July 2007

Kernels Article for Quakes’ “Play Ball” Magazine


Chris Pettit was promoted to Rancho Cucamonga after the Midwest League All-Star break.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve been working on a series of articles for the Play Ball magazine distributed at Rancho Cucamonga Quakes games.

The below article was in the issue distributed July 1-3 during the Lancaster series.

The next article, about the history of the Quakes/Lake Elsinore Storm rivalry, will appear in the issue distributed July 7-9 during the Storm series. I’ll post it next week when I return from Orem.

And now I have to go write an article about the Arkansas Travelers …


FORESHOCKS:
The 2007 Cedar Rapids Kernels

If you ask the seismologists at Cal Tech, they’ll tell you that quakes come from the shifting of tectonic faults deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

But Angels fans know that Rancho Cucamonga Quakes usually come from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels are the Angels’ affiliate in the Midwest League.  They’re one level below Rancho Cucamonga in the Angels farm system.

Players are promoted to Rancho Cucamonga after showing they can play at the Midwest League level.  Many of the most successful Quakes players in recent years played for Cedar Rapids the year before — Brandon Wood, Howie Kendrick, Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, Jeff Mathis, Sean Rodriguez, Ervin Santana, Nick Adenhart and many more.

The 2007 Kernels finished 38-31 in the first half, good enough for third place in the eight-team Western Division.  Two of them — outfielder Chris Pettit and pitcher Doug Brandt — have already arrived in Rancho Cucamonga.  You might see more Kernels before the season ends, and most of the rest will take the field at The Epicenter in April 2008.

Pettit, who turns 23 on August 15, hit .346 in the first half with 9 HR and 41 RBI.  His .429 on-base percentage led the league.  He also led the league with 24 doubles and was second with a .679 slugging percentage.  Oh, he also stole 17 bases in 21 attempts.  And he started for the Western Division in the Midwest League All-Star Game.  Pettit grew up in San Dimas, and attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles before the Angels sign.

Two Orange County natives are among the Kernels’ top prospects.

Catcher Hank Conger, 19, was the Angels’ first round pick in the June 2006 draft.  The Huntington Beach resident hit .282 in the first half with 8 HR and 33 RBI.  His OPS (on-base percentage + slugging percentage) improved from .732 in April to .820 in May and .872 in the first half of June.  The switch-hitter had more success against right-handed pitchers (.840 OPS) than lefties (.703 OPS).

The other local is first baseman Mark Trumbo, 21, who’s from Orange.  Although he’d committed to attend USC, the Angels gave him a huge bonus to sign in August 2004.  Trumbo had a disappointing 2006 with the Kernels, batting only .220 with 13 HR, and started 2007 back in Cedar Rapids.  After a slow start, Mark had a .319 AVG in June before the break, a .351 on-base percentage and .507 slugging percentage.

Let’s not overlook the Inland Empire!

Southpaw pitcher Brandt made a name for himself in Iowa after being drafted out of Cal State San Bernardino. Doug was selected in the 43rd round of the June 2006 draft, and began 2007 in the Kernels’ bullpen where he posted a perfect 0.00 ERA.  But after a couple starters were injured, Brandt made the most of his opportunity.  In nine starts at the break, Doug has a 2.76 ERA and given up only one homer.  His overall numbers for the first half: a 2.18 ERA with 60 strikeouts and only 12 walks in 57 2/3 innings.

Ryan Mount, from Chino Hills, turns 21 in August.  "Mountie" hit .272 in the first half, stealing 13 bases.  In June before the break, his average was a sizzling .417 with a .481 on-base percentage.  Originally drafted as a shortstop, Ryan has played second base for the Kernels.

Another top prospect from the L.A. area is right-hander Trevor Bell, who the Angels chose in the first round of the June 2005 draft.  Trevor, who’s from the San Fernando Valley, made a name for himself acting in commercials while growing up.  His professional baseball career has been set back by injuries, but when healthy he’s been another solid starter for the Kernels.  In eight starts before the All-Star break, Bell was 2-2 with a 3.46 ERA, striking out 30 and walking only four in 41.2 innings.

