In 2017, the Angels’ infield was a minor mess. Second base was mostly a mix between Danny Espinosa, Cliff Pennington, Kaleb Cowart, and late-season addition Brandon Phillips. That group combined for a .274 on-base percentage, second-worst in baseball. At third base, Yunel Escobar and Luis Valbuena saw most of the playing time. Together, Angels third basemen produced a forgettable .411 slugging percentage, which ranked 21st in the majors.
The situation at the other corner infield position, first base, was even more grim, with Valbuena, C.J. Cron, and Jefry Marte combining for 0.8 Wins Above Replacement, baseball’s fifth-lowest mark at the position. Andrelton Simmons, who had what was then the best season of his career, was the only player holding the infield together.
To remedy these issues, the Angels brought in a couple of players from outside of the organization, acquiring Ian Kinsler from the Tigers in exchange for a couple of lower-level prospects and signing free-agent Zack Cozart to a three-year contract, while declining to address their need at first base.
Kinsler was coming off of a career-worst offensive season, but the thinking was that, even if he couldn’t find the offense that once made him a star, he would provide enough value with his glove to be worthy of an everyday role.
Cozart, on the other hand, was coming off of a career-best offensive season. Also known for his defense, Cozart had spent the first six seasons of his career as the Reds’ shortstop. For the Angels, though, he’d be moving to third base, where he had never played a professional inning. Still, third is an easier position to play than shortstop, so he was expected to provide above-average defense at the hot corner, just as he did at his previous position.
Kinsler mostly performed as anticipated. He only got on base at a .304 clip, but his 13 home runs and 20 doubles helped him accumulate a 97 wRC+, just below the league average of 100. Furthermore, in the field, he racked up 10 Defensive Runs Saved and a 9.7 Ultimate Zone Rating, which ranked third and second at the position, respectively. Altogether, Kinsler was worth 2.2 WAR for the Angels, the best mark for an Angels second baseman since Howie Kendrick in 2014.
But the Angels traded him to the Red Sox in a midsummer deal that saw the team receive a pair of relief pitchers in return, both of whom will likely assist the club in 2019. Overall, Kinsler was a net positive for the Angels. He was a valuable contributor when he was with the team, and the Angels received more in the trade with the Red Sox than they surrendered in the initial deal with the Tigers.
Cozart, however, did not meet expectations. After a 2017 season that saw Cozart hit a superb .297/.385/.548 (140 wRC+) with 24 home runs, he returned closer to his career norms, batting a mere .219/.296/.362 (84 wRC+) with just five homers. His defense also did not translate as well as the Angels envisioned, as he rated as a below-average fielding third baseman by both DRS and UZR (-5 and -2.9, respectively), albeit in a limited sample size.
Cozart’s difficult season was made worse when, in June, he was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The injury forced him to undergo a surgery that came with a six-to-eight month recovery time, ending his first season with the Angels after 58 underwhelming games.
A Change of Plans
Although, Cozart’s injury and Kinsler’s trade opened up playing time for several other players, the most notable of whom was David Fletcher. The 24-year-old Fletcher, a sixth-round pick in 2015, made his major-league debut on June 13 and put together one of baseball’s most impressive first-year campaigns. Among 51 qualified rookie position players, Fletcher finished the season ranked 11th in WAR (1.9)—and he had at least 60 fewer plate appearances than eight of the 10 players ahead of him.
In addition to the disparity in playing time, Fletcher stands out on that list for another reason. Among the top 10 in rookie WAR, nine hit at least five home runs, seven hit at least 10, and four hit at least 20. Fletcher hit one home run. In fact, among the 278 players who came to the plate at least 300 times in 2018, Fletcher is one of just two players who hit one or no home runs. This, more than any other statistic, highlights the uniqueness and improbability of Fletcher’s ascension.
In his first big-league season, the right-handed hitting Fletcher was, despite the lack of power production, still an acceptable hitter, as he batted .275/.316/.363 (89 wRC+). He didn’t hit the ball particularly hard—his 20% hard-hit rate ranked 323rd out of 332 players—and he pulled it a lot, with his pull rate nearly three percent higher than average. That probably sounds like a less-than-desirable combination because it might suggest that Fletcher has a propensity to hit pulled ground balls, which, league-wide, righties hit just .243 on in 2018.
