With their two big splashy free-agent signings this winter, the Los Angeles Angels have become a trendy pick to win in the American League West. Certainly, adding Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson to a roster that won 86 games last year seems like a formula for a playoff berth, but the Angels are one of the contending teams that need to plan on at least one key player from 2011 taking a pretty big step backward during the upcoming season.
Howie Kendrick, 2B
In Anaheim’s case, its regression candidate is second baseman Howie Kendrick. On the surface, Kendrick’s numbers from last season don’t seem out of line with his career numbers. His .285 average was below his career mark. He set his career high in home runs with 18, after hitting just 10 homers in each of the previous two seasons. That jump doesn’t appear too far out of line for a player coming into his prime.
However, Kendrick didn’t just have a career year at the plate in 2011. He also had one in the field, and that’s where the Angels can expect a pretty substantial step backward. From 2006 to 2010, Kendrick played just over 3,800 innings at second base and posted an Ultimate Zone Rating ( UZR) of plus-8.6, or an average of plus-3 runs per full season. In just over 900 innings at the position last year, Kendrick posted a UZR of plus-14.4 runs, or a total of nearly plus-20 runs over the course of an entire year — a mark that ranked him as baseball’s top defensive second baseman in 2011.
Kendrick’s a solid defensive player, but he’s not exactly Omar Vizquel, and the Angels simply can’t expect him to turn 90.5 percent of balls hit into his zone into outs again. Even if he can sustain most of his offensive gains, Kendrick is not going to be able to match his value on defense from last season, and the Angels’ pitchers are likely to suffer from having more of their balls in play going for hits in 2012. Their team BABIP of .282 was the fourth lowest in the game; some of the credit for that belongs to defensive stars like Peter Bourjos, but they also got more help from Kendrick last year than they can anticipate receiving again.
The Angels aren’t the only contender who should expect less from one of their young core players next season.
Ian Kennedy, RHP
The Arizona Diamondbacks also need to expect significantly less from star hurler Ian Kennedy in 2012. His breakout year was one of the main reasons the Diamondbacks were able to improve from 65 wins to 94 wins in a single season. And even though their ace is a quality pitcher, expecting him to repeat his success from last year is simply asking too much. His 2011 ERA of 2.88 was 28 percent better than the average for a pitcher who has to spend half of his games in Arizona, putting him ahead of premium starters like Cole Hamels and Tim Lincecum. Unfortunately for Kennedy and his teammates, his underlying performance suggests that he won’t be able to prevent runs at the same rate in 2012.
Kennedy’s low ERA was primarily a function of his ability to strand baserunners in critical situations; his LOB percentage was 79.2 percent, the 10th-highest total among starting pitchers last year. Good pitchers are often able to get a strikeout when they need it, leaving runners in scoring position and ending rallies, but Kennedy’s success was more about having balls in play hit right at his defenders.
With the bases empty, his batting average on balls in play was .279, a little bit better than the league average. With men on base, that number fell to .254, but with men in scoring position, it sank to an unthinkable .174, by far the lowest number in the sport. For comparison, the league average BABIP with runners in scoring position was .284.
This is the type of performance that simply doesn’t carry over from year to year (2010′s NL leader in BABIP with RISP, Bronson Arroyo, saw his number jump from .197 to .259 last year), and if Kennedy doesn’t figure out a way to decrease the number of runners he puts on base, his ERA is going to rise, probably by a substantial margin. The Diamondbacks need to hope that new acquisition Trevor Cahill can help stabilize the middle of their rotation, because it is unlikely that Kennedy will be able to carry the pitching staff the way he did last year.
Shane Victorino, OF
The last key player, who might be an under-the-radar regression candidate, is with the Philadelphia Phillies. Overshadowed by the team’s dominant pitching staff, center fielder Shane Victorino was the driving force behind the offense in 2011. He’d always been a solid player for the Phillies, posting a career mark in Philadelphia of .282/.345/.435 before last season, but his offensive line jumped to .279/.355/.491 in 2011, blowing the doors off his previous career power marks.
Sixty of his 145 hits (41.3 percent) last year went for extra bases — including a career-high 16 triples — well above the 32.0 percent he had established in Philadelphia through 2010. Although Victorino is stronger than one might think based on his stature, a 41 percent extra-base-hit rate is the kind of mark usually reserved for lumbering sluggers. And it isn’t something that Victorino will be able to sustain going forward.
His power surge allowed Victorino to make up for a lot of the offense that was missing with Chase Utley on the disabled list, but the Phillies are going to need to find another source of power in 2012, especially with Ryan Howard set to spend a good chunk of the season on the DL. Victorino was a pleasant surprise a year ago, but the Phillies need to plan on that going down as his career year and hope that either a healthy Utley or a full season from Hunter Pence will offset the fact that Victorino will likely return to being a good, rather than great, player in 2012.
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