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So Why Do the Angels Suck?

Over the weekend, various reports have emerged suggesting that the Angels are likely to fire either GM Jerry DiPoto or longtime manager Mike Scioscia in the wake of their disastrous 2013 season. While Scioscia denies that there is an abnormal rift between the field staff and the front office, there’s enough smoke here to believe that there is a fire somewhere, and it would actually be unusual if someone wasn’t held responsible for a $140 million failure.

Firing decision makers as a response to poor performance is standard operating procedure in Major League Baseball, and the GM and manager are the two guys whose job descriptions include taking responsibility for the results on the field. Both DiPoto and Scioscia know how this game works, and neither one would have much of a right to be surprised if they were let go following the season. However, if the Angels actually want to fix what is broken, they should be more interested in figuring out what went wrong and why rather than just meting out punishment to satisfy the desire to hold someone accountable.

So, what happened to the 2013 Angels? How can a team with the best young player the game has seen in 100 years still manage to be so awful?

The place where everyone starts pointing figures is the two high priced free agent acquisitions of the past couple of years, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols. Between them, they cost the Angels $360 million in guaranteed contracts, and they’ve combined to put up a whopping +1.8 WAR this season. Hamilton was supposed to be the big left-handed bat to protect Pujols in the line-up, but he’s been a below average hitter in 2013, and whatever protection he was supposed to offer certainly didn’t seem to help Pujols in any meaningful way. However, if we’re dissecting the flaws of this Angels team, starting with a couple of hitters is a little bit odd, because the Angels offense has actually been quite good this year.

As a team, the Angels have a 108 wRC+, which ranks #4 in MLB. Even if you even out the playing field by eliminating pitchers from the equation, the Angels are still tied for 5th with the Braves. Pujols and Hamilton haven’t lived up to their end of the bargain, but the rest of the Angels line-up has been pretty good. At 4.5 runs per game, the Angels are basically producing the same level of offense as the Rays and Rangers, both of whom look like they’re headed for postseason play. Certainly, that doesn’t mean that the disappointing performances from Hamilton and Pujols haven’t mattered — there’s no upper limit on runs scored, so this offense would have been something else if those guys hadn’t fallen apart — but it is hard to point the finger at the Angels offense as the primary reason for why the team has failed.

So if the problem isn’t scoring runs, it must be run prevention, right? Well, yes, sort of. The Angels are 28th in the majors in runs allowed per game, with only Houston and Toronto allowing their opponents to score more often, so run prevention has been a pretty big problem in Anaheim. But when you drill down a bit, the individual components of pitching and defense don’t look that bad.

As a staff, the Angels have a 107 FIP-, which ranks 24th overall. Not good, certainly, but maybe not the total disaster that it might seem on the surface. The Orioles have a 109 FIP-, and they’re contending for a wild card spot. You wouldn’t describe this pitching staff as effective, but that type of FIP isn’t the kind of total disaster that should cause a team to implode in on itself.

Depending on whether you use UZR (-13), DRS (-59), or just a simple rate of turning balls in play into outs (69.5%, 25th in MLB), the defense deserves some of the blame here too. With Peter Bourjos spending most of the year on the DL, the outfield defense has never been what it was supposed to be, and giving up-the-middle innings to statues like Brendan Harris and Grant Green hasn’t helped either. Putting poor pitching with poor fielding has produced poor run prevention.

But the number of runs they’ve allowed still doesn’t explain the story. By straight runs scored and runs allowed, the Angels “should be” 61-68, three games better than their current record. And by wOBA differential, they actually don’t look like a disaster at all.

Team wOBA (Offense) wOBA (Defense) wOBA Differential
Tigers 0.344 0.295 0.049
Braves 0.321 0.294 0.027
Rays 0.327 0.302 0.025
Cardinals 0.325 0.301 0.024
Red Sox 0.341 0.318 0.023
Dodgers 0.316 0.296 0.020
Pirates 0.308 0.289 0.019
Rangers 0.324 0.306 0.018
Athletics 0.316 0.299 0.017
Reds 0.314 0.298 0.016
Indians 0.322 0.314 0.008
Orioles 0.329 0.328 0.001
Nationals 0.307 0.308 -0.001
Angels 0.325 0.326 -0.001
Diamondbacks 0.314 0.317 -0.003
Brewers 0.312 0.316 -0.004
Rockies 0.321 0.325 -0.004
Cubs 0.306 0.313 -0.007
Giants 0.304 0.311 -0.007
Mets 0.301 0.310 -0.009
Royals 0.303 0.313 -0.010
Mariners 0.310 0.321 -0.011
Blue Jays 0.321 0.332 -0.011
White Sox 0.300 0.314 -0.014
Yankees 0.302 0.318 -0.016
Padres 0.304 0.321 -0.017
Twins 0.308 0.330 -0.022
Phillies 0.304 0.327 -0.023
Marlins 0.277 0.309 -0.032
Astros 0.300 0.350 -0.050

I’ve run this chart a few times over the course of the season, because I think this gives us a pretty good picture of what a team has done from a strictly context-neutral perspective. The Angels have a .325 wOBA and a .326 wOBA against, so if you distributed their positive and negative outcomes evenly, we would expect them to be roughly a .500 club. In other words, not only are the Angels underperforming their expected W-L record based on runs scored and runs allowed, even their RS/RA is worse than we’d expect given the individual events that lead to RS/RA.

