The Angels’ Experiment Is Working

Heading into the season, the Angels announced that they’d be using a six-man rotation to help accommodate the arrival of Shohei Ohtani. Back in February, while noting that Angels personnel seemed well suited to an extra pitcher in the rotation, I nevertheless expressed some skepticism about the team’s capacity to pull it off.

So there is some kind of road map for a six-man rotation in Anaheim. Probability still suggests, however, that the experiment is doomed to fail. The Angels have only seven decent starting pitching options in their organization, and all of them have injury concerns. The odds that the Angels even make it to Opening Day with six MLB-caliber starting pitchers isn’t great. Once the ravages of hurling an object at high speed over and over take their toll, the team will be forced to use replacement-level pitchers.

We’re are now one-fourth of the way through the season, and the Angels have had to contend with some injuries. They’ve lost JC Ramirez for the year while also navigating around trips to the DL both for Parker Bridwell and Matt Shoemaker as well.

In spite of those injuries, the six-man rotation has been an unqualified success, unless you want to qualify whether they have actually had a six-man rotation. The team’s 3.2 WAR from its rotation ranks 11th in baseball, and the team is in the top half of baseball in ERA and FIP. Ohtani has been great, striking out one-third of the batters he’s faced with a 3.53 FIP that is nearly 20% better than league average. Presumed ace Garrett Richards has been the team’s fourth-best starter, but that isn’t a bad thing, as he’s striking out a ton of batters with an above-average ERA and FIP. Tyler Skaggs has been the club’s best pitcher, repeating his good start from early last year but without the injury that would sideline him for three months. Right behind Skaggs has been Andrew Heaney — who just struck out 10 batters last night — coming off of two injury-plagued seasons but has a superb 2.88 FIP in the early going this year.

The table below shows Angels’ starting pitcher production this season.

Angels Starting Pitching
Tyler Skaggs 8 44.0 9.4 2.7 0.8 .300 80.6 % 3.07 3.19 1.0
Andrew Heaney 6 34.1 10.2 2.4 0.8 .330 66.1 % 3.93 2.88 0.9
Shohei Ohtani 6 32.2 11.9 3.6 1.1 .271 76.4 % 3.58 3.39 0.7
Garrett Richards 8 39.2 11.1 4.5 1.1 .284 67.4 % 4.08 3.90 0.6
Jaime Barria 4 18.1 6.4 3.4 0.5 .255 84.1 % 2.45 3.90 0.3
Nick Tropeano 5 29.2 6.7 3.6 0.9 .253 75.5 % 3.64 4.29 0.3
Matt Shoemaker 1 5.2 6.4 6.4 0.0 .250 62.5 % 4.76 3.85 0.1
Parker Bridwell 1 1.2 0.0 0.0 16.2 .444 35.7 % 32.40 26.54 -0.3
JC Ramirez 2 6.2 5.4 9.5 4.1 .211 61.2 % 9.45 10.94 -0.4
TOTAL 41 212.2 9.3 3.6 1.1 .285 72.9 % 3.98 3.96 3.2

While some pitchers have benefited from a better BABIP or left-on-base percentage than others, as a team the potential luck factors basically even out. There isn’t anything in the above set of facts that would indicate the team has been incredibly lucky as a team. There’s a pretty clear top four in Skaggs, Heaney, Ohtani, and Richards. Those four pitchers account for only half of the six-man rotation from the beginning of the season. The team has actually been pretty creative at continuing to deploy a six-man rotation despite the absence of Shoemaker — who could be out a good while longer — Bridwell, and Ramirez due to injuries. Heaney, Nick Tropeano, and Jaime Barria stepped in in the third week of the season and have pitched well.

The team has modified a traditional six-man rotation. Richards and Skaggs have essentially taken their turns in the rotation every fifth start while Ohtani has received at least six days of rest for every start, including a skipped start at the beginning of this month. Heaney has split his starts, sometimes on turn and sometimes pushed back a day by a sixth starter. Where the Angels have made this possible is through their their liberal use of Barria’s minor-league option. (Don’t worry, he’s still racking up MLB service time while in the minors.) Consider the following timeline:

  • April 11 – Barria makes his first start, pitching five innings and giving up one run.
  • April 12 – Barria optioned to the minors.
  • April 22 – Barria makes his second start, pitching just two innings and giving up two runs.
  • April 22 – Barria optioned to the minors.
  • May 3 – Barria makes his third start, pitching six innings and giving up two runs.

Barria remained in the rotation for a start on May 9, as Tropeano was on the disabled list, and Barria is scheduled to start again tonight. It would not be a surprise to see him return to the minors after tonight’s outing for the requisite 10 days, as an off day on May 21 means the team could keep the rotation on a six-man schedule during this turn and delay another recall of Barria until just after Memorial Day to ensure Ohtani gets an extra day’s rest. Barria has pitched very well thus far, and even his 3.90 FIP is much better than his near-replacement-level projection, but limiting his exposure in this fashion allows the team to keep using a modified six-man rotation without sacrificing much in terms of quality.

Even if Barria falters, the team might be able to use Bridwell in the same role. With a solid top four, a combination of Barria, Bridwell, and Tropeano might be able to hold down the fifth and sixth slots adequately to keep the team moving forward. This is what our Depth Charts show for the Angels the rest of the way:

Angels Starting-Pitching Projections
Garrett Richards 114 9.2 3.5 0.9 3.71 3.74 2.1
Shohei Ohtani 101 11.0 3.7 1.0 3.49 3.51 2.2
Tyler Skaggs 97 8.3 3.0 1.0 3.94 3.94 1.6
Andrew Heaney 97 8.6 2.6 1.3 4.00 4.14 1.3
Nick Tropeano 76 7.8 3.6 1.4 4.64 4.75 0.6
Matt Shoemaker 75 7.9 2.5 1.4 4.28 4.36 0.8
Jaime Barria 75 6.0 2.7 1.6 5.04 5.17 0.3
Parker Bridwell 41 6.3 3.2 1.7 5.35 5.44 0.0
Daniel Wright 7 5.6 3.2 1.7 5.26 5.51 0.0
Jesus Castillo 7 5.9 3.3 1.4 4.86 5.04 0.0
Jake Jewell 7 5.4 4.1 1.3 5.12 5.33 0.0
Total 697 8.3 3.1 1.2 4.19 4.27 9.1

Between rotation’s banked performance thus far and the improvements in the projections, the Angels are more than a win better than expected before the season started. The recent news on Shoemaker doesn’t look good, but even if he doesn’t return, the team only falls back to where they were before the season started in terms of expectations. That might be all the team needs from their starters to make the postseason. The position-player side, headed by Mike Trout, was always going to be the Angels’ strength. The pitching just needs to be adequate, and so far they’ve gotten a little more than that.

Heaney, Ohtani, Richards, and Skaggs all still have injury and innings concerns, but holding up thus far is a positive development. If they were to lose one of those four, they would probably need outside help to continue the experiment and have a decent rotation. Assuming the goal of the six-man rotation was to protect Ohtani and still have solid pitching, those goals have been met thus far. How far they can carry the experiment forward should correlate pretty strongly with the quality of the Angels’ pitching. If the experiment falls apart, the pitching staff probably will, too.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

Barria may be getting MLB service time, but he probably has a split contract, which kind of sucks given that in past non-10 day years he’d most likely be making the major league portion the entire season.