Don’t ignore .500 Angels: Certain stats claim club will be tough to beat

The Angels lead the majors with 37 home runs through Tuesday.

Alex Gallardo/AP

After a disappointing second-place finish in 2011, the Los Angeles Angels decided to become New York Yankees West and attempted to buy their way back into the playoffs.

They gave $240 million to Albert Pujols and $78 million to C.J. Wilson. Toss in the promotion of a young star named Mike Trout, and no one added more talent to their 2012 roster than the Angels.

The result? A modest three-win improvement that resulted in finishing in third place in the AL West rather than second, and a second consecutive season without October baseball.

So they doubled down and threw more money at their problems: $123 million to Josh Hamilton, $15 million to Joe Blanton, $8 million to Sean Burnett and $3.5 million to Ryan Madson.

The returns were even worse, as Hamilton was an unmitigated disaster and Blanton was among the worst pitchers in baseball. Madson never even threw a pitch for the organization as the Angels finished third again. But this time they finished below .500 at 78-84.

Two winters of spending over $450 million in future commitments — during the same two years that Trout emerged as one of baseball’s best players — and the team managed back-to-back third-place finishes.

For the first month of 2014, it’s just more of the same, as LA stands 13-13 — following Tuesday’s 6-4 win over Cleveland — with a game to go in April. Except this year, it might actually be different. This Angels team is actually showing signs of being pretty good.

AROUND THE HORN

Let’s start with what they do best: Hit the tar out of the ball. After 26 games, they have a team wRC+ of 116wRC+ is designed so that 100 is average, so the Angels hitters have been 16 percent above average — best in the American League, and second only to the Colorado Rockies among all of Major League Baseball. Sure, the Rockies play at a high altitude and the Angels play in a pitcher-friendly ballpark at sea level, but the Angels actually have the highest Isolated Slugging percentage in the majors.

With Pujols showing some real power again — as noted a few weeks ago — no player as good as he has been had declined this quickly, so a rebound season shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Plus, with solid contributions from role players up and down the lineup, the Angels rank among the top of the AL in offensive power stats, leading the league in homers.

That’s with Hamilton and Kole Calhoun spending a good chunk of the season on the disabled list. So with two of its regular outfielders on the shelf, Mike Scioscia’s club is hitting better than most major-league teams so far. This roster has all the makings of a lineup that is going to score a lot of runs this year.

Of course, offense wasn’t really a problem for the Angels last year either, yet they still finished six games under .500. Scoring five runs per game is great unless the pitching staff is giving up more. But the Angels don’t look like they’re going to give up six as often this year.

A year ago, the Angels received a combined 58 starts from Tommy Hanson, Joe Blanton and Jerome Williams. The best ERA among them as a starter was 5.06. Meanwhile, the final two rotation spots were a revolving door of struggles. This made starting pitching GM Jerry DiPoto’s primary goal to fix in the offseason.

He shipped slugger Mark Trumbo to the Diamondbacks for a pair of pitchers, Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. Skaggs by himself would have been a nice return, and he’s already paying dividends (2-0, 3.34 ERA in five starts through Tuesday). Toss in the potential breakthrough performance by young fireballer Garrett Richards (2-0, 2.53 in five starts) — the 25-year-old right-hander with the highest average fastball velocity thus far — and the Angels suddenly have a rotation that doesn’t fall apart after Jered Weaver and Wilson.

So, why are they sitting at .500, yet again?

Fixing the bullpen has proven a little trickier for DiPoto than fixing the rotation. Ernesto Frieri has already pitched himself out of the closer’s role, and the middle relief crew hasn’t exactly clothed themselves in glory either. However, upgrading a bullpen in midseason is easier to pull off.

The short shelf life of relievers makes rebuilding teams view any bullpen arm as replaceable. Any team looking more to the future is likely willing to discuss a trade for about almost any member of its relief staff. If the Angels need to add a couple of relievers before the July 31 trade deadline, there will be relievers to add, and the Angels’ second-half bullpen likely won’t resemble the one that was trying to protect leads in April. 

If the Angels bullpen is even remotely adequate, with the way the rest of the team is performing, Los Angeles could be very dangerous over the next five months.

Early-season win-loss records aren’t particularly predictive because of all the variables that can swing the results of a few dozen games, but drill down and look at each team’s core performances to see how we might expect each team to play going forward.

THE 500-HOME RUN CLUB

One of my favorite ways to look at a team’s overall performance is by their wOBA differential, which is basically just a fancy way of looking at which team’s offense has created more positive events than their pitching and defense has allowed, without caring about mostly random things like the sequence in which those events occurred.

Through the first 26 games, the best wOBA differential in baseball belongs to the Oakland A’s, with the Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers not too far behind. Not surprisingly, the A’s, Braves, and Brewers are all in first place in their respective divisions.

But just behind those teams stand the Rockies and the Angels, the two clubs who are bludgeoning their opponents and pitching well enough to expect a good record. The Rockies are 16-12, but the Angels stand just 13-13, the only team in the top five in wOBA differential to not have a winning record at the moment. Some of that is LA’s poor bullpen performance, but some of that is just noise that will cancel out over the course of a six-month season.

Teams that hit, pitch, and field like the Angels have this season win 90-plus games, even if they don’t have a great bullpen. It hasn’t shown up in their W-L record yet, but the Angels are finally playing like the team that owner Arte Moreno thought he bought two years ago.

It’s taken a while to get here, but this Angels team finally looks like it could live up to its payroll.