Angels Bullpen Woes
The Los Angeles Angels sit at the bottom of the AL West with a 9-20 record. With the pre-season speculation that the Angels could be a playoff contender, what went wrong? The batting lineup consists of big offensive names like Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon. Thus, pitching (mainly relief pitching since no one likes to lose a lead) is the first area to come under scrutiny. Are the Angels bullpen woes to blame? This question deserves some analysis to better understand the relievers impact to overall team performance and whether the poor record is more indicative of larger challenges.
This year’s relief corps saw a small amount of turnover. Thus, an analysis of last year’s performance can set the stage for analysis of the current season and key players. The analysis provided below was compiled from Fangraphs and Baseball Reference.
2019 1st Half
The Angels 45-46 record kept them in contention for a playoff run at the All-Star break. One of the main contributions came from the bullpen. Then Angel’s manager Brad Ausmus praised the relief corps as a key contributor.
— Bally Sports West (@BallySportWest) April 16, 2019
They ranked 13th in WAR and led the league in strikeouts. However, taking a more in-depth look at their statistics, they performed fairly average compared to the rest of the league. Their Skill-Interactive ERA (SIERA) ranked 15th overall suggesting the bullpen’s average performance. SIERA provides an ERA metric independent of defensive support with a more pitcher-centric approach. Additionally, relievers generated a lot of strikes holding a 9.49 k/9 ranking 11th among reliever corps.
However, offensive performances could have contributed to the pen’s early success as they benefited from run support (RS). Angels relievers lead the league with a 220 (RS) overall and a 4.79 RS/9. Still, their SIERA and WAR still showed they ranked in the middle of the league among relief corps.
A more concerning conclusion came from looking at their total batters faced (TBF) and innings pitched (IP). If a bullpen is overused early in the season, that can lead to diminished performance later, as warned by Ausmus in his comment above. Angels relievers led the league in total batters faced (TBF) at 1819 while ranking second in total innings pitched (IP).
2019 2nd Half
The Angels went 27-44 in the second half of the season and saw drops in performance on both sides of the ball. The bullpen was no exception as their K/9 fell from 11th overall in the league to 28th at 8.48. Their HR/FB increased to 16.9% ranking in the bottom third. Furthermore, a lack of run support hit the bullpen hard. Relievers saw a drop in RS/9 to 3.83, third worst in the league.
A big contributor to the Angels bullpen struggles came from a weak starting rotation. Angels starters ranked last in the league in the number of quality starts (QS) at 22 and a QS% at 14% in the 2019. Further, the rotation ranked last in the league with a 5.64 ERA. No starting pitcher exceeded more than 18 starts last season. Their lack of contribution forced the bullpen to be over-leveraged with the team’s pitching load. Angels relievers ranked in the top three in total IP,TBF, and hits in the second half. Combined with the first half numbers, they ranked fourth in IP and TBF in 2019.
Before diving into the numbers for 2020, it should be noted that some statistics like SIERA and xFIP remain sensitive to small sample sizes. Thus, it is difficult to draw extensive conclusions. However, the analysis of 2019 can provide us some context for analysis.
So far in 2020, the Angels bullpen ranks in the middle of the league with a 1.0 WAR. Just like in 2019, the team ranks in the top three in IP and TBF suggesting the need for stronger starting pitching. On the positive side, Angels relievers have slightly improved their ERA and cut their HR/FB from 15.7% in 2019 to just over nine percent. However, when you look at SIERA and xFIP (both metrics were better in 2019), those improvements may be more indicative of defensive improvements. Their Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is down slightly this year, another indicator of better defense.
Additionally, relievers have enjoyed more RS/9 support ranking in the top third of the league at 4.9 (keep in mind this is the RS/9 for relievers; not total pitching). On the downside, strikeouts are down. Despite more opportunities than other teams (IP and TBF still rank in the top four), they rank in the middle for total SO’s. Also, K/9 decreased from 9.03 in 2019 to 8.64 placing them in the bottom third of the league.
Key conclusions for the Angels relief corps: strikeouts are down but increased fielding has kept their overall metrics average with relievers allowing more balls in play. Thus, the Angels bullpen woes do not appear to be a significant contributor to their poor performance.
The Angels released Cody Allen and a number of other 2019 relievers including Luis Garcia, Trevor Cahill, and Adalberto Mejia. Additionally, they started the season with two key relievers on the injury list: Justin Anderson and Cam Bedrosian. During the offseason, the team added Mike Mayers, Kyle Keller, Hoby Milner, and Jacob Barnes.
As stated earlier, a small 2020 sample size should be considered before drawing extensive conclusions. That being said, Felix Pena and Barnes stand out as relief leaders in xFIP and SIERA. Pena has one win out of the bullpen and a 0.98 WHIP. Ty Buttrey took over as the teams closer and proved successful in situations with runners on base with a 73.3% LOB. Milner has surprised many despite giving up a game winning grand slam in his first appearance as an Angel. He is posting a 0.71 WHIP with a career high K% in seven innings pitched. Lastly, Matt Andriese moved out of the starting rotation and has provided reliable performance as a long reliever.
Probably the biggest disappointment has come from Hansel Robles. He replaced Allen as the closer in 2019 racking up 23 saves with a 1.8 WAR. This season, he stumbled out of the gate with a team worst 11.00 ERA (though 4.13 SIERA), 13 H, 12 R, and three HR in nine innings pitched contributing the Angels bullpen woes. He looked better in his last appearance against the Oakland Athletics striking out all three batters, but fans will hope to see him return to his 2019 form. Next, Keynan Middleton continues to progress after missing most of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He hopes to bounce back to his 2018 level. Others including Noe Ramirez and Mayers show positive signs, but will need to provide more consistency in pitch control.
More Than the bullpen
General Manager Billy Eppler has clearly shown a preference to spend on offensive talent over pitching. Zack Cozart, Justin Upton, and Rendon all received lucrative multi-year deals from Eppler. Despite the big names in the lineup, the Angels rank 14th overall in runs scored and 20th in RS/9 this season. ESPN.com Power Rankings noted that Angels DHs, first basemen and corner outfielders rank last in the league with a .593 OPS and .256 wOBA. Overall, Eppler’s strategy to outscore opponents has not come to fruition and the team’s offense performance has been underwhelming (especially considering the offense’s portion of the team’s payroll).
Furthermore, a bullpen cannot compensate for poor starting pitching over the long run. The Angels were the league’s worst in 2019. While the starting corps has improved their QS% greatly, they rank in the bottom half in WAR, runs, hits, and walks. While Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning, and Patrick Sandoval have shown signs of improvement, they will need to be more consistent.
Angels relievers without question have room for improvement. Buttrey and Milner have posted solid numbers recently but need to show they can consistently perform in high leverage scenarios. Robles, Ramirez, and others need to work on their control to increase strikeouts and limit runs. However, problems in performance are usually more systemic of larger issues: mainly RS and starting pitching.
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