The 2018 Angels Are Closing the WAR Gap

Owner Arte Moreno, Manager Mike Scioscia, Shohei Ohtani, General Manager Billy Eppler and President John Carpino pose for a photo after a press conference at Angel Stadium in Anaheim on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017. (Photo by Kevin Sullivan, Orange County Register/SCNG)

By Brent Hubbard, Feature Columnist – 

I like it when the Angels are among the best teams in the AL. I like it when they win.

I know that the statement above is silly and obvious. I think, however, that complacency has set in since the off-season of 2009-2010, when our free agents all left and our big add was what Hideki Matsui? Even with Pujols and Trout, the Angels have only made the playoffs once in the last 8 seasons.

And the problem is not the same each year. Some years they have led the AL in runs scored, some seasons they’ve been near the bottom. They had arguably our best pitching season ever (or at least under Scioscia) in 2011, with two average starters and three great ones. They’ve had bad bullpens and surprisingly good ones. They have had injuries and under performances, surprises and reaches, plus the game’s best player and MVP for six years.

But that’s the past. And in 2017 whatever the cause, they were a middle of the pack team. 80-82, 21 games behind the Astros, who won the AL Pennant at 101-61 and 22 behind the Indians, who had the best record in the AL at 102-60.

The Angels then have a bit of a gap to make up. A WAR gap to be specific. All of my figures are from Baseball Reference’s calculation on the WAR stat, that is Wins Above Replacement.

The Astros and The Indians were the two best teams in the AL this past year by record, but they did so in different ways. The Astros had a superior offense, scoring 896 runs and posting nearly 40 WAR from their batters (39.8). The Indians had 33.3 WAR from their pitchers, which is far and away the best in the league. The Astros only managed 13.4 WAR from their pitching staff, while the Indians were more even and managed 27.6 from their batters. Each team then had over 50 WAR with the Astros at 53.2 and the Indians at an amazing 60.9.

The Angels managed 18.2 WAR from their batters and 12.7 from their pitchers. That’s a total of 30.7.

They have a big WAR gap to get over to get near the top teams in the league.

Can the Angels pick up enough WAR next year to close this gap? Adding 20 to 25 WAR being the goal.

That’s a lot. Is it doable?

By all accounts, the Angels have had a spectacular offseason so far. But before we get to the acquisitions, lets assess the performance of the holdovers. Re-signing August 31st acquisition Justin Upton to fill the hole in left field cannot go understated from its impact. They acquired Upton for prospects to replace Maybin, Revere and Young in left on August 31st. Upton has had multiple 5 WAR seasons in his past few years and he will certainly provide a boost to the Angels in 2018. He’s possibly worth 3 additional WAR over the collection of left fielders in 2017.

Also, because they have the best player in baseball, we should of course mention that with Trout more likely to play the entire year that may be one of the biggest “splashes”. Trout only managed 6.7 in an injury-shortened campaign in 2017. Yet, Trout was on pace for his best year ever offensively, perhaps another 10+ WAR season.  If you look at the possible improvement by a healthy Trout, you could be looking at 3 to 4 more WAR.

There have been a few articles recently, before all the offseason acquisitions started happening, about how the Angels hope to improve with their current players. Valbuena and Calhoun put up sub-par numbers last season as compared to their previous seasons, but the biggest improvement with other current players has to come with Albert Pujols.  Whether Pujols gets back to 2014-6 form or just plays less, he was worth negative -1.8 WAR last season, and that simply can’t continue. I don’t know if he can give them 3 WAR as a DH, even if he plays twice or three times a week against lefties, the WAR formula makes that pretty hard to do. But getting back to 2016 form where he managed 1.4 would be a 3.2 WAR pickup, so that would go a long way. These three guys may be able to get 3-4 additional WAR combined, just by not slumping. Pujols will likely play less and so will Valbuena. So let’s just say Pujols gets 3 WAR (from -1.8 to 1.2) and Valbuena picks up 1.5 (from 0.0 to 1.5) and additional Calhoun picks up 1 additional WAR (from 2.1 to 3.1) then you’re at an additional 5.5 WAR combined.

Also on the same note, just by eliminating the guys who put up negative WAR, the Angels can go a long way. The Astros had only 5 players with negative WAR, on the batting side, one was a pitcher, one a catcher, the others were AJ Reed, Cameron Maybin, and Carlos Beltran. A total of -1.2 WAR.

The Angels managed to run out players at the bottom who made -4.8 WAR. (Includng Pujols). A lot of that came from second base. Danny Espinosa was worth -1.3, Nolan Fontana -0.3 and Brandon Phillips -0.2.

Getting a regular second baseman that could put up 2+ WAR would be a huge improvement, being as much as 4 WAR gain. Of course, there were not a lot of those on the free agent market. So the Angels traded for former enemy and new leadoff batter, Ian Kinsler. Kinsler had a down year in 2017, but even a down year for him was still worth 2.1 WAR.

However, his previous four seasons (from ages 31-34) averaged 5.7 WAR! Even if you account for somewhat of a downturn, a 4.0 is definitely possible and a 6 WAR season is not outside of the realm of possibility. That is a stunning increase, as the black hole that was 2B since Kendrick was traded is now an asset, and as much as a 7 WAR switch.

