The Angels are currently sitting at 78-79 and five games out of the last AL Wild Card slot. With only seven games left, it does not look likely that they will make the playoffs. FanGraphs gives them only a 0.1 percent chance. As beneficial as it would be for baseball not to have Mike Trout miss the playoffs again, that is almost certainly what is going to happen.
What should not be lost on fans is just how well this Angels team has performed, all things considered. FanGraphs projects them to finish with 81 wins, which is only two wins below what they were projected to finish at the beginning of the season. So how is finishing below a preseason projection “good”?
Remember that the initial projection reasonably assumed a full season from Mike Trout, a not-terrible season from Albert Pujols, and roughly half a season from their best pitcher, Garrett Richards. Obviously that is not what happened. Lots of words have been written about Trout and Pujols this season, so let’s take a look at Richards.
Going into the season, one would have a hard time picking anyone other than Garrett Richards as the Angels’ best starter, and not by a small margin. After missing almost all of last year due to an elbow injury, his availability for 2017 was a big question mark. As it turned out, he has barely played this year either.
Richards made his first start at the beginning of the season and only lasted 4 2⁄3 innings. He had a shutout going, but he was experiencing nerve irritation in his biceps. He refrained from throwing for 100 days, and he did not return until September 5th. He has only pitched past the fifth inning once, but he has been outstanding. He has a 2.36 RA9, a 27.8 K%, and a 4.2 BB%. He has been worth 1.2 bWAR in only 24 IP this year! A 57 percent groundball rate plus Andrelton Simmons playing behind you is a great combination.
As I mentioned once before, the Angels bullpen has been excellent this year. They had a particularly excellent August with a 2.36 RA9. That was accomplished without even having a lot of batted-ball luck. They also struck out 28.6 percent of batters faced and walked only 5.1 percent.
The bullpen accomplished this over 103 IP, which was one of the higher IP counts in August. That is not surprising given the state of their starting rotation, and the teams above them in the previous link also have struggling rotations. Manager Mike Scioscia wisely chose to leverage his talented bullpen when he could. He did not appear to care about roles, either. Bud Norris, Blake Parker, and Cam Bedrosian got three saves each. Keynan Middleton got two saves, and Yusmeiro Petit got one save. (It’s almost as if major league pitchers are mentally tough enough to handle any situation.)
The most bizarre performance from an Angels’ reliever in August came from Jesse Chávez. He was used as a starter through July but became so bad that he could not even stay in the Angels’ rotation. He had a 5.52 RA9 and a 18 percent strikeout rate. He was exceptionally homer-prone, too, giving up home runs to 5.1 percent of batters faced. To put that into context, that is 50 percent higher than the league average rate. Chávez excelled in the bullpen, however, with a 0.60 RA9 and 38.5 percent strikeout rate in August.
Unfortunately, the bullpen performance has decreased dramatically in September. They have a run average of almost five, at a 4.98 RA9. It is a bit strange actually. Fourteen pitchers have come in to relieve this month, eleven of whom have at least four appearances. Of those pitchers, only one of them has a run average below three: Noe Ramírez has given up only one run in nine appearances. What is strange is that despite all the runs, they still have a great strikeout rate at about 26 percent. Also, because baseball likes to do crazy things in small samples, Chávez went from giving up one run in August to giving up nine runs in only 6 1⁄3 IP in September.
Normally comparing one month to another suffers from arbitrary endpoints, but remember that rosters expand in September. In August, nine relievers made more than one appearance. As I mentioned before, that number jumped to fourteen in September.
Small sample size caveats apply, but it is possible that Scioscia is overmanaging. Checking the Baseball Reference Play Index, it reveals that Scioscia averaged 4.1 pitchers per game, and he never used more than six in one game. In September, he has averaged 5.7 pitchers used per game in September, including five games where he used more than six pitchers. Two out of those five games went to extra innings, but in one of those two he used 12 pitchers in an 11-inning game!
Perhaps there is no such thing as moral victories in sports, but the Angels had a great season despite many things working against them. The bullpen could not hold on in September, but the Angels’ relievers certainly did their part for most of this season.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.