Sometimes, when you just can't buy any hits and you really feel the need to find yourself, the best thing to do is pay a visit to the Houston Astros.
It worked for the Los Angeles Angels, anyway.
To recap, the Angels did indeed have trouble buying hits in their season-opening series against the Seattle Mariners. They managed just 17 hits and eight runs in the three games, compiling an ugly slash line of .177/.223/.313.
Not quite what you'd expect from an offense that ranked seventh in MLB in runs last year, much less one that was expected to be even better with some healthy key parts and some new additions for 2014.
But then the Angels met the Astros on Friday night, and literally (meaning figuratively) exploded.
Mike Trout got things started with a long solo home run in the first inning. Josh Hamilton eventually added his first home run of 2014, a three-run job in the sixth inning. Kole Calhoun hit his first of the year as well.
In the end, everybody in Mike Scioscia's starting nine got a hit:
John McDonald added another hit as a pinch-hitter, bringing the total to 15 and prompting Jeff Fletcher of the Orange County Register to observe:
#Angels had 17 hits in their first 3 games and 15 tonight.— Jeff Fletcher (@JeffFletcherOCR) April 5, 2014
If you're an Angels fan or just a fan of good offense, say it with me now: Phew.
Now, the whole Astros caveat/catch/whatever is worth re-noting. This is a team that ranked dead-last in MLB in ERA last year, and the Angels started off on Friday night facing a guy who had a hand in that. Astros starter Lucas Harrell had a 5.86 ERA in 36 games (22 starts).
Still, it was just a matter of time before this Angels offense had a night like Friday night.
They won't be scoring in the double digits every night, but there should be no mistaking that what happened on Friday night is much, much more like the true Angels offense than the offense that got shut down by Seattle to start the season.
They keep all kinds of snazzy projections over at FanGraphs, among them being projections for how much WAR teams stand to get out of their hitters. If you follow that link and take a look, what you should see is a projection for the Angels to get 26.0 WAR out of their hitters in 2014.
It may not sound like much, but that's the best projection out of all American League clubs. Therefore, SCIENCE says that the Angels should have the best collective offense in Junior Circuit.
Granted, this is mainly due to the presence of Trout. He was worth 10.0 WAR in 2012, 10.4 WAR in 2013 and, wouldn't you know it, he's already leading the American League with 0.6 WAR in 2014. Contrary to popular belief, things don't change.
Trout's baserunning and defensive talents are a big reason why he's so good at WAR, but his bat is certainly the main reason. And to this end, Trout's not alone in the Angels lineup.
We can put it this way:
|Player||Age||Career PA||Career OPS+||Projected 2014 OPS+|
Note: Those projected numbers are ZiPS projections that can be found here.
If you're not familiar with OPS+, it's a version of OPS that adjusts for home ballparks and league quality and puts everything on a scale where 100 represents average. Anything over 100 is above average.
Point being: There really aren't many easy outs among Scioscia's collection of regulars. To boot, even the ones that are there are debatable.
Erick Aybar isn't quite as easy an out as his track record says he is, as he's posted an OPS+ over 100 in three of five seasons. David Freese, meanwhile, is absolutely a candidate to outperform his projection after posting an OPS+ over 100 in each of his five seasons in St. Louis.
If there's one thing I'm not sure about, it's that 133 OPS+ projected for Albert Pujols. That's not far off from the rock-solid 138 OPS+ he had when he was healthy in 2012. Asking him to return to that level coming off an injury-ruined 2013 season is asking a lot.
The trade-off, however, could be that Hamilton outperforms his modest projection, which he's already well on his way to do.
Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com did a pretty good job of hitting the nail on the head here:
Three-run homer for Josh Hamilton. He's 3-for-3 with a walk today, batting .462 thru four games. A bit better start than last year. #Angels— Alden Gonzalez (@Alden_Gonzalez) April 5, 2014
Through four games in 2013, Hamilton had one hit and two walks in 19 plate appearances. He had struck out eight times. Next to that, the .462/.563/.769 slash line he has in the early going this year looks even better.
You can count his manager as one who doesn't think Hamilton's hot start is a fluke.
“I definitely get that sense, and I think the patience is coming from being comfortable in the box,” Scioscia said Wednesday, via Pedro Moura of the Orange County Register. “I think he’s in a real good comfort zone. His head is still, he’s seeing the ball really well and that’s gonna lead to a little bit better pitch selection when he’s swinging the bat.”
If there's one statistic that confirms what Scioscia is talking about, it's O-Swing%. It's a FanGraphs favorite that measures the percentage of pitches batters swing at outside the strike zone, making it a go-to metric to find hitters with bad plate discipline.
It's on that note that I present Hamilton's showings in the O-Swing% department from recent seasons:
- 2011: 41.0
- 2012: 45.4
- 2013: 41.2
- 2014: 27.6
Between 2011 and 2013, Hamilton was extremely aggressive in expanding the strike zone. In fact, he was right up there with Jeff Francoeur.
But so far in 2014? Nuh uh. Hamilton has been a totally different player.
Now, this obviously stems from an absurdly small sample size, as the O-Swing% you see for 2014 hasn't even been updated to include Friday night's game. Just because Hamilton is this disciplined now doesn't mean he's going to be this disciplined all season.
It's definitely a good sign, though, and I can further drive home the point by noting this: The last time Hamilton finished with an O-Swing% under 40 was in 2010, the year he hit .359 and won the AL MVP.
Looking forward, the Angels know that their offense will at least have a pretty decent floor as long as Trout is around and still playing like Trout. The offense that finished seventh in runs scored last year was basically him and a collection of spare parts, after all.
But Trout shouldn't have to do it all by himself this year. He's surrounded by quality hitters, among which should be at least one other stud. This Angels offense shouldn't be about its floor. It should be about its ceiling.
And if Friday night's blowout is any indication, it will be.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
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