When the Angels traded two top pitching prospects for Atlanta Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, the fan response was not overwhelmingly positive. Many criticized a team with an aging pitching core for trading their top pitching prospects. Others criticized Simmons for his lack of offensive production. However, the Los Angeles Angels knew that Simmons would be a big piece in their future plans to build a dominate defense
Angel Stadium is one of the best ballparks to pitch in. The stadium ranked 19th in runs scored, 28th in hits allowed, and 23rd in doubles allowed. Despite an uptick in home runs this year, the ballpark seems to stifle offenses. It seems as though general manager Billy Eppler caught on to this and made defense a focus when he was hired in 2015.
In the three seasons since he took over, Eppler has set a premium on players who can defend as well as they hit. His first offseason was highlighted by trades for Simmons and Yunel Escobar and signing a left-field platoon of Daniel Nava and Craig Gentry. Other than Escobar, all of his big acquisitions were exceptional defenders.
This plan spilled into the 2017 offseason where the Angels acquired former Gold Glove winner Ian Kinsler. By the start of the 2018 season, the Angels had five gold glove winners on their Opening Day roster. In addition, three other starters had been nominated for the award in their careers.
Eppler is building one of the best defensive teams in baseball right now. Since taking over as GM in the 2015 offseason, he has had eight players nominated for a Gold Glove. Before that, 10 Angels were nominated in the previous five seasons. With MLB breaking offensive records every year, why the focus on defense. The answer is, as it always seems to be, is Mike Trout.
Despite the league-wide offensive, the Angels have been only a top 10 scoring offense three times since 2009. Without a consistent offense, the Angels have made the playoffs once since three consecutive AL West titles from 2007-2009. The one consistent offensive piece for the Angels has been Mike Trout.
Trout has seemingly single-handedly supported the Angels offense since 2014. Though they have added Justin Upton and Shohei Ohtani to the lineup, Trout is the centerpiece. An offense cannot sustain itself if it is powered by only one player. Even then, players slump and can have bad stretches. This is where defense plays its role.
Defense does not slump. There may be statistical anomalies of consecutive errors, but generally, the defense cannot slump. The Angels pitching core seems to have an injury or two, forcing inexperienced pitchers to take the mound for the Halos. Even if those pitchers aren’t dominant, the defense helps keep the game close.
This has led to Angels pitching being better than it should be. Los Angeles had one player pitch above 175 innings, Andrew Henaey. He ended the season with a 4.15 ERA. Compare that to some of the pitchers plugged into the rotation and bullpen. Jaime Barria had a 3.41 in 129.1 innings, Hansel Robles had a 2.97 ERA in 36.1 innings, and Ty Buttery had a 3.31 ERA in 16.1 innings.
All three of these players either weren’t on the Angels or expected to make the Angels this season. Across 182 total innings, these pitchers had a 3.23 ERA. What made them effective wasn’t a dominating curve or velocity. What made these pitchers effective was their ability to give up soft or medium contact. Of pitchers who pitched at least 10 innings, all three ranked in the top 11 on the Angels in soft contact
Eppler has built a strong defense behind his pitchers which should only get stronger with Zack Cozart returning from injury. The Angels don’t need too many more offensive pieces with budding defense. Soon enough the Angels may have one of the top defenses in the MLB.
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