Let’s be honest — not all the Kernels’ talent comes from California.  (It only seems that way!)

On the mound, the Kernels’ ace the first half was right-hander Tim Schoeninger.  The Denver native wasn’t on anyone’s prospect radar, but his season to date has changed that.  Tim was 9-2 in 12 starts with a 2.67 ERA.  In 81 innings, he struck out 64 and walked only six!  Schoeninger was named to the Western Division All-Star roster.

In the bullpen, watch out for Aaron Cook, a 23-year old Floridian with a funky submarine delivery.  In 19 relief appearances, he had a stingy 1.04 ERA with 17 strikeouts and only one walk in 26 innings.

Cook had four saves, but lefty Barret Browning leads the staff with five.  Browning, 22, was scouted and signed out of Florida State University by Tom Kotchman, Casey’s dad.  Opponents were batting only .205 against Barret, who had 42 strikeouts in 35.1 innings.

A couple years ago, Angels fans expected one day to see Warner Madrigal hitting home runs at The Epicenter.  But a series of hand injuries slowed his career to the point where the Angels converted him to the mound last summer.  Now 23, Warner had a 3.64 ERA in 27 relief appearances, striking out 31 and walking 17 in 29.2 innings.  Warner’s fastball is in the mid-90s, and he’s working on a slider and changeup.

In the next issue of Play Ball, we’ll look at the Double-A Arkansas Travelers, where many of last year’s Quakes now play.

At The Half – Anaheim


Reggie Willits (shown at Provo in 2003) is the feel-good story of the summer.

The Angels are half-way through the 2007 season, sporting a 50-31 mark (.617). The only major league team with a better winning percentage is the Boston Red Sox at 49-30 (.620), who’ve played two fewer games.

Despite pre-season predictions (mostly from the dogmatic sabermetricians who think there’s only one way to win a ballgame) that the Angels were doomed because they didn’t acquire a “big bat”, so far the critics for the most part have crawled back into the woodwork.

Can it still go wrong?

Of course.

The worst thing that could happen would be a season-ending injury to Vlad Guerrero. Losing aces John Lackey or Kelvim Escobar would also be catastrophic, and the bullpen would be sorely tested should they lose Scot Shields or Francisco Rodriguez. Shortstop Orlando Cabrera, whose leadership and all-around productivity is the epitome of Angels-style baseball, is another vital part whose loss would be hard to replace.

But the main reasons for their success to date — the best start in Angels franchise history — can be credited largely to Bill Stoneman’s team-building philosophy, a philosophy that’s been incessantly bashed over the years by people apparently blind to the fact that the Angels during his tenure have been the most successful in their 47-year history.

Some people endlessly demanded that Stoneman unload the farm system to acquire a “name” player, usually some aging star like Randy Johnson or Todd Helton or Miguel Tejada or Mike Sweeney.  Had they done so, young stars like Scot Shields, Casey Kotchman, John Lackey and Howie Kendrick would be long gone.

Stoneman protected his young assets, and it paid off this year as the Angels survived the inevitable injury wave by dipping into a rich farm system. How many teams can say they have six quality starting pitchers?! The Angels had Joe Saunders at Salt Lake paralleling starts with Bartolo Colon, knowing that he was the most fragile pitcher on the staff. Recently Saunders was called up when John Lackey was pushed back for the first time in his career due to injury, and Jered Weaver suffered from a lower back problem.

Chone Figgins — often a target of stathead abuse — started the year on the DL after breaking his fingertips in spring training. No problem. The Angels survived by using Maicer Izturis, Robb Quinlan, even unpolished Brandon Wood for a few games.

Garret Anderson has suffered all season from a nagging hip flexor injury. No problem. The Angels survived using Reggie Willits, a singles/walk hitter with no pop who fit in perfectly with Stoneman’s offensive philosophy. Willits is now mentioned as a possible rookie of the year candidate, and has been featured recently in both USA Today and The New York Times.

