A popular question in our FanGraphs chats is which team has had the best offseason in the league. The offseason, of course, isn’t close to over, and the answer is necessarily subjective to some extent, but the other day Dave suggested the Cardinals, and I’ve thought the same thing. I love what the Cardinals have done, improving without making future sacrifices, and there’s a reason they’re considered one of the best-run organizations in MLB. A team that hasn’t crossed my mind, when considering the same question, is the Angels. I don’t think the Angels have had a bad offseason, so much as an uninspiring one. The Mark Trumbo trade was neat.
Another popular question asks which bad team from 2013 is most likely to surprise and contend in 2014. There are, of course, a few candidates, and the team I always want to point to is the Angels, who finished short of .500. I hesitate, though, because I’m not sure how bad the Angels really were. Their numbers were a good deal better than their record. In any case, looking forward, it seems to me the Angels are ripe for a return to contention, and that’s despite an offseason that’s only served to shuffle modest talent around.
The easy summary of what the Angels have done, highlighting only significant players:
OPPOSITE OF GONE
Those five players leaving combined for 5.8 WAR last season, and they project for 10.3 WAR this season. Those five players coming combined for 2.3 WAR last season, and they project for 4.2 WAR this season. Skaggs and Santiago are pieces for both the present and the future, but the Angels clearly haven’t made a big splash, pending any developments concerning Masahiro Tanaka. Everyone they brought in could and should help, but talent is also on the way out.
If you take a cursory glance at the Angels, you see their 2013 record and you see their unimpressive offseason. Therefore it would be easy to assume they’ll again end up well behind the Athletics and the Rangers. Maybe they could even be passed by the Mariners, who’ve made the biggest splash of all.
But we’re not really much for cursory glances. What we have are updated depth charts and pretty good statistical projections. Right now, on our projected standings page, the Angels, Rangers, and A’s are even. On our projected team WAR page, the Angels, Rangers, and A’s are even. By WAR, the Angels look like one of the better teams in baseball. They’re not set up real well for the future, outside of Mike Trout, but they’d like to win soon, and it seems like they’re in position.
The team, as built, is kind of lopsided. They project to have one of baseball’s worst pitching staffs. But they project to get the most value out of their position players, with almost a third of that coming from Trout himself, at a projected 8.3 wins. For Trout, that would be a step back, but having a player like him is an incredible advantage. Put Trout in a lineup and it isn’t too hard to have at least a decent overall unit. It also becomes easier to make your overall unit legitimately great.
If you walk through the Angels’ projections position by position, nothing stands out as unreasonable. There’s something of a projected bounceback for Albert Pujols, but it’s modest, and Pujols also spent last season playing through miserable discomfort that no longer bothers him. Josh Hamilton is projected for a slightly lower WAR total than Kole Calhoun, and that isn’t because Calhoun projects to be amazing. Only Trout and Pujols project for more than 3 WAR, but everyone in the lineup is at least something like average. In the rotation, maybe FIP overrates Joe Blanton a little, but it also underrates Jered Weaver a little. C.J. Wilson leads the group with a projected 2.3 WAR. WAR doesn’t like the Angels irrationally. It likes the Angels rationally.
So what’s the relationship between team WAR and team wins? The relationship is good and super strong, which you could’ve guessed. Here’s a plot of all individual team seasons between 2002-2013:
A good WAR team is a good team. A bad WAR team is a bad team. There are deviations, but most of the deviations are random and there’s little you can do to systematically beat or undershoot your WAR expectation. This is basically a slightly different version of the Pythagorean record argument.
Now, last year the Angels were 17th in baseball in winning percentage. They were 14th in WAR, and WAR would’ve expected them to win a little over 84 games, instead of 78. That made for one of the bigger negative differences in the league. The Tigers fell ten wins short of their WAR expectation, and then between them and the Angels were the Cubs, Red Sox, and Rockies, but still, the Angels didn’t win as often as they maybe “should’ve”, and 25 teams were better about that. So, is there some kind of sustainability when it comes to finishing above or below your WAR?
Here’s a plot of data from between 2002-2013. It compares the winning-percentage difference in Year X to the winning-percentage difference in Year X+1.
There seems to be some kind of relationship, but it’s weak, with the take-home message being that you ought to regress heavily to the mean. The 2012 Orioles, for example, beat their WAR record by 16.6 wins. In 2011, they beat it by 2.7. In 2013, they undershot it by 0.8. The 2010 Diamondbacks, for another example, undershot their WAR record by 11.2 wins. In 2009, they undershot it by 8.8 — interesting! — but in 2011, they beat it by 3.5. These deviations are volatile, and while maybe sometimes they’re due to something particular about a team, it’s safer to chalk it up to randomness. You should expect a team to play more or less as well as its WAR, and the Angels’ WAR last year was fine, and the Angels’ projected WAR this year is better.
This is one of those cases where it can be deceptive trying to project forward using Pythagorean records or run differentials. Last year the Angels had a run differential of -4, and they’ve had the offseason shown above. Based on that, you might think the Angels are basically something like a .500 team. But what you actually have to do is evaluate the current roster as constructed, because single-season numbers contain a lot of both signal and noise, and players don’t just repeat what they did the year before. Mike Trout probably won’t be what he was, again. Pujols shouldn’t be either. Hamilton is a total wild card. Calhoun isn’t bad for a guy nobody knows anything about.
Right now, there’s an argument that the Angels are about as good as the Rangers and the A’s. Which means there’s an argument the Angels are contenders for both the division and the wild card. And some think the Angels are going to make a strong push for Tanaka, should he get posted, and that would significantly bolster a mediocre pitching staff. I don’t like how the Angels are positioned for the future. I don’t like many of the decisions that’ve been made by Jerry Dipoto and Arte Moreno. But for just this coming season, you should expect the Angels to make a lot of noise. Mike Trout is baseball’s biggest advantage, and there is enough talent that surrounds him.
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