Today I will look at a reason Angels fans could be pessimistic about their team’s chances in the upcoming season. 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 3, click here.
4) The Bullpen Might Not Really Be That Much Better
I’m of the mind that poor starting pitching was the primary reason the 2012 Angels failed to qualify for the postseason. Dan Haren, Ervin Santana and C.J. Wilson all disappointed to varying degrees, and even Jered Weaver wasn’t as great as he was the two prior seasons. Some fans like to blame Albert Pujols’ cold April, or Mike Scioscia’s oft-changing lineup card or Vernon Wells’ annoying insistence on collecting paychecks rather than saving some pride and retiring.
Perhaps unfairly, nothing on the 2012 Angels was the subject of such fan scorn quite like the bullpen. Heading into the season, the Angels’ pen was immediately believed to be the team’s area of weakness, a curious distinction for a unit that had the second lowest ERA in the American League in 2011. Closer Jordan Walden was coming off a rookie year in which he made the All Star team, posted a 2.79 FIP and struck out 9.99 batters per 9 innings — even that, though, was overshadowed by his MLB leading 10 blown saves (the Angels led baseball with 25 blown saves as a team). Despite the blown saves, Walden was young and figured to continue his development into one of the best closers in the game; he and lefty setup ace Scott Downs figured to make the back end of the bullpen one of the game’s best, and if the supposed dominant starting staff went deep into games, then the bullpen dregs like Hisanori Takahashi and Bobby Cassevah could lean back and spit sunflower seeds most nights. Jerry Dipoto signed veteran arms Jason Isringhausen and LaTroy Hawkins to low risk deals with hopes of shoring up the soft middle of the Angels bullpen.
Then, promptly, the Angels bullpen sucked right out of the gate, posting a 5.08 ERA in April. Walden lost his closer job early, suggesting Angels brass never had much confidence in him after his many 2011 meltdowns. April set the tone for the season, as the Angels pen struggled to find consistency and ended 2012 with the third highest ERA in the AL and the lowest fWAR, 1.6 wins behind the 13th place Twins. The Angels again led MLB in blown saves. This derp-itude of the highest order was highlighted by an epic August, when the group posted a damn impressive* 6.35 ERA and allowed 16 home runs in 79.1 innings. And unlike April, the team had Ernesto Frieri (acquired from San Diego in May) to “help out” in August. The low risk veterans Dipoto signed? Hawkins signed a minor league deal with the Mets and Isringhausen is now a college coach. That should tell you how well those guys panned out.
* I’m not being factitious, that’s hard to do.
Obviously, then, the bullpen was a major priority for Dipoto, he himself a former relief pitcher. Thusly, Dipoto added two free agent arms about a week apart to team friendly deals: former Phillies closer Ryan Madson and Nationals lefty Sean Burnett.
On paper, the bullpen is improved. You see two dominant right handers in Madson and Frieri. You see two effective lefties in Burnett and Downs. Those four pitchers combined will earn approximately $13-$15 million in 2013 (depending on possible Madson contract bonuses). Jonathan Papelbon — who, granted, is better than any Angels relief pitcher — will earn $13 million by himself this season. He’s great, but I would rather have four above average arms for roughly the same price tag. The improved bullpen will team up with the elite offense to make up the difference in a hopefully average starting rotation.
That’s the plan, anyway. Problem is, I’m skeptical with how improved the group actually is. Madson is hardly a sure thing, as he hasn’t pitched since 2011 after Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2012 season, his lone year as a Red. It’s probably unreasonable to expect Madson to revert to 2011 form right away. Texas closer Joe Nathan endured similar circumstances, when TJ surgery in March 2010 sidelined him for a year; when he returned in 2011, he posted a 4.84 ERA, his worst since 2000 and well off his 2.87 career pace. It wasn’t until last season that Nathan reverted back to All Star form. Could Madson follow a similar path? Remember too that Madson wasn’t the pitcher that Nathan is, either. Nathan is one of the premier relievers of the past decade, while Madson is merely very good. His decline may be more substantial.
Madson has already suffered a setback and certainly won’t be ready to go come Opening Day. This is fine, as a couple weeks off won’t kill the Angels in the grand scheme of the season, but it’s still a little discouraging, given that Madson sounded optimistic about starting the season as the team’s closer when the Angels signed him.
