Pre-Spring Divisional Outlook: AL West

Periodically over the next few weeks, I’m going to take an early look at the six divisions in a slightly unorthodox manner. Utilizing batted ball data, we’ll go back over the 2014 season and attempt to calculate each club’s true talent level. Making adjustments for teams’ offensive and defensive K and BB rates and team defense, we’ll calculate each team’s true talent 2014 won-lost record. Then, we’ll take a look at the current Steamer projections for 2015, evaluate key player comings and goings, and determine whether clubs are constructed to be able to handle the inevitable pitfalls along the way that could render such projections irrelevant. Kicking it off today, the AL West.

We’ll start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2014 BIP B AVG BIP B SLG BIP P AVG BIP P SLG BAT K % BAT BB % PIT K % PIT BB % DEF MULT
LAA 0.333 0.531 0.307 0.482 20.1% 7.8% 21.7% 8.2% 98.6
OAK 0.308 0.478 0.312 0.481 17.7% 9.4% 20.8% 6.8% 94.5
SEA 0.324 0.514 0.311 0.486 20.6% 6.6% 22.1% 7.8% 99.8
HOU 0.318 0.504 0.318 0.479 23.8% 8.2% 17.9% 8.2% 100.0
TEX 0.311 0.458 0.328 0.519 19.3% 6.9% 18.5% 7.9% 100.0
MLB AVG 0.318 0.489 0.318 0.489 20.4% 7.6% 20.4% 7.6% 100.0

The first four columns indicate the resulting team AVG and SLG on all of each club’s balls in play (BIP) hit and allowed if they were hit in a neutral environment. The major league average AVG and SLG on all BIP in 2014 were .318 and .489, respectively. Clubs performing above that level offensively and yielding production below that level defensively were above average performers. The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates. The MLB averages in those categories were 20.4% and 7.6%, respectively in 2014.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. Again utilizing granular batted ball data, I have established a method to evaluate team defense, from a big-picture macro perspective, rather than the play-by-play micro perspective that methods such as DRS and UZR utilize. Simply compare each team’s offensive and defensive actual and projected AVG and SLG – what each team “should” have hit/allowed based on the speed/exit angle mix of all balls in play (excluding home runs), and convert those actual and projected events to run values. You are basically comparing each team’s defense to that of their opponents over 162 games. If a team’s defense was exactly as good as their opponents’ over 162 games, their team Defensive Multiplier would be 100. Better than average defenses have scores under 100, below average team defenses have scores over 100.

Next, let’s convert all of the data in the first table into run values, and then do same Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records. 1) On only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, 2) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and 3) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true talent W-L record for 2014. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2014 actual and Pythagorean record are listed.

2014 BIP W-L K/BB ADJ DEF ADJ ACT W-L PYTH W-L
LAA 95-67 96-66 97-65 98-64 96-66
OAK 79-83 91-71 95-67 88-74 99-63
SEA 89-73 88-74 89-73 87-75 91-71
HOU 85-77 74-88 74-88 70-92 71-91
TEX 67-95 64-98 64-98 67-95 67-95

Let’s make some broad observations about each of the five AL West clubs’ 2014 performance utilizing the data in the two tables above.

The Angels were the kings of the division in 2014. Their excellence quickly becomes apparent in the first four columns of the first table; the Angels hit the ball harder than any of their AL West brethren, and their pitching staff also allowed the weakest contact. Based on BIP alone, the Angels were a 95-67 club, according to the first column of the second table. Mike Trout was a big part of this, but he was joined by Albert Pujols and, believe it or not, Chris Iannetta, as high-end AL ball-strikers. On the pitching side, Garrett Richards was one of the premier contact managers in the game prior to his late-season injury.

Their offensive/pitching K/BB rates were slightly above average on balance, kicking their record up another game to 96-66, and their slightly above average 98.6 defensive multiplier kicks them yet another game, to a 97-65 true talent record, which compares very neatly to their actual and Pythagorean records.

The A’s ran in tandem with the Angels for most of the season before their late-season collapse that almost eliminated them from the playoffs altogether. They were actually a below average offensive club in terms of BIP contact quality, though they were above average and second to the Angels in the division in terms of pitching staff contact management. On BIP alone, however, they graded out as a sub-.500 team, at 79-83.

