Saturday, November 3, 2007

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:

  1. Introduction & Catcher
  2. The Infield
  3. The Outfield
  4. DH and the Bench
  5. The Rotation
  6. The Bullpen
  7. Summary

A Note on Adjusted OPS (OPS+)
Adjusted OPS, or OPS+, is a stat developed and used by—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)
Thus the Angels were well above average in terms of hitting, slightly above average in getting on base, and slightly below average in power. It should also be noted that with 139 stolen bases, the Angels ranked 2nd in the AL, although their 72% success rate was tied for 9th.

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.

2007 Review

  • Mike Napoli (25) - 75 games, .247/.351/.443, 10 HR (107 ops+)
  • Jeff Mathis (24) - 59 games, .211/.276/.351, 4 HR (64 ops+)
Mike Napoli had a difficult time staying healthy; his numbers were very similar to 2006 (99 games, .228/.360/.455), yet with one very important difference: after a terrible start he was relatively consistent. Jeff Mathis surprised many with his defense, although he was streaky offensively.

2008 Outlook
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.

2008 Projection

  • 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.
Love to hear what you think!


Michael James Gwaltney said...

Great post Jonathan.

I too think Bob Boone may have been the most critically important Catcher the Halos have had because he was so good with the glove and managing the pitching staff.

Now I wonder how much recent World Champion teams have needed a strong offensive catcher. Here's the most recent five: Varitek '07 (.255/.367/.421), Y. Molina (.216/.274/.321), Pierzynski (.257/.308/.420), Varitek '04 (.296/.390./482), I. Rodriguez (.297/.369/.474). None of these guys carried the offensive load for their team by any stretch of the imagination, though Rodriguez was a threat any time he was at the plate based on his power potential.

If the numbers you project for a platoon of Napoli and Mathis turn out to be correct, the data indicates that they are good enough offensively to support a World Championship team.

If offense isn't such a great need from the catching position for a World Series Championship team, what is? Clearly the most important part of catching on World Series Championship teams seems to be down to "clutch hitting" (as opposed to consistent offensive production) which all those guys above did for their team, and quality defense. Napoli and Mathis can improve in both areas, but I think they have it in 'em. Boone and B. Molina were good clutch hitters to be sure. As for defense Boone was hard to top and B. Molina was pretty darn good. Defensively, Mathis seems to be better than Napoli but they can both be expected to improve since they're young and Scioscia is their manager.

So I'd say the catching position for the Angels looks good from here through the next decade barring injuries and I'd expect one or both of these guys to be on your "Guide to Angels" in 2017.

Thanks again for a great post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Mike.

To reply to your main question, I don't think it is necessary to have a strong offensive catcher to win the World Series--it really depends upon everyone and everything else combined! A team can be extremely dominant on paper and flop in the post-season--it happens all the time (look at the Yankees).

As far as catching goes in the postseason, I think the most important aspect is what he does behind the plate, not next to it: defense and calling the game. Hitting is secondary, at least at that position. Notice how there is a direct correlation between how hard it is to play a defensive position and the number of good hitters (or lack thereof) at that position. The order is something like this, clumped in groups:

Second Base/Third Base/Center Field
Right Field/Left Field
First Base/DH

The higher up that list, the more important defense (including pitching) is.

2017?! We shall see...a lot could and will change. Who knows if anyone on the team now will still be here? "Batting 3rd and playing second base, 34-year old five-time batting championship Howie Kendriiiiick!!"

Michael James Gwaltney said...

Howie?! Love it!

Looks like we're in agreement on catcher. Can't wait to hear about the other positions.

Keep up the good work Jonathan.

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