For Angels starting pitchers, 2018 was more of the same. It was the third consecutive year that the club opted against making any significant additions to the starting staff, deciding instead to rely on a young, exciting, and unproven group of starters. It was also the third consecutive year that the Angels’ starting rotation quickly fell apart due to injuries, never having a chance to fully realize its tantalizing potential.
This year, Angels starters finished 19th in the majors in earned run average (4.34), 13th in strikeout minus walk rate (14.5%), and 19th in Wins Above Replacement (8.9). Perhaps most worrisome, however, is that only the Rays, who distanced themselves from traditional starters, received fewer innings from their starting pitchers than the Angels. This, of course, stems from the lack of stability in the team’s rotation. And the turmoil—just like the two years prior—began almost as soon as the season did.
On March 31, Matt Shoemaker started the Angels’ third game of the season. Soon after, he was placed on the disabled list, and he underwent forearm surgery near the end of May. He then remained on the DL until September, when he made six starts. His ERA (4.97) in the final month of the season was far from spotless, but his strikeout and walk numbers (27.4% K% and 5.7% BB%) were encouraging and suggest that he deserved better results.
Still, Shoemaker only averaged barely over four innings in each of those September starts, as the Angels were rightly cautious with the right-hander. On the season, he threw just 31 frames, and he has tossed only 108 2/3 since the start of 2017.
When the Angels added Shoemaker to the DL in April, they recalled Parker Bridwell to take his roster spot. Bridwell started on April 6 and gave up six runs in 1 2/3 innings. He was then sent back to Triple-A, where he permitted 27 runs in six starts (28 innings) between April and June, and, on a similar trajectory to Shoemaker, did not return to the majors until September due to an elbow injury. Bridwell only threw five innings in September—all of which came as a reliever—and he gave up seven runs while striking out three and walking two.
To make matters worse, four Angels starters had Tommy John surgery in 2018. J.C. Ramirez succumbed to the procedure after just two unsuccessful April starts. John Lamb, who was merely meant to serve as depth, had to undergo the surgery after making only three major-league starts in June. Garrett Richards, who posted a solid 3.66 ERA and a career-best strikeout rate, was next. He was forced to have Tommy John surgery in July and is now a free agent, potentially marking the end of his tumultuous Angels career.
And finally, rookie Shohei Ohtani underwent Tommy John surgery shortly after the conclusion of the season, having only thrown 51 2/3 innings in his first season in the majors. He struck out nearly 30% of his batters and posted a 3.31 ERA; he gave up just two hits against his split-finger fastball—good for an .036 opponent’s batting average—and compiled a 55.8% whiff rate against the pitch; and only two starting pitchers threw a harder fastball than Ohtani in 2018. He was about as good as anyone could have expected during his abbreviated big-league pitching debut and proved why every team so vigorously vied for his services last winter.
Nick Tropeano, who made only 14 starts thanks to a shoulder injury, and Tyler Skaggs, who had his promising year interrupted by a couple of trips to the DL in the second half of the season, rounded out the Angels’ starting pitching injury woes. Skaggs’ ailment was particularly disappointing because it impacted his results so greatly.
He went on the DL following a July 31 start that was the worst of his career. He returned to the mound on August 11 to make the second-worst start of his career, and he was quickly placed on the DL again. Skaggs then made three forgettable September starts to finish out the season.
Prior to that disastrous outing on the last day of July, Skaggs owned a 2.62 ERA, a 25.5% strikeout rate, and a 6.9% walk rate in 19 starts. In the final five starts of his 2018 campaign, however, he posted a 14.09 ERA, a 17.1% strikeout rate, and an 11.0% walk rate. Despite the late-season downturn, though, Skaggs still had his best season to date, finishing the year with a 4.02 ERA and 2.4 WAR in a career-high 125 1/3 innings. Health permitting, it was definitely a season that the lefty can build on next year.
The Lone Survivor
All of those injuries meant that Andrew Heaney, who merely missed a couple of starts early in the season, was, among the starters expected to be consistent members of the Angels rotation on Opening Day, the only one to not spend significant time on the DL, which is why, near the end of the season, manager Mike Scioscia dubbed him “the lone survivor of what we thought our rotation was going to be.” Heaney tossed 180 innings across 30 starts. No other Angels pitcher started more than 26 games or reached even 130 frames, and only two others made at least 17 starts or made it through more than 90 innings.
