Elegy for 2021: Recapping the AL West, Team by Team

After a one-year hiatus due to the oddity and non-celebratory feeling of a season truncated by a raging pandemic, we’re bringing back the Elegy series in a streamlined format for a 2021 wrap-up. Think of this as a quick winter preview for each team, discussing the questions that faced each team ahead of the year, how they were answered, and what’s next. Do you like or hate the new format? Let me know in the comments below. We’ve already tackled the AL and NL Central, as well as the AL East and the NL West. Today, we’re looking at the AL West.

Houston Astros (95–67)

The Big Question
Could the Astros bounce back from a surprisingly disappointing season and do so while almost playing the heel as fans returned to the park? Despite being awash in offensive talent, this was easier said than done due to the possible lack of pitching depth; any team would have had a difficult time replacing the starters that have left since the team’s 2015 breakout. Even ignoring the smaller losses like Dallas Keuchel or Brad Peacock, making good on the departures of Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton, as well as the de facto one by Justin Verlander, was an extremely tall order. Further complicating efforts was that Forrest Whitley, Houston’s top pitching prospect, required Tommy John surgery in March.

How It Went
As with the Nationals, Dusty Baker continued to be the perfect manager at the right time for the Astros. Sometimes you want a Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, but sometimes it’s 10 degrees outside and you have a burst pipe in your house, and you need a highly-skilled craftsman rather than a transcendent artist. And honestly, Dusty showed a bit of the Florentine in 2021, managing a young pitching rotation of raw talent quite well and adjusting when Lance McCullers Jr. was injured in the playoffs. Coupled with Zack Greinke showing signs of decline and suffering a late-season neck injury, it was a technical challenge for him to balance the roster, and he did pretty well. He didn’t earn his first managerial World Series ring (he has one as a player with the 1982 Dodgers), but I think you can make a case that this season was his finest hour.

The sign-stealing controversy, meanwhile, didn’t magically go away, but it didn’t seem to faze the Astros at all. They played just fine on the road in the regular season and playoffs, showing little sign that the derision of the crowds had any effect. On the contrary, the offense roared back to pre-2020 levels, Jose Altuve demonstrated he was far from done, and Carlos Correa had his healthiest season in a long time. With the lineup rocking the house, the pitching staff just had to avoid being terrible to make the Astros one of the AL West favorites. They did far better than that. One raw arm, Framber Valdez, officially shed the “raw” descriptor by building on 2020’s improvements. Another, Luis Garcia, is one of the favorites to win the AL Rookie of the Year award (he would have been mine). Cristian Javier isn’t polished yet, but he performed well in various roles, and when he could locate his slider, it was scary.

What’s Next?
There’s still a lot of work to do. Correa is much harder to replace in-house than George Springer was. Greinke may be in his decline phase, but he also gave the Astros 171 good innings in 2021, something that is hard to replace. That’s doubly so if it turns out that McCullers’ injury does end up costing him time in 2022. The team does have some payroll room to work with — a little more if Aledmys Díaz or Rafael Montero are non-tendered — and the highly encouraging 2021 cameo from Jeremy Peña after returning from injury helps the shortstop situation. As solid a success as 2021 was in the pitching department, the team would be well-served to aggressively go get more this winter.

Player Projection Spotlight: Kyle Tucker

2022 ZiPS Percentiles – Kyle Tucker (Preliminary)
90% .325 .399 .651 538 103 175 42 8 39 131 66 35 179 8.1
80% .309 .379 .595 543 101 168 38 6 35 121 61 28 159 6.6
70% .301 .369 .567 545 97 164 36 5 33 114 59 24 150 5.8
60% .293 .359 .550 547 95 160 35 5 32 110 57 21 143 5.3
50% .286 .351 .523 549 93 157 33 5 29 105 55 20 134 4.6
40% .282 .346 .507 550 92 155 32 4 28 102 54 19 128 4.2
30% .275 .338 .491 552 90 152 30 4 27 99 52 17 122 3.7
20% .268 .327 .466 556 87 149 29 3 25 92 48 14 113 2.9
10% .252 .307 .421 560 83 141 25 2 22 83 44 11 96 1.6

