The Angels are presently 54-56 on the season, and they will begin a three-game series in Cleveland tonight. Here are a couple of things for Angel fans to think about this weekend.
Death by the Shift
The Angels’ offense is markedly better this year than last. In 2017, the team ranked 22nd in the majors in runs scored, 23rd in on-base percentage, 27th in slugging percentage, and 21st in wRC+. This season, the Angels are 13th in runs, 15th in OBP, 11th in SLG, and 8th in wRC+.
These improvements are not entirely unexpected, of course, as the Angels upgraded at left field, second base, and third base in the offseason and have received better production from left and second (though they just traded the second baseman responsible for the improvement at the position, Ian Kinsler). That’s why the offensive progression is not all that notable. What is notable is how differently the Angels offense has operated this year.
Simply put, the Angels are significantly more focused on hitting the ball over the fence in 2018. Last year, the Angels placed 24th in home runs, with 186. With 52 games left in the season, the club has slugged 149 homers, which is the fourth-most in the majors and puts them on pace to hit over 30 more home runs than last season.
To become such a power-driven team, the Angels started pulling the ball considerably more, which makes sense because players have an easier time hitting for power when hitting the ball to the pull side more than anywhere else–the league is slugging .703 on pulled balls, .463 on balls hit to the opposite field, and .442 on balls hit up the middle.
In 2018, 45.8% of the balls that Angels batters have put in play have been to the pull side. That’s a higher percentage than any other team, and it’s not close. The gap between the Angels and the team with the second-highest pull rate, the Astros, is 2.7%, which is as big as the gap between second and 18th.
As a result, only three teams have seen more shifts deployed against them than the Angels, and their results have been impacted particularly hard. The team’s .280 batting average on balls in play is the second-lowest mark in the majors, meaning that only one team sees a lower percentage of their balls in play turn into hits. The three teams that have been shifted on more than the Angels rank between 9th and 21st in BABIP, with Cleveland’s .291 being the lowest of the trio.
This is despite owning baseball’s fifth-best hard-contact rate, at 37.9%. For reference, the one team with a lower BABIP than the Angels, the Mets, rank 22nd in hard-contact rate, and the Orioles, who are 28th in BABIP, place 29th. Furthermore, only four of the other 15 teams with hard-contact rates greater than 35% have BABIPs lower than .290.
The most obvious antidote to the shift is a bunt into the area that the opposing team leaves uncovered. However, the Angels have only attempted two bunts against the shift all year. The Twins, who have been shifted on the most this year, on the other hand, have attempted eight, half of which have resulted in hits, and the Rangers, who have been shifted on the second-most, have attempted 17, nine of which have turned into hits.
But there’s one significant difference between those teams and the Angels. The Twins, Rangers, and Indians are the three teams shifted on more than the Angels, and they are also the three teams with the most left-handed batters. Cleveland has dedicated more plate appearances to left-handed hitters than any other team while the Twins rank second and the Rangers place third.
The Angels are the opposite, as they are only team to have accumulated fewer than 1,000 plate appearances from the left side this year, and they have racked up over 100 more plate appearances from right-handed hitters than any other team.
And it seems to be much more difficult for a right-handed hitter to successfully bunt against the shift than a left-handed one, if the disparity in attempts to do so between the two is any indication. Left-handed batters have faced about twice as many shifts as right-handed batters this year, but lefties have attempted almost ten times as many bunts in those situations.
So, bunting is not the solution for the Angels. Their hitters could try to hit the ball to the opposite field, but that would diminish their biggest strength, their power, not to mention that that is not exactly an easy change to implement overnight.
At the end of the day, this is not really something the 2018 Angels can change. It’s simply a side effect of focusing on power, and it is not necessarily a bad thing, as the Angels’ offense has improved dramatically this year, despite its woes against the shift.
In fact, many of today’s best offenses have similar styles, with seven of the game’s 10 best, in terms runs scored, ranking in the top 10 in home runs. However, there are a couple of factors that perhaps explain why the Angels’ elite home-run hitting has not translated to a prolific run-scoring offense.
For one, 12.8% of the Angels’ fly balls are infield pop ups, a higher percentage than any other team. So while, the Angels have hit fly balls at the fifth-highest rate, many have almost no chance of being a hit. Seven of the top 10 offenses, again by runs scored, are in the bottom half of the majors in that metric. The shift obviously doesn’t have any affect on infield flies, but the high number of them does at least partially explain the low BABIP. Additionally, the Angels’ power is mostly one dimensional. They rank fourth in home runs, but they are 19th in doubles and thus only 11th in slugging percentage.
The shift does not generally take away extra-base hits, which seems to be why it hurts the Angels so much; their right-handed batters are often either pulling the ball over the fence or directly into the shift and rarely into an outfield gap, where they wouldn’t be impacted by it. The Angels are also only 12th in walk rate, meaning that hitting homers is just about the only thing that they do exceptionally well, and it takes a more well-rounded offense to be one of the game’s best.
Therefore, the Angels’ problem is not that they have too many power hitters–the power is responsible for the Angels’ lineup even being as productive as it is. Rather, the problem is that they don’t have enough good power hitters who are capable of doing more than hitting home runs. In other words, the Angels have too many Jefry Martes and not enough Mike Trouts (a couple of lefty bats would help, too).