Heaney was not just healthy, either; he was effective, too. He posted a 4.15 ERA and a 3.99 FIP while accumulating 2.8 WAR. Those numbers are only slightly above average, but they are quite impressive when you consider the struggles he went through over the previous two years.
He had Tommy John surgery after making only one start in 2016 and returned in August of last year only to get hit incredibly hard in five starts, serving up 12 home runs in 21 2/3 innings. This year, though, he refined his unorthodox repertoire and made a couple of small but impactful alterations to help him return closer to what made him great in 2015, when he posted a 3.49 ERA in 18 starts.
In his brief time on the mound in 2017, Heaney struck out batters at a considerably higher rate than he did in years past. In 2015, he struck out a below-average 17.8% of his batters. Two years later, Heaney punched out an above-average 26.7%. But, presumably because he was attempting to get batters to chase more of his pitches, he was not throwing as many in the strike zone, which contributed to his career-high 8.9% walk rate.
In 2018, he got back in the zone, locating 49.4% of his pitches in it, which was a career high and more than three percentage points higher than his previous season. The most direct result of this change was a career-low 6.0% walk rate. Opponents also made contact on 75.4% of their swings, compared to 70.6% last year. That was not a problem for Heaney, though, because only six starting pitchers posted a lower soft-contact rate than his 21.1%.
In addition, he preserved some of those swings and misses by leaning on his breaking ball more than ever, which is why his strikeout rate only dropped to 24.0%, still above average and far higher than in 2015. It’s an unusual breaking ball—it breaks like a slider, has the velocity of a curve ball, and perplexes observers and the various pitch-tracking systems alike—but it is an awfully potent one.
He threw what he calls a curve ball a career-high 25.2% of the time in 2018, and opposing batters hit just .187 and slugged only .346 against the pitch, while whiffing on 42.9% of their swings at it. Left-handed batters have been particularly susceptible to the pitch. This year, lefties batted a mere .104 with four extra-base hits against his curve ball, and a left-handed batter has never hit one of Heaney’s breaking balls over the fence.
Heaney also greatly improved the effectiveness of his sinker, which has always been his most-used pitch. Last year, it generated an astronomical .717 expected slugging percentage. This year, that number fell to .427, which was also almost 100 points lower than it was in 2015. Much of that improvement can probably be attributed to Heaney’s move from the third-base side of the pitching rubber to the first-base side, which helped him be “more direct to the plate” and command his pitches better. Batters having to look out for Heaney’s curve ball more also undoubtedly improved the strength of his sinker.
Like his curve ball, Heaney’s sinker is unconventional. Instead of trying to keep the pitch low in the strike zone to generate grounders like most pitchers who deploy a sinker, he does the opposite. Only six pitchers threw high sinkers at a higher rate than Heaney and just eight pitchers owned higher fly-ball rates against their sinkers than him. He also gets more whiffs than the typical sinker baller, with his sinker swing-and-miss rate ranking eighth among starters.
A few minor tweaks—throwing more strikes, embracing his bizarre breaking ball, and sliding over on the rubber—and some good fortune in the health department got Heaney back to the pitcher he was always capable of being, and there is no reason the 27-year-old lefty cannot be the same pitcher going forward.
The Essential Rookies
The onslaught of injuries to the Angels’ rotation opened the door for a number of pitchers. Most, like Deck McGuire and Odrisamer Despaigne, did not stick, but a couple of rookies did. The 22-year-old Jaime Barria started the second-most games on the Angels while the 28-year-old Felix Pena racked up the fourth-most starts on the team, and neither was expected to play such a significant role on the 2018 team.
Barria entered the season as one of the Angels’ top pitching prospects, and he certainly delivered on any expectations that resulted from his minor-league performance. Barria does not have overpowering stuff, but he succeeded in his first big-league season by staying in and around the strike zone. His control faltered a bit near the end of the season, but he still finished with a 3.41 ERA across 26 starts and 129 1/3 innings, more than he had thrown in any of his professional seasons.
His peripherals (18.3% K%, 8.8% BB%, and a 4.58 FIP) were unimpressive, so Barria should not necessarily be counted on to prevent runs next year like he did this year. However, it was still a mighty impressive season for a pitcher who started it as a 21-year-old, and it is conceivable that he makes adjustments in coming seasons—like potentially throwing his secondary pitches more to generate a greater number of strikeouts—and improves. Regardless, Barria looks like he will be a key part of the Angels’ rotation for many years.
