Friday, March 30, 2012

by Brent Hubbard - Feature Columnist

After football finishes its season, before the country goes into the madness of March and before the basketball playoff begin, something spectacular occurs.

“Pitchers and Catchers Report.”
It is this phrase all baseball fans wait for during the cold and bleak (or sunny and warm) winter. As only one team finished last October with a to end the season, fans of the other 29 teams, all think that maybe this is the year.

Spring Training 2012 certainly has been an interesting one to say the least. As we approach its final days, it’s time to look forward to what should be an exciting year for baseball.

It is about this time that baseball pundits, experts, sports books, and websites around the world release the predicted win totals for the various teams. The reaction among fans is pretty much universal… “That’s way too low for my team!” and “The rival team is rated way too high. They’re not THAT good.”

Justifications about why they think their favorite team is better than the number abound. “We signed Player X” or  “Traded for this guy” or “This guy will be better than the so-called experts think” or “It’s this guy’s breakout season!”

I have to say that I fell into the same vein of thinking when I saw the 90 wins the Angels have been predicted to be at by many.

They signed Albert Pujols, I thought, the greatest hitter of my generation. They added a stud pitcher in CJ Wilson, bolstered the bullpen and have Kendrys Morales back from injury. They traded for a new starting catcher. They added bullpen depth and subtracted a few problems off their roster. Yet I know the pundits, experts, and oddsmakers do their research and so I looked at the numbers.

My conclusion is simple, even if the math is not. The 90 win projection is just wrong. Way wrong. I know the games aren’t played on number or with statistics, but baseball is a very statistic friendly sport, so I crunched the numbers based on the following formulas. Now I didn’t invent these formulas, I merely used them to form the conclusions I will present over the next few paragraphs. Bill James has a reputation in the Stat Geek world for being a statistical guru. One of his most famous statistical formulas is the Pythagorean expectation for baseball wins, which is detailed below.

For the not very statistically inclined, what this means is that the number of runs a team scores squared, divided by the sum of the number of runs scored squared plus the number of runs allowed scored will equal the winning percentage of a given team in a given season. The second calculation is merely the simplified mathematical formula, but it looks more complex to understand so we’ll stick with the first method.

One of his other famous statistical formulas is for the number of runs created, which not coincidentally helps us with the first formula.

                                        (HITS + WALKS) * (TOTAL BASES)
RUNS CREATED  =    _________________________________________

                                                    AT-BATS + WALKS

This formula can be used for a team as a whole, or more specifically, for each batter in a lineup. I used the latter for my upcoming projections. I think predicting each batter is easier than predicting a team as a whole.

To figure out runs created, I then dove into my Excel spreadsheets, putting each projected batter into the lineup, figuring out a number of games they were likely to start, based on my own thoughts about the Angels lineup. I then looked at the number of plate appearances that particular number of starts should provide each player based on where they will probably hit in the order. I looked at their stats, made an assumption of where they should be based on past history and whether they projected to take a step forward, back or regress to the player’s average season.

Then I realized my projections for each player were a tad optimistic, not quite best-case scenario, but probably could be said to be closer to best case than average. I re-created the same spreadsheet and really reduced my projections, to the tune of slightly above average to below average performances from each player. This projection wasn’t the worst-case scenario, but it is probably more likely across the board than the first numbers.

Now I still was coming up with some crazy runs created numbers in both scenarios, particularly for Albert Pujols. I looked at the numbers from the Angels’ 2011 and 2009 teams, plugging in the players numbers to my spreadsheet to see how far off James formula was for a good Angels’ offense that had scored 883 runs as well as last seasons 667 run-scoring Angels team. It seemed like the runs created formula was a bit high, maybe 3-5% or so. I reduced the figures by the higher percentage and still came out with some pretty good run numbers for the offenses.

I want to make a few of my assumptions clear. I project Peter Bourjos to get a lot of the lead off at bats for the Angels in 2012, particularly against lefties. I simply feel that with his defensive ability, speed, and the fact that he will be in an Angels uniform for the foreseeable future, I think he will be the choice in 2012. Erick Aybar is a Free Agent at the end of the year, his OBP has never been higher than .353 and that is an outlier in comparison to the rest of his years.

I also project Howie Kendrick to hit second most of the time, because of his penchant for success with the fastball, which he will see more of hitting in that spot, ahead of Albert Pujols. I project Pujols to hit third, a healthy Kendry Morales to hit fourth, and the rest of the lineup to fill in after that. I expect Scioscia to try to work in Trumbo’s bat anywhere he can and I project him to be better than most pundits think at third base, taking time away from Alberto Callaspo, who despite leading the team in OBP and BA last year was far from their best hitter and Macier Izturis.

