Another year, another season where Angels pitchers find themselves struggling.
Angels pitchers currently boast the worst ERA (5.23) in the majors. It’s even worse when you look at their 5.61 total runs allowed-per-game (earned and unearned), also the highest figure in the majors. This is not new to the Angels, who posted one of the worst ERAs (4.49) from 2015-2020 and only bested the Miami Marlins in Wins Above Replacement (Fangraphs version). Once again, the Angels pitching woes can help explain why the Angels currently sit in last place in the American League West with a 16-20 record. Unlike past years, however, the Angels inflated 5.23 ERA is not supported by their underlying numbers.
In this piece, I’ll take a look at how the Angels have an ERA that is wildly out of proportion to what they’re doing beneath the surface. In addition, I’ll explore some of the main culprits for why this pitching staff has underperformed their underlying numbers. I’m not sure if this is supposed to make you feel better or worse about the Angels pitching staff. We’re used to bad pitching but maybe not decent pitching with substantially bad luck. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the 2021 Angels pitching staff and what the heck is going on.
Historically bad luck
I’m sure the last thing you want to hear is that Angels pitchers have been unlucky. Your head might explode when I tell you that they’ve been historically unlucky. In years past, Angels pitchers were both bad from a run prevention standpoint and a peripheral standpoint. In other words, the Angels were bad and essentially earned their extremely poor ERAs. That’s not necessarily the case for the 2021 Angels.
This table below shows the largest discrepancies between a team’s ERA and their Field Independent Pitching, otherwise known as FIP, in a single season in the Live Ball Era (since 1920). In essence, FIP strictly looks at strikeouts, walks, and home runs rather than straight run prevention. The Angels find themselves in not-so-good company.
That’s the entire list of pitching staffs with a full run (or more) difference between their ERA and FIP in the past century. The Angels are the only team to do so in the 21st century, a true testament to the Angels ability to put up historic numbers, for better or worse. What, exactly, does this mean for the Angels? Essentially, Angels pitchers are the worst staff at preventing runs but are basically a league-average staff when it comes to the combination of strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. Given that FIP is a much better indicator than ERA for predictive value, this is significant for the 2021 Angels.
If FIP isn’t your cup of tea, maybe you’re a fan of xFIP, which has the same underlying concept of FIP but normalizes a home run rate. By xFIP, the Angels are the 12th-best pitching staff with their 3.86 xFIP. Maybe you’re a fan of SIERA (Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average), which has similar principles but tries to account for the types of balls in play (ground-balls are better than fly-balls for pitchers, for example). By this measure, the Angels are middle of the pack with a 3.87 SIERA.
This all makes sense when you look at specific elements of the Angels pitching staff. Their 26.1 strikeout percentage ranks sixth in the majors, sandwiched between the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians. While they have the third-worst walk rate (10.8 percent), they’re roughly an average team in terms of home runs (1.22 HR/9) and strikeouts-minus-walks (15.3 percent). They’ve also produced the sixth-best ground-ball rate (46 percent), a good sign since grounders produce better results than fly-balls and line drives.
Roughly league-average command (strikeouts and walks) and home-run rates coupled with a strong ground-ball rate should lead to a much better ERA. Alas, here we are with the Angels and their MLB-leading 5.23 ERA. There’s another area worth exploring, too, that also back up the notion that the Angels have been unlucky.
A strong Statcast profile
One of the most beneficial developments of Statcast is batted ball evaluation. Instead of just assuming a guy can miss barrels or hit the ball harder than everyone, we now have the numbers to back that up. Furthermore, it’s a great way to discover pitchers who might have underwhelming strikeout/walk numbers but thrive from a batted ball perspective. Once again, the 2021 Angels find themselves as a major outlier.
The table below shows the top-10 pitching staffs in the majors based on Expected Weighted On-Base Average (xwOBA). xwOBA is basically an enhanced version of FIP because it looks at both quantity and quality of contact. Instead of strictly looking at outcomes, xwOBA tries to look at how a pitcher(s) should be performing based on how much contact a hitter makes and the type of contact they produce. In addition, you’ll see each team’s ERA+ (100 is average) and how big of an outlier the Angels are.
