Sunday, June 5, 2011

By Andre Castillo - Feature Writer

Before going any further, I think it’s important to take note of how tight the race is right now in the AL West. A quick recap of the standings as of Sunday morning:

AL West Standings


Texas has a decent lead, but it’s still very tight. With everyone so competitive, what is driving these teams success, and what is holding them back? Looking through the Angels team stats, I found an interesting nugget:

MLB Fielding Rankings: AL West
MLB Rank

The Angels have been playing elite defense. According to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), it is the best defense in the majors. You can thank Peter Bourjos and Torii Hunter for that one, who lead the Angels in UZR (see last week’s post).

But yet, look at how good the Rangers defense has been, ranked not far behind at 5th place, and how awful the A’s and Mariners have been, nearly last in the Majors. The Rangers have done a good job it seems of neutralizing this traditional Halo advantage.

Now let’s look at pitching.

MLB Rank

I ordered the teams by their ERA, because those are the runs that count. But I put them next to their FIP so you can see what the advanced stats think their ERAs should be going forward.

The Mariners surprising start has clearly been driven by their pitching, ranked 4th in the Majors. Even better are the A’s with their elite starting rotation ranking them at 2nd in the Majors. The Angels aren’t doing too bad either at 7th, but look who’s just behind them, bucking decades of trends otherwise, where you have the Rangers ranked just behind at 10th. This is huge for Texas, and explains much of their stellar record.

But look closer at the Rangers pitching – their expected ERA (their FIP) is 4.4. The gap between their ERA and FIP is greater than any of the other AL West teams. It looks like the Rangers have been having some good luck go their way. And as you know, once that luck runs out, their ERA should climb.

Now let’s look at hitting.

MLB Rank

Here I ranked the teams according to runs scored because, again, those are the stats that count. The Angels have not been very good of course, ranked 20th in the Majors and well behind the Rangers 6th place. But even still, the A’s and the Mariners have been significantly worse. Unless the A’s and Mariners manage to turn around either their fielding or their offenses, it doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to keep up with either the Rangers or the Angels, who have significant advantages in both of these categories.

Even more intriguing, the Angels offense has actually been better than their 20th ranking would indicate. Their weighted on-base average (wOBA, which measures their AVG/OBP/SLG and SB/CS but weighs them into one stat according to their importance) is actually a bit better. ranking 16th in the Majors. So according to advanced stats, the Angels offense, which we think is rather poor around here, is actually league average. Their lack of runs and hitting with RISP is probably just the result of some bad luck (or some poor line-up managing).

So overall, the Angels look like they’re in pretty good shape. With an offense that should improve, especially with a healthy and hopefully producing Howie Kendrick and Vernon Wells returning soon, and an over-performing Rangers staff that should come back down to earth, they should remain in the thick of the race for the AL West for the foreseeable future.

I should note here that while FIP, which I used here mostly for simplicity, can be the best predictor for future ERA, xFIP is more often the best indicator for predicting ERA, though it depends of various circumstances. Why do I say this? Because xFIP isn’t too kind to the Halos, predicting a 3.9 ERA for them and a 4.0 ERA for the Rangers. The relative merits of FIP vs. xFIP as it relates to the Halos/Rangers deserves an article of its own. Stay tuned.

Love to hear what you think!

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