A ZiPS favorite for a long time — it had him pegged as a league-average outfielder as early as 2018 — Tucker built on his 2020 season, hitting .294/.359/.557 and finishing with just under 5 WAR. His solid plate discipline improved in the best way, as he became even more aggressive at swinging at pitches in the strike zone without suffering contact issues or reduced power. Only two players in the top 10 for zone swing percentage were also better-than-average at avoiding swings at out-of-zone pitches: Tucker and Freddie Freeman. Derek Fisher didn’t become a thing in Houston, but Tucker and Yordan Alvarez are building blocks for this franchise.

Seattle Mariners (90–72)

The Big Question
Did the Mariners have enough pieces they could put together to challenge the top of the division? Seattle’s roster looked a bit like one of those baskets from Chopped: a lot of intrigue, but it wasn’t obvious how the whole thing would work together without ending up as a nice frosty bowl of cod liver ice cream for dessert. The right side of the infield looked particularly problematic, with Evan White and Shed Long Jr. having miserable 2020s, but these were two players who required playing time, not 33-year-old journeymen you could simply replace without risking losing future contributions.

How It Went
It went pretty well, actually. A big assist came from the run differential, but considering this looked like a team that should have been happy to finish with a .500 record, Seattle has to be pleased with the final standings. Not ecstatic, as the M’s were eliminated from the playoff picture after losing two of three to the Angels in the final weekend, but the year ought to be considered a success. But neither White nor Long answered questions about them positively, and 2020 Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis was done after May due to a knee injury.

Luckily for them, the Mariners received enough pleasant surprises elsewhere to make up for it. Mitch Haniger hit just as well as he did before his long string of injuries, and Chris Flexen’s solid season will likely have even more teams looking to Korea for rotation help.

What’s Next?
The Mariners won 90 games rather than the 76 implied by their run differential, and while mean statheads aren’t taking those off the scoreboard, there’s literally almost no correlation in baseball history for teams outperforming run differential one season and then doing it the following year. The magic didn’t carry over in 2019 or ’10, and it’s unlikely it’ll do so in ’22.

Another troubling thing is that Seattle’s success in 2022 was derived mainly from older players. In addition to the young players mentioned above, Jarred Kelenic struggled in his debut, Taylor Trammell lost his starting job in a month, and Justus Sheffield struggled with injuries and command. Logan Gilbert was solid, but he was an exception. Paradoxically, though, that gives Seattle some additional upside here. Most of those players are young enough to turn things around, so the Mariners could easily draw their flush with some breakouts that help compensate for a more normal Pythagorean record. Helping matters is that it looks like president of baseball ops Jerry Dipoto appears to have the ability to add payroll this winter.

Player Projection Spotlight: Jarred Kelenic

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Jarred Kelenic (Preliminary)
90% .284 .363 .578 479 79 136 32 8 31 104 56 22 156 4.7
80% .263 .339 .528 483 75 127 27 7 29 95 52 17 136 3.3
70% .251 .324 .492 486 73 122 26 5 27 89 49 15 123 2.5
60% .240 .311 .455 488 71 117 23 5 24 82 47 14 110 1.7
50% .233 .304 .436 489 68 114 22 4 23 78 46 13 103 1.2
40% .228 .297 .422 491 67 112 21 4 22 76 44 12 97 0.8
30% .219 .285 .402 493 64 108 19 4 21 72 42 11 88 0.2
20% .209 .274 .372 494 62 103 18 3 19 66 41 10 78 -0.5
10% .190 .250 .337 499 58 95 16 3 17 59 36 8 62 -1.6

I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t have some worries about Kelenic, but they ought to be milder than his performance in the majors suggests. Where you should really panic are those cases when a player fails to hit in the majors and then goes back and continues to struggle against minor league pitching. That wasn’t the case for him; he hit pretty well for Tacoma, and when you combine his major league line and minor league translation, ZiPS sees his 2021 as a .215/.293/.403 line. That’s not good, mind you, but it’s less of a disaster, and similar to his translation from 2019 of .226/.281/.411.