Once again, the numbers simply don’t back up the Angels posting the worst ERA in the majors. Eight of the top-10 teams by xwOBA also have a top-10 ERA+. The Astros find themselves with the 12th-best ERA+. The Angels are in dead-last. With a top-10 strikeout rate, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate, the Angels should be in a much better spot. Alas, they are not (again).
We’ve pretty much established that the Angels have the underlying numbers that indicate they’ve been unlucky. How exactly are they getting to this point? Here are the main culprits explaining why Angels pitchers have a bloated ERA.
BABIP, strand rate, and abysmal defense
The three concepts listed above are basically driving the poor team ERA. BABIP, Batting Average on Balls in Play, is exactly what it sounds like: what is the batting average on balls that are put in play (excluding strikeouts). This is a highly volatile number that has little predictive value from a team-wide level and can fluctuate quickly. Furthermore, BABIP numbers have drastically dropped in the 21st century thanks to rising strikeout rates and a now-deadened baseball. The current league-wide .284 BABIP is the lowest of the 21st century and lowest since the 1993 season.
Naturally, the Angels have a .321 BABIP that is far-and-away the highest in the majors. Once you account for the current context, it looks even more egregious. In the Live Ball Era, their 112 BABIP+ (12 percent higher than league average) is the third-highest mark bested only by the 2020 Phillies and Red Sox. Perhaps, the BABIP luck would make more sense if their pitchers were allowing a lot of hard contact with a low strikeout rate. They are not doing that, however, meaning current BABIP situation is awfully fluky.
The second area crushing Angels pitching is the inability to strand runners on base. No team has stranded runners at a worse rate than the Angels (66.1 percent). Again, this is wildly out of proportion as the league average is roughly 72 percent this season. Perhaps, this would make some sense if the Angels were a low-strikeout staff that allowed a lot of hard-hit baseballs. They are not though, as established above. It’s perplexing to have a top-10 pitching staff by strikeouts and quality of contact also have historically unlucky BABIP and strand rates. Both of these elements tend to normalize over time, meaning the Angels should see this regress in a positive way.
The last area, the poor defense, is not necessarily something that will normalize. It’s been well-established that the Angels defense has been a train wreck this season. No team has committed more errors than the Angels (33). They’ve booted a ton of routine baseballs, leading to more opportunities for runs and extended innings. Errors can be misleading in isolation, given that good defensive teams may reach more baseballs, which can lead to more error opportunities. The Angels are horrid beyond the errors, too, however.
No team has a worse defensive efficiency (converting balls into outs) than the Angels (65.4 percent). No team ranks worse by Defensive Runs Saved (minus 30 Runs). Statcast metrics back this up as well. They’re below-average in terms of Outs Above Average (Minus 4). Mike Trout has been the only regular who’s ranked above average in this department. They’ve been bad at getting to baseballs and making the easy plays, a recipe for disaster.
The BABIP and strand luck makes more sense when you account for the Angels bad defense. It doesn’t explain all of the bad luck, however. The bad run prevention numbers and bad Angels defense are definitely tied together but not quite to this extent. Some positive regression towards the norm should be coming, even if the defensive issues persist.
After years of pitching (and organizational) ineptitude, cynicism is not only warranted but expected as an Angels fan. The pitching issues are well-documented and, even despite the strong underlying numbers this year, are likely still present this year. This article wasn’t designed to convince you that Angels pitchers are good; I’m not convinced of that myself. I do, however, believe they’re much closer to a league-average unit than one would think. There is nothing in the underlying numbers that suggests the Angels should be this bad from a run prevention standpoint.
Angels pitchers have walked too many batters and the defensive woes are don’t help but this staff is doing a lot of things well. Missing bats, generating weak contact, and producing ground-balls are a great recipe for success. The issues this year aren’t as simple as “LOL Angels pitching”. There are meaningful things happening beneath the surface that suggest better things are coming. If and when they do, perhaps the Angels can start playing good baseball for the first time in quite a while.
*Special thanks to Baseball Reference, Baseball Savant, and Fangraphs for providing the statistics