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The Sad Case of the Angels’ Only Batting Champion, Part I

March 4th, 2015
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Alex Johnson’s 202 hits in 1970 remained an Angel single-season record until Darin Erstad broke it in 2000.

After finalizing a deal in November of 1969 for Cincinnati Reds left fielder Alex Johnson, Angels general manager Dick Walsh announced he was “elated to get a hitter of Johnson’s caliber.”  The Halos had a good young pitching staff to work with, but the team had settled for a disappointing third place finish in 1969 thanks to a dead-last-in-American-League .230 batting average.  Meanwhile, Johnson hit .315 with 17 home runs and 88 RBI for the Reds in 1969, so the hope was that he would come to the Angels and get their offensive engine revved up enough to make a serious run at the AL West title.

When the 1970 season began, the Angels’ offense jumped off of the starting line and blazed their way down the drag strip.  With speedster Sandy Alomar leading off, Jim Fregosi hitting third, Alex Johnson batting fourth, and slugging first baseman Jim Spencer providing Johnson some protection in the five hole,  the club outscored their opponents in the month of April 91 runs to 67.  On the last day of April, the Angels were 13-7 and found themselves tied with the Minnesota Twins for the division lead.

Alex had proven to be a shot of nitrous oxide for the offense, raking .338 that April as the team’s clean-up hitter.  His showcase game that month came on April 11th against the Kansas City Royals when he hit two home runs and tallied six RBI.

By the end of May, Alex kept on hitting and the Angels kept on winning.  Johnson had increased his batting average to a prodigious .366, and the Angels were around the top of the division, just two and a half games behind the Twins.  With roughly one-third of the season over, the red-hot Johnson found himself behind only Rod Carew, who was hitting .394 for the Twins, in the race for the league’s batting title.

Besides Alex Johnson’s blistering speed from the batter’s box to first base (his Reds manager Dave Bristol said Johnson was one of the fastest runners he’d ever seen), his batting practice routine was one of the keys to his hitting success.   Alex favored practicing off of a machine that consistently hurled strikes at game-speed much more than live batting practice, so at any point in the season, he could be found working with a pitching machine, firing off ferocious line drives, one after another.  But once he was satisfied with his performance, he would then do something peculiarly impressive — he would creep up a few feet and fire off more blazing line drives, and then creep up a few feet more, all the while displaying the amazing bat speed that made him such a prolific hitter.

While things were going exceedingly well for Alex during the games, around the edges, things were a little off.  In a Sports Illustrated article that year, shortstop Jim Fregosi explained, “He does have some peculiar traits. Like he won’t let anybody shake hands with him when he hits a home run. He says nobody wants to shake his hand when he strikes out so why the hell should he shake hands with them when he hits? And he calls everybody ‘bleephead’ or ‘bleep-bleeper.’ Just about everybody is a bleephead. But if you’re decent with him he’ll be decent with you.”

As the season wound on and the calendar found its way to September 3rd, the Angels were still hot on the heels — i.e. three games back — of the Twins in the race for first place in the AL West.  The Halos were in such great shape due to the terrific play of Fregosi (who would finish the season with 22 home runs, 82 RBI, and 95 runs), Jim Spencer (who would win a Gold Glove for his work at first base for the Angels that year), second baseman Sandy Alomar (who would have 35 stolen bases and 82 runs), starting pitcher Clyde Wright (who would garner 22 wins and a 2.83 ERA), starting pitcher Andy Messersmith (who would have a 3.01 ERA and 1.14 WHIP), reliever Ken Tatum (who would end up with a 2.94 ERA and 17 saves), and, of course, Alex Johnson.  At this point in the season, Johnson was hitting .320, which was good for second best in the American League– behind Boston Red Sox outfielder Reggie Smith, who was batting .322.

But then, as Chinua Achebe would say, things fell apart.  The Angels lost nine games in a row and found themselves eleven games behind the first-place Twins by the time they won again.  Alex kept hitting though, batting .306 during this horrible stretch of games, which meant that for the last couple of weeks in the 1970 season, there would still be one race that would prove exciting for Angel fans — the one for the batting title.