However, Fletcher did not hit a large amount of grounders. As demonstrated earlier, he does not have the sort of power that would allow him to benefit from a fly ball-heavy approach, either. Instead, he displayed an above-average ability to hit line drives, which, in terms of batting average, are the most productive batted-ball type in the game. Fletcher’s 26.7% line-drive rate was the third-highest among qualified rookies, and, among all players with at least 300 plate appearances this year, it placed in the 93rd percentile.
So, how did he hit so many liners? Despite what his forgettable 4.9% walk rate suggests, Fletcher’s plate discipline was actually quite good in 2018. Below you will see how Fletcher’s overall swing rate (Swing%), swing rate at pitches in the zone (Z-Swing%), swing rate at pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%), and contact rate (Contact%) compared to the rest of baseball this year.
Simply put, Fletcher does not swing the bat very often, and, when he does, he rarely misses. This is evidence of an advanced approach at the plate, as it shows that Fletcher has an ability to differentiate between pitches he can turn into line drives and pitches he can’t and, based on that information, decide whether he should swing. Below, we can see that he prefers pitches that are high and inside.
You might be wondering why, with Fletcher’s tendency to take so many pitches, he does not draw more walks. The likely answer is that that is a result of pitchers throwing Fletcher a ton of strikes. In 2018, 52.9% of the pitches that Fletcher saw were in the strike zone. Only three batters faced a higher percentage.
The implication is that Fletcher’s lack of power is encouraging pitchers to challenge him since they know that extra-base damage is unlikely. If Fletcher develops power down the road and manages to maintain his patient approach, he will presumably see his walk numbers increase.
All of this bodes well for Fletcher’s future, and it is not even to mention his stellar defense and base running, which were largely responsible for his impressive WAR figure. For one, his 2.0 rating by FanGraphs’ base running metric was solidly above average.
On defense, Fletcher spent most of his time at second and third base. He also played some shortstop, where he spent most of his minor-league career, and he even roamed right field briefly. Overall, he compiled eight DRS and a 9.6 UZR. In such small samples, we can hardly make definitive conclusions from defensive metrics, but they are still noteworthy, and his defense definitely passes the eye test.
Regardless of whether he can ultimately hold down an everyday job at a single position in the future, Fletcher has done enough in his short time in the big leagues to show that he can be the type of player that winning teams covet.
He’s in the mold of the Dodgers’ Enrique Hernandez, the Astros’ Marwin Gonzalez, and the Cubs’ Ben Zobrist in that he can play all over the diamond, and he can do so capably enough to justify a spot on a major-league roster. Versatility is a valuable skill in today’s game, and Fletcher has it.
Among the others who received a chance at the positions vacated by Cozart and Kinsler were Taylor Ward, Kaleb Cowart, and Luis Valbuena. Ward, the Angels’ 2015 first rounder who transitioned from catcher to third base this year, did not find much success in the majors. He batted just .178/.245/.333 (60 wRC+) across 147 plate appearances, but he was very good in the minors each of the last two seasons—thanks to a swing change—and will assuredly be in the mix for a roster spot come Spring Training.
Cowart had his worst big-league season. He did cut down on his ground-ball tendencies significantly, which was a good sign. However, the results did not follow for Cowart, as he racked up a feeble .451 OPS to bring his career line to .177/.241/.293 (46 wRC+) with six homers in 380 plate appearances. Out of minor-league options, the once-promising first-round pick will have difficulty finding a place on the Angels in 2019.
Valbuena, who was in the final year of his two-year contract, fared about as poorly as Cowart and was designated for assignment and released from the team in August. In his 689 plate appearances with the Angels from 2017-2018, Valbuena hit a mere .199/.277/.390 (79 wRC+) with 31 home runs while accumulating just 0.1 WAR.
The Lion King
In 2018, Andrelton Simmons was once again the best infielder on the Angels’ roster. He took another step forward at the plate and produced his best offensive season yet, hitting .292/.337/.417 (109 wRC+) with 11 home runs and 10 stolen bases. His defense remained among the best the sport has ever seen, as he accumulated 21 DRS and a 19.7 UZR, which placed second and first in the majors, respectively.
