Today I will look at a reason Angels fans could be pessimistic about their team’s chances in the upcoming season. There will be five posts and they’ll be rolled out in the next week or so. These aren’t necessarily apocalyptic, worst case scenarios (Pujols busted for deer antler spray and begins fawn mutation, Weaver retires and starts a garage band, etc.) but are things that could negatively impact the ball club and wouldn’t take a large stretch of the imagination. For Part 2, click here.
3) The Angels Starting Rotation is Questionable, and That’s Being Kind
What a difference a year makes. A year ago, the Angels boasted arguably the best starting rotation in baseball on paper. They had the trio of aces in Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Dan Haren. They also had the talented enigma Ervin Santana, difficult to predict but just as dominant as the other three when he was on. Now Haren and Santana have been jettisoned out of town after struggling in 2012, Weaver and Wilson are recovering from injuries, and the rotation will have three new faces but none of them exactly inspire a ton of confidence.
When healthy, Weaver is about as good as they come, ace-wise. But last season saw Weaver struggle with some back problems that sent him to the DL and perhaps limited his effectiveness when he pitched. Weaver has always been an outlier in regards to advanced stats, his career 3.24 ERA far outperforming his 4.07 xFIP. With Weaver (as well as someone like Matt Cain–both of whom take advantage of spacious home ballparks and some friendly road parks in the division), it’s possible his ability to outperform the metrics reflect a trend rather than fluke.
With that said, there is some cause for concern in Weaver’s 2012 numbers. For the third year in a row, his fastball velocity decreased; is that a sign of battling back problems, or is it a sign of decline for the now 30-year-old? Velocity has never been Weaver’s bread and butter anyway — rather, Weaver relies on elite command and control, a deceptive delivery and letting guys like Peter Bourjos and Trout run after things and play catch with batted balls. But there will come a point when Weaver’s lack of velocity leads to more mistakes for hitters to capitalize on. Just ask Dan Haren, who seemed to cross the point of no return last year and posted a career high 12.8% HR/FB rate. Likewise, Weaver also succumbed to the homer bug in 2012, posting a career high 8.6% homer rate. Home run rates often vary on a yearly basis, but positive regression will be harder to come by if Weaver’s stuff is less effective — major league hitters won’t miss many meatballs.
2012 Weaver did continue limiting free passes; his 2.15 BB/9 was in tune with his previous two seasons, seasons in which he developed into a legitimate ace. Disturbing, though, is the trend in his strikeout rates, which have dropped in each of the past three years. His 2010 year, when he struck out 9.35 batters per 9, can now be considered an outlier, well above his 7.63 career mark. But his 6.77 figure in 2012 marked his lowest rate since 2007, his second year with the Angels.
Combine lower strikeout totals, more homers and fewer innings pitched* and what do you get? For Weaver, you get a very solid pitcher that will flash dominance but also get knocked around sometime. He’s still very good, but he’s not on the Justin Verlander/David Price level of reliability.
* Weaver, partially thanks to the injury, threw only 188.2 innings last year, the first time since 2008 when he didn’t throw at least 211 innings.
You may not believe this, but there are other guys in the Angels rotation. C.J. Wilson might just be the most important player on the Angels this season. As I’ll get to in a minute, I’m not expecting much from starters 3-5, so after Weaver the Angels are thin. Wilson has the potential to be a co-ace with Weaver, as he demonstrated in his 2010 and 2011 seasons with Texas when he combined for 10.9 fWAR. Wilson was supposed to fortify the 2012 rotation, supposedly already a strength, and give the Angels a ridiculous unit that would be the best in baseball. That, obviously, did not happen. Wilson was named an All Star, but even during the first half he seemed to labor and get lucky. The second half of the year was less kind, posting a 5.54 ERA after the All Star break. A lot of Wilson’s misfortune can be attributed to dumb luck, as his BABIP shot to .326 and his LOB% fell to only 62.8% in the second half; guys like Wilson (i.e., pitchers with control problems that are prone to walks), though, open themselves up to huge innings if they walk batters. This often develops into a chronic problem with Wilson, who too often tries to woo batters to chase his junk rather than just attack them — his 2011 success with the Rangers may have hurt him in this regard and left him prone to bad habits, as batters chased 29.9% of his pitches outside of the strike zone, a figure that dropped to 25.5% last year. Wilson can be maddening to watch, dominating one game and the next reverting to OH MY GOD JUST THROW AN EFFING STRIKE!
