The Angels rotation has been blamed for their lack of success throughout Mike Trout’s entire career in Anaheim, and rightfully so. Since 2012, the Angels rotation has a 4.37 ERA, which ranks 22nd of the 30 MLB teams. To take a deeper look, let’s go year by year.
Recency is key here, as the Angels rotation (starting pitching) was fairly consistently average for the first 7 years of Trout’s career, as the Angels saw relative success, with four winning seasons in his first five years. The 2014 staff of Garrett Richards, Matt Shoemaker, Hector Santiago, Jered Weaver, Tyler Skaggs, and C.J. Wilson was the best of the bunch, as Anaheim won 98 games and made their only playoff appearance in Trout’s career.
In the 2018 offseason, the Angels brought on Shohei Ohtani, who was supposed to be a top-of-the-rotation arm, and middle of the order bat. So far, he’s what everyone imagined at the plate, but injuries and a walk issue have killed his production on the mound, which we’ll get back to.
Angels Rotation: Lacking an Ace
The Angels rotation having no ace has been long-documented, especially during the 2019 offseason when both Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole were available, and the Angels ended up signing third baseman Anthony Rendon to a long-term deal.
In 2019, no Angels’ starter even threw 100 innings, as their leader in innings, Andrew Heaney, had just 95.1. In 2019, they had to use openers on multiple occasions due to their lack of starting pitching, leading to them being last in the league in starters innings pitched.
The 2021 Angels Rotation
As of May 10th, prior to any game starts, the Angels rotation ranks 28th in ERA, ahead of only Colorado (Coors) and Chicago. To eliminate the Coors factor for the Rockies, I’ll use ERA-, which the Angels (125) rank 2nd to last in, only better than the Cubs.
The Angels have started six pitchers so far, running out a six-man rotation of Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney, Shohei Ohtani, Alex Cobb, Griffin Canning, and Jose Quintana. Only one, Ohtani, has an ERA below 4.00. Ohtani and Heaney are the only ones below 4.90. You’d think they’re one of the worst rotations in baseball, right? Wrong.
Bundy has a 5.03 ERA in 2021. Bad pitcher? No. In 2020, Bundy’s first year in the Angels rotation, he had a breakout year, and was a reliable top-of-the-rotation pitcher for Joe Maddon’s squad. Four years in Baltimore didn’t show any signs of Bundy being anything more than an average pitcher who could eat some innings.
What changed in 2020? He threw his fastball much less (42.4% in 2019 to 33.6% in 2020), his overall command was better, as his K-BB% went from 14.9% to 20.6%, and he was throwing more strikes. The changes from 2020 to 2021 have been minimal, here’s a look in the table below.
Bundy’s ERA is almost two runs higher than it was in 2020, but otherwise, his numbers have been relatively similar. His SIERA and xFIP are even better than they were last season, and his xERA (not shown) is the same. Bundy’s spin rates are also up across the board, so look for him to build on his 2020 season, rather than regress back to his Baltimore form.
Also, side note, projections are much higher on him now than they were before the season started, as his Steamer projected ERA was 4.69, which is now 4.16 for the rest of the year. Bundy’s ERA is inflated, and he’s due for some positive regression (this will become a theme).
Andrew Heaney is one of those guys that looks due to break out every single year. This is looking like it could be the year. From 2018-20, Heaney had a 3.84 SIERA, 3.91 xFIP, 19.1 K-BB%, 4.13 FIP, and 4.42 ERA. In 2021, Heaney has a 4.11 ERA. This may not look like there’s a huge breakout here, but all the other numbers are up significantly. His SIERA now sits at 2.79, xFIP at 2.74, K-BB% at 28.1%, and FIP at 3.00. Also, Heaney started the year with a blow-up start, so when taking that out of the equation, Heaney has a 2.28 ERA, 2.58 SIERA, and 2.71 xFIP.
Alex Cobb is the guy who is really due for some positive regression. He’s on the IL right now but the former Rays’ star is having an insanely overlooked start to the 2021 season. Cobb has a 5.48 ERA, which is actually better than it was when I first looked into Los Angeles’ rotation. A very predictable scoreless start on 5/4 against his former team lowered his season ERA from 7.16 to 5.48.
Cobb has been striking opponents out at an unbelievable rate, but he hasn’t been able to give the Angels much length. This is more of an issue of unluckiness than a volume issue, as he has thrown 97 or more pitches in three of his five starts.
Cobb worked with driveline this offseason to optimize his pitching, and he’s seen great results, to a certain extent. He has a 14.2 SwStr% and 30.0% CSW% on the year, and his stuff is way more electric than it ever has been. He’s throwing more splitters, and less sinkers, leading to a much higher overall K%, Whiff%, and SwStr%. His curveball has also been a lot better, as he’s throwing it a tick faster and generating more whiffs.
