Does the Angels’ Offense Benefit From Divine Intervention?

In the course of a discussion at The Book Blog about the Angels’ (of late) recent outperformance of (some) projections, I was reminded of a related yet quite different issue I’d thought about looking into a while back (and then promptly forgot about). The Angels are one of the teams in baseball that are praised for “playing the right way” and “doing the little things.” Whatever people mean by that, one thing we can say is that recently, the Angels have consistently outperformed their Pythagorean Win Expectation. Looking (somewhat arbitrarily) at the last three seasons in which the Angels have won the American League West and comparing their actual record with what we’d expect given their run differential based on PythagenPat.

2007: Actual 94-68, Expected 90-72, difference +4
2008: Actual 100-62, Expected 88-74, difference +12
2009: Actual 97-65, Expected 93-69, difference +4

I should say right now that this post is not saying that I am not claiming either a) that the Angels “just got lucky” and weren’t as good as their record, or b) that they have some “intangible” ability (perhaps from their manager) that has enabled them to outperform their run differential the last three seasons. Both of those are copouts, at least at this point. For now, I’m only going to look at this issue with reference to their offense.

One might say that they’ve been “good in the clutch.” And that is, in fact, true. FanGraphs’ clutch score, which measures whether players outperform not only their peers, but themselves in high leverage situations, has the following win values for the Angels’ hitter from 2007-2009:

2007: 5.19
2008: 7.34
2009: 3.22

These numbers are impressive, but they sort of beg the question. Unlike relievers, hitters don’t “earn” their high leverage playing time — unless you think most of those scores were put up by Angels pinch-hitters picked for their “clutchness.” This seems to say what we already knew — the Angels won more game than their runs scored indicate that they “should have”. Undoubtedly, there are “clutch hits,” but this doesn’t tell us how they did it — just that they did.

One thing that “right way” teams are praised for is situational hitting. FanGraphs has a stat for that: RE24. While FanGraphs’ primary “runs created above average” stat, wRAA, uses the average change in run expectancy given an event irrespective of the base/out situation, RE24 does incorporate base/out state. For wRAA, a home run is a home run whether the bases are empty with none out or loaded with 2 out, while RE24 takes into account the different base/out run expectation. As I discuss here, if we subtract the average linear weight runs (wRAA) from the RE24, we can see how much better the Angels performed in terms of “situational hitting.”

2007: wRAA +7, RE24 30.5, situational +23.5
2008: wRAA -18, RE24 18.7, situational +36.7
2009: wRAA 88, RE24 92.8, situational +4.8

Impressive. However, it actually doesn’t tell us what we want to know. This tells us that we would expect the Angels to have scored more runs than traditional linear weights (wRAA) would suggest, but the Pythagorean expectation is already using their actual runs scored. We want to know why they outperformed their run differential (for now, from the offensive perspective) — not why they scored more than their linear weights suggest, but why they won more than their actual runs suggest.

Enter WPA/LI. While RE24 takes base/out context into account, WPA/LI goes one step further, by taking base/out/inning into account. You can follow the link to read up, but basically, it’s “unleveraged” Win Probability. It sounds like Clutch, but it’s actually WPA without the Clutch/Leverage element. To use an example to differentiate WPA/LI: with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded, for WPA/LI a walk and a home run have the same linear weight, whereas those events would be different for both wRAA and RE24, since they don’t take game state into account. So, if any stat could take into account a player or team adjusting their play to a situtation, this would be it. As I did in my earlier Little Things post for individuals, we can do for teams: convert wRAA to wins (I crudely divide by 10), then subtract that from WPA/LI to get the situational wins above average linear weights.

2007: wWAA +0.7, WPA/LI -1.32, -2.02 Little Things
2008: wWAA -1.8, WPA/LI -1.21, +0.59 Little Things
2009: wWAA +8.8, WPA/LI +6.37, -2.43 Little Things

Now that is just bizarre. With RE24, we saw that the Angels the last three seasons have been very good at maximizing their situational hitting in certain base/out states. But “Little Things” shows the exact opposite in 2007 and 2009. They’re about “even” in 2008, although far short of what RE24 shows, and they’re 2 wins below their traditional linear weights in 2007 and 2009. It’s not just that the Angels’ hittesr aren’t living up to their reputation (according to this measure) of “doing the little things,” it’s the contrast between RE24 and WPA/LI based “little things” that is striking. It’s as if the Angels do a great job of hitting with runners in scoring position when they’re playing in blowouts, but make terrible situational plays (relative to the average run expectancy) in close games. And then if you look at their hitter’s “Clutch” scores from those years… It’s really hard to know what the big picture is.

