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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

EXPECTATIONS 

What do we expect from the Angels every year?

This is (more and more) a high-profile team, with a large payroll, centered around one all-time great, an elite pitching staff, and complemented by young developing stars, competent (at worst) veterans, and able bench players who can fill in at a moment's notice. This is a team expected to go places, and win championships.

I think the division title is the minimum goal the Angels should have each year. The other teams in the division are not terribly formidable at this point, and though that can change on a dime, with the base the Angels are working from and the talent coming up the minor league pipeline, in addition to the exorbitant funding provided by Arte Moreno, this is a division the Angels should put a stranglehold on.

Does that mean that years where we don't win are failures? Not necessarily. Last year we lost the division by four games, and it was probably winnable. But we also established players like Mike Napoli, Howie Kendrick, and Jered Weaver as major leaguers, which was a step toward winning this year. One can't be draconian; at the same time, one can't lower expectations unnecessarily.

With winning the division as the minimum goal, that means that the team has higher sights: making noise in the playoffs and being legit World Series contenders. Again, one can't be draconian; while it's not exactly true that the playoffs are a "crapshoot", there is some truth to it, and the best team doesn't always win a short series. A team that fails to win the World Series is not a failure. But you play to gain flags and rings, and this team is at a stage where such victories should be considered attainable, and that winning the World Championship is a reasonable expectation.

In short, I believe the expectations of this organization is to, year in and year out, have a reasonable claim at being the best team in baseball as the playoffs begin -- meaning that the team should be one of the top three or four teams, and that you can construct an argument that they may be the best.

I don't know that we've exactly accomplished this this year; I would say the Angels are definitely, along with the Red Sox and Indians, one of the best three teams in baseball right now. But do we have a reasonable chance of making noise in the postseason? Can we get Arte his ring?

I believe that the best team in baseball is the Boston Red Sox. The only offense definitely better than theirs is the Yankees' (you can also make an argument for Detroit), and the BoSox led baseball by only allowing 4.06 runs per game -- that's right: despite playing in a bit of a hitting park, in the hitting league, Boston, on the strength of a staff ERA+ of 118, allowed the fewest runs in the major leagues.

Does this mean we have no chance? It does not. We certainly do -- but I would say that the Red Sox are the favorites.

But, then again, the postseason is more about front-line talent than depth. Now, the Angels are here because of their depth, but how does their frontline talent compare to Boston's?

As a starting point, let's look at our nine starting players and their nine, just ranked by OPS+:
          Angels          Red Sox
TmRk Player OPS+ Player OPS+
1 Vlad 154 Ortiz 176
2 Kotchman 125 Manny 129
3 Figgins 123 Lowell 128
4 Garret 120 Youkilis 120
5 Kendrick 113 Pedroia 115
6 Napoli 113 Drew 108
7 Izturis 103 Varitek 106
8 Willits 101 Crisp 86
9 Cabrera 100 Lugo 68
TOT 112 105
Eh, what's this? The Angel starting offensive players are better than the Red Sox's? We're not even including stolen bases and other baserunning in this; these Angels are 110 of 148 in stealing bases, a 74.3% success rate, while these Sox are 85 of 107 for a success rate of 79.4%. So the Red Sox gain some there, but I suspect strongly that the Angels are stronger at the other aspects of baserunning, such as advancing extra bases on hits.

(FYI, I cheated and weighted each player's OPS+ by AB instead of PA to get the total. Sue me.)

Let's look at starting pitching:
          Angels          Red Sox
TmRk Player ERA+ Player ERA+
1 Lackey 144 Beckett 139
2 Escobar 127 Dice-K 104
3 Weaver 111 Schillng 118
TOT 129 120
Note that I actually went away from pure team rankings here, so as to show the match-ups next to each other. Once again, we find that the Angels have an advantage at the top of the rotation. John Lackey had a better season than Josh Beckett, and Kelvim blew Matsuzaka out of the water. Jered did struggle at times, but his season isn't particularly worse than Schilling's was.

Back of the bullpen:
          Angels          Red Sox
TmRk Player ERA+ Player ERA+
1 Frankie 154 Papelbon 246
2 Speier 150 Delcrmen 223
3 Shields 112 Okajima 206
TOT 136 224
Uh-oh. Here's a real source of concern: not only because the back of our pen has been so inconsistent, but also because theirs has been so good. This, obviously, helps the Red Sox in close games. In innings 7-9 this year, Boston allowed opposing hitters a mere 218/290/344 line, best in the league. The Angels were a bit better than the league average with a 248/318/384 line allowed, good for "only" fifth in the league.

But wait, look at that again: the main difference there is batting average. If you add 30 points of batting average to the Red Sox line, they're up to 248/320/374. Look familiar?

And then you see it: the Red Sox back of the bullpen allowed a much lower batting average on balls in play: .258 to the Angels .297. The league allowed a .304 BABIP over the course of the season, and the Sox allowed a .286 to the Angels .309.

Now, BABIP is lower in the late innings than it is over the rest of the game, as there are better pitchers and defensive replacements in the game. The league allowed a .294 BABIP in the last three innings, ten points better than the overall average; the Angel improvement from .309 to .297 in such situations is typical.

But the Red Sox drop from .286 to .258 is inhuman. Now, I'm not one of these guys who's all into DIPS and thinking that pitchers have no control over balls in play; the have some, less than we may have thought seven or eight years ago, but they have some. So I'm willing to give some of that to the Red Sox pitchers, but come on:
          Angels          Red Sox
TmRk Player BABIP Player BABIP
1 Frankie .301 Papelbn .216
2 Speier .236 Delcrmn .218
3 Shields .276 Okajima .244
The Red Sox bullpen is excellent, and those guys are possibly the best combo in the majors. But they're not quite as good as their performance suggests, and the gap between them and the Angels isn't as large as it seems at first glance.

Still, I must confess that the Red Sox, on the whole, are the better team. But I must also confess that the gap between us and them in front-line talent that wins playoff series is not very large, and that one can make the argument that we're better-suited to win such a series than they are. (This result is a surprise to me, by the way; I didn't expect to find this when I started typing this post.) And once you start making that argument, you notice that the Angels have a reasonable shot at winning the World Series.

Expectations? They've been met.

Angels in four.

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Comments:
"And then you see it: the Red Sox back of the bullpen allowed a much lower batting average on balls in play: .258 to the Angels .297. The league allowed a .304 BABIP over the course of the season, and the Sox allowed a .286 to the Angels .309."

The Halos played worse defense. By a fairly significant margin, if you trust DER...and if you know enough to pay attention to BABIP, you should have some understanding of Defensive Efficiency Rating. Los Angeles ranked 12th in the league; Boston ranked 2nd, .024 better. Ergo, Boston did a much better job turning batted balls into outs.
 
Right, but the gap in late-inning BABIP is nearly 40 points, and the overall gap is only 24. The defense doesn't seem to be telling the whole story.
 
I still don't get how you reach the conclusion from the premisses.
 
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