Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Today pitchers and catchers report to the Angel camp in Arizona, which means that actual ballplayers, as you read this, are preparing to entertain us for the next seven or eight months.

Though little actual news comes out of these initial workouts, it excites me nonetheless. I have been jonesing for actual baseball action of late, and Spring Training should make the next month-and-a-half more palatable.

The Angels are greeted at camp with this downer article in the Times from Mike DiGiovanna. It's all about how the Angels haven't signed anyone, so we should be not as good, and blah blah blah ...

... I haven't done my prediction for the Angels yet this year, as I normally work through it on the eve of Opening Day, but I do suspect I'll end up predicting them to have less wins this year than last. But that's mostly because I expect the starting rotation, as a whole, to regress a bit this season (the beginning of Spring Training now allows me to refer to 2006 as "this season" instead of "next season" or "this coming season", which is also a nice feeling). DiGiovanna focuses his pessimism, for the most part, on the offense.

"[T]his is essentially the same offense — minus catcher Bengie Molina, one of the team's top clutch hitters — that hit .175 with a .200 on-base percentage in a five-game AL championship series loss, and ranked 10th in the league in home runs and ninth in slugging percentage and on-base percentage last season," reports DiGiovanna.

But is it really the same offense? The substitution of Casey Kotchman for Steve Finley seems to be underappreciated. Finley last season was roughly -15 against average offensively. Casey Kotchman doesn't even have to be that great to be a drastic improvement on that "performance." He was around +5 runs offensively last year, and he only played one-fourth of a season. Even if he's only +5 in a full year in 2006, which would mean he would be only about a fourth as productive per plate appearance, that's a two-win gain from the offense. And while I don't know that Kotch is going to hit as well over a full year as he did in limited time last year, I don't think expecting him to be in the +5 to +10 range is unreasonable.

And though DiGiovanna doesn't address it, the defense has also been markedly improved. Finley's defense last season was likely in the -10 range; Darin Erstad, even if he's not as good as he used to be out there (which remains to be seen), should be a marked improvement on that.

What the Finley/Kotchman/Erstad tango really does is take a player that was -25 runs against average last year and replace him with one that should be at least +10 this year (conservatively estimating +5 from Kotch's offense and +5 from Darin's defense). That's a three-and-a-half win improvement just from that switch, as long as everyone stays healthy and performs up to reasonable expectations. Of course, if Darin stays healthy and can still be a plus plus defender in center, and if Kotchman develops just a little, the improvement can be larger.

(Note also that I'm not really expecting any defensive drop at first from Erstad to Kotchman. Kotchman has a great rep with the glove and has looked good while playing there in the majors, so I think that's fair.)

So whether or not we see an improvement from our position players really comes down to the catchers. Bengie was around +5 offensively last year, so Jose and Mathis need to manage to be better than -40 runs between them so as not to negate the Kotchman/Finley improvement (I'm just pegging Bengie as a wash defensively, which is probably a bit generous, but I'm trying to be tough on the 2006 team here).

Jose has been consistent on offense the last two years, being in the -7 or -8 range. If he maintains that level of ability, and has more playing time, he'll be a tiny bit "worse", in that he'll likely be -10 or something like that. From a part-time catcher who's a splendid defender, that's not a calamity.

So can Mathis be better than -30? I'd have to imagine so; his defense is well-regarded, so I doubt he'll produce a lot of negative runs in that part of his game, and -30 is a lot of runs to "put up" with the bat. A lot. Take a look at Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections for the Angels: Mathis is projected to hit a rather poor 223/281/378 in just over 400 AB. That comes out to being roughly -15 runs.

Let's just be pessimistic and peg Mathis and Jose to be -30 offensively overall; do you think there's any chance that combo is going to be -10 with the glove? Jose is, as mentioned, an excellent defender, and Mathis has a good rep. Jose has been at +5 the last two seasons in just throwing out basestealers. He might gain a run or two because he's good at blocking balls in the dirt and such, but let's just say +5 is what he'll be again this year (again, we're being conservative). That means Mathis would have to be -15 defensively to negate the Kotch/Finley advantage.

Do you think there's any chance in hell Jeff Mathis is going to be that poor of a defender? Mike Piazza last year threw out only 13 baserunners and allowed 82 to steal successfully. That's a huge number. And you know what? That only cost his team around 10 runs. I think Jeff Mathis is going to have a better arm than Mike Piazza, but I don't know. And even if he doesn't, -5 is a lot to give away in passed balls and the like.

So when you read these articles about how the Angels didn't improve themselves (in re: position players, pitchers may be another story) this winter, you just have to realize that whoever's writing it isn't looking at the big picture. Defense matters, and the positional shenanigans implemented by the Angels are really going to help on that front.

And what's encouraging is that we should see a slight improvement even if Mathis hits like Steve Finley, or if Casey Kotchman is only just a bit above average, or if Erstad is only a slightly above average center fielder. We're probably gaining a game or so even with those modest expectations, and I'd give Kotch and The Punter even odds to surpass those expectations. Even though we might slip from last year, I see no reason why a healthy 2006 Angels team won't remain competitive.

As usual, a terrific analysis. Keep up the good work.
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