The Angels’ Hot Start Is Partially Taylor-Made

© Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Angels are off to a 13-7 start. A couple of the big reasons for that are not unexpected. Mike Trout, who hadn’t played in a regular-season game in 11 months, is off to a blazing start even by his robust standards, sporting an OPS north of 1.200 and already nearing the sort of WAR we expect a league-average player to post over six months. Shohei Ohtani isn’t torching the league to quite the same degree but he’s also on a 6-WAR pace when you combine his hitting and pitching. Still, in the past, the team has struggled even with two superstars at the top of their game. What’s working for Los Angeles now is truly unusual compared to recent years: getting lots of contributions from the other guys. And none of “the other guys” have stood taller so far than Taylor Ward.

I’m always one of the first to yell “April!” about small-sample-size stars, but Ward’s performance has still been stunning. His .381/.509/.762 line calculates out to a 269 wRC+, besting his teammate Trout and everyone else with at least 50 PA this season. What makes it even more impressive is that some of the numbers fueling that line are of the sort that are meaningful in a small sample.

There’s a bit of a fallacy with extreme data in small samples (if it has a name, I don’t know it). In baseball, when a .280 hitter hits .300, people accept it as normal, but when a .280 hitter hits .500, it is generally written off as a fluke. But while the “hitting .500” part is, the .280 hitter who is hitting .500 is more likely to have improved than the one posting .300.

Ward’s .414 BABIP is probably much higher than where he’ll end up, but you can knock 100 points off it, and he’s still off to a better than 1.000 OPS start. Statcast’s xBA and xSLG have his early-season surge at .380 and .683, both sterling numbers, and ZiPS’ slightly different (and predictive) method has him in the same area. You can’t fake plate discipline any more than you can fake power, and Ward has excelled there as well. He’s 10th in the league (again, 50 PA) in lowest out-of-zone swing percentage. That’s not from Jeremy Hermida-esque passivity, either; of the top 20 players in not swinging at bad pitches, only three hitters (Will Smith, Anthony Rendon, and Chris Taylor) have swung at more good pitches than Ward has.

This type of plate discipline isn’t very streaky at all. Undisciplined hitters don’t have streaks of crazy-good swing decisions. Javier Báez has never had an out-of-zone swing percentage below 30% in any 15-game stretch, and Salvador Perez hasn’t had a run below 30% since he was a rookie. Ward has 11 walks to nine strikeouts, and while he probably won’t walk more than he strikes out over the long haul, his 2017-19 minor league results (202 walks against 255 strikeouts) provide a not unreasonable proxy.

Sure, Ward isn’t Mike Trout or a superstar; he probably isn’t even a regular ol’ star. But there were always reasons to think that he could at least hit. His first couple of cups of coffee in the big leagues might have tasted a bit like a pot of diner Sanka brewed six hours ago, but he showed improvement the last two seasons in the majors. The Angels sent him down last year to make room for Justin Upton’s return from the IL, but it wasn’t due to performance; Ward finished 2021 with a 111 wRC+, perfectly respectable for an average corner outfielder.

The projection systems didn’t think that level of performance was outrageous. ZiPS projected a 112 wRC+ coming into the season, while Steamer was at 108. A lot of that bullish offensive projection stemmed from his 2018-19 minor league performance, which coincided with the team moving him out from behind the plate. In 2018, Ward hit .349/.446/.531 combined between Double-A Mobile and Triple-A Salt Lake, then hit .306/.427/.584 for Salt Lake in ’19. This isn’t an unusual story; developing as a hitter while catching is difficult, and young backstops often have very odd development patterns. Ward remains an emergency catching option, and the Angels have tinkered a bit, but it’s unlikely he’ll ever play there much again. Combining his minor league translations and major league lines, ZiPS had Ward at .245/.342/.447 in 2019 and .264/.348/.477 in ’21.

From a projection standpoint, one thing that worked against Ward was uncertainty. The 2020 season robbed him — and many other fringe major leaguers — of additional opportunities to rewrite the book, and as an older minor leaguer (he was 27 last season), the algorithms, just like flesh-and-blood observers, took his Triple-A feats with a grain of salt.

For 2022-24, ZiPS originally saw Ward as a roughly average player with a WAR/600 PA of 1.8 in ’22, 2.0 in ’23, and 1.9 in ’24. His offensive outburst in April has significantly shifted that outlook.

ZiPS Projection – Taylor Ward
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB OPS+ DR WAR
2022 .273 .368 .498 376 67 103 22 2 19 58 53 6 134 -3 2.5
2023 .265 .358 .496 464 79 123 28 2 25 80 62 7 130 -2 2.7
2024 .264 .358 .497 443 75 117 27 2 24 77 59 6 130 -3 2.5
2025 .258 .354 .488 430 71 111 26 2 23 72 58 6 127 -3 2.2
2026 .254 .348 .467 413 66 105 24 2 20 66 54 5 120 -4 1.6

That’s basically an extra projected win per full season, which is about as much of a boost as is possible from such a small number of games. Even if Ward doesn’t match up to the improved projections, there’s a lesson to be learned here that his team should take to heart. You can’t find what you don’t look for, and the Angels have long been more than happy to put up with extended stretches of mediocrity (or worse) from older players for no other reason than that they were paying those players. Well-run organizations give talent that’s young enough to show real improvement opportunities to flip the narrative; the Dodgers couldn’t find Max Muncy or Chris Taylor without trying them.

If in Taylor Ward the Angels have indeed found an above-average starter to complement Trout and Ohtani, it’s in large part due to them stepping out of their usual mode and deciding that Upton was a sunk cost. They should do this more often! If you want to emulate the success of the Dodgers or the Rays in finding talent out of nowhere, you have to actually do the things those teams do to make that happen. Not all of those players will work out, but if enough of them do, the Angels may finally achieve something they’ve failed to for a decade: find a supporting cast worthy of a roster that has Mike Trout.





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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Jimmember
2 months ago

Welcome back, Dan. We missed you. Hope you had a good vacation.