Howie Kendrick broke a finger when he was struck by a pitch and went on the DL for a month. No problem. Erick Aybar stepped in at 2B until Kendrick returned. Aybar, often mentioned in trade talks, has also filled in at SS, 3B, and the outfield.

But the most important factor, in my opinion, is that the Angels are back to playing the “Contactball” style of play that’s been so successful for them in recent years.

I coined the phrase “Contactball” in November 2004 to describe the Angels’ unique offense philosophy. Contactball flies in the face of stathead dogma which places on-base percentage on a pedestal to be worshipped.

A frequent complaint by the statheads is that Contactball doesn’t work "if you don’t get on base." But they seem to be missing the point — the object of the game isn’t to draw a walk. The object of the game is to outscore your opponent.

So the Angels don’t obsess with walks. They obsess instead with scoring runs as efficiently as possible.

The Angels will gladly trade a run for an out. Sabermetric orthodoxy considers this heresy, that an offense should never trade an out for anything.

But you can’t argue with the results.

(Well, you can if you’re intellectually dishonest or pigheaded, but I digress …)

Using the Sortable Team Stats feature on MLB.com, as of this morning we find some interesting facts:

  • The Angels lead the 30 major league teams in batting average (.290).
  • The Angels are 25th in walks (241).
  • The Angels are 27th in strikeouts (410).
  • The Angels are 12th in slugging percentage (.424).
  • The Angels are 2nd in stolen bases (76).
  • The Angels are 5th in runs scored (412).

Among the major league leaders in runs scored despite a very low walk rate?!

Say it ain’t so!

Well, it is.

The explanation is really simple. The Angels understand the importance of producing runs. They don’t wait around for a couple walks and a three-run homer. The fact of the matter is that a walk doesn’t advance a runner, unless it’s a force. But a hit does. So does a “productive out”, a phrase considered an epithet in the sabermetric world because it flies in the face of their commandment that “Thou Shalt Not Waste an Out.”

One of the Contactball columns I wrote looked at a team’s efficiency in generating runs, measured by how many outs it takes to produce a run. As noted, statheads complain that “You can’t score if you don’t get on base.” But that argument is flawed, because it misses the point.

First off, no system works 100% of the time. If David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez go in a slump together, the Red Sox stop scoring. To suggest that only one system works perfectly is just being dishonest. But let’s look at the facts.

Right now, the best OBP in baseball is the Red Sox at .355. The worst is the White Sox at .309. The mean is somewhere in the low .330s, which is consistent with an earlier Contactball article I wrote in which I noted that the major league OBP seems to float consistently around one-in-three.

So Boston’s .355 means that 355 out of 1,000 batters reach base. Chicago’s .309 means that 309 out of 1,000 batters reach base. The average is about 333 out of 1,000.

Put another way, it means that Boston puts only 22 more batters on base per 1,000 (2.2%) than the average. Chicago puts only 24 batters fewer batters on base per 1,000 (2.4%) on the average. The variance from the average really isn’t that big.

Which suggests that simply reaching base really doesn’t matter so much.

What does matter is what you do with those guys once they do get on base.  It’s not about how many baserunners you have.  It’s about how many runs you score.

The Angels choose to do it by advancing runners — stealing a base, swapping an out to move a runner into scoring position, going from 1st to 3rd on a base hit.

Boston does it with slugging percentage (i.e. Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz), but interestingly they’re only #9 in runs scored (392) while the Angels are #5 (412). (Because the Red Sox have played two fewer games, I don’t consider this to be a statistically significant difference.)

The team with the most runs scored is Detroit at 471. Their AVG (.290) and OBP (.353) are very similar to the Angels, but their SLG (.472) is also the highest in the majors.

Which brings us to the next point … The object of the game is to outscore your opponent, but that can also be worded another way — the object of the game is to assure that your opponent scores less than you.

In other words … pitching.

The Angels’ 3.93 ERA is 8th in the majors. Boston is #4 at 3.75. Detroit is #18 at 4.50.

