The Angels’ Next Reclamation Project

Despite a hard fastball and sharp slider, Blake Wood has never found much success in MLB. A lack of command has held Wood back, with a career BB/9 of 4.36 hampering his above-average ability to miss bats (career 8.59 k/9) and induce ground balls (career 52.3 GB%). Accumulating just 0.9 WAR in 280.2 innings – for a player quickly approaching his 33rd birthday – many would assume Wood is just another middle relief option, one of the first to be demoted should the Angels need a fresh arm. Similar things could have been said about any of Yusmeiro Petit, Blake Parker, David Hernandez, or Bud Norris last year, however. Parker was never effective in the majors, jumping from organization to organization, and the other three pitchers saw their effectiveness dwindle over the last few years. All greatly exceeded expectations in 2017, as only Norris (0.6 and 19 saves) finished under 1 WAR last year, leading to a shockingly effective and deep Angels pen. With only Parker returning this year, the Angels need to scramble for similar production out of the back of their bullpen in 2018.

Enter Blake Wood. Wood come into 2018 without huge expectations, behind the likes of Cam Bedrosian, Parker, and Keynan Middleton in the Angels bullpen pecking order. Behind a rash of homers, Wood’s 2017 campaign was shadowed by some bad luck, with his 3.67/3.54/3.62 FIP/xFIP/SIERA greatly outpacing his 5.45 ERA. The homers should go down with better luck (a 15.1% HR/FB rate is hard to sustain for even the worst of pitchers) and a move away from hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. More important, a few adjustments manifested towards the end of 2016, continuing through 2017, that helped Wood improve his BB% and K% pretty significantly.

Mostly a two-pitch pitcher for his career, possessing a hard, sinking fastball and a sharp slider, Wood began to work in his change/splitter more last season. This increase came at the expense of his fastball, a pitch that generally hasn’t been effective. Thrown nearly 80% of the time early in his career, the Reds helped Wood get his fastball usage down to around 50% over the last two years. In addition, Wood took some velocity off of both his fastball and splitter in 2017, greatly improving his first-pitch strike percentage (F-Strike%), a stat highly correlated with walks (Wood finished the year with a 57.8 F-Strike%, still slightly below-average). This new approach helps Wood get ahead of more hitters, allowing him to focus on the area he excels: getting hitters to swing at pitches (especially his slider) Setting career marks in both, he finished the year with an 11.2 SwStr% and 30.1 O-Swing% last year, both well above league-average.

FB% (Avr. Velocity)

SL% (Avr. Velocity)

CH/SPL% (Avr. Velocity)

2013 (CLE)

92.7 (97.2)

4.9 (89.0)

2.4 (89)

2014 (CLE)

81.4 (95.6)

12.7 (90.1)

5.9 (84.4)

2016 (CIN)

55.2 (96)

36.4 (89.9)

8.3 (86.6)

2017(CIN/LAA)

55.5 (96.1)

34.1 (89.7)

10.4 (84.9)

*Wood did not appear in a major league game in 2015

In addition to changing his pitch usage, Wood began increasing his vertical release point in late 2016. This trend continued last year for all of his pitches, leading to the most consistent release point in his career. After jumping around release points – ranging from just under 6 feet to just upwards of 6.5 feet – Wood settled around an average of 6.7 ft. in 2017. Coming more over-the-top and staying more consistent helps to explain some of the improvement in walk and Zone% for Wood, though he still didn’t have good control in last year. Wood doesn’t need great control to succeed, though. If he can knock a walk per nine innings off of his career average, his penchant for inducing grounders and whiffs will allow him to take to high leverage innings for the Angels.

In Wood, the Angels have picked up another cheap relief pitcher whose skills have been shadowed by bad luck. If they can continue to improve his pitch selection and keep his release point consistent, Wood might prove to be another reliable middle-relief or setup option picked up off the scrap heap. There’s always a chance last year’s improvements begin to erode as the season goes on, but don’t be surprised if, in June, the Angels are calling upon Wood to effectively bridge the gap between the rotation and former reclamation project Parker.

2018 Season Preview: Los Angeles Angels

This piece is part of the Replacement Level 2018 Team Preview Series. An introduction to the series, as well as a brief explanation of the projections used, can be found here.

2017 Review

Record

Pythag Record

BaseRuns Record

Runs Scored

Runs Against

80-82

81-81

76-86

710

709

Another year, another legitimate MVP season from Mike Trout, another October fishing trip for the Angels. Star shortstop Andrelton Simmons took an offensive step forward that could radically change his standing among the game’s best players, but the rest of the average-or-better club in LA was comprised of just Kole Calhoun.

