By Jonathan "Angelsjunky" Northrop - Angelswin Columnist
Over the next few weeks I plan on expanding certain aspects in my previous post on the Angels franchise. I will go through the lineup position-by-position, then move into the pitching staff. I will discuss each position historically, in 2007, and the future outlook. I will especially consider whether or not an upgrade at that position is necessary.
This is what to expect over the next couple weeks:
- Introduction & Catcher
- The Infield
- The Outfield
- DH and the Bench
- The Rotation
- The Bullpen
A Note on Adjusted OPS (OPS+)
Adjusted OPS, or OPS+, is a stat developed and used by Baseball-Reference.com—the primary source for the statistics I will be using. OPS+ is a very useful statistic because all contexts are equalized: park effects, era, league, etc. An OPS+ of 100 is historically average; an OPS+ of 150 or higher is MVP caliber. See Baseball Reference’s statistical glossary for more details.
2007 Offense Overview
Despite their anemic performance in the divisional series, the 2007 Angels scored 822 runs, 4th in the AL and 6th in the majors. In the AL their batting average (.284) was 4th, their on-base percentage (.345) was 3rd, and their slugging percentage (.417) was 9th, with an overall OPS (.762) tied with the Mariners for 6th.
- 2007 AL: .270/.338/.423 (.760 OPS)
- 2007 Angels: .284/.345/.417 (.762 OPS)
The area of most possible improvement—both from looking at the seasonal averages above and from their post-season performance—is obvious: power. When it is running on all cylinders, the Angels offense is potent. Yet the problem is that by relying on a “small ball”-only approach, the Angels ability to score runs is dependent upon stringing multiple hits together. The Angels are a reverse-image of the prototypical "long ball"-only offense that overly relies on power, perhaps exemplified by recent iterations of the Oakland Athletics: take a walk and hope for a home run. Both approaches are limited because both approaches tend to be streaky. Obviously an optimal approach--as exemplified by this year's World Champion Red Sox, as well as the 2002 World Champion Angels--is an offense that can do a bit of pretty much anything: hit for power, average, take a walk or steal a base when possible or necessary, even manufacture a run the old fashioned National League way. The major, even only, missing aspect of that complete package for the Angels is power.
The obvious solution would be to sign or trade for a big bat, whether Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Cabrera, or Adam Dunn. But do the Angels need to upgrade? Was the 2007 post-season the final straw in a Bill Stoneman plan that failed to produce another championship? Or is that plan about to come to fruition through the maturation of prospects that Bill Stoneman so carefully guarded from trades? Read on...
The Angels have never had a premier catcher. Below is a list of players who have been the primary Angels catcher for at least three years, with games played and AVG/OBP/SLG as an Angel:
- Buck Rodgers (1961-69) – 932 games, .232/.288/.312 (74 ops+)
- Bob Boone (1982-88) – 968 games, .245/.297/.323 (71 ops+)
- Lance Parrish (1989-92) – 400 games, .241/.309/.410 (102 ops+)
- Bengie Molina (1998-2005) – 716 games, .273/.309/.397 (84 ops+)
That’s it. In 47 years, the Angels have only had four catchers that have started for at least three years, and only one of them—a decline-phase Lance Parrish—had an above league average Adjusted OPS. For more than half of the Angels history the catcher position has been filled by any number of forgettable names for a year or two at a time: Joe Azcue, John Stephenson, Art Kusnyer, Jeff Torborg, Ellie Rodriguez, Andy Etchebarren, Terry Humphrey, Tom Donohue, Ed Ott, Mike Fitzgerald, Greg Myers, Chris Turner, Jorge Fabregas, Chad Kreuter, Matt Walbeck. Remember any of those names? Congratulations, you’re an Angels fan—because no one else would.
Amidst the mediocrity at the position, there have been a couple disappointments. Brian Downing was the starting catcher in 1978-79, but moved to the outfield and eventually DH (where he had a terrific career). Diehard Angels fan remember the name John Orton, a highly regarded prospect (at least within the organization)in the late 1980s who flamed out, hitting .200 with SLG and OBP well below .300 in 156 games over the course of five years.
To many Angels fans Bob Boone remains the franchise catcher—yet for most of his career he was an all-glove, no-bat catcher. Recently Bengie Molina was adequate if unspectacular. In 2001 the Angels believed they had a long-term solution in their 2nd-round draft pick, Jeff Mathis. Yet Mathis disappointed in the minors, his hitting numbers declining with each level. In 2006 fringe-prospect Mike Napoli made a splash, tearing through major league pitching for the first month or so of his career. But he predictably fell back to earth, yet still posting solid numbers over his short career.
- Mike Napoli (25) - 75 games, .247/.351/.443, 10 HR (107 ops+)
- Jeff Mathis (24) - 59 games, .211/.276/.351, 4 HR (64 ops+)
Aside from a few top-tier players like Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez, the catcher position is a grab-bag. The Napoli/Mathis tandem may not be among “the best”, but they are certainly in the upper half of “the rest” and should continue to improve over the next few years. If healthy, Napoli should continue to put up at least an .800 OPS; given the at-bats he is capable of 25-30 HR, although is more likely to get 60% or so of a platoon with the defensively superior Mathis.
- Napoli (26) – 100 games, .250/.360/.465, 18 HR
- Mathis (25) – 75 games, .240/.300/.390, 10 HR
There really is no reason to upgrade at catcher, unless for some strange reason Cleveland or Minnesota wants to unload their top-tier catchers.
2009 and Beyond
Hank Conger is the top catching prospect in the Angels system, but he has not played above low-A ball and may eventually need to be moved to a corner infield or outfield position. In 84 games at Cedar Rapids, he hit .290/.336/.472--yet again, he is young and we need to see more at higher levels before dubbing him the panacea for a half-century of mediocrity. For the moment it looks like Napoli and Mathis will platoon until either one of them wins the starting job from the other, or Hank Conger matures. Other minor catchers such as Michael Collins and Bobby Wilson are borderline prospects, looking to be no more than major league back-ups at best.
Next up....the infield.