Monday, January 14, 2013

By Gregory Bird - Columnist

Can our new number two hitter be as productive as Hunter was for the Halos last year? Can the Angels fill the hole left by Torii’s departure or will it be a black hole? How can the Angels maximize their production and fulfill their preseason billing as the most dynamic offense in the Majors? In trying to tackle this I discovered it was too long for just two articles, so, this is now the second in a series of three articles. If you missed part one, here it is. I hope these all keep your interest through the doldrums of January as we wait and get ready for what appears to be an exciting season. First we’ll narrow down our candidates to replace Hunter and then look at the remaining ones in depth. I want to thank those who participated in the discussion “The Two-Spot in the Lineup” on AngelsWin for sparking the desire in me to do this research and for providing a great discussion of this topic. The question really is, which one of these hitters will give us the best chance to score the most runs during 2013? To answer this question we are going to assume Trout is our leadoff hitter, as Scioscia has repeated in almost every offseason interview. Should Trout hit leadoff? I’m not certain but it is a moot point, for now.

Relating back to part one and Torii’s numbers from last year, a two-hole hitter will most likely be pitched the way he’s always been pitched throughout his career, not seeing more strikes or more fastballs than he would normally see. Pitchers are trying to get hitters at the plate out; they are not worrying about the next hitter. Add to this the criteria many major league managers want in a two-hole hitter: a hitter with bat control and ability to move a guy over. This narrows us down to five realistic candidates on the roster: Erick Aybar, Alberto Callaspo, Chris Iannetta, Howie Kendrick, and Peter Bourjos.

First, let’s narrow down our list with some honest assessments of these players and by applying what we learned about how they’ll be pitched in the two-hole. Starting with Bourjos, I would say he needs to get back up to the plate and prove he is the guy he was in 2011 and not just a fourth outfielder. I don’t think it would be in Peter’s best interest to bat him second starting in April. I’m not saying he couldn’t earn his way there but I think that shouldn’t happen until June or later, once he’s proven he can handle major league pitching day in and day out. Honestly, he may be our best bat for the two-hole or maybe even leadoff at some point, but not until he has had a chance to settle in as an everyday player and prove himself. Next let’s look at Kendrick. What I want to say first about Howie is that last year I was thrilled by the prospect of him in the two-spot. I thought Kendrick would get a ton of fastballs ahead of Pujols and would finally win that batting title we’ve been promised. In part one of this article, we proved that he won’t necessarily get extra fastballs hitting second, just like Torii wasn’t getting them by season’s end. Howie’s stats last year also prove a pitcher can throw Kendrick a ton of strikes, he saw 49% of his pitches in the zone last year, and get him out without throwing him fastballs. On the 2012 Angels team, Howie ranked first in Zone% (the amount of balls thrown to a hitter in the strike zone) and 10th among all 143 qualified hitters. With all these strikes Howie only hit .287 while leading the Angels in double plays (grounding into 26 of them.) People commonly say “but he’ll see more fastballs hitting second and he’ll crush those,” but the fact is a smart pitcher will just throw him what he will get himself out on (breaking balls) and with those he’ll erase Trout at first 25+ times a year with weak ground ball contact. It is just not worth it. Howie can be more productive batting further down in the order where he can keep the lineup moving, knock in some runs, and provide depth to the offense.

Of the three candidates remaining let’s start with Callaspo, my pre-article favorite. He is a wild card that hit second 19 times last season. He doesn’t strike out a lot, averaging 52 Ks per 162 games. He lays off bad pitches, only swinging at 20.7% of pitches outside the strike zone in 2012 which was second best in the league among qualifying hitters. He doesn’t swing and miss a lot either. When Alberto does swing his contact percentage is 91.1% for his career. Callaspo’s 86.1% O-Contact% in 2012 (this measures his contact with pitches outside the strike zone when he swings at them) is 19.3% higher than the league average. This could mean he would be respectable at hit and run plays and he wouldn’t leave Trout dangling on the bases. He is also willing to walk, in fact he has walked at a 10.8% pace his last two years (8.5% is the MLB average.) He was fourth on the team in OBP last year, finishing behind Trout, Hunter, and Pujols with .331. But even though he was ranked fourth among the Halos, his OBP is only a few points above the MLB average of .319. Additionally he owns a career slugging percentage of .384, 26 points below league average for the parks he’s hit in. Batting Callaspo second will give him extra plate appearances through the season but does his production warrant these additional plate appearances? While Alberto’s plate discipline may help give Trout a chance to steal second and his ability to avoid the swing and miss strike will help prevent a strike him out throw him out double play are those benefits worth batting him second? While his 3.62 pitches per plate appearance is helpful; it is still below the league average of 3.80. He possesses only average speed, and his batting last year was about league average. Alberto strikes me as more of a satisfactory solution but nothing special, nothing like Torii. Is anyone else on the roster better suited for this role?