The other free agent addition, Burnett, is coming back from injury as well — in October, Burnett had surgery to remove bone spurs from his elbow, similar to the procedure Wilson had done. Furthermore, the team just yesterday shut Burnett down due to stiffness in his lower back. If you read the article, the team doesn’t sound overly concerned about this new injury. Angel fans should be wary of the ever mysterious “back stiffness” though, ailments that DL’ed Weaver last year and hampered Dan Haren all season. On the performance side of things, can Burnett replicate his 2012 when he posted career bests in strikeout rate, walk rate and LOB%? It’s doubtful. Prior to 2012, Burnett was worth negative fWAR in three seasons since 2008. It’s tough to know, then, what type of pitcher the Angels are getting.
Internally, the Angels can rest assured knowing they have Frieri for the full 162. Frieri was a strikeout machine last year, utilizing his fastball to consistently blow hitters away. The problem with the fastball, though, is that it’s not as heavy as one might like it to be; it’s an explosive pitch, but it generally tops out at about 94 MPH. Nice velocity, but not in the Walden class of flamethrowers. So when Frieri misses his spots, the pitch can be punished, evident with 9 homers allowed in only 66 innings. When Frieri isn’t locating with the fastball, he also doesn’t really have a secondary pitch to bail him out. According to Fangraphs, Frieri threw a fastball (4-seam or 2-seam) 86% of the time, only occasionally utilizing his OK slider. Frieri is a very good pitcher, but the freak that didn’t allow a run in his first 26 appearances with the Angels is smoke and mirrors attributed to a pitcher with a good fastball coming to a new league and facing batters for the first time. While Frieri should be an effective piece in the pen, he will also be prone to walks and meltdowns like this (skip to 1:13 for the carnage).
Scott Downs, the last of the back end quartet, still had a fine 2012 season, although he was hampered by injuries on several occasions. Performance-wise, he was bound to regress a bit anyway thanks to a .218 BABIP in 2011 that suppressed his ERA to a microscopic 1.34. Most unsettling about his 2012 wasn’t that he regressed over the course of the entire year. Rather, he just crashed HARD in the second half. A .346 BABIP will go a long way in ballooning one’s ERA to 8.62, but so will walking 11 of the 79 batters one faces. Downs has never been a pin point control type of pitcher, but in the two seasons preceding 2012 he managed respectable walk rates under 2.50. Downs is not a strikeout artist. He relies on his defense, groundballs and deception. Was 2012 a fluke or was it the sign of decline for the soon-to-be 37-year-old?
Imagine this scenario: Madson battles with injury and/or ineffectiveness all year as he returns from Tommy John, Frieri struggles to regain his early 2012 magic, Burnett deals with his back issue or just simply regresses to pre-2012 form and Downs’ late 2012 slump isn’t actually a slump but signs of his career wearing down. Then what? Then the Angels have Kevin Jepsen** and nothing else. Then we can all look forward to an endless summer of blown leads and lost playoff dreams.
** Who I don’t believe in AT ALL despite his very good 2012. He’s a complete mystery to me.
It’s not a coincidence that four of the top five teams in the AL in terms of relief pitcher fWAR qualified for the playoffs (in the NL, three of the top five qualified, although the Rockies had the highest fWAR because their starting pitchers sucked and their relievers accumulated their value just from throwing so many damn innings). It’s also not a coincidence that the Angels lone World Series title occurred when their bullpen’s ERA was 2.98, half a run better than the second best AL bullpen in 2002 (and that was with the electric Francisco Rodriguez throwing only 5.2 innings during the regular season). A great bullpen can carry a team to the playoffs — just ask Baltimore. A bad bullpen is very difficult to recover from and is a kiss of a death in the playoffs.
Projecting relief pitcher performance is tough because the sample sizes are so small. Did anyone really think Fernando Rodney had a remote chance of being a dominant closer last year? The Angels bullpen could be a great unit, but for my money there are far too many question marks to assume that. More likely, Angels fans will once again be disappointed in the current group.
In Part 5, the last post of this series, I’ll take a look at the stiff competition the AL West will offer the Angels.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrewkarcher.