Angels’ Playing Time Battles: Pitchers

Two weeks ago, we inaugurated what will likely still be a few more weeks of depth chart discussions in the form of playing time battles. RotoGraphs staff will discuss and assess noteworthy battles for playing time and/or starting gigs for position players and, separately, pitchers. Here, specifically, this author will investigate the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Both Orange and Los Angeles Counties‘ pitching situations.

As an Orange County native, this is not fun for me to write. It’s embarrassing. As it stands, the Angels project to record the 3rd-worst pitching WAR (wins above replacement) in all of baseball — worst in the American League. What proceeds will likely be more tirade than objective analysis.

The Good Part

The Angels are not short on depth. With at least eight legitimate starters at their disposal, the team likely won’t suffer any embarrassing midseason shortages, especially in light of a woefully shallow farm system.

OK, that’s it.

The Predicament

If a team wants to succeed, it should optimize its allocation of playing time to its most talented or effective players.

The Angels will very probably not optimize its allocation of playing time to its starting pitchers.

How to Optimize the Rotation

Deploy Matt Shoemaker, Nicholas Tropeano and Tyler Skaggs. Not in that particular order, depending on how you value or assess each of these names (or if you’re all into the hierarchical formalities of The Rotation) but, generally, yes: do this.

In 2015, Shoemaker did not make good on any of his promise from 2014, allowing a whopping 1.6 home runs per nine innings (HR/9) while regressing a tad in whiffs and control. But there are upsides to what was an otherwise ugly season: his strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB), despite falling from a stellar 5.17 to an alright 3.31, still ranked 37th among all pitchers who threw at least 130 innings. Moreover, his hard-hit and pull rates (Hard%, Pull%) didn’t even budge between 2014 and 2015 — in fact, Shoemaker allowed more soft contact than last year. The fly ball rate (FB%) crept up 3.3 percentage points, but after accounting for infield fly balls (IFFB%), his true outfield fly ball rate only increased 1.2 percentage points. Shoemaker’s pendulum swung a little too far in the wrong direction in 2015 and could be a great dollar play to fill out the back of a rotation or a nice in-season waiver wire addition.

Tropeano’s 3.82 ERA wasn’t so pretty — no thanks to a .346 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) — but among all starters who threw at least 30 innings last year, his 17.4 K-BB% ranked 28th and his 24.8 Hard% ranked 24th. The latter might help explain why, despite a precarious fly ball rate, Tropeano was able to stifle home runs in his small sample. But that’s just it — Tropeano’s 2015 season epitomizes the small sample and is, thus, a little hard to trust. Give the kid a full season and Steamer thinks he can be a 2.5-WAR starter — the team’s third-best mark. That projection comes with a wide margin of error, but it’s still upside — something Anaheim’s aging rotation does not boast.

Skaggs’ full-season projection of 3.0-WAR season would rank 2nd-best behind only Garrett Richards. Prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery, Skaggs exhibited Tropeano’s contact management but did so for three times as many innings alongside a much better ground ball rate (50.1 GB%). He reminds me of a poor man’s Marcus Stroman. That kind of output is, like Tropeano, far from guaranteed given Skaggs’ last 16 months on the shelf, but you can dream of the upside while you draft him for a buck.

How Not to Optimize a Rotation

Be a little too faithful to a pair of declining, ineffective veterans.

Jered Weaver will enter the last year of his contract with the Angels in 2016. He’s a lifer — he’ll likely make his 300th start with the team this season — but he fell to pieces in 2015. He lost a full three miles per hour (mph) on what was already one of the slowest fastballs in the game, which coincided with the erosion of his ability to control damage on fly balls. The Angels can choose to pay tribute to a lifelong player, or they can choose to compete. Weaver would be an expensive reliever, but he will likely be more valuable (read: less detrimental) to the team in short bursts out of the bullpen.

C.J. Wilson has thrown the lowest percentage of strikes among all qualified pitchers the last two seasons. Since 2005, only Ubaldo Jimenez and Barry Zito have thrown more innings than Wilson and also walked more hitters per nine innings. What I’m getting at is: the Angels also do not have to tolerate Wilson’s walk-happy ways with young arms waiting in the wings.

Hector Santiago manages to outperform his peripherals because of perennially low BABIPs allowed, but the unsightly fly ball and walk rates are, again, eyesores the Angels do not need to tolerate. But they will, probably.