The combination of elite defense and capable offense led to a career-high 5.5 WAR, which made him baseball’s 13th-most valuable position player. Since the start of 2017, by the same metric, he has been the 12th-best position player and the second-best shortstop in the game. Simmons is, undeniably, one of MLB’s brightest stars, but that is more of a recent—and ongoing—development.
When he was with the Braves, Simmons, based on his glove alone, was an excellent player, but he provided very little with his bat, which limited his value. Since his trade to the Angels, though, it has been a different story for Simmons, as we can see below.
2018 was the Simmons’ third year in Anaheim, and it was his third consecutive year of offensive improvement. He is now a legitimate threat at the plate, and, by attempting to add more power to his game this winter, he is aiming to get even better next year. The best part for the Angels is that he is under contract for two more seasons. Suffice it to say that the team won’t have to worry about shortstop for (at least) a couple years, because they’ll have one of baseball’s premier players manning the position for them.
Is First the Worst?
In the offseason, the Angels had a clear need at first base, and they were exploring possible solutions early on. Then Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani chose to sign with the Angels and complicated the situation. In 2017, Albert Pujols was a full-time designated hitter, but, because Ohtani was set to occupy the position at least a few times a week, Pujols was going to be forced back into the field in 2018, preventing the Angels from pursuing a significant upgrade at first.
Ohtani, for his part, was spectacular in his first season with the Angels. He spent a few weeks on the disabled list tending to an elbow injury that ended his pitching season early, and he eventually underwent Tommy John surgery soon after the season concluded. However, the injury did not inhibit his ability to hit, and, across 367 plate appearances, Ohtani was one of baseball’s 10 best hitters, slashing a fantastic .285/.361/.564 (152 wRC+) with 22 home runs and 10 stolen bases (You can read more about Ohtani’s season here).
Conversely, while Pujols was better than last year, he was still a sub-replacement level player in 2018. He played over twice as many games in the field as the previous two years combined, but he compiled a meager .289 OBP and 19 home runs in 117 games before his season was cut short by a knee injury that required surgery. Just two weeks later, the 38-year-old also underwent elbow surgery.
After Pujols was shut down for the season, Jose Miguel Fernandez and Jefry Marte took over everyday first-base duties. Fernandez, a 30-year-old rookie, hit an adequate .267/.309/.388 (94 wRC+) in 123 plate appearances. Marte, who has been worth -0.8 WAR since 2017, hit only .216/.273/.371 (78 wRC+) in 209 plate appearances in 2018 and, heading into 2019, finds himself in a similar position to Cowart, as he is also out of minor-league options. As a group, Angels first basemen were the third-least valuable one in the majors.
The Angels would benefit from the addition of another bat to the infield, but, based on GM Billy Eppler’s comments, the team does not appear to be focused on infield upgrades. That suggests that the Angels believe that Fletcher can handle an everyday role next year and that Cozart will be able to fully recover from his injury and return to the starting third base job that he was expected to fill this year. Prospect Luis Rengifo, who the Angels acquired for C.J. Cron last winter, could also factor into the second and third base equations.
As it stands, first base still remains a bit of a question mark, and Eppler did state that the Angels could potentially look for help at the position outside of the organization, though it does not seem to be a priority. Additionally, the Ohtani and Pujols injuries make the situation even more unclear than it was last offseason, as we know neither when Ohtani will be able to start hitting again nor how much time in the field Pujols will be able to undertake in 2019.
When Ohtani, who is bound to the DH spot, and Pujols, who has been worth -2.1 WAR over the last two years and remains under contract for three more years, are on the active roster simultaneously, there is no room for an everyday first baseman. Because of this, if the Angels do look externally for a first baseman, their search would likely be limited to part-time players like Matt Adams and Lucas Duda. Although, perhaps, given the situation, a player with multi-position versatility such as David Freese or Neil Walker would be the best fit.
As the roster is presently constructed, Fernandez appears to be the leading candidate to take care of the bulk of the Angels’ first base duties in 2019, with 2016 first-round pick Matt Thaiss, a first baseman, conceivably in line to make his major-league debut at some point next season. Jared Walsh, who posted a .359 OBP across three levels of the minors this year, could be another option at the position.
With Simmons, Cozart, and Fletcher set to lead the way in 2019, the Angels can, if all goes according to plan, expect a defensively steady infield that will hit just enough. And, barring any offseason additions, they’ll simply have to hope that first base sorts itself out.
Featured image via MLB.com.