Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Color Me Skeptical

A seemingly encouraging report from Bill Shaikin of the LA Times today regarding the Angels' apparently changing attitude about walks. At least the beginning is encouraging:
The statistics appear to be misprints, at least at first glance: The Angels lead the major leagues in walks this spring. The Angels are the only club with more walks than strikeouts.

This is not an accident. While Vladimir Guerrero remains the face of a free-swinging offense in Anaheim, the Angels have quietly revamped their minor league instructional program over the last three years to emphasize plate discipline.

"We're starting to get some tendencies with younger guys coming through the system," Angels Manager Mike Scioscia said. "We're excited because we're seeing it at the major league level
That is, until you get to this paragraph at the end:
The Angels, who did not play a game Tuesday, have yet to play their regulars in spring games, and the walk totals assuredly will drop as Guerrero, Torii Hunter, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar start to play. Yet the Angels are encouraged with the progress of such young players as infielders Kendry Morales, Brandon Wood and Sean Rodriguez, catchers Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli and outfielder Reggie Willits.
In other words, don't expect to see any difference this season. Napoli and Willits have always taken a ton of walks, posting ISO OBPs over .100 every season (almost - Willits was .098 in 2007). Of the other three young players listed, only Morales projects to see a lot of at bats this season, and for his career, he walks about once every fifteen plate appearances. Wood has four walks in 188 PAs for his young career. These are not take and rake hitters. Sean Rodriguez has been a little more patient, walking once every 13 PAs or so at the major league level. He's been much better in the minors, walking once for nine PAs, which is actually pretty good, though those numbers are a bit skewed by two outlier seasons in Provo (1BB/5.4PA) and Cedar Rapids (1BB/6.7PA). And honestly, if Willits and Mathis are going to see a lot of time at the dish, it probably means things aren't going well this season.

At the very least, it's nice to see the Angels pay lip service to plate discipline, but the problem can't be attributed to simply having a current group of major leaguers who don't walk very much. Their history of acquisitions shows that plate discipline simply hasn't been a priority, though that may be changing with the addition of Bobby Abreu.

What's more, there hasn't been much organizational turnover at the instructional levels. Maybe I'm wrong, but when the same guys who have told me that walks don't matter suddenly start singing a different tune, well, let's just say actions will speak louder than words. As AAA hitting instructor Jim Eppard said:
"To have someone be more disciplined at the plate, you can't just push a button. It doesn't happen overnight."
And he's right. Unfortunately, he's been there since 2003. Without an infusion of new blood, I'm skeptical that we'll see a real change in organizational philosophy. Don't get me wrong, I'm happy with the success of this decade, and I'm not calling for anyone's head. I think they're OK the way they are, though they could be better.

You don't just suddenly see old dogs learning new tricks. I'll be watching the minor league numbers this year, and I'll be looking for that light.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Musings on Brandon Wood

Why is Brandon Wood not a candidate for first base? For some reason, I never hear this mentioned. I guess it's because Kendry Morales is a switch hitter, so there's really no need to platoon him, but Wood seems a good fit so long as the Angels have four other players battling for the jobs at third base (Figgins, Izturis), Shortstop (Aybar, Izturis), and second base (Kendrick, Aybar, and Izturis).

I bring this up in reference to Mike DiGiovanna's piece in the LA Times today about Brandon Wood. I still remember seeing Wood play in the only game I've been to in Cedar Rapids, a season in which he didn't really do much. Honestly, I don't recall him doing anything at the plate in that game, but I did see him start two double plays in one inning (the first one was botched by either the second baseman or the first baseman, and the next batter grounded into a proper double play). He looked like a slick fielder at the time. Obviously his power exploded over his next few minor league seasons, but to date, his inability to avoid the punch out has stifled some of his progress. I have a number of thoughts on his situation and what they tell me about the Angels in general, and I'm not really sure how to organize them, so I'm just going kind of go stream of consciousness for the next few paragraphs.

First, and I know this is especially being questioned this year, but it does seem like the Angels have mismanaged some of their offensive prospects. I understand the idea of letting a player work things out for himself. A kid like Wood got to where he was because he was doing it the way that worked for him, and you don't want to mess with that. At the same, a lot of those kids get to where they are because their raw ability and power dominate at the lower levels without the need for fine tuning. A good development program shouldn't be content to let a player dominate at the lower levels. They need to find the flaws that may not hinder a player in double A, but will end his career in the majors. That's how an organization turns a AAAA player into a major leaguer. Either Wood's propensity to strike out hasn't been addressed, or the Angels haven't seen it as an issue.

In a vacuum, strikeouts aren't a big deal. An out is an out, and while strikeouts are never productive (and we know the Angels love their productive outs), they also usually aren't double plays. A strikeout is usually no better or worse than an infield pop-up. But when a player strikes out as often as Wood, it makes it very difficult to reach base at a high rate. Tim Salmon and Troy Glaus could do it because they found a way to walk 90+ times per season while striking out 130+ times. Glaus struck out 163 times in 2000, and still got on base at a .404 clip. Wood hasn't shown the ability to marry a high strike out rate with an acceptable OBP. As the SABR guys like to say, outs are baseball's currency, and while how you make them may not be important, how many you make certainly is. I don't even think this is a problem of organizational philosophy. Sure, the Angels aren't necessarily a take and rake franchise, but they also don't preach a swing for the fences philosophy. This is organizational failure to fine tune a player's weaknesses, which may not affect minor league numbers, in preparation for a major league career. And not every player is the same. Just as Wood and Dallas McPherson should have been drilled on patience and waiting for pitches they can drive instead of swinging hard at everything, a player like Adam Dunn may have benefited from learning a more aggressive approach at the lower levels (not that he hasn't turned out OK). There's no rigid standard. But the Angels have not effectively managed their minor league hitters in this decade. In fact, a player like Glaus may have benefited from spending very little time in the minors.

Getting back to the first base issue, one thing that perplexes me a little bit about the Angels approach to this season is the idea that they're handing the job to Kendry Morales, but Wood will have to earn a job on the left side of the infield. I realize this is a current personnel issue, but Morales has not been much more productive at the major league level. Although the raw numbers are better, the sample sizes are far too small to reach a solid conclusion. Point being, why hand the job to Morales instead of letting him fight it out with Wood. Part of breaking through at the major league level is winning a position battle, and showing the fortitude to do so is something the Angels should be encouraging. I understand that moving a player to the left on the defensive spectrum is a waste of a defensive ability. Brandon Wood is much more valuable as a short stop or third baseman than as a first baseman, but this position battle isn't being waged in a vacuum. The Angels have who they have, and the key right now is getting the best bats in the lineup. And this decade has shown that when the Angels move a player "out of position" to first, they generally get excellent defense at that position (see also: Erstad, Kendrick, and Spiezio). Personally, I think first base defense is an underrated concept, but I'm not here to make that argument.

I'm going to wrap this up by noting that for most of this post, you could replace Wood's name with Sean Rodriguez and have similar arguments. I just hope that the Angels aren't writing their opening day roster in ink. Spring training is a time when players like Wood, Rodriguez, and Morales should feel the pressure to earn everyday at bats. Handing the job to Morales is as much a disservice to him as it is to Wood and Rodriguez. This is another year in which the Angels, barring ill health, should have tremendous depth. At the same time, failure to properly manage that depth could mean giving the lion's share of at bats to the wrong guy. And let me be clear, I'm not arguing that Wood should be given anything. My point is that I want to see these guys battle this spring for regular season at bats. And I'm not quite sure (and maybe it's a media creation) why anyone on that infield should feel entitled to a starting job (except maybe Figgins).