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
Anyone notice the SF Giants in 1st? That is a great Organization. And by the way, SF’s Director of Pro Scouting is Zack Minasian. I believe that’s Perry’s brother.
“Baseball really is a glorified game of throw and catch. And if you don’t have guys who throw it really well, you can’t compete for long.”
Wonderful analysis well presented! Very fun to read. Hoping we can catch a break and revert to the mean. Or maybe we just keep lowering the standard even more. After all, in cases like these you just throw out the outlier usually, right? 😭
Glad to finally make a comment here. Been reading the whole time just haven’t pulled the trigger until now. This has to be the most perplexing season that I can remember. I know many of you are quite down on our pitching and it’s for good reason, but I see a squad that isn’t all that bad. Read the Fangraphs article that is very similar to Brett’s here (honestly, think Brett’s is better and more easily digestible) and after reading both am convinced this staff has the goods to support a nice winning streak real soon. We are not this bad. As I write this, we got a nice performance on the road from Canning tonight…in a losing effort, of course. I also think we have played a really difficult schedule which hasn’t helped and the injury bug hasn’t bitten, too.
Call me an optimist but I see a streak coming very soon.
I love the optimism. Right now the team is suffering from the ‘when they get pitching they don’t hit’ and ‘when they hit, they can’t pitch’ bug. If they can put it together they could go on a run.
Thanks for the article!
I already heard most if it on your podcast, but it was interesting to see it written here too.
I take it positive and looking forward to seeing some better pitching results. It can’t get worse anyway.
Here’s how I explain it: they stink
By the way – got my new CTPG t-shirt today. It’s awesome!!
Got mine today too. Huzzah! Now they need to start selling tickets for games later in the summer so I can be a fashion exemplar!
Angel pitchers obviously struggle with their ability to remain consistent. But why does Ohtani have that one bad inning every game? Why is Heaney fantastic in one outing, and then gets lit up the next?
One glaring problem I see with Angel pitchers is their command. Many of them struggle to hit the target the catcher sets up for them.
And then there is the baffling strategy of pitching away to a batter when the shift is on. I pull my hair out every time I see an Angel catcher set up away when the shift is expecting the batter to pull the ball.
Tired: ERA will approach the FIP, SIERA, etc. soon.
Wired: FIP, SIERA, etc. will approach the ERA soon. 🤪
When we add in all the variables of Bill James devotees Congress, all the numbers it would seem don’t add up to what is happening so keep digging until one finds what one is looking for. Funny Stuff Dept. What I know is there maybe some bad luck but it really is just bad pitching. Starters always will have some bad days and that their stuff just does not work. Relievers should be allowed some bad outings but not at the rate we allow runners to score. To our defense there are still to many Manfred HR’s being hit. But having ERA”s above 5 as a pitcher means that pitcher is bad and we can’t find a replacement so we use them over and over. And when we get into inherited runner’s scoring it is just flat out SMFH. And we are not in the position that Seattle was in 3 years ago and to start trading our good players for minor leaguers. If it is broke and fix it the old fashion way, Draft ’em.
Maybe the drafting of pitchers who now work for Amazon or Uber after 2 yrs is hurting after all especially when they’re mostly 5th thru 9th rd guys who can’t outhrow a 300 lb softball slow pitch beer leaguer. If only people could speak candidly off the record ( like in a underground parking lot or on a park bench or maybe out in the Mojave Desert ) about this team’s MO! Tony Reagins, Ed Bane, Jerry Dipoto, They’d all have a wealth of knowledge about this team’s stupid problems. I’ll stick to my conspiracy, Arte hired Billy Eppler on purpose to deliberately cripple the organization ( scouting & player development + the pitching, because he wanted to unload the team for 4 or 5 billion at the time. ). This team sucks sans 4 people and the only way out is through trial and tribulations ( 2011-2013 Houston Astros ). Jered Walsh, is awesome my silver lining of the day. 😣
2002 – do you just want an ongoing statement on every thread to the extent that “the team sucks, that management sucks, that there was a 9th round draft pick in 2015 that turned out better than any Angel draft pick that year and, generally, suck suck and more suck. Tony Reagins, Jerry DiPoto etc etc. Eppler and everyone else is awful.”
I’d be willing to stipulate to your having that same input on every thread. It might save you time and it would definitely save all of us from reading the same opinion over and over again regardless of whether it applies to the thread.
Brent provided us with a very interesting, well thought out analysis and you come back with ‘it all sucks except Walsh’. Seriously consider the concept of all of us agreeing that you have a standing objection and don’t need to say it over and over.
I remember there being a notion to bitch once and move on in the past.
You recently made a ludicrous comment that Andrew Heaney had a lot of ability.
2018 was his best year according to Baseball Reference ( 9-10 ). Oh I forgot those pesky Win Loss Records again……of course if Gerritt Cole had 14 losses in 2019 he wouldn’t MLB’s highest paid pitcher either. BTW his FIP that year was 3.99 ( not great at all ). He is what he ( 4th starter and a middle reliever on the Dodgers, but with us he’s a least a #3 ).