This post has no conclusion other than to note that the title is ironic. It would be foolhardy to dismiss this all as luck. The Angels have been a very good team no matter how you slice it. And just because we don’t understand “how they do it” at the moment doesn’t mean we can never know. But at the moment, I’m simply struck by the oddity.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

24 Responses to “Does the Angels’ Offense Benefit From Divine Intervention?”

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  1. Temo says:

    Clearly there are some Angels in the Outfield.


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  2. low says:

    Two thoughts:

    I’m thinking here of the definition of ‘intangibles,’ as those qualities we cannot exactly quantify or articulate but nonetheless have an effect on outcome. To say that the Angels have been lucky I think is not as outlandish as you make it seem.

    I remember late in 2007 when a surging Mariners team were swept at home by the Angels. Everyone at the stadium on Sunday knew that the Angels would win the division. If the Mariners had swept? They would have been a game ahead of the Angels and the division race would have continued.

    Here’s the link:

    So the performance of the Angels in the AL West in 2007 is not only based on their individual and team performance but also the performance of the other teams in their division and league. Quantifying all these factors would be very difficult if not impossible, especially if we are willing to account for fan, player, and team psychology.

    Perhaps luck is the only explanation we can have for now.

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  3. Jimbo says:

    Best organization in baseball IMO (including manager)

    I think they’re the new ‘moneyball.’ Where the A’s found statistical inefficiency on a player-level, I think the Angels do it on an organizational level. Can you measure intensity? I think that’s a lot of it. They fight for every run, for or against, and put pressure on other teams. Is PECOTA/Pythag based on total runs or earned runs? I’ve looked and can’t find the stat showing % of team runs that were unearned…but I’d bet the angels are up there.

    Many teams will make a defensive switch, or play for an insurance run…perhaps the angels take it to an extreme and have perfected it. I commented on the THT “Call to Arms” post yesterday with some interesting stats about save % and use of pitchers. Didn’t dig anything up on offense.

    Great sabermetric puzzle though.

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  4. I think when analyzing why a Pythagorean W/L varies considerably vs actual W/L you need to essentially dive into the 162-game schedule and pick out the blowout losses, which would drive that unseemly variance. If the Angels take two of three in a series but get blown out in the loss, that easily turns the Pythagorean W/L on it’s end. It wouldn’t take very many blowout losses to produce this effect IMO. The step that’s missing here is a simple “runs-in-wins” versus “runs-in-losses” comparison.

    That said, Mike Scioscia is the best manager in baseball, and as a Yankee fan who has seen him manage rings around Torre for years, I know it ain’t luck!

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    • Jimbo says:

      On the win side, they have a much higher percent of ‘saved wins’ over the last 5 years than any other top team. That’s why I think they’ve simply mastered small ball. More saves (probably) means a lower margin of victory in wins, combine that with ‘taking the day off’ in blowouts and you have the required scenario.

      Not sure exactly what it means, but since 2005 they’ve made 300-400 fewer pitching changes than their winning percentage peers. Could part of that be that in a blowout they let one guy eat innings to rest everyone else?

      How about league-average margin of victory/margin of loss compared to the Angels? Might be a good starting point.

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      • I’m eye-to-eye with you, Jimbo. Excellent observation on pitching changes. The three-game series structure of the schedule dictates that if you put your best foot forward two out of three you can roster-stunt and take the necessary side/back steps on the one game, be that spelling starters, getting bench guys their at bats, and especially giving your bullpen hotshots a blow. Might be the reason that Lackey never seemed to have the high win rate that you would assume an ace would have – if he turned up on the short end of the two-of-three stratagem he might have picked up a couple of wins that were lost to the 162 game look.

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      • Another thing, I saw a strangely high number of four-game sets last year compared to previous seasons, at least with the Yanks. That complicates the strategy, I’m sure, but it’s just an aside on my part.

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    • Jon says:

      “Clutch” hitting can come in waves, be contagious, but it’s been pretty consistent for the Angels. I will say often in sports waves of above “normal” negative or positive outcomes are aided by how good the team is. I.e., the Angels have been overall good these years in question and therefore could their offensive “clutchness” be partly because they’re good as a team and in situations that matter (and partly because they themselves are aware of how they’re messing with the minds of the “experts” and that itself drives them?)

      I think in this case a simpler answer may prove best. As libertyboynyc suggests, simply look up blowout losses.

      If Scioscia is simply better than most managers at sensing/being realistic about games that are out of hand and letting his lower end bullpen guys get hammered “for the team,” then that alone could make for the biggest reason the Angels “outperform” every year (recently.)

      Has this been done? Last year in particular the Angels’ pen wasn’t that good, but much of the recent past it has been good. Does Scioscia understand when to let a game go and throw his scrubs to the wolves more than other managers?