In his last six games of the season, Red Sox left fielder Carl Yastrzemski went on a tear, going 12-for-20 which raised his average to .329 and moved him into the lead.  Yaz would have had the crown locked up if it weren’t for one thing: the Red Sox’s season ended on September 30th while the Angels’ final game was not until October 1st.  That meant that if Alex Johnson, who was hitting .327 for the season, had a good hitting performance on his last day, he could walk away with the batting title.

The Angels were slated to play the Chicago White Sox at home in Anaheim for the last, crucial game of the season.  The starting pitcher for the White Sox was the rookie Gerry Janeski, who was making his 35th start of the year and had a 4.87 ERA to show for it.  Manager Lefty Phillips penciled in Alex as the Angels’ lead-off hitter for this game, meaning there’d be tension right off the bat. Alex just missed hitting the ball on the sweet spot in his first at-bat, instead hitting a 4-3 ground out and shaving his average down to .326797.

In his next at bat, Alex hit a single into right field for his 201st hit of the season.  He then scored the first run of the game when Mickey Rivers hit a single three batters later.  Alex was now hitting .327895.

In his third and final time facing Janeski, the Angel outfielder hit a ball over to Bill Melton at third base, but Alex beat it out for a single.  When he walked back to first base, he was now .0004 points ahead of Yastrzemski for the batting title.  Jay Johnston came running out of the Angels’ dugout to relieve Alex and pinch run for him.  When the champ made it back to the bench, he said to his manager, who was shaking his hand in congratulations, “The people in Boston are going to be mad at both of us.”

At any rate, he had done it.  Alex Johnson had won the American League batting title, becoming the first, and so far only, Angel to have done so.

Previewing the AL West: Texas

March 2nd, 2015

 

2014 Results

67-95, 5th in AL West

RS: 637 (10th in AL)
RA: 773 (14th in AL)

Pythag W-L: 67-95 (5th)

 

2014 was the Season From Hell for the Texas Rangers. The Rangers turned lofty preseason expectations—26 of 44 various baseball minds on ESPN pegged the Rangers to at least qualify for the postseason—into the third-worst record in baseball, a fitting bottoming out in what has been a gradual decline for the franchise since Nelson Cruz failed to secure the Rangers’ first World Series title in 2011. Jon Daniels & Co. made big-money gambles on Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo that didn’t pay off due to a lack of performance and injury; Fielder missed 120 games with neck surgery—and only slugged .360 when he did play—while Choo posted a career-worst .340 OBP and missed the final 34 games of the season when the Rangers were in Tank Mode anyway.

Fielder and Choo were hardly the only Rangers to miss time as Texas set the dubious MLB record for most players used in a season, trotting out 64 (!!!) different players over the course of the year. Once number-one overall prospect and probable starting second baseman Jurickson Profar missed the whole season. Ace Yu Darvish was shut down in early August. Derek Holland broke his mustache and didn’t make his season debut until September 2. Matt Harrison started only four games and now looks questionable to ever pitch again thanks to an endless stream of back ailments. Martin Perez set the world on fire through his first five starts before petering out in May and requiring Tommy John surgery. And on and on and on.

No team would have been able to overcome the glut of injuries the 2014 Rangers suffered. If there’s a positive to come from the onslaught of injuries, it’s that it will allow Texas to pick third in this June’s amateur draft with a chance to stock an already loaded farm system—ranked fourth by Baseball Prospectus—with high-end talent.

 

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 2015 Projections

82-80, 4th in AL West

RS: 701 (8th) RA: 693 (17th)

Stat Sunday: Shift is Pulling Pujols Down

March 1st, 2015

 

20%

 

…is the percentage of ground balls Albert Pujols sent to the pull side from 2008-2012 that went for base hits. That, along with his 40 percent success rate on grounders up the middle and to the opposite field, helped give him a rather healthy .264 batting average on worm burners overall, which was a good 30 points above the league norm.

Since 2013, though, grounders have been considerably less friendly to Albert. That overall batting average on ground balls has dropped all the way to .191, good for 40 points under the league mark. A fair portion of that can be attributed to his 2013 plantar fascia woes—which slowed him considerably—but the big culprit is the growing popularity of the defensive shift.

As Alden Gonzalez noted earlier this week, opposing teams shifted to pull for Pujols more than any other player from 2013-2014. According to Inside Edge, the shift was employed 268 times in all against Albert, representing nearly a quarter of his plate appearances the last two years. While his success rate on non-pulled grounders has remained constant at 40 percent over that time, his rate of base hits on ground balls to the left side has plummeted to under nine percent.

This wouldn’t be a big problem if Pujols adapted to the trend and started slicing ground balls away from the shift, but that simply hasn’t happened:

 

Albert's GB locations

Via ESPN Stats & Info

 

Year in and year out, Albert hits two-thirds of his ground balls to the pull side. Yes, there’s been a slight uptick in grounders to the right side, but at the expense only of balls up the middle. What’s more, Pujols seems adamant about not altering his approach with the shift on, telling Gonzalez: “I don’t care about that. It’s not going to change the way I hit.”

If he really doesn’t care, then we’re probably just going to have to get used to him having a sub-.200 BA on grounders from here on out. Teams are only going to increase their shift usage as he ages, meaning his percentage of hits to the left side might drop lower and lower. Pujols can still be a productive player in spite of all the shiftiness, he just needs to make sure his overall GB%—a career-high 45.7 percent in 2014—doesn’t climb any higher.

 

Should Andrew Heaney Start 2015 in AAA?

February 27th, 2015

 

Since the quashing of the reserve clause 40 years ago, MLB players have been afforded the opportunity to test the open market after accruing a specific amount of MLB service time. For most players, that opportunity comes after their sixth season in the league. Not for all, though.

Take the Chicago Cubs and über-prospect Kris Bryant, for instance. If the Cubs make Bryant their Opening Day third baseman and he never returns to the minors for more than 20 days, he’ll become a free agent following the 2020 season, checking in at six years of service time exactly. If, however, they hold off bringing him up for good until April 17—just nine games—he’s suddenly under the Cubs control through 2021, essentially seven seasons. Such are the eccentricities of MLB service time.

The advantage this provides to teams is massive. Even if Bryant becomes merely an average player, the decision here for the Cubs is a no-brainer—the value of an extra year down the road will always trump 12 days now, especially when that dozen days are a player’s first in the big leagues. He might end up being a bit more expensive as a guy with Super Two status—i.e. four years of salary arbitration eligibility, rather than the regular three—but the extra season of potential production would more than make up for the added cost.

The Angels also have a top prospect, Andrew Heaney, who’s ready to break into the bigs, but things are bit more complicated for him so far as MLB service time is concerned. Heaney’s clock started last summer with July and September stints in Miami. The left-hander tallied 47 days on the active roster in all, just few enough days to maintain his rookie status but too many to make extending his team control into 2021 a simple process.

The typical regular season consists of 183 calendar days. In order for a player to be credited with a full year of MLB service time, he must spend at least 172 of those days on a team’s active roster. (Hence the 12-day wait for Bryant.) Because Heaney already has 47 days on his clock entering this season, he needs only to spend 125 days in Anaheim to complete his first full year of service time, which would put him on track for free agency after the 2020 season. If the Angels want to get that coveted extra year of team control—like the Cubs with Bryant—they have to be willing to stow him in the minors for at least 59 calendar days. That’s a quite bit more than 12.

To make matters more difficult, the Angels can’t just rack up days by optioning him to Triple-A in brief spurts between starts. As a member of the 40-man roster, Heaney must stay in the minors for at least 20 days for his MLB service clock to stop1. If he’s recalled at, say, 15 days, those days are automatically added to his ledger as though he’d been with the team the whole time.

Fifty-nine days sure seems like a long time, but let’s delve into what exactly that’d entail in terms of outings for Heaney. Day 60 of the season is June 3, when the Angels play their 54th game. If we assume Heaney would take the No. 5 spot and start every fifth game were he in the rotation from Opening Day, he’d make 10 starts by that date. If the Angels instead work it so that they go with a four-man staff every time an off day happens to fall on the fifth starter’s turn in the rotation, then it’s nine starts.

