The Angels have had a lot of problems over the last four years. They’ve almost all received a lot of attention from fans and analysts alike. The rotation. The bullpen. Staying healthy. The bullpen again. The bullpen some more. But the one area that has flown under the radar has been their defense.
In this four-season playoff drought, the once vaunted Halo defense has ranged from below average to dreadful. The 2013 season was their nadir as they finished 20th in the majors in defense, with a -66 DRS and -2.9 UZR. With a pitching staff as bad as theirs, not being able to have your fielder help with run prevention is pretty damning.
But this season, things have finally changed for the better. Advanced defensive metrics are notoriously fickle in small sample sizes, but through 24 games, the Angels boast the best defense in baseball according to Ultimate Zone Rating and third-best according to Defensive Runs Saved. Seeing how they were so bad last season and have largely the same roster, it begs the question: how’d they do that?
Part of the improvement comes simply from Angels players who were bad last season playing better to start this season. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since the hot question last year was how so many of the Angels typically strong defenders rated so poorly in 2013. When people refer to regression to the mean, this is what they are talking about.
Mike Trout was actually a -9 DRS in center field last season, but this year is he +3. Howie Kendrick has gone from a -3 to a +2. Erick Aybar was a -7 but his now at zero DRS. Considering that those three are players with strong defensive reputations, the Halos should like their odds of continuing to get strong performances out of them rather than seeing them regress to their uncharacteristic 2013 defensive performances.
One of the defensive improvements that hasn’t yet shown up in the metrics is getting a healthy Albert Pujols back at first base rather than the combination of injured Pujols and stone-handed Mark Trumbo. While Albert’s metrics are about the same as in 2013, one can’t help but wonder if having a more sure-handed first baseman hasn’t made the metrics for all the infielders throwing to him better.
What has really boosted the Angels’ defensive profile is that they have gotten excellent work from their fill-ins. J.B. Shuck and Collin Cowgill have each been a +5 in DRS in the outfield. Heck, even Raul Ibanez has been a positive in his (thankfully) brief time in the field.
Third base is still an issue between the combined contributions of David Freese and Ian Stewart, but they were replacing Alberto Callaspo, who was -6 in DRS before being traded to Oakland. Still, if a downgrade at one position is all the Angels have to deal with, then they are living right.
What remains to be seen is if this will hold up. Trout, Kendrick and Aybar fielding well is no surprise, but just just about everyone else in the outfield who isn’t Trout has been playing over their head. That’s an especially big concern given the flyball tendencies of the Angels pitching staff. They will get Kole Calhoun back, who is a solid defender that has played very well thus far. Josh Hamilton should return in a few weeks as well. He, however, was having a more mediocre season before his injury. With the back-ups overachieving, it seems certain that there will be some kind of drop off.
The Angels are getting better work out of their rotation year, but their bullpen is still a mess. That could be good enough to get them into the post-season, but continuing to get top-notch run prevention from their defenders will go a long way towards keeping those playoff odds elevated.