It’s troubling if Kelenic’s not better at 21 than at 19, but he’s still very young, and the loss of the 2020 season prevented him from going through trials by fire as he moved up the ladder, each rung featuring pitchers more able to adjust to hitters than the one before. I still think Seattle made a mistake not getting him playing time that year.

Oakland Athletics (86–76)

The Big Question
Could the A’s continue to find enough free or cheap talent to remain relevant given the thinning out of their farm system? After ranking in the middle of the pack prospect-wise entering the 2019 season, they steadily dropped in the rankings over the next two seasons. By 2021, they had sunk to 28th, ahead of just the Rockies and Nationals. And that wasn’t solely due to graduations to Oakland’s roster, which were basically just Jesús Luzardo and Sean Murphy. Coming off a year in which there was no minor league season, which made it trickier to string the fishing pole with waiver wire than usual, some good news on this front would be a pretty big deal.

How It Went
The results here were mixed. Luzardo, rather than developing into the ace the team hoped for, struggled with his command far more than in 2020, and by the end of the season, the Lizard King was a Marlin, traded for Starling Marte. But Sean Manaea was healthy and effective, as was James Kaprielian. The cobbling together of the roster mostly worked yet again, from Cole Irvin being picked up very cheaply and being a solid innings-eater to a lineup that hardly disappointed, except for Matt Chapman (at least offensively). Less successful was the bullpen, which combined for just 1.5 WAR, better than only a single Oakland relief corps over the last two decades. As such, the A’s were that rare team that actually saw their use of relievers drop relative to recent seasons while the four-inning and five-inning specials became more common league-wide.

What’s Next?
It’s likely that another round of cost-cutting is about to wallop Oakland. The A’s already let Bob Melvin, manager for the last 11 seasons, go to the Padres without any compensation just months after extending his deal for another year. That saved them $4 million, and unless they change their philosophy, there’s likely to be more soon. Manaea and Chris Bassitt, keys to the rotation this year, are both entering their final year of salary arbitration, and Chapman, Matt Olson, and Frankie Montas are all free agents after 2023. These are a lot of losses to replace simply by being clever with underappreciated Triple-A talent; the Rays do this, but their farm system churning out pitcher after pitcher has been key to them punching above their weight in the AL East.

Without replacing anyone they’re losing this year or have already lost, the A’s already have to make significant cuts to the payroll to get them back down to last year’s payroll. No sense in not playing pauper now, I guess, before they’ve squeezed a fancy new stadium out of the city to replace WhateverIt’sCalledThisYear Coliseum.

Player Projection Spotlight: Matt Chapman

2022 ZiPS Percentiles – Matt Chapman (Preliminary)
90% .274 .373 .592 515 97 141 35 6 39 108 78 3 161 7.5
80% .258 .354 .539 519 93 134 31 5 35 99 74 3 142 6.3
70% .248 .343 .514 521 90 129 30 5 33 93 72 2 132 5.5
60% .239 .331 .485 524 87 125 28 4 31 89 69 2 122 4.7
50% .232 .323 .470 526 85 122 27 4 30 86 67 2 115 4.3
40% .226 .316 .450 527 84 119 25 3 29 82 66 2 109 3.8
30% .220 .310 .428 528 83 116 23 3 27 79 65 1 101 3.2
20% .208 .296 .402 530 79 110 22 3 25 74 63 1 91 2.4
10% .195 .280 .363 534 76 104 20 2 22 67 59 1 76 1.4

A .210/.314/.403 line is decidedly unimpressive, but the good thing about Chapman is that his glove is so good that to be a drag, his offense has to be scraping the bottom of the barrel. The A’s may have to be satisfied with a rebound that features a low batting average, as his drop-off in play isn’t fueled by a freakishly low BABIP. His contact numbers really have gotten worse, as he’s become far more vulnerable to breaking pitches than he used to be. The dropoff across the board in exit velocity is a concern, but ZiPS still sees Chapman as young enough that this isn’t fatal — yet.

