Purgatory Online

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

There's this great old Bloom County comic strip, in which Opus the penguin is lamenting the fact that things are mighty slow in the office of Steve Dallas, the county's only lawyer. "What this town needs," he finally says, "is two lawyers!"

So now that there are four active Angels blogs, we're starting to see some back-and-forth between them; yesterday at 6-4-2, Rob tries to take down the notion that the 2002 World Champion Anaheim Angels weren't heavily influenced by luck, a position expressed at The Pearly Gates by Richard, its proprietor. I want in, boys!

Now, it's not that luck didn't play some role in the 2002 season, because luck always plays a role for every club. A slow bunt rolling along the third base line can hit a random pebble and go foul, then fair again, and turn the tide of a game (see 2002 World Series, Game 4). An outfielder who's lost a ball in the sun can stick his glove out and catch a ball accidentally, avoiding a ball in the face and a trip to the DL. Or, like the 2002 A's, you can catch a couple of breaks and go on a twenty-game win streak.

But let's be realistic. The Angels won 99 games in the 2002 regular season, winning the wildcard by six games over Boston and Seattle. That's a much larger gap than is normally attributable to luck. Additionally, as Richard points out, the Angels' Pythagorean record - the record typical of a team with the same runs scored to runs allowed differential - was actually a couple of games better than their actual record, which is normally seen as an indication that they were a little bit unlucky.

Rob raises a few examples of what he considers lucky factors:

1. The team stayed healthy, except for Sele, and they had Lackey to replace him. Well, no. In point of fact, Tim Salmon was out for nearly a month, from August 11 to September 5. Troy Percival was out twice, from April 3-19 and again from July 12-28. Bengie Molina played in one game between July 13 and July 30. The Angels compensated with a deep, flexible bench that included Orlando Palmeiro, Benji Gil, and Shawn Wooten, all of whom had better than average years, but none of whom had the best years of their careers, statistically speaking.

Of the starting lineup:

David Eckstein played in 152 games, compared to 153 in 2001 (which was his first year in the bigs).

Darin Erstad played in 150 games, compared to 157 in both 2001 and 2000. Since winning a full-time spot, Erstad had averaged 146 games per season prior to 2002.

Tim Salmon played in 138 games, compared to 137 in 2001 and 158 in 2000. Since winning a full-time spot, Salmon had averaged 136 games per season prior to 2002.

Garret Anderson played in 158 games, compared to 161 in 2001 and 159 in 2000. Since winning a full-time spot, Anderson had averaged 156 games per season prior to 2002.

Scott Spiezio played in 153 games in 2002. Spiezio is the only Angels player who could reasonably be described as having a "career year" in 2002, about which more later. It's difficult to assess how "lucky" he was to remain healthy throughout the year, however, since his games played stats for many of his years are low because he was used as a bench player, or platooned with someone else. I would love to find a site that keeps track of the time players spend on the DL, so if anyone out there knows of one, please email me. In the meantime, we can look at the number of games Spiezio played for the Angels in the other years in which he was a full-time player - 139 in 2001 and 158 in 2003 - and tentatively conclude that his 153 games in 2002 were pretty much in line with expectations.

Brad Fullmer played in 130 games in 2002. Again, Fullmer's a bit tricky because he had been used in various ways throughout the years, and indeed was used in various ways by the Angels in 2002. He had played in 146 games in 2001 and 133 games in 2000, however, and I don't think he had a reputation for being injured. Again, this is someone from whom the Angels got about what they expected in terms of playing time.

Troy Glaus played in 156 games in 2002, after playing in 161 in 2001, 159 in 2000, and 154 in 1999.

Bengie Molina played in 122 games in 2002, after playing in 96 in 2001 and 130 in 2000.

Adam Kennedy played in 144 games in 2002, after playing in 137 games in 2001 and 156 in 2000.

Of the starting pitchers:

Kevin Appier threw 188.1 innings in 2002. Appier was out for virtually all of 1998, but, apart from that, his 2002 innings pitched total was his lowest since 1994, and the third-lowest of his career since becoming a full-time starter in 1990.

Aaron Sele's 160 IP was the lowest of his career since 1996.

