The Angels Were the Best at Something

The Angels: what a case study in weird this team is. Here are a few things to consider about them, if this is your first time reading about baseball:

  1. The Angels have the best player in baseball, Mike Trout.
  2. The Angels, as a whole, are not a good team.
  3. The Angels have a pitching staff held together by chewing gum, rubber bands, and Cam Bedrosian.
  4. The Angels have a farm system held together by chewing gum, rubber bands, and Jahmai Jones.

It’s easy to make fun of the Angels — and don’t worry, we’ll do that — but they’re infinitely more interesting than your run-of-the-mill bad baseball team. This isn’t the Braves we’re talking about here. The Angels aren’t in full-on tank mode, and even if they were, they have Trout making them not completely horrendous through sheer force of will. Despite their poor 2016 season, they didn’t even finish in last place in their division, because Oakland exists — and, again, Mike Trout. However, the Angels did do something well in 2016 besides provide the best player on the planet with meaningful employment.

Los Angeles finished in the bottom half of baseball in terms of scoring runs, yes — and fared even more poorly by that measure after accounting for park and league — but they also managed to record the majors’ lowest strikeout rate as a team. If you had to guess which team was the best at not striking out, the Angels would probably be something like your 12th guess. Outside of Trout, the team has been so bland on offense that you can’t really think of anything interesting they do. I’m glad we have this chance to talk about something that the Angels did besides providing Tim Lincecum with the chance to throw batting practice.

The Angels struck out in 19.2% of their plate appearances in 2015, which put them in the upper third of the league in terms of avoiding punchouts. That mark was at 20.1% in 2014, and they brought it all the way down to 16.4% this year. That’s pretty darn good. How’d they manage to do that? Here’s how.

  1. Most of the returning players got better about swinging at strikes; and
  2. They replaced two of their regulars with players who strike out a lot less.

What does that mean, exactly? Consider the following.

Angels’ Third Base and Shortstop, 2015 vs. 2016
Pos 2015 Player K% 2016 Player K% Diff
3B David Freese 22.8% Yunel Escobar 11.8% -11.0%
SS Erick Aybar 11.4% Andrelton Simmons 7.9% -3.5%

Aybar’s 11.4% certainly wasn’t bad by any means. It was actually pretty good. But Simmons has a supernatural ability to strike out once every few years when compared to the rest of the league, so there’s that. Escobar’s game is also much more contact-oriented than Freese’s.

The teamwide improvement wasn’t merely a product of two new acquisitions, however. The players who remained on the club also experienced greater contact outcomes. The following table includes only those players who saw extended playing time with both the 2015 and 2016 versions of the Angels, as well as Simmons and Escobar. These players account for the lion’s share of the team’s plate appearances.

What the Angels Got Better At
Player 2015 K% 2016 K% 2015 O-Swing % 2016 O-Swing %
Mike Trout 23.2% 20.1% 24.4% 23.0%
Albert Pujols 10.9% 11.5% 31.2% 32.1%
Kole Calhoun 23.9% 17.6% 31.8% 30.7%
Andrelton Simmons 8.2% 7.9% 28.3% 27.6%
Yunel Escobar 11.8% 11.8% 28.4% 27.3%
C.J. Cron 20.3% 16.9% 39.4% 38.0%
Johnny Giavotella 11.8% 10.6% 27.4% 30.3%

Those are decreases across the board, except for Pujols, who turned 36 and is feeling his massive frame slow down ever more so slightly. There are some weird little quirks here (Giavotella’s O-Swing bump, for one), but let’s focus on the new guys for now. Both swung at fewer pitches out of the zone, even though Escobar’s K% stayed the same. Simmons’ K% did fall, though, ever so slightly. Part of that may have been due to the fact that he was no longer playing in the same division as the Mets, Nationals, and Jose Fernandez. Part of that may have been due to better selectivity, or the fact that his batting average jumped 16 points.

In fact, none of these decreases observed here were of the titanic variety. This could all be one big coincidence. That happens sometimes in baseball! Weird statistical anomalies develop, especially with lower-level things like O-Swing%. All of these numbers could regress upwards in 2017, this article could turn into an irrelevant relic that collects internet dust, and it wouldn’t be surprising in the least. That’ll probably happen either way, actually.

But the fact remains that it’s interesting to see those little improvements almost entirely across the board, including with the two outside acquisitions. The Angels promoted Dave Hansen to the role of hitting coach before the start of the season, so maybe this is an area on which he focused in particular. If that’s the case, it worked.

The Angels didn’t have a ton go right for them in 2016. Trout won his second MVP award, and, err… I’m sure something else happened that was good. Cam Bedrosian had a good rookie year! Tyler Skaggs came back! That’s progress! On the whole, though, it was another ugly year, and another year of wasted brilliance from Trout.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t cool that the Angels, of all teams, were the best at not striking out. Clearly that’s not the magic bullet for having offensive success, but it’s fun.

Look, there hasn’t been any news in days. We’re starved for fun things around here. Let me have this. Please, GMs. Make a dang trade or two. We’re dying out here.

Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.

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Pwn Shop
7 years ago

The Angels were the best at *not* doing something. Typical.