Remember before the season when the Angels were considered to be really good on paper? That team had a lot going for it. Yup, those were good times.
Well, we all know what happened once the season started. A lot of those assumptions we all made proved wrong. Oh so very wrong. But we aren't here to have me wax poetic about how much Josh Hamilton sucks or how banged up Albert Pujols is or how generally terrible the pitching staff has been. What I want to focus on instead is one of the biggest yet most underrated part of the steaming pile of disappointment that is the Halos: their defense.
That defense, well, it turned out to be crappy. Like, SUPER crappy. I really can't emphasize enough just how crappy the defense has been. They are the fourth worst defense in the majors according to UZR/150 at -5.5 and dead last according to UZR at -60 with the next worst team miles away at -45.You don't even need to understand how those statistics are calculated to realize that those numbers are just crap on top of crap.
The thing is that the defense wasn't supposed to be so awful, in fact, it was supposed to be a major strength of the Angels. On paper, there's that phrase again, one could have expected the Halos to be an elite defense. They had Trout and Bourjos in the outfield. Albert Pujols is a former Gold Glove winner at first as is Erick Aybar at short. Howie Kendrick had developed into a very good glove at second and Alberto Callaspo was the darling of the sabermetric world because few people realized that he rated as such a great fielder at third.
The only two question marks were Hamilton in right and whoever was doing the catching. Even then, the question marks were tiny ones as Hamilton figured to be no worse than a little below average in right, but possibly even above average, and Iannetta had demonstrated flashes of strong defense in his erratic career behind the dish. At worst on paper, the Angel defense should have been top ten in the league yet here we are with the Halos rating as quite possibly the worst in all of baseball.
A lot of what has plagued the defense couldn't have been anticipated. The plan was never to have Brendan Harris play 142 innings at short where he has posted a -6 DRS and -53.1 UZR/150. Nor was their ever a thought that J.B. Shuck would have to play 322.2 innings in left where he rates at -3 DRS and 1.4 UZR/150. Both of those performances are unquestionably poor, but they only get magnified when you compare their performance to that of the players they were replacing.
Injuries happen, it sucks, but every team has to do deal with it so you could point the finger at the front office for not stocking the bench with more capable players. What you can't blame on management is the incumbent starters underachieving on defense almost across the board.
We've all seen how badly Alberto Callaspo has struggled at third base in recent weeks as he fights the yips. Erick Aybar has never been loved by advanced defensive metrics, but he doesn't even seem to pass the eyeball test this year, possibly because of lingering leg problems. Even Howie Kendrick has not rated very well at second base thus far this year. What probably doesn't help any of them though is that they don't have the Gold Glove of Pujols at first base to bail them out like he did last season. In the event that Albert does play first, he clearly lacks the mobility to dig out throws or make anything but routine plays on groundballs. When Trumbo takes his place, the results are only marginally better and it all adds up to make for a pretty lousy defensive infield.
The outfield hasn't been much better. There is the aforementioned issues with having Shuck play so much in left, but Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos have been strangely poor fielders, at least according to UZR and DRS. For reasons that totally escape me, Trout is a -15 DRS and -0.3 UZR/150 in the outfield this season. He has obviously been better than that to anyone who has watched him, but the metrics at least suggest that his defensive prowess has not been able to impact the game in the same way as it did last season. The same goes for Peter Bourjos who is at -1 DRS and -13.3 UZR/150.
So, yeah, the defense stinks. That's a problem. Detroit also has a miserable defense but they are still a pretty good team, so it isn't the end of the world. Or at least it wouldn't be if the team had planned to be poor defensively, like the Tigers did, instead of counting on that defense to cover up the deficiencies of the pitching staff, like the Angels did. This is where the real trouble starts. Jerry Dipoto looked at a club that was far and away the best fielding team in the American League in 2012. It stood to reason that by replacing Hunter and Trumbo in the outfield with Bourjos and Hamilton with the infield remaining intact that the defense would be about the same, if not better. Assuming he'd have that great defense, Dipoto built a pitching staff around pitchers who had strong K/BB ratios but maybe were a little hittable with the logic being that the pitchers would limit self-inflicted wounds by not walking players and their issues with hittability would be counteracted by the elite defense behind them. That was a pretty sound and logical plan except that Dipoto never accounted for the scenario in which the defense would fall to pieces which ended magnifying rather than minimizing the weaknesses of the pitching staff.
Already this year the defense has cost the Angels roughly 2.5 wins compared to replacement level, but you could almost double that when you compare to the number of wins above replacement the Angels were expected to gain from their defense. That's five wins that their defense left on the table before we even try to factor in the damage the defense has done to the pitching staff. Even with just the fielding metrics, we are looking at the difference between this team being ten games under .500 like they are now and being right at .500 where they would be if they lived up to their defensive expectations.