Spring-Training Divisional Outlook: American League West

Previous editions: AL East / AL Central / NL East / NL Central.

Opening Day is in sight, and we have only two more installments of this divisional preview series. The two western divisions remain; today, we’ll focus on the AL West.

A reminder on the methodology: we are using 2016 batted-ball data to get a feel for the true offensive, pitching and defensive talent of each major-league club, while reviewing key player movement and under-the-radar strengths and weaknesses that could make the difference in their respective 2017 campaigns.

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

AL West – Key Team BIP Metrics
TEX 0.333 0.550 0.332 0.542 20.0% 7.2% 18.7% 8.6% 98.1
SEA 0.342 0.565 0.333 0.552 20.7% 8.1% 21.4% 7.5% 102.6
HOU 0.334 0.561 0.330 0.530 23.4% 8.9% 22.6% 7.3% 104.3
LAA 0.323 0.512 0.333 0.563 16.4% 7.8% 18.6% 8.1% 103.9
OAK 0.323 0.525 0.335 0.550 19.0% 7.3% 19.3% 7.6% 103.6
AL AVG 0.330 0.546 0.330 0.544 20.7% 8.0% 20.9% 7.9% 100.3

The first four columns indicate how each team “should have” performed at the plate and on the mound if each batted ball generated league-average results for its exit-speed and launch-angle “bucket.” The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. This measures each club’s defensive performance compared to its opposition over 162 games. Using granular BIP data, each team’s actual AVG and SLG (excluding home runs) was compared to the projected levels (as described in the previous paragraph) for such BIP, both on offense and defense. This essentially isolates the contributions of pitching from those of team defense. If a club out-defended its opponents, its Defensive Multiplier is below 100. If a club was out-defended, its multiplier is above 100.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

Next, let’s convert the above data into run values, perform some Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records: (a) on only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, (b) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and (c) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true-talent W-L record for 2016. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2016 actual and Pythagorean records are listed:

AL West – 2017 Actual/Projected Records
TEX 83-79 77-85 79-83 95-67 82-80
SEA 85-77 87-75 85-77 86-76 87-75
HOU 87-75 87-75 84-78 84-78 83-79
LAA 71-91 76-86 73-89 74-88 80-82
OAK 74-88 75-87 72-90 69-93 70-92

Let’s make some broad observations about each club’s 2016 performance utilizing the data in the two tables above.

Ah, the 2016 Texas Rangers. They won the division with a record an amazing 13 games better than their Pythagorean projection. Guess what: the difference was even greater according to my BIP-based method. On BIP alone, the Rangers were a very average club, with only the projected AVG allowed by their pitching staff materially diverging from league average (over one-half STD worse). On BIP alone, this was an 83-79 club.

The introduction of Ks and BBs into the mix didn’t help the Rangers. They fared poorly in three of the four component measures, with the damage done on the pitching side, where their staff K and BB rates were both over a full STD worse than league average. Giving that many innings to Martin Perez will do that. This whittles six wins off of their projected record, down to 77-85.

The Rangers were the best defensive club in the division according to this method, with a 98.1 team Defensive Multiplier. There was a huge difference between their performance on fly balls (a poor 113.7 multiplier) and grounders (a strong 91.2). Adrian Beltre, of course, drove their fine infield work, while the outfield shortfall was generally a team effort, though Shin-Soo Choo’s small-sample struggles stand out. Defense adds two wins to the Rangers’ projection, up to 79-83, a whopping 16 games off of their actual mark.

You might not know it because of the effects of Safeco Field, but there was a whole lot thunder in Seattle Mariner games in 2016, no matter which club was at the plate. Their projected AVG and SLG, for and against, on all BIP were well higher than average. Their projected offensive AVG stood out the most, over a full STD higher than the AL average, largely thanks to Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano. On BIP alone, this was an 85-77 club.

The Mariners were very close to league average in three of the four team K and BB components, with their pitching staff’s BB rate over a half-STD below league average, thanks in large part to the efforts of Hisashi Iwakuma. This nudges their projected record upward by two wins to 87-75.