This is unusual, not just because the Angels record is so far removed from what their components suggest, but because this is the thing that Mike Scioscia has basically built his managerial career off succeeding at. Countless articles have been written about Scioscia’s teams routinely exceeding their expected records, and the Angels so often exceeded their pythag records under his watch that people have been trying to explain his black magic for the past decade. First, it was aggressive baserunning, then it was excellent bullpen management, then it was better clutch hitting because of his propensity for high contact hitters.

This year, almost every bonus that has ever been credited to Scioscia has gone sideways. Even with Mike Trout, the Angels are an average baserunning team in 2013, rating as +2 runs based on our baserunner measures. Their bullpen has been lousy, leading the majors with 72 meltdowns and one of the worst ratios of shutdowns to meltdowns in baseball. And when it comes to clutch hitting, no team has been worse this year than the Angels, as our Clutch measure has their offense at -4.95 wins thanks to their poor performance in high leverage situations.

Much has been made of the fact that this is not the kind of team that Scioscia prefers to manage, with a line-up full of thumpers who don’t move very well, and it certainly hasn’t played like a typical Mike Scioscia team. But, there’s also the very real possibility that Mike Scioscia never had any magic to begin with, and his reputation was propped up by the beauty of random variation, and he’s currently being kicked in the teeth by regression to the mean. At the end of the day, there isn’t much evidence that managers have a ton of control over their team’s ability to distribute hits and runs in a certain manner, and that is the driving factor of pythag, not dugout wizardry.

So, what are we left with? The Angels have played, in some ways, about the same as the Washington Nationals, who have also been a big disappointment after entering the season with visions of grandeur. If we’re blaming Jerry DiPoto for the construction of the roster, we should probably acknowledge that the core performance of the team he put together is more like a .500 team than a .450 team. Would there be a front office overhaul coming after the season if the Angels finished 81-81, instead of 73-89 like they’re currently on pace for, or would it simply be written off as the result of injuries to Pujols, Bourjos, Jered Weaver, Jason Vargas, and the off-season bullpen acquisitions?

This isn’t to defend DiPoto, necessarily. The trade for Tommy Hanson was weird when they made it and predictably hasn’t worked out, and it wasn’t hard to see the Angels pitching problems coming a mile away. Whether the moves were dictated by ownership or not, he was running the ship when the Angels gave out what two enormous contracts to aging players on the wrong side of 30, and he made the ill-fated Zack Greinke trade that cost them Jean Segura for a rental. I think you could make a pretty decent case against almost every acquisition the Angels have made since DiPoto took over.

But, at the same time, the worst moves are widely reported to have been ownership mandates. Barring a resignation of his post, I’m not sure exactly how DiPoto should have stopped Arte Moreno from spending his own money on players he apparently coveted. And the 2013 team’s failures look more like a result of a poor distribution of positive events. If Scioscia gets all the credit when his team outperforms their expectation, it would make some sense that he should be the guy to get the blame when it goes the other way too.

However, there’s also the reality that perhaps this is all just random variation, and there’s nothing more here other than the fact that, over 130 games, teams won’t distribute their hits across “clutch” opportunities in the same way. Perhaps firing Scioscia for the fact that his players just didn’t allocate their events in the most optimal way isn’t such a good idea. The sabermetric community has long been skeptical of Scioscia’s team’s ability to sustain these positive differences between their expected and actual records, and so using regression to the mean in an unsustainable performance as a reason for him to lose his job seems less than fair.

The Angels certainly haven’t lived up to expectations, and $140 million should buy a better team than this one has turned out to be. But, when looking at whether to blame Moreno, DiPoto, or Scioscia, the answer is almost certainly some combination of the three, with a heavy dose of random variation sprinkled in as well. This Angels team isn’t completely hopeless, and with some better bullpen acquisitions over the winter, could probably be expected to contend in 2014. Whether DiPoto and Scioscia are in charge of putting together that team remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t say it’s abundantly clear that firing either one is really going to fix the problems that have plagued the 2013 Angels.