Again – we have heard all this. I respect your opinion but don’t need to hear it again and again. I’m not saying your comments are ludicrous- just repetitive.
What’s repetitive is the notion of guys who we all know aren’t very good at all will in fact be good ( sometimes if you’re either lucky or have very good scouting and player development, or good coaching like the Oakland A’s seem to magically do all the time and rehab a broken toy player ) we can overcome all of this. Bob Nightingale pointed this out on the Rodger Lodge radio show yesterday ( Billy Beane magically outsmarting everybody again, until the post season starts. ). Let these guys go and move on and get paid elsewhere or a chance to play in post season ball. That’s the secret of Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Devil Ray’s baseball. They’ve both accepted the fact that theyre like Alabama Football and Duke Basketball for MLB keep cranking out new talent or rehabbing a broken toy veteran player.
Fair enough. But then you have to have a really good scouting and player development system. I’ve given my opinion on how bad the Angel Organization is before so I won’t say it again.
So the Angels are what they are. A mediocre team with a few really good players and a poor Organization which does not meaningfully scout, draft or develop players.
No amount of repeating the same opinion over and over is going to change any of it. I suggest you accept that as a reality and stop letting it bother you so much that you keep repeating yourself on every thread. If it had even a 1% chance it would change anything, I’d say repeat away. But since it doesn’t – well you know.
Don’t forget Fletch. Besides him Walsh and Trouty and don’t pass on Rendon plus Ohtanisun. Bundy is a keeper too.
As for the method of the operations of Arte goes it’s don’t pay for relief pitchers period. He inherited FRod but come Free Agent time it was a no go. We traded for Street and for a season and a half he was great. Since then we have had nothing over the top great and because he saves money, not having a large scouting dept. he saves additional monies, And now we can not rely on just draft or develop our own and the FA market is not that strong. WAF. .
First – fantastic article and analysis. This is top drawer!
Your article really helps me to understand what I’ve been seeing with my eyes. I have thought that the pitching is not that terrible this season. In fact there have been really excellent stretches. Obviously the pitching hasn’t been great, but I haven’t felt that it has been as bad as being League-worst. This really clarifies the picture.
With a 160 to game season unlucky typically works itself out. Hopefully we will start seeing that.
How big of a loss defensively do you think Simba was? Iglesias has had a poor defensive season thus far for certain.
Multiple reasons the defense has been terrible. Pujols at 1B with zero range and not helping his defenders on less-than-perfect throws. Releasing him and allowing Walsh to be full-time 1B solves that.
Rojas has looked shaky filling in at 3rd and in the OF… but at least a healthy Rendon will solve that.
I also think Iglesias and Fletcher will step up. Both have shown to be fully competent MLB infielders in multiple prior years. They aren’t THAT old either.
When you have bad defense, it does get in the heads of the pitchers. I like this analysis. It tells me that the team really has an average pitching staff (plus Ohtani). But given that the team’s offense is going to be in the Top 5 this year, means there is still a good chance for 90+ wins and a contender to be in the playoffs. There’s still 126 games to go in the marathon. It’s only May 14. Things will revert to the mean.
2019 KC Royals had MLB’s second best fielding ( 59-103 that season ). That other Missouri team had MLB’s top fielding ( STL Cardinals ). Going to need a better season out of Justin Upton for sure ( he’s clearly lost his mojo since 2017 and he definitely sucks defensively ). meanwhile just saw JD Martinez play LF ( guy can still hit a ton but is a defensive liability just like Manny Ramirez was in the 2000’s and still won 2 WS’s with him and his greasy iron glove. )
Thanks for the great article Brent! I’m a big fan of all the work you do on twitter as well.
Just a few questions:
Am i understanding correctly that these are the numbers for the entire staff and not just the Starting Pitchers? I’ve actually seen improvements in the staff this year despite the bad results. Cobb, Heaney, Canning, even Quintana don’t have terrible underlying numbers. Quintana is running a 14 K/9!
1) How much more awful do these numbers get when we isolate for just the bullpen?
2) Also how much of the defensive woes do you think we can chalk up to bad positioning or bad shifts being employed?
I’m concerned that if there’s a new defensive shift Meta, the Angels are likely to be behind the curve on it.
The issues I referenced extend to both the rotation and bullpen, which speaks to a wider team issue.
In regards to your second point, I actually had a little Twitter thread about it, which you can read here. I have not found any evidence of the Angels employing bad shifting philosophies. In fact, they get a lot of soft, pulled ground-balls for both lefties and righties into their shifts. Again, the BABIP issue surfaces again, which is baffling with their strikeout/soft-contact numbers.
I think this is where analytics breaks down. It’s not as if the pitchers are merely giving up walks because they can’t hit the zone. Analytics can’t pick up intent. It’s because our pitchers are just good enough to effectively dance around the zone on purpose , but not good enough to challenge batters by throwing it in be strike zone. Nobody in the staff has the stuff. They assembled a whole staff the same way. Heaney, Canning and Bundy are all surviving in just enough until they throw it in there and then get blasted. Cobb too.