Like most of the division, the Mariners were not a good defensive club last season. They had issues on fly balls (107.4 multiplier) and grounders (102.9) with all of their corner outfielders, first baseman Adam Lind, and shortstop Ketel Marte the leading offenders. The good news? Most of these guys are gone. Adjusted for team defense, the Mariners’ projected record falls two games, to 85-77, one game shy of their actual mark. Another missed opportunity for the M’s, who “should have” won the West in 2016 according to this method.

On BIP alone, the Astros lacked a weakness, with their projected offensive AVG and pitching SLG against both over a half-STD better than league average. Dallas Keuchel may have had a down year, but he, Collin McHugh, and Lance McCullers all managed contact well. On BIP alone, this an 87-75 club.

There’s a lot going on with regard to Ks and BBs in Houston Astro games. Their offensive and pitching staff K rates were both over a full STD higher than average, while their hitters and pitchers similarly excelled at drawing and preventing bases on balls. That very high offensive K rate carried quite a bit of weight, however: the club’s projected record remains unchanged at this point, at 87-75. Perhaps the departure of Colby Rasmus will enable the club to make continued halting progress in this area.

The club posted the worst team Defensive Multiplier in the division, at odds with most publicly available metrics. Interestingly, they were at their worst on line drives (106.5 multiplier), though they were also slightly below average on fly balls (101.0) and grounders (103.0). There were no true individual standouts or laggards, just team-wide defensive ordinariness. UZR seemed to love Rasmus last year, and I’m not buying that. In any event, defense drains three games off of their projected record down to 84-78, exactly matching their actual mark.

Despite the everyday presence of Mike Trout, the Angels’ projected offensive AVG (over one-half STD below average) and SLG (over one full STD below) were quite poor. Their pitching staff allowed harder-than-average contact to almost exactly the same magnitude. On BIP alone, this was a 71-91 ball club.

You might have missed the recent industry-wide uptick in strikeouts if you were watching only Angels’ games last season. On the positive side, their offensive K rate was over two full STD lower than the AL average, though this was mitigated by their pitching staff’s significantly subpar K-BB spread. That minuscule offensive K rate — Johnny Giavotella and friends were good for something — carried the day, adding five wins to their projection, up to 76-86.

Like the Astros, the Angels fared poorly on defense according to this method (103.9 Defensive Multiplier), in disagreement with most publicly available metrics. Like the Astros, they fared worst on line drives (107.1), which can be traced largely to some of the flotsam they trotted out to left field. This shaves three wins off of their projection, down to 73-89, one game shy of their actual mark.

Lastly, we have the Athletics. Despite Khris Davis‘ best efforts, they didn’t impact the baseball much more significantly than the Angels, with both their projected offensive AVG and SLG over a half-STD lower than league average. Coupled with a similarly worse-than-average projected AVG allowed, they were a 74-88 club on BIP alone.

All four component K and BB measures were lower than average, with their pitching staff’s K over a full STD lower than league norms. These forces fought each other almost to a standstill, raising the club’s projection by a single win, up to 75-87.

The Athletics were arguably baseball’s worst defensive club according to publicly available metrics, but weren’t quite that bad by this measure (103.6 team Defensive Multiplier). They were similarly mediocre across the board (103.3 on flies, 103.6 on liners, 104.5 on grounders). On the positive side, most of the primary offenders from the group of Yonder Alonso, Coco Crisp, Ryon Healy, and Danny Valencia are either gone or will play less in the field this time around. Defense cut three wins off of the A’s projection, down to 72-90, three games better than their actual record.

Now, let’s look forward. Below are the current FanGraphs projection, as of Wednesday afternoon:

2017 Projected Records
HOU 91-71
LAA 83-79
TEX 83-79
SEA 83-79
OAK 79-83

Kind of interesting to see four of the five clubs with projected records over .500, and the other barely below. FanGraphs projects this division as arguably the game’s best; I respectfully disagree.

Let’s briefly discuss some key issues — and some of the important changes from 2016 — for each club below:

Houston Astros
Coming out of 2016, I was thoroughly prepared to anoint the Astros as the team to beat in the division, if not in the entire league. Then the offseason happened. They could give 1000 at-bats to Nori Aoki and a declining Carlos Beltran, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Jason Castro has a better year in Minnesota than Brian McCann does in Houston. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are wonderful, but the club is cooked if either is lost for any length of time. Toss in the fact that Alex Bregman’s BIP profile indicates that he might not be quite ready to excel, and there is plenty of risk here.

