the most fortunate team in Feng’s findings, clocking in at 49.42 “lucky” runs, well ahead of Baltimore’s second best 27.79. And yet, the Angels only trail the A’s by two games with roughly a third of the season left to play. Oakland won’t regress all the way to 0.0, and neither will the Angels, but even if the A’s see some of their fortune dashed while Angel pitchers get some fortuitous bounces, that could be all that is needed for the Angels to claim the AL West crown. The Angel’s staff allows a .283 BABIP overall, but that jumps to .298 with runners in scoring position, not a large spike but significant enough to contribute to a few extra runs over the course of a season. Meanwhile, the MLB average BABIP with runners in scoring position is .286. The Angels likely aren’t allowing too many extra hard-hit balls either with ducks on the pond –this Tweet from ESPN’s Mark Simon could prove a good omen:
What team pitching staffs are giving up hard-hit contact least often. Ranked 1-30 here– pic.twitter.com/V5MdSk5cXs
— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) July 28, 2014
No team in baseball allows hard-hit balls less frequently than the Angels. Change may not come instantly, but over the final two months of the season it is safe to expect the Angels’ pitching staff to be a little more fortuitous.