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The Success of the Angels: Luck or Skill?

The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are having a fantastic season. They have already sewn up a spot in October and have the best record in baseball. However, much of their success has been predicated on timely hitting and pitching, neither of which is likely to continue.

This season

First of all, let’s look at the Angels’ pythagorean "expected" win totals. Based on runs scored and runs allowed, the Angels’ 91-57 record (editor’s note: all statistics do not include Sunday’s games) "should" be 81-67. But beyond that, their third-order expected record "should" be 77-71. By this measure, they’re outperforming their true skill level by a whopping 14 games.

Part of the reason for this overperformance is that the Angels have been dramatically better in the clutch, all season – both pitchers and hitters.

Somehow, nearly every single one of their pitchers this season has outpitched his FIP. In fact, of all Angels pitchers who have pitched at least 20 innings this season, only four of twelve have underperformed their FIP. And of those four, two are Dustin Moseley and Darren O’Day, who have pitched 40 and 41 innings, respectively. Both men have been unlucky, but they have accounted for a mere 6% of the Angels overall innings pitched. Furthermore, the other two men who have underperformed their FIP have done so by only the slimmest or margins: Ervin Santana has a 3.36 ERA and a 3.33 FIP, and Jered Weaver sports a 4.25 ERA and 4.10 FIP.

Meanwhile, eight of the Angels’ main 12 pitchers have performed better than their FIP, and many of them have a large difference between their ERA and FIP. Take a look:


Thus, it should come as no surprise that their team FIP is 4.18, while their actual ERA is 3.88. Over 1328 innings, that is a difference of 45 runs, or four and a half wins.

Some of this could be because of their defense. However, the Angels defense is only slightly above-average: according to Justin’s stats (hat tip to Sky), the Angels have the 12th best defense in baseball. The Angels also have the 8th best defensive efficiency, at .705.

So their defense is above-average. But it’s not amazing; and it’s certainly not worth four and a half wins. No, the main reason why the Angels’ actual ERA is lower than their FIP is that Angels pitchers have pitched particularly well with runners on base.

With no one on base, Angels pitchers have allowed the 12th lowest OPS in baseball. But with men on base, Angels pitchers have allowed the 5th lowest OPS. This explains how they are tied for second-highest strand percentage in the AL (74%). The only team with a higher strand percentage is Toronto (at 75%), who has both a lower ERA and lower FIP than the Angels, meaning they should strand more runners because they have better pitchers. (Incidentally, the Angels are tied with Tampa Bay, who also has a lower ERA and FIP than the Los Angeles).

Okay, so, Angels pitchers have pitched better with men on base than no one on base, leading to a higher-than-expected strand percentage and fewer runs allowed. They have beaten their FIP (partly because of their pitching with men on base). What about their hitters?

With no one on base, Angels hitters are batting .249/.307/.381, good for a .688 OPS – 26th "best" in baseball. But once they get someone on base, the rest of the lineup magically transforms into excellent hitters: with men on base, the Angels are batting .288/.353/.444. Their .797 OPS with men on base is good for 9th best in baseball. That’s quite an improvement.

So Angels pitchers have excelled at leaving runners on base. And Angels hitters have excelled at driving in runners. But how much of that has to do with luck?

We can see if Angels hitters and/or pitchers have had a history of performing better with men on base. The following chart details where Angels pitchers rank, in terms of OPS allowed, with no one on base and with men on base, since the year 2000:


As you can see, even though Angels hitters have been better with men on base for the last two years, since 2000 they have been better with men on base only five times in nine years. That’s exactly what we’d expect, if our hypothesis was that any team has a 50/50 chance of being better with men on base in any given year.

What about the hitters? This is a little more murky. The Angels – and Mike Scoscia, specifically – are known for a unique brand of baseball that emphasizes the "little" things, like taking the extra base, "productive" outs, and manufacturing runs. This is generally eschewed in sabermetric circles, but maybe Scoscia is on to something:


The Angels have hit better with men on base in six of the last nine years. Of course, this could very easily be attributed to luck as well: if you flip a coin nine times, there’s a decent chance that you’ll get six heads (furthermore, if you flip 30 coins nine times, you can be almost assured that you’ll get six heads at least once). So maybe the Angels’ philosophy has something to do with their improvement with men on base, but chances are this is simply a statistical fluke.

The future

The future does not look rosy for the Angels. They are playing well over their heads this season due to the good fortune of having a lot of timely hitting and timely pitching. Furthermore, their pitchers have almost all outpitched their FIP. The Angels true record should be much closer to 77-71, rather than 91-57. Furthermore, Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are going to be free agents after the season; while the Halos will be potential suitors for each, there is no guarantee that they can sign either, let alone both.

Losing Teixeira would be a big blow. Mark Teixeira has posted a 3.2 WARP in his time with the Angels. Before being dealt, Casey Kotchman posted a 3.6 WARP. Therefore, Angels first basemen have combined to post a 6.8 WARP this season. If the Angels fail to re-sign Teixeira, that 6.8 WARP could be replaced by Kendry Morales, who PECOTA pegged to hit .274/.320/.425 in the majors this year – which would be good for a 2.3 WARP in 425 at bats. While Morales has a nice line in the minors this year - .352/.387/.559 – that has been produced in a very favorable offensive environment, and is supported by an unsustainably high BABIP (.371). Using our handy MLEs we see the Major League Equivalent of Morales’s line this year is: .276/.316/.429.

Therefore, it’s fair to say that PECOTA’s projection for Morales was exactly right. So if the Angels fail to re-sign Teixeira and choose to plug in Morales, they will lose approximately three wins in the process, as we can assume that Morales will produce a WARP of approximately three next season (and this is giving Morales the benefit of the doubt). Plus, this doesn’t account for any difference in defense between Teixeira/Kotchman (who were excellent) and Morales.

Losing Francisco Rodriguez would further hurt the Angels’ cause, but his importance is vastly overstated. He generally only pitches 60-70 innings a year, and he’s not trending in the right direction. However, the Angels are certainly a better team with him than without him.

Without Mark Teixeira, the Angels are a .500 team (that 77-71 third order record becomes 74-74 if you downgrade from Teixeira to Morales). They could be even worse if they lose K-Rod, too. Furthermore, Torii Hunter, Vladimir Guerrero, Scot Shields, Jon Garland, Gary Matthews Jr., and Darren Oliver are getting older. And while I do have high hopes for Brandon Wood, the Angels do not have much other young talent knocking on the door.

Even if you’re willing to give the Angels the benefit of the doubt and assume that their style of play really does lend itself to better performance with men on base, I still think they have gotten lucky this season. Their performance with men on base has been so much better (even compared to previous "lucky" seasons) that it’s bound to be at least somewhat due to luck. Furthermore, both the Angels’ hitters AND the Angels’ pitchers have been lucky with men on base, allowing them to score more runs and prevent fewer runs than they should. Nearly all of their success has to do with their timely pitching and hitting; if they cannot maintain this, they will not maintain their success.

Right now, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim have clinched a playoff spot and are battling for the best record in the league. But their true talent level is well below their record. And next year they may be worse than most people expect.