The Angels’ Rotation Woes Have a Lot to Do With Their Defense

In Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, the Angels have two of the game’s most eminently watchable players. Thanks to the latter’s return to the mound in some semblance of full health, the team began the season with a reasonable amount of optimism for breaking its streak of six straight seasons outside the playoffs and five with a sub-.500 record, centered around the promise of an improved rotation. On the eve of Opening Day, their 39.5% Playoff Odds were as high as they’ve been at that point since at least 2016. Yet they’re off to just a 13-16 start, and that rotation, which was lit for a 5.52 ERA last season and a 5.64 ERA in 2019, owns an AL-worst 5.33 mark. Ohtani’s starts aside, they’re not exactly must-see TV.

With the return of Ohtani after a season in which he was limited to two nasty, brutish and short appearances due to a flexor strain, the Angels opted to go with a six-man rotation to as not to overtax any of their starters as they ramped up to 162 games from last year’s 60. Joining Ohtani were holdovers Dylan Bundy, Griffin Canning, and Andrew Heaney, a trio that by and large pitched well for the team in 2020, making either 11 or 12 starts and finishing under 100 in ERA- and FIP- across the board save for Heaney’s 101 ERA-.

Joining the bunch were free agent Jose Quintana and trade acquisition Alex Cobb, who at the very least looked like upgrades on Julio Teheran and Patrick Sandoval, both of whom were dreadful last year. Quintana was limited to 10 innings in his final year with the Cubs due to thumb and lat injuries but from 2013-19 was a reliable workhorse who averaged 193 innings and 3.8 WAR. Cobb needed to get out of Baltimore in the worst way after yielding 1.86 homers per nine at Camden Yards during his three-season stay.

In our preseason Positional Power Rankings, the revamped rotation placed 17th, not much to get excited about except relative to a unit that fared so poorly in 2020. Their forecast for a 4.51 ERA represented a 1.01 runs per nine dip relative to last year, while their 4.60 FIP projected for a 0.18 drop — solid improvements. It hasn’t turned out that way, at least if you’re going by ERA, where only Ohtani and Bundy are below 5.25, and Quintana up at an astronomical 10.59. The unit’s 5.33 mark is the AL’s worst by more than half a run, and just 0.07 better than the major league-worst Cubs. By FIP, however, the unit’s 3.83 mark is a respectable sixth in the AL, thanks largely to a major league-high 31.2% strikeout rate. Even with an AL-worst 11.4% walk rate, their 19.9% strikeout-walk differential is second in the league behind the Yankees, and even while allowing 1.27 homers per nine (ninth in the AL), their FIP is five percent better than league average.

In other words, the rotation’s ERA is seriously out of whack with the peripheral stats. The 1.50 runs per nine gap is nearly double that of the second-ranked team in that category, the Red Sox (0.82); in fact, it’s the largest gap for any rotation since 1900. The record of 1.16 (5.37 ERA, 4.21 FIP) was set by last year’s Mets, though the 1942 Senators have claim to the full season record at 1.15 (4.47 ERA, 3.33 FIP) and if you want to know who’s got the largest gap over a 162-game campaign, its the 2014 Twins at 1.04 (5.06 ERA, 4.03 FIP). Of course the fact that the Angels are so far ahead of the pack has something to do with the sample size, as we’re talking about just 135 innings for the bunch. For what it’s worth, the Angels did have this problem last year as well, as the rotation’s ERA was 0.74 runs per nine higher than its FIP, the AL’s largest gap.

If you’re wondering about the bullpen, the pattern is there as well, with a 4.55 ERA and 4.13 FIP this year; the 0.42 runs per nine gap is the AL’s third-highest. Last year’s 0.46 gap (4.63 ERA, 4.17 FIP) was the league’s second-highest.

Often the primary culprit for such discrepancies is a team’s defense, and in this case, that appears to be true. The Angels have been worse at converting batted balls into outs than any team in the majors, and not by a little. Their .657 defensive efficiency — the percentage of balls in play converted to outs — is the majors’ lowest by nine points (it was twice as much before Ohtani’s five-inning, one-hit effort on Wednesday night), and it’s 42 points below the AL average. They were actually four points above the league average last year at .698, but in both seasons, their Defensive Runs Saved has been well into the red, 27th in the majors last year at -25 runs, and last this year at -20 runs.