The Angels acquired Pena early last offseason, after the Cubs designated him for assignment. Making his major-league debut in 2016, Pena joined the Angels with just 43 1/3 big-league innings under his belt. He owned a 4.98 ERA in those frames, but he had an above-average strikeout rate (26.3%), which is likely what made him attractive to the Angels.
The first opportunities he received with the Angels were a couple of brief call-ups in the first two months of the season that merely resulted in two relief appearances. However, he joined the starting rotation in June and never left. Overall, in 92 2/3 innings, Pena earned a 4.18 ERA and a 4.05 FIP to go with a 21.9% strikeout rate and a 7.2% walk rate, all of which are fairly average figures.
Pena was not spectacular in 2018, but he was useful, which is notable because of the limited expectations and the fact that he had not started a game at any level since 2015. Whether it is as a starter, a reliever, or something in between, he will surely contribute to the Angels’ pitching staff in some capacity next year.
Fortunately for the Angels, most of the pitchers who sustained injuries this year are, at least in theory, still set up to pitch in 2019. Ohtani (the pitcher) is definitely out until 2020, but there is currently no indication that Shoemaker, Bridwell, Tropeano, and Skaggs will not be ready for Opening Day.
Ramirez should also return by the middle of the season. Moreover, Heaney and Barria appear to be locks for rotation spots, while Pena will likely be in the mix for a place in the rotation as well. Additionally, Alex Meyer, who spent the entirety of 2018 recovering from shoulder surgery, is slated to be ready to pitch by Spring Training. Prospect Griffin Canning could make an impact at the major-league level next year, too.
That gives the Angels quite a few options, but there is also a great amount of uncertainty in that group. That has been the story for the Angels for the last few years, so it is no surprise that GM Billy Eppler said that a desire for durability is leading the front office’s search for pitching this offseason.
Among the current crop of free-agents, the most durable starter over the last five seasons has been Dallas Keuchel, who leads the group in innings pitched during that time. He has thrown 200 innings three times since 2014, a threshold that no Angels pitcher has reached since 2015. Assuming Clayton Kershaw re-signs with the Dodgers, Keuchel, who will be 31 years old when next season begins, has also been the most successful of the free agents in that span, accumulating a 3.28 ERA and 18.2 WAR.
With durability in mind, J.A. Happ, who has made at least 30 starts in three of the last four years, could also be a fit. The definite prize of the free-agent class, however, is the 29-year-old Patrick Corbin, who the Angels drafted in 2009 and later traded to Arizona, where he has spent the entirety of his big-league career. By WAR, he was baseball’s fourth-best starting pitcher in 2018, when he sported a 3.15 ERA and a 2.47 FIP in 200 frames. Corbin has struggled with injuries in the past, but this year was his second consecutive season starting at least 32 games.
Lance Lynn, who has made 29 or more starts every year since 2012 except for when he spent 2016 recovering from Tommy John surgery, Nathan Eovaldi, who is coming off of a stellar postseason, and Gio Gonzalez, whose career has been defined by reliability, are among the other intriguing free-agent options. Interestingly, as mentioned earlier, Garrett Richards is also a free agent.
Because Richards will still be recovering for most, if not all, of next season, a potential deal would presumably be a two-year pact in line with the ones that Drew Smyly and Michael Pineda, who were in similar situations to Richards, signed last winter. Given his talent, signing Richards would not be a bad gamble, but, with the way the Angels’ roster and payroll are presently constructed, the team’s money is probably better off spent on players who are guaranteed to help in 2019.
The trade market is not totally clear just yet, but pitchers like the Diamondbacks’ Zack Godley and Robbie Ray, the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner, the Mets’ Zack Wheeler, the Braves’ Julio Teheran, the Twins’ Kyle Gibson, and the Tigers’ Michael Fulmer are among the potential targets for the Angels.
Whether it’s through free agency, trades, or both, the Angels are going to be actively searching for improvements to the their starting staff this winter, and their ability to contend in 2019 hinges on the success of their pursuit.
This is one part of Angels Avenue’s “2018 Angels in Review” series. Find the links to every other part below.
Featured image via MLB.com.