The Consequences of the Angels’ Actions, Because UGH

Replace 178 innings of Wilson with 178 innings of Skaggs and the Angels add 1.0 in projected WAR.

Replace 167 innings of Weaver with 167 innings of Tropeano and they add 2.1 WAR.

Replace 143 innings of Santiago with 143 innings of Shoemaker and they add 0.9 WAR.

That’s four wins.

Four wins elevates the Angels from the 4th-most projected WAR in the AL West to tied for 2nd-most. That’s also good for 6th-best in the American League — a particularly important threshold to surpass.

If You Came Here Looking for Advice

Unless you play in a super-deep league where the waiver wire is utterly barren, Wilson, Weaver and Santiago are not worth your time in most leagues. Andrew Heaney doesn’t necessarily deserve the 5th-starter role over Shoemaker, Tropeano or Skaggs, but if the Angels were to optimize their rotation, he does deserve to be in the rotation.

Unfortunately, it will likely be Heaney, Shoemaker, Skaggs and Tropeano battling for the #5 gig despite them being the team’s best four pitchers behind Richards. Heaney, having spent a good deal of time in the rotation last year, will likely have the leg up for the spot. He doesn’t strike out a lot of hitters and also allows a lot of hard contact, making his elevated fly ball rate a bit worrisome.

If you asked me to rank them: Richards, Shoemaker, Tropeano, Skaggs, Heaney, Santiago, Wilson, Weaver

Shoemaker, Tropeano and Skaggs are fairly interchangeable because of how uncertain their playing times will be. All are wild cards, to an extent, but all have legitimate top-60-starter upside while they’re in the rotation. According to NFBC ADP, all three are being drafted outside the top-100 starters and top-400 overall. They will be bargains in any league and are worth a $1 stash if you can afford the space. Otherwise, keep an eye on them in the waiver wire. Given Weaver and Wilson may not be in Anaheim in 2017 (their contracts expire this year), they could be worth their dirt-cheap draft day investments in keeper and dynasty leagues.

The Profoundly Less-Eventful, and Less-Infuriating, Bullpen

It’s only a battle for statistical holds in Anaheim — a battle that Joe Smith won, albeit did not dominate, in 2015. With a sub-90 heater, Smith doesn’t blow anyone away. He does, however, induce enough ground balls to make him fairly effective and mostly safe as a late-innings guy. With 50 holds and 30 saves the last two seasons, he’s the obvious first candidate for the 8th-inning role.

Fernando Salas earned the next most holds. I don’t have the granular numbers here, but given how low his leverage index score was in 2015, he likely secured most of his holds when Smith earned saves, or he closed out blowouts. After mostly lackluster production with the Cardinals, Salas has put together two seasons that, given his peripherals, warrant giving him a more important role in the ‘pen — his 6.17 K/BB ranked 7th among all relievers. Unless Smith and/or Huston Street really struggle, though, he won’t see enough time to make him worth drafting in leagues that count holds but is certainly a name to remember.

Mike Morin was pretty filthy in 2015, striking out almost 10.5, and walking only 2.3, hitters per nine innings. He got BABIP’d to death, though, so his ERA betray his FIP in a big way. Entering his age-25 season, he could be the Angels’ closer of the future if the team simply exercises self-restraint and chooses not to pay Fernando Rodney again once Street departs.

Jose Alvarez sits at the other end of the spectrum — an uninspiring arm that actually allows very little hard contact en route to a suppressed BABIP and above-average ground ball rate. Only seven relievers allowed less hard contact than Alvarez.

Cory Rasmus deviated from expectations in a big way by striking out and walking way more hitters than he did in 2014. The fly ball rate is a bit troubling, and while it’s not necessarily more troubling than Morin’s, the added walks can be problematic. His true skill level probably splits the difference between 2014 and 2015, which is not particularly exciting among a pool of elite bullpen arms.

Currently investigating the relationship between pitcher effectiveness and beard density. Two-time FSWA award winner, including 2018 Baseball Writer of the Year, and 8-time award finalist. Featured in Lindy's magazine (2018, 2019), Rotowire magazine (2021), and Baseball Prospectus (2022). Tout Wars competitor. Biased toward a nicely rolled baseball pant.

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6 years ago

For the many of us who will consider drafting Garrett Richards as an SP#2 or SP#3, it would be nice to hear how dominating you think he will be as the Angels’ best pitcher.