Does the Angels’ Offense Benefit From Divine Intervention?

In the course of a discussion at The Book Blog about the Angels’ (of late) recent outperformance of (some) projections, I was reminded of a related yet quite different issue I’d thought about looking into a while back (and then promptly forgot about). The Angels are one of the teams in baseball that are praised for “playing the right way” and “doing the little things.” Whatever people mean by that, one thing we can say is that recently, the Angels have consistently outperformed their Pythagorean Win Expectation. Looking (somewhat arbitrarily) at the last three seasons in which the Angels have won the American League West and comparing their actual record with what we’d expect given their run differential based on PythagenPat.

2007: Actual 94-68, Expected 90-72, difference +4
2008: Actual 100-62, Expected 88-74, difference +12
2009: Actual 97-65, Expected 93-69, difference +4

I should say right now that this post is not saying that I am not claiming either a) that the Angels “just got lucky” and weren’t as good as their record, or b) that they have some “intangible” ability (perhaps from their manager) that has enabled them to outperform their run differential the last three seasons. Both of those are copouts, at least at this point. For now, I’m only going to look at this issue with reference to their offense.

One might say that they’ve been “good in the clutch.” And that is, in fact, true. FanGraphs’ clutch score, which measures whether players outperform not only their peers, but themselves in high leverage situations, has the following win values for the Angels’ hitter from 2007-2009:

2007: 5.19
2008: 7.34
2009: 3.22

These numbers are impressive, but they sort of beg the question. Unlike relievers, hitters don’t “earn” their high leverage playing time — unless you think most of those scores were put up by Angels pinch-hitters picked for their “clutchness.” This seems to say what we already knew — the Angels won more game than their runs scored indicate that they “should have”. Undoubtedly, there are “clutch hits,” but this doesn’t tell us how they did it — just that they did.

One thing that “right way” teams are praised for is situational hitting. FanGraphs has a stat for that: RE24. While FanGraphs’ primary “runs created above average” stat, wRAA, uses the average change in run expectancy given an event irrespective of the base/out situation, RE24 does incorporate base/out state. For wRAA, a home run is a home run whether the bases are empty with none out or loaded with 2 out, while RE24 takes into account the different base/out run expectation. As I discuss here, if we subtract the average linear weight runs (wRAA) from the RE24, we can see how much better the Angels performed in terms of “situational hitting.”

2007: wRAA +7, RE24 30.5, situational +23.5
2008: wRAA -18, RE24 18.7, situational +36.7
2009: wRAA 88, RE24 92.8, situational +4.8

Impressive. However, it actually doesn’t tell us what we want to know. This tells us that we would expect the Angels to have scored more runs than traditional linear weights (wRAA) would suggest, but the Pythagorean expectation is already using their actual runs scored. We want to know why they outperformed their run differential (for now, from the offensive perspective) — not why they scored more than their linear weights suggest, but why they won more than their actual runs suggest.

Enter WPA/LI. While RE24 takes base/out context into account, WPA/LI goes one step further, by taking base/out/inning into account. You can follow the link to read up, but basically, it’s “unleveraged” Win Probability. It sounds like Clutch, but it’s actually WPA without the Clutch/Leverage element. To use an example to differentiate WPA/LI: with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, for WPA/LI a walk and a home run have the same linear weight, whereas those events would be different for both wRAA and RE24, since they don’t take game state into account. So, if any stat could take into account a player or team adjusting their play to a situtation, this would be it. As I did in my earlier Little Things post for individuals, we can do for teams: convert wRAA to wins (I crudely divide by 10), then subtract that from WPA/LI to get the situational wins above average linear weights.

2007: wWAA +0.7, WPA/LI -1.32, -2.02 Little Things
2008: wWAA -1.8, WPA/LI -1.21, +0.59 Little Things
2009: wWAA +8.8, WPA/LI +6.37, -2.43 Little Things

Now that is just bizarre. With RE24, we saw that the Angels the last three seasons have been very good at maximizing their situational hitting in certain base/out states. But “Little Things” shows the exact opposite in 2007 and 2009. They’re about “even” in 2008, although far short of what RE24 shows, and they’re 2 wins below their traditional linear weights in 2007 and 2009. It’s not just that the Angels’ hittesr aren’t living up to their reputation (according to this measure) of “doing the little things,” it’s the contrast between RE24 and WPA/LI based “little things” that is striking. It’s as if the Angels do a great job of hitting with runners in scoring position when they’re playing in blowouts, but make terrible situational plays (relative to the average run expectancy) in close games. And then if you look at their hitter’s “Clutch” scores from those years… It’s really hard to know what the big picture is.

This post has no conclusion other than to note that the title is ironic. It would be foolhardy to dismiss this all as luck. The Angels have been a very good team no matter how you slice it. And just because we don’t understand “how they do it” at the moment doesn’t mean we can never know. But at the moment, I’m simply struck by the oddity.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Clearly there are some Angels in the Outfield.