Originally, Eppler and company approached free agent shortstop Zack Cozart about playing 2nd, who despite not playing a full season, had an offensive breakout in 2017. He was a 4.9 WAR player at shortstop in 2017, hitting .297 with a .385 OBP and a .548 SLG. He was equally good on the road and at home, and even though it was a power spike, it was actually better on the road than in Cincinnati’s bandbox of a stadium. From the MLB Trade Rumors article regarding the signing. Those of the mind that his power spike was in any way tied to his hitter-friendly home park in Cincinnati, though, should also take note that 12 of Cozart’s 24 homers came on the road, and his .279 road ISO handily topped his .230 mark at home.

Hopefully, he can recreate some of that offensive magic in Anaheim as the Angels, after acquiring Kinsler, decided to ask if Cozart would instead switch to third base instead of switching to second. Cozart putting up a similar offensive season would be fantastic, and he can back up Simmons at SS as well. So I’d hope to put his offensive contribution at 3rd as maybe a 3.5-4 WAR season, hoping for a repeat offensive and defensive performance.

In 2017 at third, I mentioned Valbuena’s contribution earlier as effectively replacement level, Escobar was worth 0.4 and Jefry Marte’s negative -0.7 WAR disappearing in this situation, also helps. Overall, the Angels added a player who was 4.5 wins better than what they had there last season (0.4). Let’s hope for 3 additional WAR from the 3B position in 2018.

The last position of need is 1B. I originally advocated for Eric Hosmer or Carlos Santana here, but the Angels went a different route. Instead of adding a free agent or trading for a full-time first baseman, they turn to a three-headed monster of Valbuena and Pujols, plus incumbent CJ Cron.

I’d expect Pujols to play against 2 days a week at first, maybe three if there is 7 games that week. I expect him to get a similar same number of starts at DH, and a day off each week to keep him healthy. This will result in 60-65 starts as the 1st baseman, and probably 70-75 starts at DH, for 135 games played.

This means roughly 100 starts left over for Valbuena at 1st, and they need his lefty bat in the lineup. Cron is cheap insurance, but also out of options, so he may be moved in a trade sooner or later. Cron was worth roughly 0.8 WAR last year in his time at 1st, and I think that will be effectively neutral, having already accounted for Valbuena and Pujols’s likely increased production, whether Cron gets 40-50 starts at 1st when Valbuena plays 3rd, or the Angels sign a right handed bat to backup the OF and play 1st, or go with a Catcher who can do the same. Overall, it should be better at 1st, but I’ve already accounted for the increase.

One can only hope for similar performances from C and SS, but even a slight regression there may only be 1-2 WAR, which is fine, and they may even improve should Simmons take another step offensively like he did in the first half and Maldonado also may improve offensively, or they could improve at the backup position. But lets hope for neutral.

With improved production and health from the offense, the 20 WAR they need can come entirely from the offensive side. The Angels had the salary space to add multiple players, they have opened the season the past two years in the mid 160 M’s in actual payroll, and would sit at just over 137 M if they kept all of their arbitration eligible players. This leaves roughly 30M in real payroll to address 2B, 3B, and 1B, which isn’t a lot, but they did it, adding Kinsler for 11M and Cozart for 12.7M. They also added Jim Johnson in a trade that completed the bulk of their shopping.

Yes, except for one guy, but I’ll get to him in a minute.

On the pitching side, I doubt the Angels will sign anyone else of note. They did add a starter, and I simply can’t see them adding another one, which would likely take them over the luxury tax threshold. The two best names being Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta, whereas next offseason there are significantly better pitchers available.

Free agent relievers Wade Davis, Greg Holland, and Addison Reed scare me for the money. A lot of relievers cashed in this offseason, and it was probably wise to stay out of the bidding. The Angels did lose outstanding minor league contract surprise pitcher Yusmiero Petit, but could still sign Bud-Norris. Overall, though the Angels did have a decent pen this last season, and a return to the pen from swingman and 2017 starter JC Ramirez may go along way.

But back to the WAR Gap…Cleveland had an amazing 33.3 WAR from their pitching staff. Kluber led the way with a deserving Cy Young winning year (an MVP caliber year too) and 8 WAR. Carlos Carrasco gave them 5.4 WAR, former Angels farmhand Mike Clevinger gave them 3.2 WAR, and Trevor Bauer 3.1. Their top four starters gave them nearly 20 WAR (19.7). The rest of the rotation gave them another 3 WAR in Danny Salazar, Josh Tomlin, and Ryan Merritt combined.

Their bullpen led by Andrew Miller, Closer Cody Allen, Zach McAllister and the aforementioned Bryan Shaw added 6.8 WAR, while the rest of the pen gave them 3.7. Only one pitcher pitched below replacement value and that was only -0.1 WAR.

The Angels didn’t come close here, but neither did the Astros.

