Friday, December 21, 2012

By Gregory Bird - Contributor

We’re all fairly aware of what I’m about to say and I don’t mean this to be earth shattering but I thought it deserved to be acknowledged, for the sake of all of our collective sanity. Dipoto is not stupid, he has a plan. I am beginning to suspect I understand it too and here’s what I see. It is well known that the Moneyball strategy is about finding market inefficiencies and to replace onfield performance with options that fit your team’s budget, but the problem now is, with everyone looking for them, it is hard to find unexploited market inefficiencies. So, what is a smart GM to do? After watching all of JeDi’s moves this offseason (assuming this is really the end) I think I’m beginning to understand his overarching philosophy and I think it makes a lot of sense, both in business and hopefully for Angels baseball as well. As Moneyball made famous, it’s not all about signing premiere players to win but it is about replacing actual production on the field, which it seems JeDi has tried to do with his revamped pitching staff. Another thing it seems he is doing is choosing to focus his SP acquisitions on his defense and not their individual stats or on some of the generally accepted measurements of what a quality SP is: K/9, FIP, and GB/FB rate. What’s interesting is that this seems to be forward thinking, let me explain. 

First, did he actually replace production? I mean Haren, Santana, & Greinke/Williams sure sounds a whole lot better than Hanson, Vargas, and Blanton, but were they really. The stats prove that, based on last year’s performance, our three new starters can give us at least what we got from our 3, 4, and 5 SP last year. Combining Haren, Santana, & Greinke/Williams’ stats while starting last year for the Halos we get a line of: IP 535.1 ER 271 GS 88 QS 45 ERA 4.56.  If we look at the 2012 stats for Hanson, Vargas, and Blanton we get a line of: IP 583 ER 280 GS 94 QS 47 ERA 4.32. Jedi mindtrick indeed: these are not the SP you think they are! Before I looked at the actual numbers I would’ve thought they might be similar but they’d have to be slightly worse right, instead they’re better than our guys last year. These 3 pitched 47.2 innings more, with a .24 lower ERA, and they gave 2 more quality starts than our 3, 4, and 5 pitchers last year. Jedi didn’t just approximate it he got something better, even if Blanton and Hanson don’t benefit from Angel Stadium’s pitcher friendly atmosphere. 

This brings us to the park factor argument. Blanton pitched most of last year with 20 of his 30 starts at Citizens Bank Park, the 12th most hitter friendly park over the last three years. His HR/FB rate in Philly was 10.3%, but when he moved to Los Doyers for his final 10 starts his HR/FB rate dropped to 8%. By moving down the freeway to Anaheim he could easily keep the 8% or even lower it back to his days with the Athletics when it was between 5%-6%. Hanson is also coming from a park easier to hit HRs in than ours and could benefit. Turner Field was just behind Philly with an average three year rating of .948 from ESPN Park Factors compared to the Angel Stadium three year average of .791. Since Hanson is also a flyball pitcher he should see a slight reduction in his 10% HR/FB rate. Vargas, as other writers have proven, is making almost a neutral change as Safeco and Angel Stadium’s park factor over the last three years only differs by .026. This should mean that whatever benefit Vargas gained in Seattle he should have a similar one in Anaheim. 

This brings us to Moneyball; With GMs having a hard time finding inefficiencies in the market place, due to everyone having smart guys look for them, what does a team do? Why not look for areas in the market that your team is uniquely positioned to take advantage of and exploit those. This would minimize the demand and increase supply, allowing a team to get good value for a cheaper price. Taking advantage of untapped potential in the marketplace is predicated on the unique position of certain teams. For example, last year Detroit knew (at least I imagine they knew) at the top of their rotation they had two SP that would get a lot of outs by the strikeout. Knowing this they were willing to sacrifice their defense for a greater ability to score runs, Miguel Cabrera at third base. This ability to capitalize on weak defenders with strong bats was something unique to their rotation, Verlander and Scherzer, and allowed them the luxury of Fielder and Cabrera in their lineup. This also should allow them to keep those two in there with Victor Martinez at DH in 2013. But if they had SP who primarily relied on the GB out they would not have fared as well as they did. What are the unique positions of the Angels that Dipoto can take advantage of, he mentioned them in his last few Press Conferences; “His (Vargas) style suits our ballpark and our team very well,” and again "He throws strikes, pitches to contact, has that changeup that can get him out of jams. Our ballpark suits him well and our outfield defense should allow him to maximize his ability." There it is, our ballpark and our outfield defense. Nobody has a triumvirate in the outfield like the Angels this year with Trout in left, Bourjos in center, and Hamilton in right. This has the potential to be the greatest outfield defense in the history of baseball with two top 5 defensive centerfielders in the same outfield and with a pretty good former centerfielder now turned into a good corner guy.

The second factor is the way Angel Stadium limits flyballs from leaving the yard. The Angels Park Factor basically means for every 100 HRs hit in the average park our stadium only gives up 94. If those 6 extra hits stay in the yard, then our outfield defensive unit has a great chance to turn those HR into outs, not to mention homers our defense may steal back. So the best way to maximize our unique situation is to sign a high K rate SP?! Not at all, sign guys who can conceivably give up some flyballs that our park can hold in and our defense can go to work on. JeDi is not building our pitching around our pitchers stats per se but instead building our pitching around our park and our defense, our natural strengths. This is a market he can corner as only a few teams play in parks that hold flyballs in and how many of those teams can really count on their outfield defense like us. This greatly limits the demand for the type of players Dipoto was looking for, players like Vargas. Dipoto said, "Jason was what we were looking for on the market this year - just a steady, reliable lefthander.” There he goes, saying what he means but diverting us away from his true intent, more mind-tricks! Sure he wanted a steady and reliable lefthander, but he also wanted a flyball pitcher that other teams won’t value as much as he does right now. 

The real question is will this strategy work? After all this is a result oriented business: win and you’re genius lose and you’re out. I hope it works out but it may not. What I care about right now is that the process was smart and well thought out. I don’t think judging the result is always ideal, but if the process is bad -- think Reagins -- then a change is needed. JeDi is engaging in some forward thinking ideas and taking a risk. Will the 3, 4, and 5 guys at least do as well as they did last year, it’s likely. If they exceed last year, even by a little bit, then Dipoto improved the rotation, if not it is no worse. He obviously did all he could to improve the bullpen and the offense,  that even without Morales it should be a lot better. The ideas are sound and now I can’t wait for Spring Training and to get out there and watch our Halos!
Love to hear what you think!

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