The A’s offensive/pitching K and BB rates were spectacular, however. They were above average in all four such measurements, especially on the offensive end. Once you convert all of this to run values, the A’s K/BB adjusted record mushrooms to 91-71. Yes, the A’s ability to maximize BB and minimize K on the offensive end, and do the converse on the mound, was worth 12 games in the standings last season. Their team defense was also best in the division, with a 94.5 multiplier, which adds four more wins, giving them a true talent 95-67 record. The A’s went only 88-74 last year, underperforming their Pythagorean projection (99-63) by a larger margin than any club, and this true talent projection is yet another piece of evidence that the A’s were much, much better than their record last season.

The Mariners missed the playoffs by a single game, and utilizing this method, belonged in the playoffs from a true talent perspective. They have an ongoing rap as an offensively challenged club. Let’s lay that to rest right here. Their overall offensive BIP quality ranked among the best in the game last season, and ranked second in the division behind the Angels last season. Their pitching staff contact management ability ranked third, narrowly behind the Angels and A’s, and just ahead of the Astros. Safeco Field absolutely throttles offense; on a neutral field, based on BIP alone, this was an 89-73 club, due more to its offensive performance than its pitching.

The Mariners’ offensive/pitching K/BB rates were just below average on balance, largely due to a poor offensive BB rate, docking them a game down to 88-74, which is then restored to 89-73 by a barely better than average 99.8 defensive multiplier adjustment. Their Pythagorean record was even better at 91-71, but the Mariners fell a single game short of the postseason at 87-75.

Based on offensive/defensive quality of BIP contact, the Astros were an 85-77 club last season. They were above average on both sides of the ball, though they ranked third in offensive contact quality and fourth on the pitching side in a very strong division. Where did it go wrong for the Astros?

The Astros’ collective tendency to strike out has been well documented, most recently here at Fangraphs by Jeff Sullivan. The A’s got a 12-game bump from their across-the-board excellence in the K/BB area, and the Astros get an 11-game penalty, down to 74-88. Though they were also below average on the pitching side in K and BB rate, their greatest shortfall is on the offensive K side, and if anything, they might whiff even more in 2015. Their defensive multiplier was an even 100.0 in 2014, cementing their true talent 74-88 record, which isn’t far off from their actual (70-92) or Pythagorean (71-91) marks.

Then there’s the Rangers, bringing up the rear. They were decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball, and the hurt shows throughout their record. They were easily the worst in the division at making and managing contact, and were already a 67-95 club based on that alone. The relative inability of their pitching staff to miss a bat or avoid a walk docks them three more games to 64-98, where their 100.0 defensive multiplier allows them to remain. That true talent level closely aligns with their actual and Pythagorean mark of 67-95.

Let’s now look forward. Below are the current 2015 Steamer projections, as of Wednesday afternoon:

STEAMER 15 PROJ
SEA 89-73
OAK 84-78
LAA 84-78
TEX 78-84
HOU 77-85

Let’s briefly label and discuss some key facets of each club below. One note; I haven’t delved into the clubs’ respective bullpens, as year-to-year club performance in that area tends to fluctuate wildly.

SEATTLE MARINERS – The “Let’s Hope We Don’t Have To Worry About Plans B-H” Club
The Mariners’ Plan A looks good, and on balance, appears to deserve its top seed according to Steamer. They have a broad base of front-line talent including Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, which no other club in the division can match. As discussed previously, their offense is better than the raw numbers suggest, and Nelson Cruz is a clear upgrade over the flotsam the club trotted out at that position in 2014.

That said, plenty can go wrong here. They spent additional cash and roster spots to downgrade from Michael Saunders to Seth Smith/Justin Ruggiano in right field. Their overall depth is subpar; at any position save shortstop, an injury to their projected regular could be disastrous. Steamer lists their primary backup at 1B, 2B and 3B as Willie Bloomquist, who would project as replacement level even if he wasn’t coming off of microfracture surgery. An injury to Smith, Ruggiano or Dustin Ackley at best means exposing a limited platoon player to same-handed pitching; at worst it means Nelson Cruz in the outfield. Mike Zunino ran a .254 OBP in 2014, but that might be an order of magnitude better than Jesus Sucre’s output if he had to play everyday. Oh, and the annual Endy Chavez rumors are percolating. If he signs, he will play, and not accumulate positive WAR.

The days of hoping that James Paxton and/or Taijuan Walker can handle a regular rotation spot are over. They now need one or both of them to do so. The depth behind them is suspect at best. For a good club, the Mariners have about as wide a range of potential 2015 outcomes as possible.