Los Angeles Angels (77–85)

The Big Question
Could the Angels build some semblance of an adequate team around Mike Trout? That’s been the question for the last decade, but one they need to answer affirmatively given how valuable their franchise player has been. That they haven’t done so successfully — they last made the playoffs in 2014 and last had a winning record in ’15 — is an organizational disaster; all they’ve gotten from the peak of the best player they’ve ever had is an ALDS sweep and a parade of bland 75–80 win seasons.

How It Went
Like the reboot of a movie franchise, the old superstar was injured, but a new superstar rose from his ashes in Shohei Ohtani. Now, he’s been a contributor before, but this was the first season we got to see that glittering promise of what happens if a player is a full-time star pitcher and a full-time star hitter simultaneously. Babe Ruth did both, but consecutively rather than at the same time, and Wes Ferrell only received scattered playing time when he wasn’t pitching. And yet the Angels once again generally stunk around their big star.

What’s Next?
The challenge remains the same. Now, the Angels can hope to have both Ohtani and Trout on the roster for the entire 2022 season, but even both of them might not be enough given the roster around them. Adding another six wins to the 2021 squad doesn’t get the Angels to the playoffs, and you can’t expect that kind of magical season to be Ohtani’s baseline, so a few of those wins, at least, are coming back off the tally. Meanwhile, Trout turned 30 in August and is no longer as durable as he once was.

If the Angels — or more accurately, ownership — have any sense, they will be among the most prominent players for free-agent talent this winter. The Albert Pujols contract is no longer available as an excuse, and Justin Upton’s $28 million disappears from the books in another year. After Trout and Anthony Rendon (also someone who is hopefully healthier for 2022), there are no gigantic long-term commitments once Upton is gone, aside from the obvious need to extend Ohtani, unsigned past 2023. Los Angeles has some good secondary talent on the offense, but there are a lot of needs on the pitching side of the equation. Steamer only sees two average starting pitchers and a thin bullpen, and while ZiPS isn’t official yet, it’s not any more optimistic (and arguably is even less so). It’s an exciting challenge for GM Perry Minasian, but only if he’s given free rein by owner Arte Moreno.

Player Projection Spotlight: David Fletcher

2022 ZiPS Percentiles – David Fletcher (Preliminary)
90% .292 .344 .407 614 82 179 37 5 8 57 48 22 105 3.0
80% .286 .333 .391 619 81 177 34 5 7 54 43 17 98 2.4
70% .282 .327 .378 621 80 175 34 4 6 52 41 15 93 2.0
60% .279 .323 .369 623 79 174 33 4 5 51 39 13 89 1.7
50% .276 .318 .361 624 79 172 32 3 5 49 38 12 86 1.3
40% .274 .315 .355 625 78 171 30 3 5 48 37 11 83 1.2
30% .271 .309 .346 628 77 170 29 3 4 47 34 10 79 0.8
20% .269 .308 .339 628 75 169 28 2 4 46 34 9 77 0.6
10% .263 .299 .320 631 74 166 26 2 2 43 31 7 70 0.0

Fletcher has never been a star, but he’s a lot of fun as a throwback to an older style of hitter — no power, high contact — that is seen far less often in the modern game. After all, who wants to lose a fantastic term like “punch and judy” to the aether? He remained as good at connecting with the ball as he usually was, but he perhaps took it too a little too far in 2021. In the past, he had been very selective at the plate, but he started swinging at a lot more pitches of all types this year. Unfortunately, the decline in his discriminating taste largely led to worse outcomes when he actually hit the ball. Nobody would confuse Fletcher’s power with Javier Báez’s, but his average exit velocity of 82.3 mph was below that of the average pitcher at the plate (83.2).