This will generate some of those slap hits, etc, but also the big blasts when they try to throw it in there. Bad defense doesn’t help, but it’s mostly slow OF D, by age and reaction. The OF D is probably expecting a hard line drive in case the pitcher does throw it in there. They might get bad jumps on some balls because they essentially play no doubles. Hence Upton playing deep. Our D can’t have confidence in the staff.
Point blank , it comes down to our pitchers simply not being good enough to be threatening, but very good at barely surviving with secondary pitches. It’s almost like we have a whole staff of CJ Wilson’s minus Ohtani. When Sho is pounding the zone, he’s in control. When he’s not, he’s pitching to Fletchers shit defense .
You look at Oakland, TB or the Dodgers and you see a full staff of pitchers who attack the strike zone with confidence. They control the contact of ball to bat, not the other way around.
I wonder if there’s a stat or camera that measures how effectively batters hit to our defensive positioning. I feel like I’ve seen many instances of batters swinging and hitting to specific spots on the field against us.
“It’s not as if the pitchers are merely giving up walks because they can’t hit the zone.”
This is a great point and speaks to the larger issue with shifts as a whole. The numbers back up the idea that command worsens while you’re in the shift. Given the Angels subpar numbers with the shift and these command issues, you’d think that they’d maybe step back a bit from it.
3 weeks ago during Angel’s Pregame Live Mark Gubicza, Jose Mota, and Patrick O’Neil broke down how misleading team pitching stats can be. Strikeouts is one of those categories that lie to us ( we were one MLB’s top strikeout leaders, but also walks and HR’s too ).
Sooooo….. stupid PTP and cheap Arte blew it again by not doing what it takes to put a quality product on the field ie going out and signing Andrew Luck to a five year 150M deal. I’m just not going to any Tuesday night games with a full moon against teams with animal inspired mascots anymore until we get a new owner!
He already did ( The Mike Trout Deal….Mike Trout is our Andrew Luck deal )
So what if he starts getting injury riddled all the time after turning 30? Not to worry though Jered Walsh to the rescue!! 😆 😫 We just gotta hope he doesn’t become disenchanted with baseball anymore like former NFL running back Ricky Williams and former Laker center Andrew Bynum……heee!! BTW go read what theyre saying about Trevor Lawrence….UH OH!!! Sports is funny and ironic!
Uggghhh, reading the numbers, reality sets in, and this pitching staff may actually be worse than I thought before the season, and I knew they were not going to be good, just like the past 6 or 7 years.
What’s most frustrating is they ARE doing things better than in years past. They’ve never had the underlying numbers quite like this. It makes it all the more annoying that they decided to have insane BABIP/strand rate luck this year.
I don’t think you understood what was being said. This staff under the surface is better than teams of the past at pitching well, but now the team is awful at defense and the bullpen is historically bad at stranding runners. Maddon’s tendency to do too much shifting is killing a pretty league average rotation.
I understand, but I don’t think the issue is all with the defense, they maybe better than their respective results, but this team just seems to bring out the opposite of luck in regards to pitching.The only pitching on this staff that is better than in past years is Ohtani and maybe Bundy. The rest are a crap shoot to even make it through the 4th inning. Sound familiar?
Yes. These pitchers are actually pitching better than past pitching staffs, making them worse than past pitching staffs. Indeed. I concur.
If only that worse defense could have stopped that 2 run shot from going out of the stadium Friday night then the pitching numbers would look better.
Is there a good way to evaluate who in the defense is responsible for the situation? On one hand, the inept defense, especially IF, has been fairly apparent, even in radio broadcasts (poss the final straw that broke Albert’s bag–he can’t even field any more), but I still find it a bit hard to believe that this crew should be quite so bad.
There is Outs Above Average from Baseball Savant, but it only paints a fraction of the picture.
Iglesias is the “worst” at -3. As he was +2 in 2020 and +10 in 2019, it’s not too concerning, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
Walsh is also a culprit, at -2. Interestingly, both came when he played in the infield, which runs counter to what we may have expected.
Additionally, the Angels don’t have any superstar defenders. Everyone’s gotta chip in and be average.
Individual defensive player evaluations in smaller samples can be a tad tricky but Outs Above Average is probably your best bet.
I’m with you on the last point. It’s baffling that they’ve been this bad. They’ve been downright horrible by every measure. Trout’s basically the only guy who rates out well right now.
This actually encourages me. Just plain terrible pitching can’t be saved. But Fletcher has looked like shit. Rendon’s been out hurt. Iglesias looks a little lost and Walsh…. well, I’ll take what I can get from the new guy as long as it’s not a matador at 1B. We’ve even had the weaker defensive players in RF (instead of Lugares/Schebler) while Upton is Upton. This pile leads to pitchers being cute and trying too hard, leading to walks.
I think if Rendon and Fletcher get solid it will help Iglesias. More ground balls will make outs. Fewer walks will be issued. The OF defense will probably also get a little better when RF isn’t as much of a train station. I don’t think any of this happening is all that far fetched and the team will play a lot better once it happens.
The bad defense has been so weird. I think many expected some OF struggles but the infield seemed like a strong bet to produce. Instead, we’ve seen a really bad unit, which is partially explained by Rendon’s absence but also a wildly underperforming season from Iglesias.