Let’s look at Aybar next, who I believe Scioscia will most likely give the first crack at the two-hole. Aybar has decent numbers that are very similar to Callaspo’s. Erick doesn’t strike out a whole lot. He has an 11.9% career SO% which is 6% below the league average strike out percentage. This comes out to about 64Ks a year. Aybar does swing at 36.6% of pitches out of the zone compared to the league average of 30.8%. He also averages only 3.41 pitches per plate appearance, fewest of the three candidates we’re looking at. The good news is he won’t necessarily leave Trout out to dry when he swings at pitches outside the zone as he makes contact 80% of the time he swings at them. With his ability to make contact with pitches outside the zone he could probably pull off the hit and run effectively. To put these stats in perspective, last year Torii swung at 35.3% of pitches outside the zone, only making contact with 59.4% of them. Aybar’s power is slightly below league average but he brings an excellent ability to bunt for a hit. He also has an average on base percentage for the parks he’s hit in. Aybar provides the team with another stolen base threat at the top of the order that can wreak havoc and provide good speed on the bases. He doesn’t walk a lot, possessing only a career 4.9% walk rate compared to the league average of 8.5%. This brings us to the big difference between Aybar’s OBP and the other candidates’; Erick gets on base more by hitting than they do. Walks are more valuable in the leadoff spot with nobody on base and less valuable in the second spot in the lineup with a guy already on first. This is because it nullifies the value of any steal and, at best, only advances the leadoff guy one base whereas a hit could score him from second. Aybar isn’t terribly exciting as a two-hole hitter either but he is serviceable with some advantages and disadvantages over the other two candidates.

A skill Callaspo and Aybar have in common is switch hitting, this could be a slight advantage in platoon matchups for them by having either of them hit in front of Pujols. Callaspo was much better hitting right handed with a .306 BA and a .363 OBP last year versus his .229 BA and .318 OBP batting left handed. Aybar was also better hitting right handed last year too. He hit .336 with a .368 OBP versus his .274 with a .308 OBP batting left handed. Comparing the two hitters it appears Aybar has the advantage versus left handers and Callaspo has a very slight advantage, in terms of OBP, versus right handed pitchers. One thing these stats tells us is both players don’t provide the platoon advantage batting left handed that we would desire and none of this information is all that helpful in deciding between them.

This brings us to our last candidate, Chris Iannetta, let’s see if he has what it takes to replace Torii. At first glance Chris’ career OBP and walk rate jump out at us. He has a career .354 OBP and a career 13.6% walk rate, a full 5% higher than league average. Iannetta will most likely get on base more than either Aybar or Callaspo but he’ll be more likely to get on base via the walk than the hit. He has a career .236 batting average and as we discussed earlier this means he’ll most likely only move Trout over to second base. But Chris does have more power when he does hit than either of our other two options with a .426 slugging percentage, about 40 points higher than Aybar or Callaspo’s career marks. Iannetta also shows great plate discipline, only swinging at 20.9% of pitches outside the strike zone. His problem is that when he does swing at pitches outside the zone he isn’t great at making contact with them, possessing a below league average 50.8% career O-Contact rate (the rate at which players make contact with pitches outside the strike zone that they choose to swing at,) 9% lower than Torii’s last year. He also has a higher swinging strike percentage of 10.8% than the other two candidates and his is above league average of 9.1%. To be fair though Hunter had a 12.4% swinging strike percentage last year and that didn’t seem to hurt Trout stealing bags too much, so let’s not make too much of this. Iannetta isn’t very fast but he isn’t much slower than Pujols. He does own an excellent career 4.14 pitches per plate appearance which is the best of the three candidates and favorable in the whole major leagues. There is an issue Iannetta faces in the two-hole that Callaspo and Aybar don’t. Being a catcher it may not be very convenient to get the gear off and focus so much on his offense in the bottom of the first inning instead of sitting down with his starter. I don’t envision Scioscia placing Iannetta in the two spot because it could negatively affect the pitcher catcher relationship. It’s very intriguing but ultimately I believe this issue will derail it.

Well, where does this leave us? Nobody really jumps out from this list of candidates. This is where I decided to go out and do more research and this is why this series has ended up being three parts. I looked into lineup optimization and checked out which lineup would produce the most runs. I tested out lineups with each of these three in the two-hole to see what the data would say. But since this article is already so long I decided to hold this for the final installment of the series. In the final piece we will look at the offense overall and see if it’ll be prolific or come up short. We will compare it to last year’s offense and see if it is truly better with the changes JeDi made or if it is about the same. Thanks for your comments and thoughts, they only make these pieces better!

Check back next week for part III to conclude this three-part series.
Love to hear what you think!

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