The Angels top starting pitcher by WAR was Parker Bridwell at 2.0, followed by JC Ramirez at 1.7, then Garrett Richards at 1.1 (in just 6 starts). Overall, their starters were worth, 7.3 WAR as opposed to Cleveland’s 19.7.

In relief, they weren’t close either with Blake Parker at 1.7, Yusmiero Petit at 1.6, and David Hernandez at 1.0. Total from the pen was half of Cleveland’s pen (10.8 vs 5.4).

They had 12 guys post slightly better than replacement values (between 0.1 and 0.8). They also had 9 players post lower than replacement between -0.1 and -0.4 WAR.

Going into next year, they hope that they can get more innings from guys like Richards, Skaggs, Shoemaker, and Heaney, and that in turn will propel this 12.7 WAR closer to 20. I’m not sure if that will happen, but Richards is capable of a 4+ WAR season or higher as he did in 2014, that would help. Shoemaker and Skaggs also reaching that mark, and getting 2.0 WAR from Heaney and whomever the sixth starter is would also help break 20. Let’s hope for 15.5 WAR from the returning staff, with Richards giving us the most of returning starters at 4.5 WAR, Skaggs finally pitching to his ability at 3.5 WAR, Shoemaker, Bridwell and Heaney all hitting the 2.5 WAR spot.  That’s 15.5 WAR from the returning starters, an increase of 2.8 WAR.

Lastly, finding diamonds in the rough like Petit, Norris, and Parker may not happen every season, but guys like Middleton and Bedrosian are also capable of jumps forward. Plus Parker is back, and likely to be the closer. Ramirez likely goes back to the pen, and gives them hopefully a similar impact as he did in 2016. I’d recommend re-siging Norris if they can and taking a risk on a guy or two on minor league deals, hope to hit the reliever lottery again. If you can get another lefty reliever, I’d do that too. Let’s hope they are effectively neutral in the pen.

But the bottom line is there isn’t a lot of money to spend here and the Angels should be able to increase their pitching WAR somewhat from their current staff.

The one wild card, of course, is Shohei Ohtani. Japan’s “Babe Ruth” is the Angels #1 acquisition of the offseason.

What potential difference a frontline starting pitcher and part-time DH/OF Bat would have is potentially significant but unknown. As he is a non-factor for salary, being under club control, he would take the place of a young reliever or starter, without any salary ramification.

That makes him appealing if he was just league average. Scouting Reports vary, but if he was truly a two-way player, there aren’t any examples. He supposedly has Ichiro level speed, Matsui power, and can pitch like Hideo Nomo in his prime. That can’t all be true, but if it is, he could rival Mike Trout for potential WAR impact.

There are a lot of projections for Ohtani the pitcher, and he definitely has frontline stuff. As a hitter, projections vary, but he could also be an impact player there. Systems like WAR though have their problems with a player like Ohtani, as a pitcher, his offensive contributions are weighed against other pitchers, so even as a league average hitter, the WAR impact would be insane. So I’d bet the good folks at Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs calculate his WAR impact separately, as though he never hit as a pitcher (like some American League pitchers do not) and then judge him as a part-time DH.

He supposedly doesn’t like to hit when he pitches, but you’d have to think at least one or two starts will come in National League parks, so he will likely do both at least one time this year.

If you consider he is likely to get 80 games as the DH, his offensive value could be significant, but the main impact is likely to come on the mound. If the Angels go with a six-man rotation, or even a 5.5 man rotation (skipping a guy when his start falls on an off day), which seems likely, it means that they are on a six-day schedule.

On such a schedule: Ohtani pitches the first day, and takes the day off the second, then he hits as the DH for three consecutive days, then takes the day off the day before he pitches again.

He’d likely get 27 or 28 starts this way with 160 IP, so that could be worth 3 WAR or 5 WAR depending on how well he does. And as a hitter, maybe 350 plate appearances at 120 OPS+?  Some of that will replace others value I’ve stated above, but adding a 4-5 WAR starter is legit. Say he adds an additional 2-3 WAR as a hitter, he’s worth at least 5-6 additional WAR to the Angels in his first year.

He is a unique player and if he hits as well as Ichiro or Matsui, or even 80% as well as the two of them combined, and pitched like Noah Syndergaard, whom he has been compared to stuff wise, it’s tough to calculate his total impact on the team WAR, but perhaps it’s as high as 8-10 WAR between his pitching and hitting? That would be excellent. It stands to reason the Angels and other teams like him as a pitcher more than a hitter, but we won’t know where his biggest impact comes until he actually suits up.

Overall, then with modest return to health and a increase in production from their acquisitions, I can easily see the Angels topping 45 WAR from this team, maybe even as high as 60 WAR if everything goes right (My bold projections for each position are my best case options).

As the replacement level is set at 48 wins, that means the Angels could win anywhere from 93 to 108 wins, which is pretty close to what I think their win range is going into 2018. Thus, they have effectively closed the WAR Gap with their additions this offseason. They are looked at as a wild card contender because Houston just won the World Series, but I think Houston will be a few wins shy of their total last year, due to a World Series hang over, and the Angels can take advantage of this.

I hope they are good and I hope they win, because like I said, I like it when they win.

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