Mike Trout‘s offensive game doesn’t vary much year to year. It did a little more earlier in his career when he would hit for more power one year, sacrifice some of that pop to get on base a little more the following season, or steal a ton of bases one year and not many the next. But it has mostly stabilized over the last few years as he has figured out how to be among the best at everything all at once.
You may have noticed one minor difference this year, however: He’s striking out looking a lot. Last year, he was caught looking 34 times. In 2018, Trout has already been rung up on a called strike three 37 times, the seventh-most times in the majors. To be fair, he is striking out more overall this year than last, but even when his strikeout rate was about the same as it currently is, in 2016, he only struck out looking 45 times all season.
But perhaps the most noticeable part about this–noticeable mostly because it’s just about the only time you’ll see Trout question the umpire–is that he is often being called out on strikes on pitches that are not in the strike zone and should be called balls. Trout has struck out looking on pitches out of the zone 10 times this year, more than all but six players.
While this phenomenon could be viewed as a negative, it actually illuminates one of Trout’s best qualities: his plate discipline, which has blossomed over the last few seasons. The 26-year-old has increased his walk rate each year since 2014, jumping from 11.8% in his first MVP season to 20.5% in what is soon to be his third.
Trout’s chase rate, which was at almost 25% in 2015, is now down to 19.5%, the sixth-lowest mark in the majors. His career-low swing rate of 37.1% is also the sixth-lowest in baseball, and his walk rate and OBP both lead the majors by significant margins. The point is that Trout watches a lot of pitches go by, many of which are borderline. For instance, here are all of Trout’s called strike threes this year:
You’ll notice that very few are centered in the middle of the zone. That’s because Trout has an excellent eye and rarely offers at pitches that he can’t do damage to. But to get back to the point about striking out looking on pitches out of the zone, here’s another chart:
All 74 of the pitches shown in this chart were in the zone, and all 74 were called balls by the umpire behind the plate. Trout currently leads the majors in this category, and he has drawn eight walks on pitches in the zone this season. This, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean that umpires are more inclined to give Trout the benefit of the doubt on a close pitch, just like the large amount of called strike threes doesn’t mean that Trout is getting squeezed by umpires.
Instead, both merely demonstrate that home-plate umpires are far from perfect and, because Trout takes a greater volume of borderline pitches than the average player, he is simply going to have a greater volume of strikes called balls and balls called strikes than the average player. That is, more than anything, a testament to Trout’s elite plate discipline. So, next time Trout strikes out looking, remember that he might not be leading the majors in OBP if that didn’t happen as often as it does.
News & Notes
On Monday, the non-waiver trade deadline passed, and, before it did, the Angels shipped a pair of their everyday players to contenders. First they sent catcher Martin Maldonado to the Astros, and then they traded second baseman Ian Kinsler to the Red Sox. Both players will be free agents at season’s end.
In exchange for Maldonado, the Angels received 21-year-old pitcher Patrick Sandoval. The left-handed starter was selected in 11th round of the 2015 draft, and he is in the midst of a breakout season of sorts, posting a 2.66 ERA while striking out 97 batters and walking just 15 in 88 innings split between Houston’s Single-A and High-A affiliates. He struck out nine batters across 4 2/3 scoreless frames in his debut with the Angels’ High-A team on Sunday, and MLB.com considers him the 20th-best prospect in the Angels’ system.
For Kinsler, the Red Sox sent over two Triple-A relievers, Ty Buttrey and Williams Jerez. Buttrey is right-handed, and Jerez is left-handed. Buttrey is 25, and Jerez is 26. Both possess upper-90s fastballs. Both rank in the top 20 of Triple-A relievers in terms of strikeout rate. Both could become regular members of the Angels’ bullpen next year.
The Angels did about as well as they could have in both of these trades. Maldonado has a fine defensive pedigree, but his .276 OBP ranks 220th out of 233 players who have at least 250 plate appearances this year. After a slow start, Kinsler turned his season around, but he is 36 years old and doesn’t factor into the Angels’ future plans.
Additionally, neither of these moves negatively impacted the Angels’ chances next season, like a trade of a reliever like Blake Parker, who was reportedly drawing interest from teams and is controlled by the Angels beyond this year, might have. In short, the Angels, who on Monday had a 1.3% chance of making the postseason, turned two players who were not going to help them in 2019 into two players, Buttrey and Jerez, who could and one, Sandoval, who might a little further down the road.
Francisco Arcia, a 28-year-old rookie who hit two home runs and racked up an MLB-record 10 RBI in his first two career games, can be expected to split time with fellow rookie Jose Briceno behind in the plate for the rest of the season while David Fletcher and Kaleb Cowart will do the same at second base for the time being.
Jo Adell, who the Angels drafted with the 10th overall selection in last year’s draft and is the team’s best prospect, moved up to Double-A earlier this week. After hitting .326/.398/.611 in 25 Single-A games, Adell moved on to High-A, where he slashed .290/.345/.546 in 57 games. He hit 18 home runs between the two levels (and hit one in his first Double-A game), and MLB.com recently rated the 19-year-old outfielder as baseball’s 16th-best prospect.
Featured image via MLB.com.