Jarrod Washburn threw 206 innings, the most of his career. Since it was only his second year as a full-time starter, however, and he'd thrown 193.1 innings in the previous year, I don't think we can infer much about his durability.

Ramon Ortiz threw 217.1 innings in 2002. Like Washburn, this was a career high; like Washburn, his track record included only one previous year in which he'd been left in the rotation - during which he threw 208.2 innings.

In looking at the team's statistics, I don't find a single player who put up games played or innings pitched numbers that were higher than expected. Since the Angels lost Salmon and Molina for parts of the season in the lineup, and Percival and Sele on the pitching side, it doesn't appear to me that the Angels were especially lucky or unlucky when it came to injuries. Of course, considering the history of the franchise, 2002 was a banner year, since there were no especially bizarre injuries, but if you factor that out, they actually had something of a "normal" year.

Note that the foregoing analysis is strictly in terms of injuries, not performance. We'll get to that a little later.

2. Several players had career years, including Benji Gil and Scott Spiezio.
Two does not equal "several." More to the point, one does not equal "several." As I said before, Scott Spiezio was the only Angel to post numbers significantly above his norm in 2002. Gil, like Palmeiro and Wooten, had above-average years, but none experienced the best year of their career. The rest of the lineup either put up numbers that were very close to what they could have been expected to do, or haven't been in baseball long enough to evaluate whether their 2002 season was a statistical outlier (like Washburn and Ortiz). In a few more years, I suspect we may conclude that Adam Kennedy had a career year in 2002, but we can't tell yet, as he's still in the portion of his career where he's likely to improve. For a while, I thought that Ben Weber and/or Brendan Donnelly had also topped out in 2002, but their performances in 2003 seem to indicate that they may just be that good (I'm not completely sold on that, but that's how the evidence looks now).

Regardless, the fact is that it's actually normal for any given team to have a guy or two experience the best year of his career. I mean, you've got nine guys in the lineup and five starting pitchers, plus a closer - even if you don't pay any attention to the bench or the guys in the bullpen, that's fifteen chances for a career year. It would be surprising if someone didn't have a breakout, just as it would be surprising to have no significant injuries, or a player who had a subpar season (for the 2002 Angels, that would have been Bengie Molina).

I don't want to completely dismiss the luck element here, because some Angels players did have years that were above their norm, though not extraordinarily so. Garret Anderson, for one, enjoyed an especially productive season. That's not really "luck," though, it's Anderson reaching his potential, which he proved by duplicating it in 2003. Ultimately, the Angels had a lot of guys who had good years, one who had a career year, one who had a down year, and a couple for whom it's too soon to tell. If those in the latter category turn out to be not as good as they performed in 2002, then maybe luck was a more significant component. If they duplicate those performances, however, the credit should go to their coaches and the guys who scouted them.

3. Appier had his last good year. Probably true, but so what? Appier actually pitched a little bit better in 2001 for the Mets, so his 3.96 ERA for the Angels in 2002 was surprising only in that the Angels are used to seeing free-agent acquisitions (especially pitchers) turn ugly immediately, rather than a year into their contract. Just because Appier was unremittingly stinky in 2003 doesn't mean he was "lucky" in 2002; he was good one year, and terrible the next.

I suppose you can argue that, while Appier himself was good, the Angels were lucky he stayed good for one more year - if he'd had the kind of season he had in 2003 for the 2002 Angels, they would have been much worse - but that's the "and if my grandma had wheels she'd be a trolley" school of reasoning. The fact that he declined so steeply the very next year is irrelevant. They're also lucky they didn't have the 1992 version of Hilly Hathaway.

4. The Angels had great pitching in the minors to draw on. See, that's just not luck at all. That's a benefit derived from good scouting, coaching, and organizational decisions. The Angels still have good pitching in the minors, and will for at least the next couple of years.

All in all - and when I started this post, I had no idea how long it would be, trust me - I think that the Angels were fortunate enough to get solid years from most of the team, but certainly suffered their share of setbacks. While they may have had a little bit of luck on their side, it was the kind that reminds me of the old story of a guy who goes to a boxing match and sits next to a priest. Right before the fight starts, the guy notices one of the boxers crossing himself, and he says to the priest, "will that help him, father?" And the priest answers, "not if he can't fight."