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OC Register: Glove story: Defensive improvement keys Angels fast start


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ANAHEIM — The day Perry Minasian was hired as the Angels general manager, he was quick to add the phrase “run prevention” whenever the topic turned to pitching.

Although the pitchers tend to get the credit or blame for how many runs a team allows, the total package of run prevention is significantly influenced by the other eight players in the field.

The defense has been a critical element to the Angels’ 26-17 record.

“It’s been a big part of it,” Manager Joe Maddon said. “I think we recognize that here. I don’t think maybe on a national scope it’s understood. Our defense is probably the biggest reason why we’re in this position right now.”

Just ask right-hander Noah Syndergaard.

“It’s really encouraging when you give up a laser beam and you look behind you and someone is making an all-out play to get an out,” Syndergaard said. “It’s pretty awesome to be a part of.”

Quantifying defense has been a challenge for baseball for decades, but there are simple ways to judge an entire’s team’s defense that don’t require any high tech analytics at all.

Defensive efficiency is simply the rate at which all balls in play become outs. It is a measure not only of the quality of the defensive players, but also of the accuracy of their positioning.

The Angels lead the majors in defensive efficiency, with a rate of .736. That means 73.6% of balls in play are outs. Last year the Angels were 29th, with a defensive efficiency of .680.

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) calculates what an ERA should be based simply on the strikeouts, walks and homers, as if the pitchers have no control over what happens on balls in play. The Angels FIP is 3.82, but their actual ERA is 3.37. That’s the fourth largest positive gap in baseball, suggesting that the Angels defense (or luck) is helping their pitchers more than most teams’ defenses.

That does not account for the quality of the contact, though, which is at least partially the pitcher’s responsibility. If pitchers are giving up more hard hit balls, it’s going to be tougher for the defense to catch them.

Expected batting average calculates what the expected batting average would be based on the exit velocity and launch angle of the balls in play. Angels pitchers have allowed an expected batting average of .248, but a real batting average of .213, which is the largest gap in the majors.

That suggests the Angels defense is turning more than their fair share of hits into outs because of the quality of the defenders and the positioning.

On the latter, shifts have been a significant part of the Angels defense. According to Sports Info Solutions, the Angels are a major league best +26 in terms of net hits prevented and allowed by shifting.

The player at the center of all that is shortstop Andrew Velazquez, who is the face of the Angels’ defensive improvement.

“Velazquez has made some plays at short that I’ve never really seen before,” first baseman Jared Walsh said.

Velazquez leads all shortstops with at least 200 innings in Defensive Runs Saved, which calculates exactly what the name implies. Last year’s Angels shortstop, José Iglesias, was last in the majors in DRS among shortstops with at least 500 innings.

Last season the Angels also struggled at third base because Anthony Rendon was injured for most of the season and his hip condition made him less effective when he was playing. Although Rendon had some throwing issues earlier in the season, he’s sixth in DRS among third baseman with 200 innings.

In the outfield, the Angels have not only benefitted simply from having a healthy Mike Trout, but they’ve gotten a better Trout.

Trout has been working on his jumps every day with outfield coach Damon Mashore. He’s played roughly the same number of innings so far this season as he played all of last season, but he’s five runs better in terms of DRS. He has a positive DRS so far this year, after having a negative DRS in six of his 10 seasons with at least 200 innings.

“I knew he’s working a lot at it,” Maddon said of Trout. “He’s putting in a lot of time… Mikey looks good to me. But he always does.”

Having Trout healthy and in center has allowed the Angels to move defensive whiz Brandon Marsh into left most of the time. Last year the Angels three most used left fielders, who accounted for 81 percent of the innings, were Justin Upton, Phil Gosselin and Jo Adell. All three were below average outfielders.

Although this year the Angels have still given some outfield time to Adell and converted infielders like Jack Mayfield and Tyler Wade, the overall performance has been much better. The Angels rank fifth in majors in converting fly balls to the outfield into outs, according to Sports Info Solutions.

“Our ability to be in the right spot and catch the ball and complete plays has been the most fun part of this whole thing for me,” Maddon said. “When you do that, your pitches are better. And when your pitchers are better then there’s less stress on your offense to score a lot of runs.

“It’s still the tried and true method of playing this game. The groups that are able to pitch and catch it every day normally should be there at the end of the season.”

UP NEXT

Angels (RHP Noah Syndergaard, 3-2, 3.60) vs. Rangers (RHP Dane Dunning, 1-2, 3.92), Tuesday, 6:38 p.m., Bally Sports West, 830 AM

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