Wednesday, May 29, 2024
2023 AnalysisAL WestAmerican LeagueAnalysisLos Angeles AngelsMLB

The Angels’ Pitching is Good

If you’ve ever found yourself saying “the Angels just need to get Mike Trout some pitching,” then I have news for you…

Reid Detmers on the mound in Spring Training via Twitter

The Mike Trout era of Angels baseball has been marred with team disappointment. Many different reasons have contributed to this trend over the last decade (none of which include the play of Mike Trout or Shohei Ohtani), but a constant excuse given over the last several season is that the Angels don’t have pitching. In some seasons, this was definitely true, but not anymore. Their pitching staff took a huge leap last year, and it could be slated to take another one in 2023. The first thing worth mentioning when looking for improvement to the pitching staff is the hiring of Bill Hezel, former Director of Pitching at Driveline, as the Angels’ secondary pitching coach in 2023. Early reports claim that his influence throughout the offseason has been hugely beneficial for the whole staff. This development symbolizes an organizational shift towards incorporating analytics in development and decision-making that GM Perry Minasian is trying to foster throughout the organization. This overdue but incredibly appreciated shift in trajectory should make Angels fans giddy, if they know what’s good for them. When looking for good pitching to get excited about, let’s start with the rotation.

The Angels have employed a six-man rotation throughout Ohtani’s tenure with the team, in order to give him more time to recover given his high workload at the plate. This is not expected to be the case going forward, as both Ohtani’s camp and the Angels have been vocal about his desire and his ability to start every five days if needed. This alone could provide a huge boost to the Angels’ rotation if Ohtani is able to accrue roughly thirty more innings from both a combination of another few turns in the rotation, as well as being let loose to go a bit deeper into games. Along with Ohtani’s workhorse capabilities, he pitched at a borderline Cy Young level last season with promising signs that it was no fluke. Ohtani produced a 2.33 ERA over 166 IP, with elite underlying ERA estimators like a 2.40 FIP (3rd best in MLB) and a 2.73 SIERA (best in MLB). These figures are further supported by the best K-BB% in MLB last year at 26.5%. It is no exaggeration to say that Ohtani was the best pitcher in baseball last year on a rate basis. A big reason for this increase in effectiveness lies in his pitch mix. He has always been able to throw a triple-digit heater and an untouchable split-finger fastball, but neither of these was his most-thrown pitch in 2022. Ohtani’s sweeper (think slider with less velocity but more movement) was thrown nearly 40% of the time, and its effectiveness is backed up by a 38.4% whiff rate. Also worth noting, Ohtani just decided that he wanted to start throwing a cutter in 2021, so he did. In 2022, he just decided he wanted to develop an elite sinker with velocity and shape characteristics eerily similar to NL Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara‘s primary pitch, so he did that too. Water is wet, and Shohei Ohtani is unbelievable at the sport of baseball. This has developed into shameless Ohtani praise so I will now shift gears into the depth of the rotation. We all know that Ohtani can be an ace, but he can’t pitch 162 games. The floor of the rotation is considerably higher than it has been in previous years and that is in part thanks to a breakout year from this season’s #2 starter, Patrick Sandoval.

Shohei Ohtani stalking his prey via Twitter

The international baseball fanbase was introduced to Patrick Sandoval as he carved through the lineups of both finalist nations in the World Baseball Classic while representing Mexico. Sandoval allowed one run on only two hits and two walks to team USA in three innings in the group stage, and zero runs with six strikeouts in 4.1 innings against Japan in the semis, while striking out both of his All-World teammates Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani in the process. Despite this great showing on a big stage, Angels fans have known about Sandoval’s upside for a while now (see my article on his inevitable breakout from two seasons ago here). His slider and changeup are both plus pitches, and in 2022 he began throwing them as his two most used pitches. This clear recipe for success led to good results last year, and I expect them to continue. One thing to watch for will be Sandoval’s ability to limit walks next season. He has been well above average at generating whiffs and chases over the last two seasons, so simply being competitive with his pitch locations should yield favorable results.