On the other hand, their pitching may, in fact, be underrated. McHugh was one of the unluckiest starters in the game last year, and a full year of McCullers plus a bounce-back from Keuchel sure can’t hurt. This club is a playoff contender, but I see them more in the 85- to 87-win range, battling for a wild card.

Los Angeles Angels
Few teams saw as much fundamental change this offseason than the Angels. Their pitching staff should be greatly aided by the return of Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs to the rotation. In the field, their primary task was to fill a handful of gaping holes that hamstrung the club in 2016. The question is, did they fill them well? How much better is Cameron Maybin, who greatly outperformed his BIP-based projections in 2016, than last year’s left-field crew? How much better is Danny Espinosa then Giavotella? Is Luis Valbuena an upgrade over C.J. Cron, even in a platoon role? These are modest rather than substantial upgrades.

The guess here is that, yes, the Angels will be better this season, but not nearly to the extent forecasted above. This is still a firmly sub-.500 club in my book, one that would be fortunate to clear 75 wins.

Texas Rangers
Regression has its eye on the Texas Rangers this season. This, plus a relatively uninspiring offseason, makes a sub-.500 campaign very possible. Left field is a gaping hole that the club hopes Jurickson Profar can fill. I just don’t see his power developing at this point. A full season of Yu Darvish is a very big deal, but so is reliance upon the likes of Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross to hold down rotation spots for a full season. Ross is coming along, but Cashner has had predictable setbacks. On top of it all, insurance policy Chi Chi Gonzalez is also on the shelf. Paging Colby Lewis.

You know the bullpen is dicey when you are absolutely counting on Matt Bush and Jeremy Jeffress to be competitive in the late innings. This may turn out to be a transition year in Texas, with some kids carving out roles by season’s end. I’m guessing 78-80 wins for the Rangers.

Seattle Mariners
It’s been a long time since the Mariners have made the playoffs. Believe me, I know. In fact, they should have made it twice in recent years: last year and in 2014, when they missed the Wild Card by a game while playing the husk of Endy Chavez in right field throughout September while a healthy Michael Saunders said hi from the bench. Despite it never really opening, their window is beginning to close, as Cano and Cruz are aging out of their prime.

First base (Dan Vogelbach) and the outfield corners (Mitch Haniger, Jarrod Dyson) will be manned by players never entrusted with full-time roles before. On the other hand, the team defense will clearly be better, and Drew Smyly is an absolute stud according to BIP-based analysis, who should benefit from Safeco’s spacious outfield. Edwin Diaz is a fire-breathing dragon at the end of games. I look at this as a desperate club, and desperate clubs are dangerous. A resurgent Felix Hernandez would put them over the top. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned James Paxton and Mike Zunino, their respective upsides, and the metronome that is Kyle Seager. I’m marking the M’s down for 88-90 wins and the AL West title. And they’ll be a tough out in the postseason.

Oakland Athletics
Quite honestly, I think 79 wins is awfully high for this faceless A’s group. Not too many clubs have over 2.0 WAR apiece projected for four separate starting pitchers, but the A’s do. Sonny Gray’s hurt, and I’m not buying those types of performances from either Jharel Cotton or Andrew Triggs. Sean Manaea, possibly.

The offense doesn’t look so special, either. Yonder Alonso and Jed Lowrie are eminently known lesser commodities at this point, and it’s simply time to upgrade at those spots. Rajai Davis is more of a role player at this stage of his career, and while Healy showed some promise with the bat in his rookie season, the stick simply isn’t good enough to add real value from the DH spot. His presence forces slugger Khris Davis to careen around left field, as well. I’m projecting the A’s to stretch to reach 70 wins, not 80.

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5 years ago

Is baserunning included in any of these numbers (probably the Batter BIP)? If not could you begin to? I’m thinking it would only matter for hitters, but it would be nice to see somewhere Adjusted Contact Scores that do incorporate player speed.