Angels at the Break Part 1 - Pitching


In the first of three parts I wanted to do looking at where the Angels are now that the All-Star Break is upon us, I thought it would be fitting to look at what may be the brightest spot on this team: the pitching.

The Good

Despite the struggles our pitching staff has had, there has been some good mixed in there. First and foremost is the step up Jered Weaver has shown in his performance. I think it’s safe to say that not many people (at least people using legitimate projection systems that aren’t “he’s our new ace so he’ll play better” type logic) expect the performance we’ve seen from him in the first half. Three of the four projection systems that FanGraphs uses (CHONE, ZiPS, and Marcel) all project ERA’s between 4.03 and 4.33, and he’s on pace to shatter all of their strikeout expectations. This is mostly due to a K/9 that has increased by nearly three K’s over previous seasons, probably due to the uptick he’s seen in swing-and-misses.

Looking at his Plate Discipline numbers, almost all of them are higher than his career averages: More people are swinging at pitches outside the zone, fewer are swinging at pitches inside the zone, and despite that he’s getting more people to swing at his pitches. The problem for them is that they’re making contact against him about 4% less than they did in the past, and even when they do make contact, they’re not getting much benefit from “luck” against Weaver; his BABIP currently sits at .304, only 8 points higher than his career average.

So the question, of course, is whether or not he can continue this. The short answer: hell if I know! If I’m being completely honest though, it’s probably not something I’d put money on. So many of his numbers are completely different from the trend he’d been showing through the first five seasons of his career – K’s are up, K/BB is up, GB% is up, FB% is down, LD% is down, WHIP is down, AVG Against is down, and the value of his fastball has climbed dramatically, up 15.8 – that it just makes me hesitate to think this is the Jered Weaver we’re going to see moving forward. And Rest-of-Season ZiPS, unfortunately, agrees with that pessimism, expecting him to put up a 4.04 ERA and 1.26 WHIP for the second half of 2010. If this new Jered Weaver is what we’ll have going forward, then it’s the best thing the Angels could’ve hoped for after letting John Lackey walk, and it will help to cushion the blow of losing him in the years to come. If not, and especially with the state of much of the rest of the Angels rotation, then the team will have to be in the market for a front line starter if they want to continue to compete within the division and within the league as a whole. Even if the team is out of contention shortly, Weaver’s continued improved performance will be something Angels fans can keep rooting for as the rest of the season plays out.

I would be remiss not to mention two other pitchers in our rotation in this section, since both have had more good than bad moments through the first half of the season. First up is Ervin Santana, who had a fantastic season in 2008, then followed it up with an injury-filled and unproductive 2009. He was a bit of a question mark going into 2010, but has so far delivered above the expectations of many. His 3.76 ERA is nearly 70 points below what CHONE expected him to post this season, and despite his decline in fastball velocity he’s been able to pitch effectively and remain a viable, quality starter in this rotation. There have been bumps in the road along the way, like giving up 6 runs over 5 innings to Milwaukee, but he’s also had some really solid times, including his 2.53 ERA in May.

Also worthy of mention is Joel Pineiro. Signing him was not something I was in favor or over the winter, and I’m still a bit torn on it, but for the price we’re paying him he’s been quietly effective. There have certainly been more, larger bumps in the road than Santana has experienced, including giving up 9 runs in less than 3.2 innings to both St. Louis and Detroit, but sandwiched between those two outings was 21.1 innings of fantastic baseball, with a microscopic 0.84 ERA. Over his 118.1 innings in the first half he was able to amass a 2.0 WAR, which is easily better than the 1.5 WAR Lackey has given Boston, and at a fraction of the cost. He’s not going to set the world on fire, and he’s been touched some by regression (as nearly everyone expected he would be), but for the way he’s performed thus far the Angels could’ve done much worse for what they’re paying.

The Bad

As everyone is well aware, the news for the Angels’ pitchers hasn’t been all good. Joe Saunders has clearly struggled this season, with a few really bright spots (the complete game shutout of Oakland on May 14th) surrounded by some real struggles (seven different starts so far giving up five or more runs). This has clearly been Saunders’ worst season since he became a full-time starter with the Angels, with his ERA and WHIP both the highest they’ve been over the last three seasons. Many of his peripheral stats do nothing to encourage: His K/9 is the lowest it’s been since 2005 (when he only pitched 9.1 innings), his BB/9 is the highest it’s been since 2005, his LOB% is the lowest since 2006, his GB% is the lowest of his career, and people are also making more contact on his pitches in the zone than they have since 2005.

For anyone that’s been reading this blog for any length of time, they know that his struggles are not a big shock to me. As much as I may want Saunders to do well because he seems like a nice guy and he’s one of the five pitchers in our rotation, I can’t expect a lot from a guy when his best season came, in large part, because of a .267 BABIP. Of course, the fact that his struggles weren’t unexpected by me and many others doesn’t mean they’re not hurting the team. The fact that so many people saw these struggles coming and the front office apparently didn’t is at least a little unsettling, however.

The other “bad” side of the pitching is, without a doubt, the bullpen. Overall, the Angels pen ranks 8th in the AL in both ERA and FIP, and drops to 9th when looking at xFIP. When looking at FIP and ERA, the only teams below them are the O’s, M’s, A’s, Royals, Indians, and surprisingly, the Red Sox. When we look at LOB%, which tells us the amount of runners the pen is able to strand on the bases, the news gets even worse, with the Angels ahead of only the Mariners. Given the pen’s inability to keep runners on the bases, inherited or otherwise, from scoring, they probably should be even lower in ERA, but those inherited runners don’t count against their ERA which, presumably, helps their ranking in that respect.

The “anchors” of the pen, Fernando Rodney and Brian Fuentes, are both not guys you want anchoring your bullpen. Fuentes has seen his ERA and FIP do nothing but climb over the last three seasons, with 2010 being the worst so far. Unfortunately, that’s in spite of a quite friendly .274 BABIP. If that normalizes back towards his .298 career average, things could only get worse for him. Rodney, also sporting a friendly .288 BABIP currently, isn’t exactly a prototypical “bullpen ace” either, without a FIP below 3.80 since 2003, and not below 4.10 since 2007. Rodney actually started the season off well, with a 2.50 ERA up until May 22nd. Since May 23rd, his ERA has been an ugly 4.67, and he has an awful OBP against of .386. Way back on April 10th I put up a post, and added on as nearly an afterthought, “Except for Rodney. He actually does suck.” I think, slowly but surely, people that were on the Rodney bandwagon when we signed him are starting to come around to that realization. But hey, at least we’re only paying him $5.5MM each this year and next, right?

The Ugly

Let’s be honest, we all know what goes here: Scott Kazmir. This is far and away his single worst season in the big leagues (if not of his entire baseball career), and at this point I don’t see many reasons why it’s going to get significantly better. Back on April 15th his season started off on the wrong foot, giving up 6 earned runs to the Yankees across only 4 innings, and his first half ended even worse, giving up 13 earned on 11 hits in only 5.0 IP to Oakland. I’ve gone over all the reasons we should all be very afraid every time Kazmir is given the ball multiple times, so there’s not much reason for me to keep kicking the poor, dead horse here. I guess at least we can be thankful that there isn’t any worse pitching for the Angels in 2010 then what Kazmir has given us so far.

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Tags: Brian Fuentes Ervin Santana Fernando Rodney Jered Weaver Joe Saunders Joel Pineiro Scott Kazmir