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Stat Sunday: The Illusion of Spring Success

March 8th, 2015

WinCorrelation

 

.254

…is the linear correlation coefficient between a team’s spring winning percentage and regular-season winning percentage the last two years. If there were some predictive power in Spring Training W-L record, that number would be much, much closer to 1. As it is, though, only six percent of the variation in regular-season wins (r2) is explained by it’s relationship to spring wins.

In other words, how the Angels fare as team in camp will tell us close to nothing about how things are going to go from April to October. The number of players involved (and the talent gap between them) is simply too large to give any real indication about how the season is going to pan out. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the hell out of this month’s games, of course, just that we should temper our expectations accordingly.

As you might have guessed, this tenuous relationship also carries over to individual performances. It’s fun as hell to dream on a fringe player who’s hitting the cover off the ball in Tempe (see: Matt Long), but expecting that to carry over into April and beyond is unrealistic. Anyone can look like a star over a 50 at-bat sample. Sure, players will make real strides every once in a while, but those examples are too few and far between to go on.

/end wet-blanketing

On the plus side, the opposite is true as well. Just because a player has a miserable spring does not mean his season is about to go up in flames. Remember when Mark Trumbo hit .243/.273/.297 with no home runs during camp in 2013 and everyone thought he was doomed? I don’t either, because he went on to mash 34 homers and 30 doubles in the regular season. Same goes for Yasiel Puig last year, and countless other players in other years.

Anyway, the point is don’t get too up or down about the Halos this month. Barring injuries, whatever expectations for the season you had coming into spring should probably stay the same no matter how the team performs in Tempe.

2015 Preview: The Bullpen

March 6th, 2015

 

We’ve already taken in-depth looks at the outfield, the infield, the bench, and the rotation over the last few weeks, which means it’s finally time to dive into the most volatile part of any team’s roster: the bullpen.

If you had told anyone on July 1 that the Angels’ relief corps was about to morph into the most reliable unit in baseball, he/she would’ve laughed you out of the room. Not only was the ‘pen terrible from April to June—a 4.28 ERA and 12 blown saves will do that—they’d also been fairly awful every year of the last half decade. And yet…

The Angels bullpen was a revelation in the second half of 2014, posting a 2.94 ERA in a league-high 306⅓ innings of work from July-September that more or less carried the team into the postseason. Really, that happened. I know. I don’t believe it either, but there it is.

Big years from veteran guys like Joe Smith, Fernando Salas, and Kevin Jepsen were a significant part of the group’s success, but at the heart of the turnaround was Jerry Dipoto’s midseason overhaul. The lesser half of the Opening Day bullpen—Ernesto Frieri, Nick Maronde, and Michael Kohn—was jettisoned in one way or another by mid-July, making way for the far superior quartet of Huston Street, Mike Morin, Cory Rasmus and Jason Grilli, who were all nails down the stretch.

All but Jepsen and Grilli are returning to Anaheim for 2015, so the million dollar question now is whether or not the group can carry their 2014 successes into the new year. Let’s go on a journey through the bullpen together:

The Sad Case of the Angels’ Only Batting Champion, Part 2

March 5th, 2015
The July 25, 1971 edition of Sports Illustrated featured a cover story about Alex Johnson.

The July 5, 1971 edition of Sports Illustrated featured a cover story about Alex Johnson.

Part I

“Last year, when I won the batting championship on the last day,” Alex Johnson explained to a reporter, “the guys shook my hand, but some guys didn’t want me to win, and they gave me the weakest handshakes I have ever felt.”

A feeling of stinging discontent had lingered with Johnson that winter, and although the Angels made two exciting acquisitions during the off-season — the excellent defensive center fielder Ken Berry from the White Sox and right fielder Tony Conigliaro, who had 36 home runs and 116 RBI for the Red Sox in 1970 — Alex was just not enthusiastic about the coming season.

During a spring training game in 1971, Johnson frustrated his coaches by refusing to position himself where they instructed him to be.  Alex didn’t want to be exposed to the full brunt of the March sunlight and instead disregarded his coaches and stood in the shade provided by one of the outfield light poles that fell onto the field.

When the season began, Johnson frequently became angry with the reporters and would scream profanities at them in the clubhouse and even in the hotels they shared.  It grated on his teammates’ nerves, but there was nothing they could do to stop him.  The writers finally got so fed up with it that they petitioned the president of the American League to intervene on their behalf.