Here’s a team-level position-by-position comparison between last year’s defense and this one:

Angels Position-by-Position DRS 2020-21
Position 2020 DRS 2021 DRS
C 3 -5
1B 0 0
2B 3 -4
SS -1 -3
3B 1 -5
LF -10 -5
RF -8 -1
CF -6 0
Infield 3 -12
Team Shift -2 0
Outfield -24 -6

Without getting too wrapped up in the small samples we can see that last year, the team’s outfield defense — generally with Justin Upton in left, Trout in center, and Jo Adell or Taylor Ward in right, with Brian Goodwin seeing substantial time at both corners as well — was a real problem across the board. This year, the problem is mainly confined to left field, where Upton has become incomprehensibly bad, with -23 DRS in 174 games over the past three seasons. To be fair, he’s dealt with some injuries that have cost him playing time, including patellar tendinitis and turf toe in 2019; his sprint speed that year was just in the 46th percentile, down from the 71st the year before, and he’s built back up to the 65th percentile. The quality of his jumps has declined considerably; where he was in the 56th percentile in 2017, he declined to the 28th percentile in ’18, and then the 11th last year and the ninth this year (he didn’t have enough playing time for a percentile ranking in 2019, mercifully).

Upton was four runs below average by DRS last year and is already six below this year. For as bad as his jumps are, his movement out there isn’t the biggest problem, though it’s worth noting that by Statcast, his average outfield positioning, at 310 feet away from home plate, is about 12 feet deeper than the average left fielder. By Statcast’s Outs Above average, he’s been at -2 (that’s plays, not runs) in each of the past two seasons, and -5 in 2019 — but none of those figures capture his throwing, which via a component of DRS (rARM) is already at -3 runs this year, and at -6 for the three-year period. He hasn’t made an outfield assist since 2019, and via the breakdown at Baseball-Reference, is 0-for-8 in forcing runners on second to hold up at third base instead of scoring on singles to left field this year. The other 14 AL teams have averaged about three such holds this year, and none of them has let everybody in that situation score.

As for Trout, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noted around the halfway point last year, he ranked in the first percentile (!) in outfield jumps according to Statcast, and in the eighth percentile in OAA. Petriello’s observations actually came to Trout’s attention and he resolved to work on those areas. He improved dramatically in OAA over the remainder of the season, finishing at +1 and in the 67th percentile, but his jumps still remained in the eighth percentile, and his -9 DRS was his worst mark since 2014 despite the shortened season (he had -4 DRS in 2019). He’s been a bit better this year by DRS (-2 in about half as many innings), with better jumps (21st percentile) and 1 OAA (62nd percentile). Things have been better in right field as well, where Jared Walsh is getting the bulk of the playing time since Dexter Fowler tore his ACL on April 9, ending his season.

As for the infield defense, it’s been a bigger problem this year than last, when it suffered due to Andrelton Simmons‘ sprained left ankle, which bumped David Fletcher over to shortstop for a time, overexposed Tommy La Stella at second base, and turned Simmons into a shadow of his usual fielding wizard self. He departed via free agency, and things have gotten worse. New shortstop José Iglesias has not been good (-3 DRS, -3 OAA), and third base has been a problem as well, as Anthony Rendon has played just 15 games while making separate trips to the Injured List for a groin strain and now a knee contusion after fouling a ball off his left knee on Monday. An above-average defensive third baseman during his time with the Nationals, Rendon has only been about average with the Angels. He’s gone from 6 DRS in 2019 to -1 for both last year and this one. That’s still an improvement over his fill-ins (primarily Luis Rengifo and Jose Rojas), who are at -4 DRS in about the same number of innings this season. Add it all up(ton) and basically, anything hit to the left side of the diamond has been real trouble for the Angels’ defense — and their pitching.