Wilson’s incredible 2011 is probably his career outlier given that he posted career best numbers in just about every meaningful category. The Angels don’t need him to be that though. What they need is a reliable #2 that doesn’t get torched every other outing. He may benefit from some homer regression, his 10.8% rate last year higher than his two previous seasons when he pitched in offensive paradise Arlington. Wilson also had surgery on his pitching elbow in October to remove bone spurs, an ailment he claims he dealt with for the last couple months of the season. That could help explain what caused Wilson to struggle so mightily in that stretch. Unfortunately, there are still questions if he can come back healthy and effective, as even in the first half of the season his peripherals weren’t all that spectacular anyway (he actually struck out batters at a higher clip in the second half).
Now for the newbies. Tommy Hanson, acquired from the Braves for fireballing relief pitcher Jordan Walden in November, definitely has the highest upside of any Angels pitcher this side of the Weaver/Wilson combo. He’s only 26 and strikes out over 8 batters per 9 innings with regularity. However, there is a reason the Braves traded him for a relief pitcher with control problems (other than the fact they saved a few million bucks). Hanson is a virtual lock to be injured at some point during the season; only once in his career has he pitched more than 175 innings (202.2 in 2010). In 2010 he looked like a budding ace, but arm injuries have impacted his availability and effectiveness — in just two years, his fastball velocity has dropped 3 MPH. Unsurprisingly, his homer rate was a career high 13.5% last season.
Hanson is the wild card of the rotation, but its best fans don’t expect too much from him. He has good stuff, albeit not what it once was. He’s in a state of decline at a young age, and he’s probably going to break down sooner rather than later. If the Angels can squeeze 170 above average innings out of Hanson in 2013, it will be an unmitigated success. Even though his arm might fall off in August, dealing for Hanson was probably a good move on the Angels part. Walden had obviously fallen out of favor with management, and if you can ever deal a mediocre relief pitcher for a mediocre starting pitcher, you should do it 100% of the time. The problem is, Hanson is no guarantee to even live up to mediocrity. He managed to stay relatively healthy in 2012 and pitch roughly 175 innings, but was still worth only 1.0 fWAR. And that was in the NL East, likely not as strong as the AL West should be in 2013.
Meanwhile, the Angels won’t have to worry about upside with Jason Vargas, who they acquired from the Mariners for DH Kendrys Morales. Here is what Vargas is going to do: allow home runs and eat innings. That’s basically it. He won’t strike out a ton of batters, but he also won’t walk a ton. He’s not going to drive fans to the ballpark or have his own bobblehead night. He’s the definition of uninspiring, not in and of itself a bad thing (there can be some utility in pitchers like Vargas), but in a brutal division, not exactly someone you’re thrilled to go to battle with.
Joe Blanton rounds out the rotation, not only because he projects as the #5 but also because he is quite round. Here is what Blanton is going to do: allow home runs and eat innings. That’s basically it. He won’t strike out a ton of batters, but he also won’t walk a ton. He’s not going to drive fans to the ballpark or have his own bobblehead night. He’s the definition of uninspiring, not in and of itself a bad thing (there can be some utility in pitchers like Blanton), but in a brutal division, not exactly someone you’re thrilled to go to battle with. See a pattern?
Jerome Williams will be the long relief/emergency starter on Opening Day and will likely move into the rotation after the inevitable injury (probably to Hanson). Garrett Richards awaits in Triple-A in case two Angel starters go down. If a third back up is required for a significant amount, screw it: the season is a lost cause anyway. If you haven’t deduced by now, the Angels are going to give up a lot of home runs this year. Hanson, Blanton and Vargas ranked in the top 22 in MLB last season as far as highest HR/FB rates (Santana was #1, so it’s not like Angels fans aren’t used to it). Combine that with Weaver’s tendency as a flyball pitcher, and the outfield is going to be very busy this year. There isn’t a dominant starter in the bunch, in my opinion (though Weaver certainly could be). Jerry Dipoto’s strategy for 2013 is this: our starters are going to let you score, but they’re also going to go 6 or 7 innings and turn the game over to our improved bullpen, all the while our elite offense has been hitting the hell out of the ball and now we lead 6-4 with 9 outs to go.
Will that strategy pay off? It has to if the Angels want to make the playoffs.
In Part 4, I’ll try to see if the bullpen has really significantly improved.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewkarcher.