Opening Day is just around the corner. In the interest of preparing you for it, the writers here have come up with a short preview of each team. For each team, we chose either the make-or-break story of that team, the thing that other teams would try to copy should ultimate victory occur, or the most important thing for that team to have a successful season. It could be some or all of the above. We then selected a single statistic that represented that story.
The AL West sent two teams to the playoffs last year, neither of which was really a preseason favorite. The Angels had (and have) Mike Trout, and the Mariners were a dark horse playoff candidate after their encouraging 2014 finish. Instead, the Astros' youngsters performed very well, and the Rangers held together among some rebound seasons to take the division. In 2015, the Astros are likely the favorite, but the Rangers are right there, and neither the Angels nor the Mariners are out of range.
Make or break stat: % of total SP innings from top 5 starters
2015 value: 72%
2014 value: 68%
The story with the Rangers every year seems to be injuries. In 2014, they used 15 different starters to get through the year. That number was 12 last year. Yu Darvish. Martin Perez. Derek Holland. All players who contributed at some point only to fall to injury. Perez came back mid-2015 and is looking to show health. Derek Holland also came back mid-2015 and is looking to show health. Darvish did not pitch in 2015 but could return in mid-May this year and will look to show health. Colby Lewis has had injuries in the past and is older, but he managed over 200 innings last year and 2.6 fWAR. The rotation is headlined by Cole Hamels, who has thrown at least 200 innings every year since 2010.
Should that stat be even higher than last year, that means a few things. First, it means health. Second, it means continued effectiveness from a few aging pitchers. A healthy and effective rotation for a Rangers team that is coming off a division title would be scary for the rest of the AL West, even the Astros. The Rangers showed a little resilience last year by withstanding some injuries, but Cole Hamels’s steady presence really helped. They need consistency. They don’t want a repeat of 2014.
Make or break stat: Lance McCullers' IP
2015 value: 125.2
Quick, what’s the defining statistic for the Astros? Strikeouts, you say? Why yes, the Astros do strike out quite a bit. But they’ve shown that they make it work, and that’s quite unlikely to change this year. So let’s look at the other side of the ball.
Lance McCullers threw 125.2 innings for the Astros last year, and they were a solid 125.2 innings. The rookie right-hander struck out 9.2 batters per nine innings and posted a 3.62 DRA. That’s not world-beating stuff, but it’s very solid for a rookie. Unfortunately for Houston, McCullers will be starting the year on the DL with some shoulder tightness. That means that Scott Feldman will be getting a slot in the rotation for now. Feldman is coming off a year that ended in a shoulder sprain after he posted a 4.72 DRA. He’s an unspectacular starter to begin with, and the potential for worse is certainly there. Shoulders are tricky things with pitchers. That could also mean that McCullers never truly gets off the launch pad this year, but it’s safe to say that the Astros need a lot more Lance McCullers than they do Scott Feldman. If McCullers can put himself back on the mound in short order, he’ll be an excellent third man behind Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh. That could lock up the AL West for Houston.
Make or break stat: Team wRC+
2015 value: 96 (15th)
The Angels have Mike Trout. Mike Trout is a very good hitter and he’s in the MVP conversation every single year, but Mike Trout is also the only guy in the Angels’ lineup that does anything of any value offensively, or so it seems. Sure, Albert Pujols is hitting 40 dingers and driving in nearly 100 runs, but his batting average has gone down steadily the past seven seasons, culminating in a career low of .244 in 2015.
The team’s line last season was .246/.307/.396 (their BA placed them 27th overall), and they scored 661 runs, which put them 21st overall. In order for the Angels to compete in the American League West, the other guys in their lineup need to pick up the slack and stop placing the offensive load squarely on Trout’s brawny shoulders.
Make or break stat: Defensive stats (UZR, DRS)...or total weight of feet
2015 value: -60 DRS (29th), -29.6 UZR (26th)
Despite the powerful offensive inhibitor that is Safeco Field, the Mariners still managed an average offense overall (100 team wRC+). Though there were other factors (the bullpen), the Mariners’ overall lead-footedness let them down both in baserunning and defense. New GM Jerry Dipoto has made it a point to change that.
Last year, the Mariners ran out Austin Jackson, Nelson Cruz, Mark Trumbo, Dustin Ackley, Seth Smith, Franklin Gutierrez, and even Brad Miller in the outfield. As 2016 is set to get underway, they now have Leonys Martin and his howitzer in center field, Nori Aoki and his circuitous-but-effective routes in left field, and Seth Smith, one of the few plus outfielders from last year, in right field (per FanGraphs' depth charts). Waiting in the wings is Gutierrez, who when healthy is also an effective outfielder. Adam Lind now mans first base instead of Logan Morrison, though it’s not clear to me if there’s much of an upgrade. Finally, Ketel Marte will be at shortstop instead of Brad Miller. If the defense performs like it is expected to, the Mariners will be vastly improved.
Make or break stat: Billy Butler's wRC+
2015 value: 99
I, for one, am never going to be completely comfortable counting the A's out. Billy Beane has made a long and productive career out of identifying undervalued players, and until the games actually get played, any Oakland roster is going to have the possibility of unexpected excellence. That said, the outlook this year is fairly grim. FanGraphs gives them a 9.6% shot at winning the AL West outright and a 10.4% at getting a shot at the Wild Card game, while Baseball Prospectus puts them at 7.2% and 5.6%, respectively. It's not great, is the point.
The A's operate under some serious owner-imposed budgetary constraints, to be sure, but Beane has also contributed to the team's current state of affairs with a number of moves that had me and others tying ourselves into knots to explain why they were understandable rather than confounding or just plain dumb. The most high-profile is certainly trading Josh Donaldson, but the one I'm thinking of is signing Billy Butler to a three-year, $30M contract last offseason. It's impossible to know what kind of competition Oakland faced in the bidding, but for context, the Royals declined to pay Butler $11.5M for another year of his services, and the FanGraphs crowdsourced estimate of his contract was two years, $18M. He was a resounding disappointment in his Bay Area debut, with a 99 wRC+ in 601 PAs as a DH. No defensive value plus average offense plus awful baserunning yields -0.7 fWAR.
The scary thing is that, while Butler's 2015 was truly bad, it was in many ways the continuation of a trend rather than an outlier, so any expectations of a bounceback or positive regression have to be tempered. All the signs point toward a decreased ability to hit the ball with authority, and unfortunately for Oakland, that's the only thing valuable about Butler (as a baseball player; with a nickname like "Country Breakfast," I have to believe he's a delightful person). The projections aren't optimistic about him regaining that skill, either; PECOTA pegs him at a .302 BABIP, Steamer at .300, and ZiPS at .297, all better than 2016, but worse than any preceding year since 2008. It's a fool's errand to try to predict exactly how any iteration of the A's will succeed, but I'm inclined to think a big step in the right direction would be Billy Butler regaining his past form.