While behind the scenes Johnson was spending a lot of animated, angry energy, his play on the field was lackluster, to say the least.  Singles hit to him in left field would frequently turn into doubles as the league’s batters soon discovered how easy it was to run on him.  It got so bad that runners already on first base were easily making it to third on singles hit to Alex in left.

Angel pitcher Clyde Wright admitted that Alex “always played hard when I pitched, but he didn’t for some of the other guys.  If a ball was hit to left field, they better go get it because Alex wasn’t going to.”

Alex’s despondency was even apparent in the batter’s box, a place that had been something of a sanctuary for him over the years, a place where he used to delight others with his magnificent displays in the art of hitting.  But now, with his average hovering around the .250 mark, when Alex hit a ball to a fielder, as Jim Fregosi explained to a reporter, “he wouldn’t even run to first base.  He would take two steps out of the box and that was it.”

Johnson’s frustrated manager, Lefty Phillips, started slapping him with fines in order to get him out of his funk, and when that failed to work, he began benching him.  Alex was now perceived by his teammates as having committed over and again one of the cardinal sins of baseball — purposefully not trying his best.  “He did things differently last year,” Phillips complained.  “He gave about 65 percent.  Now it’s down to about 40 percent.”

Instead of improving his play on the field, the fines and benchings just resulted in Alex yelling and arguing with his teammates more than ever, except, of course, for when he chose to sit alone on the bench during games and wordlessly dress and leave immediately after them.

One particularly heated argument in Kansas City almost came to an exchange of blows when laid-back country boy Clyde Wright raised a stool at Johnson and had to be held back by his teammates.  Alex then raised his own stool, broke it by hitting himself on the head with it, and declared, “That stool isn’t going to help you.”

And then there was the incident in Washington on June 13th when Johnson and Chico Ruiz were alone in the clubhouse while the game with the Senators was still in progress.  The two men had been used as pinch hitters, and after their duties were completed, they left the game and hit the showers.  Alex and Chico used to be good friends when they had been teammates on the Cincinnati Reds.  Chico was even the godfather of Alex’s adopted daughter.  Now, during the 1971 season with the Angels, they were constantly bickering with each other.

On this day, the bickering got especially nasty, to the point that Johnson claimed Ruiz took a gun out of his locker and started brandishing it about, threatening him with it.

“It did not happen,” Ruiz declared when the fight was over.  “I can swear to it on a Bible with both hands.”

Then on June 24th, after failing to run out yet another ground ball, Lefty Phillips benched him one last time.  The next day, after 29 fines and five benchings, the Angels finally suspended Alex Johnson from the team, putting him on the restricted list without pay, for “failure to give his best efforts to the winning of games.”

Many on the team felt the suspension was long overdue and felt relieved to have Alex removed from the team.  Tony Conigliaro had a much different reaction, though, telling a reporter, “He’s got a problem deep inside him that he won’t talk about.  He’s so hurt inside, it’s terrifying.  He’s a great guy off the field.  On the field, there’s something eating away at him.”

Feeling that he had been treated unfairly, Johnson went to the player’s union to see what could be done.  After a lengthy meeting with Johnson, the head of the union, Marvin Miller, personally took up Alex’s cause and worked on his behalf.  He had a psychiatrist meet with Alex, and the doctor diagnosed Alex with reactive depression.  Miller then went to the commissioner of baseball and demanded Johnson be reinstated with full pay and be put on the disabled list so he could undergo treatment that would help him with the mental and emotional injuries he was suffering from.  The commissioner rejected Miller’s demands, believing that Johnson was merely a troublemaker who deserved his suspension.

Since Johnson’s grievance was at an impasse, the case then went to an independent, impartial arbitrator to determine its outcome.  The commissioner’s office requested it have the opportunity to have its own hand-picked psychiatrist examine Johnson.  The arbitrator granted the request, but this psychiatrist agreed with the first one that Alex was indeed suffering from depression and was therefore not able to give the Angels his best effort.

Needless to say, the arbitrator, Lewis Gill, sided with Alex Johnson.  He ruled that Alex be reinstated and put on the disabled list, and that he was owed all of the back pay that was withheld from him while he had been suspended.  In an odd sort of compromise with MLB, Gill also decided that Alex would, however, have to pay all of his outstanding fines, a total of $3,750.

In the meantime, baseball games were still being played, and the Angels had called up Mickey Rivers from their farm team in Salt Lake City to replace

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 its 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.

All through the month of May, Alex kept on hitting and the Angels kept on winning.  By the end of the month, 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 (t-29th)

 

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.

 

***

 2015 Projections

82-80, 4th in AL West

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

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