A popular sabermetric measurement is WHIP — (Walks + Hits)/(Innings Pitched). The Red Sox are #6 at 1.29. The Angels are #7 at 1.31. The Tigers are #21 at 1.43.

Another way to assure your opponents score less is to use your defense to stop them from scoring. This was a major problem for the Angels in 2006, when they gave up far more unearned runs than typical in earlier years.

The defense is better in 2007, but if you look at the ratio of unearned runs to total runs allowed by pitching staffs, you find that only 6.8% of the runs scored by Boston’s opponents are unearned, while it’s 8.3% for the Tigers and 9.3% for the Angels. Unearned runs tend to take a toll on a pitching staff, because it means more batters faced, and therefore more pitches thrown. Not only does it wear on the starting rotation, but it also wears on the bullpen.

Four of the Angels’ five starters — Lackey, Escobar, Colon and Weaver — have current or recent injury issues. The fifth starter, Ervin Santana, has been unreliable and inconsistent. The last thing you want to do is have pitchers with injury issues throwing more pitches.

In the second half, the Angels’ defense will need to improve, and the bullpen will need to get deeper. Hopefully Justin Speier returns soon, whose absence has frayed the bullpen depth. There’s not much that can be done about the defense, because the primary offenders — Vlad Guerrero and Chone Figgins — are vital to the offense. Garret Anderson will DH more when he returns, but so will Vlad and so will Juan Rivera when he returns around August 1.

In any case, the Angels’ offense should be fine. A healthy Garret Anderson and Juan Rivera are better than a late-season trade because these guys would probably add just as much as would acquiring a bat from another team, and they’re already on the roster so the Angels don’t have to trade prospects to acquire them. Casey Kotchman should continue to improve with experience.

I expect Chone Figgins and Reggie Willits to cool off. They’ve been the feel-good stories of the year, but right now their numbers are above their career averages. Their style of play does fit into the Angels’ Contactball strategy, though, so any slack in production by them should be offset by Anderson, Rivera and Kotchman.

More bullpen depth awaits in Triple-A. Jason Bulger, acquired in early 2006 for Alberto Callaspo, has been healthy and productive for Salt Lake. His 4.26 ERA is misleading because of a disastrous outing June 25 at Salt Lake in which he gave up five earned runs in 1/3 inning. Throw that out and his ERA drops to 2.87. He has 52 strikeouts in 31.2 IP, and has walked 17. I’ve written many times about how hitter-friendly is 4,500-foot Franklin Covey Field — Bulger’s home ERA is 6.48, but on the road it’s a stingy 1.80.

If Anderson and/or Rivera can’t deliver their expected contributions, options include Nathan Haynes, Tommy Murphy and Terry Evans. Brandon Wood has heated up lately, but he’s still not ready to consistently produce at the major league level, so it’s Figgins for now.

I don’t have the time right now to slice ‘n dice numbers as deeply as I’d like. That awaits the off-season. But I doubt that reams of numbers disproving sabermetric dogma would change the minds of those who think there’s only one way to win a ballgame. Oh well, I’ll just sit back and watch the Angels keep winning.


UPDATE 4:00 PM PDT — The Angels won today giving them a 51-31 (.622) record. The Red Sox lost today giving them a 49-31 (.613) record. So the Angels now have the best record in major league baseball.

Minor League DH

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It’s time for another poll.

Should the designated hitter be used in the minor leagues?

The options are to the right.

The results of the last poll … Should the Angels trade their top prospects for a "big bat"?

  • Yes, whatever it takes 19%
  • No, that would be foolish 36%
  • I trust Bill Stoneman to do what’s right 45%

There were 140 votes cast.

I have to admit, I’m a bit stunned by these numbers. If you read the "fan" boards, all they ever seem to do is demand instant gratification and Stoneman’s immediate dismissal. These numbers seem to suggest that those boards don’t reflect anywhere near majority sentiment. Another possibility is that FutureAngels.com attracts a more patient audience, one who understands the importance of protecting the value of minor league prospects.

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