Turning back to the starting pitching, here’s a peek at the individual numbers:

Angels Starting Pitchers
Pitcher IP K% BB% K-BB% HR/9 BABIP ERA FIP E-F xERA
Shohei Ohtani 18.2 35.7% 22.6% 13.1% 0.48 .188 2.41 3.96 -1.55 3.81
Dylan Bundy 36.0 27.0% 6.1% 20.9% 1.25 .272 4.00 3.61 0.39 2.84
Griffin Canning 18.0 30.4% 8.9% 21.5% 2.50 .302 6.00 5.22 0.78 3.84
Andrew Heaney 24.0 35.1% 9.3% 25.8% 1.50 .286 5.25 3.69 1.56 3.36
Alex Cobb 21.1 30.4% 9.8% 20.6% 0.42 .431 5.48 2.50 2.98 3.79
Jose Quintana 17.0 31.5% 15.7% 15.7% 1.59 .477 10.59 4.58 6.01 5.40
All statistics are through May 5 and do not include relief appearances.

Even with his unsightly walk rate, Ohtani is the only starter with a lower ERA than FIP; as for the other five, their ERA-FIP gaps form an almost perfect geometric progression. Everybody except Bundy is walking too many hitters, and everybody besides Ohtani and the ex-Orioles is really struggling to keep the ball in the yard (note that the league-wide HR/9 for all starters is 1.22, which is actually the lowest it’s been since 2018), but everybody’s also missing a ton of bats, which keeps their FIPs in check. Cobb’s strikeout rate has nearly doubled from last year’s 16.8% as he’s gotten more swings and misses from his curveball, and Canning’s overall swinging strike rate has jumped from 11.7% to 17.7%, the majors’ largest jump.

Note here that I’ve included a new Statcast stat, xERA. It’s basically an expression of xwOBA on an ERA scale, which is to say that it provides an ERA estimate that accounts for quality of contact plus strikeouts and walks. Here we can see that while both Cobb and Quintana have BABIPs above .400, the former — who last year had a 6.49 xERA but is getting more grounders, fewer flies, and lower exit velos — has done a better job of preventing hard contact. Cobb’s barrel rate has dropped from 9.5% to 3.4%, and his hard-hit rate from 48.2% to 37.3%. Quintana, on the other hand, has just been pummeled, with a 12.8% barrel rate and 46.8% hard-hit rate, bad news considering he’s also walking the ballpark as well.

As a team, the Angels’ rotation results haven’t been pretty, but really, Quintana is the only one who’s been unpitchable. He could probably use a detour to the bullpen or (cough) the IL while Jaime Barria, who was solid last year (3.62 ERA and 3.66 FIP in 32.1 innings) but struggled in his lone appearance this year, gets another shot.

Beyond that, it’s really the defense that needs addressing. Hopefully Rendon will return and shore up the infield in short order, but Upton, who has struggled to pull his weight on the offensive side in recent years amid his defensive decline, might need replacing. Maybe that takes the form of a longer look at Ward (who was just recalled from Salt Lake City), with Walsh moving to left field when Adell is ready to return from the minors after a rough debut. That said, Walsh will likely figure into the team’s new first base plan with the sudden (but long overdue) release of Albert Pujols, which was announced on Thursday afternoon, so maybe replacing Upton will require an acquisition from outside the organization. One way or another, the Angels have to do something about their play behind this pitching staff if they’re to get back to the playoffs.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Today in Fangraphs: Jose Iglesias has not been as good as the Angels wanted. You know who’s pretty good at defense? Freddy Galvis! I bet he’s available!

docgooden85
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docgooden85

Is it cool with you if my team has neither of those dudes and nobody like that? I like my defense guys with a sprinkling of being able to fake being an just-below-average hitter.

Nats Fan
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Nats Fan

Went to check out Galvis’ numbers so fat this year and he is 29% above average.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

It’s funny how the Orioles are now 2-for-2 with taking a former Reds shortstop with a glove-first reputation and a wRC+ in the 80-90 range, sign him to a cheap contract, and suddenly he’s hitting way above his career norms. The Orioles are probably looking to dump Galvis before the magic pixie dust wears off.