Author’s note: This article was originally posted on High Heat Stats (link).
When the Los Angeles Angels announce over the winter that they had agreed to a deal with former Rangers’ slugger Josh Hamilton, the first thought that ran through my head was “Good God, pitchers aren’t going to stand a chance against this modern day murderer’s row.” Those thoughts didn’t change much throughout the spring and by the time April rolled around I, like so many others, felt that a lineup including the legendary Albert Pujols, the powerful Josh Hamilton, and the electric Mike Trout would be piling up runs like they were going out of style. After all, if they could rank among the 3 or 4 best scoring lineups in 2012 without Hamilton, just imagine how scary they would be with him plopped in the #4 hole.
But as we sit here on May 16th, nearly 40 games deep into the regular season, the Angels enter play with the 11th ranked scoring attack in the American League and one of the worst records in baseball. So what’s been the deal in L.A.? The Angels have done a solid job making contact at the plate (their 103 OPS+ is 6th best in baseball) and they’re starting to work the long ball, averaging just over 1 home run a game, so why are they stuck with one of the most mediocre looking attacks in the league? The answer, I believe, lies somewhere as simple as the base paths.
A big reason for the Angels’ success in the run scoring department a year ago was manger Mike Scioscia’s willingness to let his players run wild. Los Angeles ranked 5th in baseball in stolen bases and their 80% success rate doubled as the 2nd best in baseball, trailing only the Phillies. Rookie sensation Mike Trout was a big part of that success. Trout was able to nab 49 bases in his 54 attempts a year ago but more importantly the Angels gave him a green light to pick and choose his spots.
Trout attempted to steal of the pitcher 21.2% of the time he reached base in 2012 and that high frequency of attempts put an enormous amount of pressure on opposing pitchers and catchers. Every pitch to the plate had to be made quickly and if you missed location and spiked a breaking ball in the dirt in front of the catcher, Trout was standing on 2nd by the time you battery mate found the ball.
Unfortunately for the Angels, that willingness to be aggressive has disappeared. Trout has only attempted to steal 14.1% of the time he reaches base and it gets even worse if you look at the team as a whole. The Angels are averaging 0.65 steal attempts per game this season after averaging 1.03 a year ago, good for nearly a 40% drop-off. Without those extra bases earned off of steals and the pressure it puts on an opposing defense, the Angels attack has withered.
But stealing isn’t the only way a player can make an impact on the base paths. A smart base runner also knows when to go 1st-to-3rd, 2nd-to-home, and when it’s appropriate to tag up. A year ago the Angels were the very best team in baseball at doing the little things while running around the bases. According to Baseball-Reference, they were the most efficient team in baseball at going 1st-to-3rd and 2nd-to-home, pulling the feat off during 49% of their opportunities.
This isn’t just a problem with being too passive on the bases either. The Angels are supplementing that problem by making a ton of poor base running decisions as well. They rank 3rd in baseball with a total of 25 outs on the bases, and they do a poor job going 1st-to-3rd or 2nd-to-home, doing so in just 37% of their opportunities, which is good for 24th best in baseball.
Without those extra bases, runs have been a bit more difficult to come by. Angels’ base runners now score just 27% of the time they reach base (5th worst in baseball) compared to 32% of the time a year ago (3rd best). Luckily, the good news for Los Angeles is that these are little problems that should be easily correctable over the course of the season. The law of averages says the Angels offense will have to start driving in a higher percentage of base runners, simply because Josh Hamilton won’t hit .214 for the rest of the season, much in the same way Albert Pujols won’t be stuck at .242.
But that doesn’t mean Mike Scioscia should be content to stand by and he knows it too. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Scioscia acknowledged the Angels issues, saying
“We really have to gauge the opportunities,” he said. “As we do more things right and get more pieces in place, that aggressive base running will move forward. We’ve been a terrific base running team for a long time. Right now, it’s not nearly the asset it can be.”
In order for team speed to become an asset again Scioscia should start giving the green light more often to guys like Peter Bourjos, Erick Aybar (2 combined steals in 39 combined games) once they return from injury. It also means starting Mike Trout at the lead-off spot a little more, just to get him an extra chance to steal a base. The Angels have dug themselves one hell of a hole to start the season and until they begin to play their normal brand of smart, aggressive baseball again that hole will only continue to get deeper.
As always, big thanks to Baseball-Reference for providing such fantastic statistical information.