Commentary

Angels don't put too much stock in stats

Updated: February 24, 2011, 4:47 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Are the Los Angeles Angels a Stone Age tribe living in the digital age?

After Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball" detailed the 2002 Oakland A's use of rigorous statistical analysis to evaluate players, many people wondered whether the Angels were mired in their old-school ways, too reliant on scouts and immune to new technology.

The team had a nice response: It won the World Series that year.

Nine years later, with virtually every team in the majors employing statistical analysts to sift through increasingly advanced and often proprietary data, the Angels continue to listen to their clique of influential scouts and coaches.

Like every other team, the Angels take a blended approach, but they skew more than most teams toward human eyes and away from hard drives. Through two general managers, the Angels have kept their principles intact.

"If you're talking about looking at statistics, I can do that myself," former GM Bill Stoneman said. "If I'm going to have someone working for me, I'd rather have someone who can take a look at a guy and tell me if he can play or not."

The Angels did start to bend, ever so slightly, after the publication of Lewis' book and the proliferation of Moneyball GMs.

Stoneman hired Tory Hernandez to be the team's player performance analyst in 2005. Hernandez built up the team's databases, and three years later, current GM Tony Reagins hired Justin Hollander, who has a law degree from the University of San Diego. Hollander has had a fascination with baseball statistics since he was 8 years old, he said.

But does anybody who matters listen to those two guys?

Reagins surrounds himself with the same small circle of veteran baseball men whom Stoneman did, guys like former major leaguers Ken Forsch, 64, and Gary Sutherland, 66. Nobody would accuse those two of being cutting-edge proponents of baseball's cyber age.

"You can definitely see trends and tendencies from the statistical component, but the old-school scouting approach is pretty good as well," Reagins said.

Sabermetric-minded fans and professional analysts remain baffled at the way the Angels do business. Many felt the Angels misread how good veteran pitcher Scott Kazmir was going to be when they traded with the Tampa Bay Rays in August 2009. They thought the Angels overpaid for left-handed relievers Scott Downs ($15 million for three years) and Hisanori Takahashi ($8 million for two years) over the winter.

[+] EnlargeVernon Wells
AP Photo/Mark DuncanThe Angels aquired Vernon Wells in part to improve their outfield defense, but advanced defensive metrics indicate he no longer plays adequate center field.

But the biggest outcry came when the Angels traded Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli to Toronto for Vernon Wells. According to some, Napoli (.831 career OPS) by himself is better than Wells (.804 OPS). The Angels had to take on about $70 million in salary to make it happen.

The Angels landed Wells in part to improve their outfield defense, but advanced defensive metrics indicate that Wells no longer plays even adequate center field. The Angels are moving him to left for the first time in his career.

One statistical projection, PECOTA, predicts the Angels will go 78-84 this season and finish third for the second season in a row. Then again, such projections have routinely undershot the Angels' potential. They finally caught up with the Angels last season, when the team went 80-82, only four games better than PECOTA predicted. But it took a season-ending injury to their best hitter, Kendry Morales, in May for that to happen.

PECOTA has underestimated the number of Angels wins by a minimum of eight games every season since 2004.

The longer Angels manager Mike Scioscia talks about the new stats, the more bothered he seems to become. He has little tolerance for the new defensive metrics or for the yearly projections.

"Those are relatively new and I think it's probably going to take a while before they show any merit," Scioscia said. "They've had us losing 90 games for almost the last six years, and we managed to win 90. I think it's a young science."

The Angels do spend a lot of time looking at numbers. They're just not the same numbers being pored over by members of the Society for American Baseball Research.

Scioscia's pet number is catcher's ERA or, more accurately, catchers' runs allowed. Once he has a suitable sample size, he correlates a catcher's number with an individual pitcher to find the best combinations. That focus explains the Angels' willingness to part with Napoli, who led them with 26 home runs last year. Napoli routinely had a catcher's ERA that was a run or more higher than that of Jeff Mathis, a lifetime .199 hitter.

The Angels rank the top 20 pitchers in each of the minor leagues, combining ERA and their coaches' scouting reports, then see how their hitters fare against the best competition. They use that data to evaluate when a prospect is ready to move up a rung. One of the team's top prospects, Mark Trumbo, does especially well against elite pitching, Scioscia said.

"I think when you're projecting what a player can do, you're looking at a trend in statistics, but you're also looking at scouting the level of improvement a player is making that could translate into good statistics down the road," Scioscia said.

Hollander insists he gets his points across when he's sitting in organizational meetings or standing in Reagins' office.

"Since I've been here, I've always had a complete open-door policy with Tony," Hollander said. "I'm always in his ear about this player or that player. He's never told me, 'Your opinion doesn't count,' or, 'We don't need your opinion about this decision.' Where it goes from there and how much weight Tony puts on it, that's a question for Tony."

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.