OAKLAND A’S – “The What The Heck Are They Doing……Oh Now I See” Club
Talk about turnover. The A’s return regulars Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick from last year’s opening day lineup. That’s it. While they no longer possess Josh Donaldson’s star power, they have very quietly assembled their typically flexible group of platooners and specialists, led by poster child Ben Zobrist. The A’s ability to outperform their 2015 projections may rest in their ability to develop newcomer Brett Lawrie as they did Donaldson. Unlike the Mariners, the A’s have a ready replacement at every position; the one position player they truly can’t do without is Zobrist, the guy who makes that possible.

Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel have come and gone, and the A’s are left with the group that got them off to a great start last season, plus the haul they received in the Donaldson, Samardzija and Derek Norris deals. A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker are likely to join the fight at some point during the season. Sonny Gray is the only guy to can truly match up with the top of Seattle’s rotation, but the A’s rotation depth is superior.

This group isn’t likely to have a 95 to 99 win true talent level in any scenario this season. Their floor is quite high, however, and they will be sitting there waiting should the Mariners or Angels not maximize their performance.

LOS ANGELES ANGELS – The “Hold It Together Til The Big Dog Gets Back” Club
The Angels could well be the clear favorite in the division if Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs hadn’t suffered significant injuries that could cost them material portions of the 2015 season. Richards is said to be ahead of schedule, and a quick return to his 2014 form changes their outlook substantially. Their minor league system has been subpar for awhile now, so the Angels boldly moved to add needed starting pitching in the form of Andrew Heaney and Nick Tropeano. Both cost plenty, though; Howie Kendrick and Hank Conger have moved on, and the club has downgraded to Josh Rutledge at second base and Drew Butera at backup catcher.

The Angels’ roster isn’t as flexible as Oakland’s, but is more so than Seattle’s. The loss of one or more of Trout, Iannetta or Erick Aybar would likely cripple the club, but the likes of Matt Joyce, C.J. Cron and Grant Green would soften the blow of losses elsewhere. On the pitching side, they simply need to tread water until the big dog returns.

HOUSTON ASTROS – “The Time To Take The Next Step” Club
Very, very quietly, the Astros have developed a roster about as deep and flexible, albeit less proven, as the A’s. One can make the argument that the only true indispensables on their roster are perhaps George Springer, Jose Altuve and Dallas Keuchel. Springer is the one player with stud upside, Altuve is the one you can pencil in every single day, and Keuchel has silently become an unorthodox but legitimate ace. There are six or so outfielders one can see playing a significant role, Matt Dominguez, Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Villar are much better reserves than everyday players, and Hank Conger is a big upgrade at backup catcher. The addition of Dan Straily and potentially Ryan Vogelsong improves their starting pitcher depth, which had been looking like an area of concern.

All of that said, oh, those strikeouts. This team won’t make the postseason until it gets those offensive K’s under control, or at the very least begin to earn the “respect” walks that in time go along with them. This club has the most untapped potential in the division above its Steamer projection, but has the largest short-term obstacle to unlocking it.

TEXAS RANGERS: “The Boy, Actually Having To Implement Plan H Sure Was A Lot Of Fun” Club
Talk about a nightmare. Prince Fielder, Shin Soo Choo, Jurickson Profar, Mitch Moreland, Matt Harrison, Martin Perez, Derek Holland, Tanner Scheppers, Alexi Ogando, all gone for most or all of the season. Yu Darvish, out for a third of the season. Take that much talent off of any club in baseball, and it’s over. On the position player side, most of these guys are back, and some good came of the 2014 injury wave, as the club found they had something in extremely young second baseman Rougned Odor. Left field remains a hole, however, and there no guarantees that they will be getting the Fielder and Choo they paid for anytime soon.

On the pitching side, Holland is back, but Perez and Harrison likely won’t be anytime soon. The recent acquisition of Yovani Gallardo helps; the less the Rangers see of Nick Tepesch and Nick Martinez in the rotation in 2015, the better. While on one hand, the Rangers appear to have the funds and the inclination to fill their remaining holes, they also retain a top-heavy roster that, like the Mariners, can take a massive hit with an injury to any of a number of their core players.

We hoped you liked reading Pre-Spring Divisional Outlook: AL West by Tony Blengino!

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Ken
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Ken

Tony – Why exclude HRs in BIP data for this? Can you not get speed off the bat, angles for HRs too?

Phillies113
Member

In almost all cases, a home run leaves the park, so it is not a ball-in-play (BIP) by definition.