Next, I expect Bobby Abreu to be traded or released before spring training concludes. He is left handed, yes, but where is he supposed to play? Also, his second half of the season last year was absolutely horrible. If he were to get some at bats in the beginning of the year, I suppose that would take away from Vernon Wells and Mark Trumbo, but I completely omitted him from my projected lineup.

I expect Chris Ianetta to get the majority of the catching starts, but not over 100 games. Conger will be his back up in the second half of the season, but I expect the team to go with Bobby Wilson as the backup to begin the season. Conger and top prospect Mike Trout are still quite young and they will both begin the season in AAA Salt Lake.

I did quite a lot of number crunching on the individual stats, looking at a lot of splits, past performances where available, and on the optimistic side am projecting Peter Bourjos, Mark Trumbo, Albert Pujols, and Howie Kendrick to have great years. Torrii Hunter, Vernon Wells, Kendrys Morales, Chris Iannetta will be near their career averages. Erick Aybar, Alberto Callapso, and Macier Izturis all will be a tick lower than last year.

Moving back to the formulas, whether you agree or not with my projections for each player, if you look at the runs created stat as a whole, I think most will agree that the Angels will be somewhere between 800 and 900. 2009 with Morales in the lineup, they scored 885 runs. That team won 97 games.

The difference is that I believe this offense to be even better than the one that team fielded. Maybe they won't score as many runs, but maybe they’ll do better. We’ll see.

What makes this team even better than that 97-win team though, is pitching. We discussed runs scored, the first part of the formula for win percentage, but what about runs allowed?

The Angels led the majors in ERA last year, but were second in total runs allowed. They were virtually tied with the Tampa Bay Rays.

The perceived lack of bullpen depth causes concern with many fans, but the depth is actually quite good. They’ve improved the pen by adding Jason Isringhausen and LaTroy Hawkins over Fernando Rodney and others but the main reason the pen will be better is the fact that they won’t have to pitch as many innings, or in as many tight situations. One stat I saw this week said the Angels were shut out in the first five innings in something like 50 games last year? That caused little room for error in the bullpen.

This years’ rotation will be even better than last, as the weak points from last years rotation are gone. Pinero, Chatwood, Palmer, Kazmir all struggled in the 4-5 spots last year, but the top 3 were excellent. Jerome Williams and Garrett Richards have both been excellent this spring, although Williams has been hampered by a hamstring injury. But CJ Wilson makes the biggest difference over Pinero in the 4th spot. 

I projected the numbers for each pitcher in the rotation and the pen as best as I could, based pretty much on their past performances. My optimistic side projections put them ahead of last year’s 633 runs, closer to 540 runs, which is what the top National League staff did last year. CJ Wilson had a 2.99 ERA last year for Texas, and a 2.31 ERA on the road. Will he be able to throw 220 innings? That is a question for sure, but hopefully, he repeats his 2011 success in 2012. If they struggle, they’ll end up closer to 663 runs, which is more than they allowed last year, with guys like Pinero, Chatwood, and Rodney on the staff.

I’ve also heard rumors that the Angels are interested in Roy Oswalt, which would make this staff incredible. He may not be the Ace he once was, but he’s not far off, and although I figure Richards and Williams to do pretty well, Oswalt would be an improvement.

Going back to the original formula, the Bill James Win percentage “Pythagorean” formula, we can now plug in those numbers and see where the Angels end up. Here’s that formula again.

Using the lower of my two projection worksheets, where the Angels score 800 runs and allow 663, the Angels would have a .593 winning percentage. That’s 96 wins. James formula is pretty popular, but I found that James said later than it's better to not square the runs scored and runs allowed, but instead multiply them by the power of 1.82. This is a bit more complicated, and I have no idea where he got that number from, but regardless, that result at the non-optimistic projections projects 95 wins. Still pretty darn good and enough to win the division in most years.

 Moving up to my optimistic hitting and non-optimistic pitching numbers (663 and 900) and you get between 103 and 105 wins. Using my optimistic pitching and non-optimistic hitting numbers (540 and 800) and you get between 109 and 111 wins.

And finally, using my optimistic hitting and optimistic pitching numbers (540 and 900), you get between 116 and 119 wins. Now that would be something. Maybe they could get a banner if they reach that number.

Finally, I’ll leave you with this thought: the Angels routinely out perform this Pythagorean expectation formula. In 2011, they were one win ahead. 2010, same one win ahead. In 2009, the Angels finished five wins ahead. 2008 was the best to date though when they finished 12 wins ahead of the formula. 2007 was four ahead, 2006 five, 2005 was two, 2004 was one, 2003 was actually three behind the expectation, 2002 was two behind, 2001 was one behind, and 2000 was one ahead.

In short: I’ll take the over.
Love to hear what you think!

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