In the end, Fletcher lost 44 points of isolated power from 2020 and saw his walk rate cut nearly in half, and that was not compensated with comparable increases in batting average. I’m actually more optimistic than ZiPS is here, as I see his 2021 issues stemming not from a lack of ability but from leveraging that ability in a way that utilizes it to the fullest. You can fix an approach better than you can fix a lack of talent.

Texas Rangers (60–102)

The Big Question
Unfortunately, the biggest question for the Rangers — just how long a full-scale rebuild would have to be — was one that could not possibly have been answered in 2021. Their attempted quick retool to coincide with the opening of the new stadium failed miserably, resulting in the need to start from scratch. And with the cupboard nearly empty of major league talent and a farm system that was still only middle of the pack, Texas’ goal in 2021 was simply to remain moderately interesting for the fans as the front office addressed some serious long-term problems.

How It Went
Texas assembled a reasonably competent bullpen, but one made up of journeymen and veterans rather than the farm paying out dividends. Neither Jordan Lyles nor Mike Foltynewicz showed enough life to fetch a return in a trade this summer, but Texas was able to turn Kyle Gibson into Spencer Howard once the Phillies grew desperate for pitching. Adolis García filled the fun side of the equation by hitting 31 homers and driving in 90 runs, but he’s already older than Joey Gallo, rather one-dimensional, and more likely to fill Renato Núñez’s role with the Orioles a few years ago rather than be someone who is one the roster three or four years from now. Nathaniel Lowe showed life at times, but not so much that he’s obviously the long-term answer at first base. Willie Calhoun still hasn’t shown he can actually hit in the majors, and Nick Solak remained as inconsistent as he was in 2020.

What’s Next?
The biggest concern about the Rangers — and the same one that has hindered Baltimore’s rebuild — is how few answers they got about their young hitting. No position players on the major league roster took the type of step forward to make you say, “OK, now that is a franchise guy.” Outside of Josh Jung, Yohel Pozo, and Justin Foscue, there are scant few hitters in the system I feel better about now than I did in March. That doesn’t mean the rebuild is a failure, but it means that the Rangers still are very, very early in that sorting-out process; little so far has stuck to the wall. At this point, Texas needs to hoard young talent like it was premium toilet paper in March 2020 and hope for the best.

Player Projection Spotlight: Dane Dunning

ZiPS Projection – Dane Dunning (Preliminary)
2022 7 6 0 4.34 23 22 103.7 103 50 13 41 101 102 1.4
2023 7 6 0 4.13 23 21 102.3 98 47 12 38 99 107 1.6
2024 7 5 0 4.14 22 21 100.0 95 46 12 37 98 107 1.6
2025 6 5 0 4.18 20 19 92.7 88 43 11 35 91 106 1.4
2026 6 5 0 4.14 19 18 87.0 82 40 10 33 86 107 1.4

It wasn’t quite the season for Dunning that Texas hoped for after his triumphant return from Tommy John surgery for the White Sox in 2020. He missed time due to injury, but at least it was an ankle problem this time around rather than a scarier elbow or shoulder issue. ZiPS sees him as a good bit better than his 2021 ERA and doesn’t think that he “earned” his poor .338 BABIP based on his play-by-play data.

The next step is to stay healthy for 150 innings or so, which would be good news for a franchise that has suffered from a woeful lack of it lately. I think the key for Dunning to take the next step is better consistency from his changeup; his sinker is impressive, but it’s more the vertical type rather than one with the notable fade of Morton’s or Blake Treinen’s, and it could be a consistent tool against lefties. Please, no sinker versus two-seamer wars in the comments!

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Cave Dameron
1 year ago

Thank you Dan, very cool!