People across the baseball world are starting to notice what is going on with #3 starter Reid Detmers. Those who have paid close attention to him have begun penciling him in as a breakout candidate for 2023, and for good reason. Despite his special no-hitter in May 2022, the first half of his season last year was not spectacular by most metrics, and he was eventually sent down to Triple-A in June. However, he returned a new pitcher. His slider jumped in velocity, usage, and effectiveness. This paired well with his huge looping curveball that had been his calling card throughout college and the minors. In thirteen games started after returning to the majors last year, Detmers produced a 3.04 ERA and 2.51 FIP over 71 IP with a 78:25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The Angels started to see a glimpse of their 2020 #10 overall draft pick beginning to realize his potential. The optimism for what Detmers can accomplish in 2023 only went up after spring training. In the last month, his slider touched 92 mph after sitting mid-80s at this time last year, and his fastball is up a few ticks from this time last year as well, topping out north of 97 mph. Having two potentially elite breaking pitches that generate lots of whiffs and chases paired with a fastball that has to be respected could be exactly what allows Detmers to make the leap into frontline starter status.

Reid Detmers’ dominant Spring Training outing

The Opening Day rotation is rounded out by 2022 breakout all-star Tyler Anderson and the young up-and-coming Jose Suarez. Anderson is a veteran that made several tweaks to his repertoire in 2022 with the Dodgers’ pitching lab, namely a reworked changeup that spiked in usage and effectiveness. Is it likely that Anderson repeats his 2022 success for years to come? No, not really. His 2.57 ERA seems a little bit like an anomaly in comparison to his career numbers, but he also posted career-best numbers in certain ERA predictors like FIP, xERA, and SIERA. With a 95th percentile chase rate, 98th percentile hard-hit rate, and 90th percentile walk rate, Anderson demonstrated some very repeatable skills last year that could indicate a new normal closer to his breakout season.

Jose Suarez has been penciled into the fifth spot in the rotation. Despite rocky career numbers as a starter, he flashed some upside in 2022 with a career-best chase rate (85th percentile), walk rate, and strikeout rate. Of all the pitchers mentioned so far, Suarez is the least proven and is most at risk of losing his job should things go south, but his best career season as a starter coming at age 24 last year paired with above-average ERA predictors could be a sign of continued growth and a more than capable 5th starter.

Jose Suarez’s impressive PitchingBot profile (Green means good!)

After the front five, it is a little more unclear who the Angels will employ as the occasional 6th starter. Tucker Davidson has made the Opening Day roster, but manager Phil Nevin says he will be used in long relief out of the bullpen for now. Davidson was received in the trade that sent Raisel Iglesias to Atlanta at last year’s trade deadline, but he has not quite broken out yet and will be looking to change that this year. Davidson developed a sweeper in the offseason that proved effective so far in spring training. While the jury is still out on what he can become for this team, Davidson is clearly the type of pitcher that stands a lot to gain from the development that can take place under an improved Angels pitching lab headed by Bill Hezel. Griffin Canning is someone else who will have opportunities to start games this year for the Angels. He missed most of 2021 and all of 2022 to injury but is now back and ready to contribute. Canning was a second-round pick for the Angels in 2017 but has yet to pitch a full season’s workload. A healthy season under the Angels’ new pitching program from a player with some level of prospect pedigree could prove to be exactly what Canning needs to take a leap, and if not, he still can serve as a competent big-league depth or a potential multi-inning weapon out of the pen.

In addition to Davidson and Canning, the Angels have several internal options out of the minors that can end up contributing to this rotation. Chase Silseth dominated Double-A last year to the tune of a 2.28 ERA and 34.4% strikeout percentage in 83 IP. He became the first member of the 2021 draft to make his MLB debut last year at age 22, and it is likely that he will appear on the big league team again this year. Chris Rodriguez is a 24-year-old who already showed success at the big league level in 2021 as a starter and reliever for the Angels, and he will likely contribute as soon as he recovers and rehabs his shoulder injury. Ky Bush and Sam Bachman, amongst other starters for the 2022 Double-A affiliate Trash Pandas, could see fast tracks to the big leagues should the opportunity arise as starters or in relief. Despite not being the flashiest assortment of arms, the pitchers in the Angels’ farm system are the best that they’ve had in years.