Things on the pitching side continue to be defined by injury, as rotation cornerstones Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker combined for just over 100 IP. The bullpen was a surprising success in 2017, behind the resurgent arms of Blake Parker, Yusmeiro Petit, and Bud Norris. But things are looking up…

Offseason in Review:

Key Additions – Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler, Zack Cozart, Shohei Ohtani

There were two huge prized possessions this offseason in Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani, and the Angels were a surprise destination for the (all things considered) more attractive of the two. Ohtani’s upside as a starter is as good as any Japanese pitcher we’ve seen and he’s under team control for six seasons at outlet prices, an excellent addition to any team but particularly so for an Angels squad with a lot of questions in the rotation and a big Albert Pujols sized bill. Adding Kinsler and Cozart for very reasonable prices puts a lot more depth around anchors Trout, Simmons, Calhoun, and new DH Shohei Ohtani, which will be very confusing for manager Mike Scioscia as he’s got a starter by the same name. The Angels now project to receive above-average production at six of nine offensive positions and their first three starters, a far cry from the find-a-body mentality of 2017.

Key Losses – Yusmeiro Petit, Ricky Nolasco, Jesse Chavez

Hold on, don’t laugh quite yet. Petit was a godsend for the injury and suck-riddled Angels last year, throwing 91 ⅓ innings out of the bullpen and leading all Angels pitchers in WAR. After consecutive sub-replacement campaigns in 2015 and 2016, this resurgence looked a lot more like the guy who racked up 1.8 wins for the Giants in 2014, and while he isn’t likely to do nearly as well with the A’s, losing that production will hurt. Nolasco and Chavez weren’t helping so much as preventing forfeits, as they finished first and third in innings for a team that had to set up a macro adding “rehab setback” to all their tweets. Someone is going to have to replace that.

2018 Projections

ZiPS

Steamer

Pecota

86-76

84-78

80-82

Hold your nose cause here comes the cold water. PECOTA doesn’t think the Angels are any better than they were last year, and while Steamer sees some gains, there isn’t a way to pull a playoff team out of these projections without tweaking them. ZiPS is a tad more optimistic across the board, especially on the offensive gains from Zack Cozart carrying over, likely resulting in Trout getting another shot at winning his first playoff game. Man, that is a sad thing to write.

Key Players:

Let’s put it this way: if Mike Trout plays fewer than 150 games or *gasp* regresses in any meaningful fashion, the Angels are sunk. They’re already teetering on the edge of wild-card contention, and he’s the kind of player nobody could possibly replace. Except Los Angeles does now employ the only other guy who could compete for the title of “best player in the world” : Shohei Ohtani, who needs to prove that Japanese pitchers can do more than slightly underwhelm – though that may not be possible given the hype – and that a two-way player can succeed at the game’s highest level. Even if he’s worth no more than a win or two at the plate, that would be a significant win. New third baseman Zack Cozart is overqualified defensively at 3B (nobody’s displacing Simmons at short) and more than doubled his previous career best in WAR. If he takes to 3B and hits another 20 homers the Angels should be the favorites for a wild-card spot.

Key Minor League 2018 Impacts:

Last year LA sported not only the worst farm system in baseball, but one of the worst in many experts’ long careers, so an impact is not soon forthcoming. 2015 first-rounder Taylor Ward should see MLB time at some point next season considering C is the only position the Angels don’t have an entrenched starter, and with a good glove and strong K/BB rates could be a solid-average asset. Pitching depth will always be an issue as long as Richards and Shoemaker are counted on, so Jaime Barria’s wild ride will likely have him pitching in LA for a good portion of the year. Rule 5 selection Luke Bard looks to be the next surprisingly dominant Angels reliever after he used spin rate data to improve his pitch selection last year, striking out 99 in only 65 and ⅓ minor-league innings. No wonder the Twins didn’t put him on their 40 man roster…

Future Outlook:

The Angels have Mike Trout, and as long as that’s true they’ll never be terrible or boring. Now with Ohtani, they will definitely be a must watch on most nights. There’s no real guarantee of legitimate quality despite multiple upgrades this offseason, and they’re not going to be threatening the Astros’ dominance anytime soon. But if Ohtani is all he’s cracked up to be and they can keep their talented arms on the field, it might be enough to stay in contention until a revamped farm system can start churning out help.