So we know that the back of the Angels bullpen should probably perform better this year, but how will the games begin? The organization had a busy offseason, acquiring two young starting pitchers via trade to round out what will amount to a very interesting staff.
As usual, Jered Weaver should be expected to get the opening day nod, but there are enough warning signs here to make one nervous. His fastball velocity, having been below average from the start, has been in freefall and nearing major danger territory. Not surprisingly, his strikeout rate has also tumbled, declining for a third straight year. That’s not totally fair to Weaver though since his 2010 was a clear outlier and represents the first data point in that downward trend. Though SIERA gives Weaver some credit for his low BABIP as a result of his extreme fly ball tendency, it has still sat well above his actual ERAs each season.
How much longer could he continue stranding such a high rate of runners while posting average strikeout rates? How much longer can he continue maintaining HR/FB rates that have yet to approach even 9%? Without a strong strikeout rate to put a floor under his value, he’s really at the mercy of his outfield defense, bullpen and the luck dragons. There are much safer options out there who should come at the same cost or cheaper and offer similar upside.
In his fourth year as a starter, C.J. Wilson has been better than I ever had imagined. SIERA thinks that he too has been getting a little help from his friends as his underlying skills are pretty meh. Despite a ground ball tilt, a below average pop-up rate over his career and a league average line drive rate, he’s managed to post a better than average BABIP. Blessed with good defensive support? Does he have that with which cannot be measured? The BABIP suppressing ability? You’d think it would show itself in his batted ball distribution if that was the case. Like Weaver, it’s possible he continues to perform at this level, but I prefer to bet on pitchers whose performance is actually supported by his underlying skills. There are enough of those that there’s no reason to take on unnecessary risk.
Finally, we get to the more intriguing options. Garrett Richards got the longest look in the rotation in his MLB career, starting 17 games and throwing a total of 145 innings. As a starter, he posted a 3.91 SIERA, driven by a fantastic 57% ground ball rate and 7.4% walk rate. His strikeout rate was underwhelming at just 16.4%, which is surprising given his high octane fastball. The concern with Richards though is that he’s another one of those fastball/slider guys. In fact, he’s not all that different than Justin Masterson, a fellow ground ballin’ fastball/slider guy.
Richards was crushed by lefties in 2012, but was much better last season. But, his xFIP over his career is actually a smidgen better against left-handers than righties. The difference stems from an inflated BABIP and HR/FB rate versus opposite-handed batters. His xK% was barely higher than his actual mark suggesting there was no bad luck involved or poor sequencing. But it’s probably a choice between more grounders or more strikeouts. Either way, he makes for a decent gamble in AL-Only leagues.
One of the Angels’ acquisitions in mid-December was the left-handed screwballer Hector Santiago. Not one of his pitches induced a SwStk% above 10% last year, yet he still struck out nearly 21% of batters. That was because of all the looking strikes he got, which is actually a repeatable skill, just not to the degree of swinging strikes. To go along with an array of mediocre pitches that somehow get batters looking, but not swinging and missing, is poor control and a fly ball tendency. That’s not exactly the combination you want from your starting pitcher. But outside of heading to the National League, calling Angel Stadium home is nearly the best thing that could have happened to him. He won’t repeat his 2013 ERA, but he has a better chance of not seeing it skyrocket now.
Join Santiago at the back end of the rotation is the third southpaw of the staff, Tyler Skaggs, acquired in the same trade that brought them Santiago. But unlike Santiago, Skaggs actually possesses two good pitches to offset his sub-par fastball. Both his curve ball and changeup have been excellent at inducing swings and misses. Angel Stadium is a much better environment for him than Chase Field was and his HR/FB rate should plummet back to reality. Like Richards, Skaggs makes for a nice choice in AL-Only leagues with strong profit potential.
It appears that the Angels rotation is already pretty set in stone. Well, at least it did. But then Mark Mulder decided to surprise everyone by trying to make a comeback and signing with the team at the beginning of the year. The 36-year-old lefty hasn’t pitched since 2008, hasn’t thrown over 100 innings since 2006 and hasn’t actually been good since 2005. So yeah, the odds look pretty stacked against him making the team at all, let alone winning a spot in the rotation.