From 2016-20, Cobb was a 4.57 SIERA, 4.35 xFIP, 9.9% K-BB% pitcher. So far this year, he’s been a 3.24 SIERA, 2.62 xFIP, 20.6% K-BB% guy. Getting Cobb healthy, and a little regression to the mean, will be huge for the Halos, looking to return to the playoffs for the first time in 7 years.
Quintana was hurt in 2020, and only made four appearances and one start for the Cubs. He was picked up in the offseason to be a main piece of the Angels rotation, at a great price tag of just eight million dollars for one year. Quintana has had a major walk problem in his starts, but he is generating a ton of swings and misses, and his peripherals are right around his marks from his time on the North Side of Chicago.
In 2021, Quintana has a 9.00 ERA. You might think he’s a bad pitcher. You might think he’s off to a bad start. He’s neither of those, as he just has an incredibly inflated ERA compared to his peripheral numbers. Quintana has a 16.0% SwStr%, 31.5% CSW%, and 31.2% K%. He’s giving up more barrels than usual, and gave up the hardest hit ball of his career (in the Statcast Era) this year, but these aren’t major causes for concern.
Quintana’s K-BB% is up from 2018-20, and his SIERA, FIP, and xFIP are all in a very similar range. On 5/3, Quintana had a start that sums up his 2021 season so far. He generated 22 whiffs in 3.2 innings pitched, striking out nine, but giving up five earned runs. He had a 12.27 ERA that night but had a negative xFIP, and 1.45 SIERA. Quintana isn’t an all-star caliber pitcher anymore, but if he can keep his strikeout stuff this year, he could be in line for a great year. If not, he’s an average to slightly below-average pitcher. Quintana is a great option as a 6th starter in the Angels rotation, especially considering the upside.
Canning was quietly solid for LA in 2020, as he finished the year with a 3.99 ERA in 56.1 innings pitched. Take a deeper look, and his peripherals weren’t as great. There’s always been potential with Canning, as he has a great curveball and solid strikeout stuff. In 2021, he’s striking out more batters, but his 5.19 ERA would make it look like he’s taken a step back as a pitcher. Instead, Canning has fallen doom to the home run ball, as he has a 18.8% HR/FB%.
Canning’s strikeout rate is up to 26.5% this year, up from 23.5% in 2020. He has a 3.37 xERA this year, and he’s only given up a 20.8% hard-hit rate, but the hard contact he’s given up has left the park. His SIERA is down to 3.90, his xFIP is down to 4.11, and his K-BB% is up to 17.7%. Canning is another guy due for some positive regression, as he’s definitely closer to a true-talent 4.00 ERA pitcher, maybe even better.
I left Ohtani for last because he breaks the laws of the Angels rotation. He’s an outlier in every possible sense of the word, and this is no different. Ohtani is actually *overperforming* when you compare his peripherals to his ERA, unbelievable, right? Most players who overperform are finesse pitchers who don’t strike anyone out, and rely on ground balls to get outs. Ohtani is not one of them, as he’s striking out an absurd 31.7% of the batters he’s faced.
Ohtani is a two true outcome pitcher. 58.3% of the batters he’s faced have ended their plate appearance with a strikeout or a walk. He has a 2.41 ERA, by far the best out of any Angels’ starter, but he has a 4.99 SIERA, by far the worst of any member of the Angels rotation. Ohtani’s walk rate has persisted throughout his career at a pitcher, but if he could harness the walks, even at the rate (10.4%) that he did in 2018, Ohtani could establish himself as one of the league’s best pitchers, while being arguably a top-25 bat.
The Underrated Angels Rotation
We’ve taken a look at each pitcher in the Angels rotation, and we’ve seen that this is a team that’s due for some things to go their way. As of right now, the Angels are 15-18 (they’re actually 16-18, but for the purpose of the timeline, it’s still before the game). Despite an injury to Anthony Rendon, they’re staying afloat while their rotation has been terrible. Even with the injury to Alex Cobb, they have depth with Chris Rodriguez, Felix Pena, and Jose Suarez.
The reason I call this rotation underrated is not that I think they’re a top-five rotation, but right now, they’re definitely well above average. Each of the Angels to have made a start has a K/9 above 10.00, with the exception of Dylan Bundy, who sits at 9.84. ERA can be deceiving, and part of the reason why their ERA is so bad is that the Angels have one of the worst team defenses in the entire league. They have -28 DRS and -5.1 UZR already, which is cause for some concern, especially considering how terrible their bullpen is.
The narrative of the Angels rotation being bad is one that needs to end, as they’ve taken massive strides so far in 2021, even if it’s not being seen in their run prevention, yet.
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