There’s no definitive answer to whether giving up 10 starts now is worth equal or greater value than the potential for a full year of starts seven years down the road. We know the Angels are in win-it-all mode heading into 2015, but know close to nothing2 about 2021. And the fickle nature of pitchers as a species serves only to compound the uncertainty involved, making it a more or less blind bet. All we can really do, then, is assess the present.

A third of the season is not an insignificant amount of playing time, but it’s also probably not so much that the team’s current spot starters would be overstretched. Next to last year’s half dozen bullpen-by-committee starts, a choice of Nick Tropeano, Hector Santiago, or Jose Alvarez in the back of the rotation looks downright greedy. The trio all have the potential to put up strong numbers over a 10-start stretch, and at worst would be around replacement-level. Heck, one of them might even legitimately beat Heaney out of the final rotation spot with a strong spring. Wouldn’t that make things easy.

The Angels haven’t shown a propensity for playing the service-time game in recent years, but doing so with Heaney seems to be a defensible decision given the current state of the roster. His ability to marinate a little longer at Triple-A of course depends on Garrett Richards being healthy by Opening Day and no one else in the rotation getting injured between now and the first week of June. The likelihood of that happening probably isn’t great, but the possibility is there.

Right now Heaney is presumed to be the favorite to win the final rotation spot out of camp, but don’t be too surprised if the Halos ultimately decide to send him for a little more seasoning in the minors. At least for 59 days or so. Give or take.

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1 You’ll notice this isn’t the case with Kris Bryant. That’s because the Cubs are smart and have yet to add him to the 40-man roster, meaning the 20-day threshold doesn’t apply. His clock won’t start until the moment his contract is purchased. The Rays did the same thing with Evan Longoria back in the day.

2 Other than that Albert Pujols will still be under contract…

2015 Preview: The Rotation

February 25th, 2015

 

The Angels’ offense was tremendous in 2014 (see our outfield and infield previews), finishing with a position player crop that ranked second in the majors in WAR and wRC+. However, it was the Angels’ performance on the mound that led to a 98-win season, and 20-win improvement. Rotational success was at the forefront of the turnaround, as a group that ranked near the bottom of many statistical categories in 2013 (including 23rd in WAR and 24th in FIP) moved into the upper-half of baseball (14th in WAR, 11th in FIP), a shift that was good enough to bring the club back to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Entering 2015 with another offensive group that figures to be quite productive, the Angels will need their rotation to keep up its performance from last season in order to overtake the likes of Seattle and Oakland in the AL West.

 

Jered Weaver

Age: 32
Salary: $18 million
Free Agent: 2017

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2014 Stats

Innings: 213.1
ERA/FIP/xFIP: 3.59/4.19/4.30
K/BB: 2.60
fWAR: 1.5

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Even with Weaver’s production dropoff in recent years, the decision to sign him to a fairly discounted extension in August of 2011 remains one of Tony Reagin’s most astute moves. Weaver has just two years remaining on that five-year, $85 million extension, and with Garrett Richards’ status to start the season still somewhat uncertain, Weaver remains the staff’s de facto ace.

Despite the title, Weaver hasn’t exactly pitched like an ace in a few years. After a third place Cy Young finish for a 2012 season in which he led the league with 20 wins and posted a 2.81 ERA, 135 ERA+, 1.018 WHIP, 7.0 H/9, and 3.16 K/BB in 188.2 innings, Weaver missed time with a fractured elbow in 2013, limiting his innings total to 154.1 frames. When on the field, he was still productive, putting up a 3.27 ERA and 2.3 WAR.

2014 was somewhat of a revival for Weaver, as he was able to eclipse the 200 innings mark (he threw 213.1) for the first time since 2011. However, he saw both his ERA (3.59) and FIP (4.19) climb for the fourth consecutive season, and it was clearly his least successful season on a per-inning basis.

Halos Daily

Dedicated to bringing you top notch Angels analysis!