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  5. JoeWho112 says:

    My guess is that part of their over performance is that they keep their players healthier than average. There was a post on Beyond the Boxscore that had them as the healthiest team over the recent past.

    The question is whether that is an effect of their training staff, usuage or their selection of free agents/draft picks.

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  6. OremLK says:

    The Astros are another team that has been outperforming their pythag. Last year, they outplayed it by 6 wins. In 2008, they outplayed it by 8 wins.

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  7. Steve says:

    I realize the sample sizes are completely meaningless, but for a team that is constantly praised for “playing the right way” and “doing the little things”, they sure made a ton of fundamental errors in the playoffs last year. Same goes for the Twins.

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  8. walther says:

    As a fan, I’ve observed Scioscia has one of the slowest hooks I’ve ever seen in lopsided games. I’ve always felt that has tended to skew their overall pythag record to a measurable degree.

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    • B N says:

      That would definitely seem like an interesting hypothesis. You could make the argument that there are different preferences of run distributions and that they deviate from the normal somewhat. If there were a way to discount runs scored in “garbage time” that might help to improve the fit of a Pythag. After all, if you score 4 runs off of Nick Swisher and Nick Greene then those have essentially no impact on anybody’s record.

      Except Nick Swisher maybe. He pitched really well. If he keeps that going, he might get a call up.. Or something.

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  9. Phillies Red says:

    My stats background is not super strong, but I’ve been doing my best to follow this conversation over at the book and here. I’m surprised that I haven’t noticed this come up (maybe I missed it), as it seems to provide a great start for explaining why the angels have out performed their pythag. I think this also parallels nicely with the team health reports that are now available at BP, which have been calculating the financial value of time on the DL. Please chime in if I’m putting these pieces together incorrectly.

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  10. Rob in CT says:

    A good, well-leveraged bullpen? Are the Angels winning more close games that we would expect? If so, the bullpen could be the reason.

    Also, IIRC, the Angels are really good in the non-stolen base baserunning category. Taking the extra base. In a tight game where a run or two can be decisive, being really good (not just aggressive, but also successful) at that could lead to a higher win % in close games.

    I recall the 2004 Yankees outperforming their pythag record by ~10 games. Tom Gordon and Mariano were great that year, and Quantrill did good work too, at least for a while (but Quantrill and Gordon were cooked by the ALCS, and even Mo went and walked Kevin Millar). That team wasn’t good at “the little things” AT ALL. The defense stunk. The rotation had issues. The bullpen was 2-3 good relievers and a pile of junk. Which ultimately cost them, but not during the regular season.

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    • Nate says:

      I agree the bullpen needs to be looked at more closely. Maybe they have had elite late inning pitching (7, 8, 9th) or use them more effectively.

      I think an interesting study would be to look at the number of lead changes in their games. How often do they occur in their games versus other teams’? What percentage of the changes were in their favor? And what was the inning by inning break down in these numbers?

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    • hey hey hey JD Drew isn’t topical.

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  11. Tim says:

    I’ve heard that having a good pen helps you out perform your Pathag. Can’t remember who said it. Neyer?

    Either way, never have seen a study on that. Anyone know of anything that looks into a bullpen/beating pathag correlation?

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  12. Jayson says:

    Why are people so quick to dismiss luck as an “explanation?” I guess it’s not a very satisfying answer. But it seems to me like you could figure out the probability of the prediction systems erring by so many games, and then the odds of doing it for so many years in a row. I mean, we run these things for 30 teams, and it’s not like they’re amazingly reliable or anything. Predicting things is hard. It doesn’t seem so far-fetched that one of those 30 teams happens to go in one direction or the other consistently through sheer chance. It’s like flipping a coin and getting heads ten times in a row…sometimes weird stuff just happens.

    Not to say that we should abandon all hope of finding an explanation. But I’d first ask the question of whether this is truly a one in a million, impossibly unlikely outcome.

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    • Alireza says:

      The reason people throw out luck is because to accept that this kind of success is luck is to throw into question all sabermetric theory, which is largely based on sample size.

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  13. SagehenMcGyver47 says:

    Just throwing this out there. Maybe the negative-looking “Little Things” actually shows BETTER situational hitting that is MORE CLUTCH in a manner of speaking. Bottom 9th and bases loaded — sure a walk wins the game the same as a home run, but apparently the Angels are sacking up and hitting a home run, not settling for some wussy walk. This is a leap, of course, and it would make it even more difficult to swing the pythag b/c they’d be winning by more runs than necessary in this scenario.

    Maybe the flaw is in the wRAA to WPA/LI derivation/comparison?

    Another flier of a candidate: hustling all the time. They outcompete their opponents when the leverage is low b/c they are giving 110% and the opponent is not. But when the situation “matters” everyone is giving 110% and the playing field is equalized from the “hustle” standpoint.

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