Carlos Estévez four-seam fastball in action

The Angels also aimed to bolster their bullpen over the offseason. After trading away Raisel Iglesias last season, who clearly still showed his dominant upside, the Angels opted to divide the contract that they offered to Iglesias into multiple different relievers in an attempt to focus on depth rather than one shutdown arm. Right-handed flamethrower Carlos Estévez was signed to a two-year deal, and getting an idea of what he might be able to do for the Angels can be tricky since all of his career numbers feature the high-altitude Coors Field as his home ballpark. According to Driveline’s version of Stuff+, Estévez’s fastball had a 92 Stuff+ at Coors Field and a 166 Stuff+ on the road. This pitch tops out at 100 mph and pairs well with his secondary slider that induced a mere .139 xwOBA in 152 uses of the pitch last year. Needless to say, the raw ability is here, and the praise that Estévez gets from Driveline makes him a prime candidate for high-leverage spots this season. The Angels also added lefty Matt Moore to join their bullpen. The 33-year-old journeyman was an average-at-best starting pitcher throughout his career but committed himself to a bullpen role last year for the Rangers and found enormous success. On the surface, the stats are great: a 1.95 ERA and 27.3 K% in 74 innings. His success is supported by his 93rd-percentile hard-hit rate, 91st-percentile barrel rate, and 85th-percentile whiff rate in 2022. Additionally, Moore made significant changes to the shape and usage of his entire pitch repertoire. Less fastball, more curveball, and no more cutter. The vertical movement of his four-seam fastball, curveball, and changeup all changed drastically, indicating calculated adjustments that led to his breakout as a reliever.

The Angels are also keeping a lot of the bullpen arms from last year as part of their plan for 2023. One-of-a-kind finesse pitcher Jimmy Herget posted the best ERA and FIP of his career last year at 2.48 and 2.82, respectively. In 2022, Herget was able to be well above average at limiting walks and inducing weak contact. His looping curveball was specifically dominant, allowing a .156 xwOBA and 36.4% whiff percentage on a pitch he threw 27% of the time. This curveball also gets high praise from various stuff grading models. Paired with his glitchy slider-sinker combo, Herget should be a reliable arm in the 2023 bullpen. Jose Quijada is an electric lefty that got some spotlight after notching clutch strikeouts in the World Baseball Classic for Venezuela. Close to a one-trick pony, Quijada throws his four-seam fastball 85% of the time last season, but he does so for good reason. When he is able to pound the top of the zone, it can be devastating for hitters. This pitch earns great stuff grades, and Quijada manages to post well over a 30% strikeout rate with it year after year. The clear weakness in his game is allowing walks, which is never ideal for a guy you may want to use in high leverage. Limiting walks will be the key to getting the most out of Quijada in 2023.

Quijada bringing the heat and the emotion in the WBC

The Angels added two major bullpen newcomers last offseason who posted 2022 numbers that did not quite meet expectations in Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera. An up-and-down year for Loup resulted in a 3.84 ERA in 58.2 innings, which pales in comparison to his unrepeatable 0.95 ERA with the Mets in 2021. Comparing his 2021 to 2022, his average exit velocity allowed and his groundball rate remained the same, and his hard hit percentage actually improved. There was a clear setback in his ability to induce strikeouts and avoid walks, which is a red flag; however, his sinker led to great expected run value according to Cameron Grove’s PitchingBot, and his changeup earns excellent stuff grades as well. The sidearm lefty delivery combined with good stuff could lead to a bounce back year in effectiveness for Loup if he manages to limit the walks, especially as a potential lefty specialist. Ryan Tepera, much like Loup, saw a decline in his ability to get strikeouts and avoid walks last year. His peripheral stats saw a bit of a decline from his 2021 season. Despite this, Tepera still produced an elite 99th percentile hard hit rate, and he was well above average in barrel rate, whiff rate, and xwOBA allowed. Another positive note is that Tepera himself claims to have been refining a new sweeper all off-season. He only started using this pitch late last season, and his first full season with this new weapon could provide a new look and play well off the hard slider that he has always used.

Here are my biggest takeaways after breaking down the 2023 Angels pitching staff: The rotation is legitimately good. If you haven’t been paying attention, these guys will surprise you. The bullpen has several bright spots despite lots of natural unpredictability with relievers year to year. There is a lot of upside, and almost certainly some of the arms will pop. The pitching depth is better than it has been in several years, as I went this whole article without raving about the Angels’ 2022 draft pick RHP Ben Joyce who touched 105 mph on the heater in college last year. Joyce had an electric Spring Training and will likely show his stuff in the bigs before this season ends after getting more reps in Double-A. Other names like Andrew Wantz and Kenny Rosenberg had solid performances last year and will contribute as depth pieces in 2023. And perhaps as important as anything else, the Angels front office and development team are the most analytically driven that they have ever been as Bill Hezel has fans optimistic for good reason. The Angels will have the same lofty expectations to get Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani to the postseason, but at least we can finally put to rest the timeless punchline that “the Angels need pitching!” The pitching has arrived. Be warned.