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Angels

Already a strong point, Angels defense should be even better this season

It was part reaction, part self-defense and pure Gold Glove goodness.

New Angels second baseman Ian Kinsler did not see the one-hop smash that rifled off the bat of Colorado’s David Dahl to lead off the second inning Thursday until the ball was about 10 feet in front of him.

Kinsler lunged to his right, knocked the ball down with a backhand stab and fell to ground, the ball squirting behind him. Kinsler calmly reached back, grabbed the ball and, from his knees, looped a throw to first base in time to catch Dahl.

“Six years ago, it would have been panic city and that ball would have been in right field,” said Kinsler, a 12-year veteran. “But I knocked it down, had plenty of time, knew quickly where I was, the speed of the runner. The faster you can calculate all of that, the more calm you become.”

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After a Chris Iannetta single, shortstop Andrelton Simmons fielded Daniel Castro’s hard grounder and flipped to Kinsler to start an inning-ending double play. The next inning ended with Kinsler fielding Carlos Gonzalez’s grounder with runners on first and third and tossing to Simmons to start a double play.

One tough but seemingly routine play by Kinsler to thwart a potential rally. Two double plays turned by two seasoned, sure-handed, strong-armed middle infielders with excellent range and instincts, one to get a pitcher out of a jam.

It was all in two innings of work for an Angels defense that was one of baseball’s best last season and could be even better in 2018.

“I see the potential to be very, very special defensively,” general manager Billy Eppler said. “The outfield is strong, the infield is strong, the catching is strong. There’s impact in every one of those different positions.”

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Eppler said he didn’t put any extra emphasis on defense when constructing this team. Defense is just one of three components he uses to evaluate a player’s potential production; hitting and what a player does on the bases are the others.

“When you add all those characteristics into the equation,” Eppler said, “you get a value of the player and the total impact of the player.”

The team’s primary two offseason acquisitions were Kinsler in a trade with Detroit and third baseman Zack Cozart through free agency. Kinsler is expected to provide high on-base percentage from the leadoff spot and be a pest on the bases. Cozart is expected to add middle-of-the-order pop.

Both happen to be stout defenders who should shore up what have been trouble spots over the last two or three years.

According to Fangraphs, Kinsler, a Gold Glove winner in 2016, ranked second among big league second basemen last season in overall defense, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, which quantifies how many runs a player saved or gave up through his fielding prowess or lack thereof.

Cozart, the former Cincinnati Reds infielder, rated ninth overall among shortstops, and the Angels are confident he will make a smooth transition to third base.

They join an infield that includes Simmons, a three-time Gold Glove winner and one of baseball’s best defenders at any position, and catcher Martin Maldonado, who won a Gold Glove in his first season as a full-time starter in 2017.

First baseman Albert Pujols, a two-time Gold Glove winner with St. Louis, was relegated by injuries to designated hitter for most of the last two years, but he is expected to play the field, and provide solid defense, much more this season.

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“I don’t see a lot of hits being given through the infield,” said Simmons, whose 32 defensive runs saved in 2017 were 21 more than the second-rated shortstop, Colorado’s Trevor Story. “We have guys with experience who can play defense really well.”

Maldonado earned rave reviews for his game calling last season, and he is one of baseball’s best pitch framers. He ranked first among catchers with 22 defensive runs saved, third in overall defense, and threw out 29 of 75 baserunners for a 38.7% caught-stealing rate, fourth-best in the game.

Maldonado showed his athleticism and arm strength Thursday when, from one knee, he threw a bullet to third base to nail Mike Tauchman attempting to steal.

“I know Pudge Rodriguez had a cannon arm,” third base coach Dino Ebel said, “but this guy, with his accuracy and the power arm he brings, it will stop running games.”

Ebel believes the team’s three outfielders will also slow runners trying to go first to third with their strong arms and aggressive charging of hits.

Kole Calhoun, a Gold Glove winner in 2015, ranked fourth in overall defense among right fielders last season and third in ARM, the amount of runs above average an outfielder saves with their arm by preventing runners from advancing.

Justin Upton ranked sixth in overall defense and seventh in ARM among left fielders, and Mike Trout ranked 14th in overall defense and ninth in ARM among center fielders.

“We take pride in our defense,” Trout said. “We want to catch everything, rob everything and throw everyone out. That’s our mindset out there.”

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Surprisingly, the Angels outfielder with the worst defensive rankings is the one known for spectacular home run-robbing catches and long sprints to chase down balls in the gaps. Trout’s arm has improved in recent years, but he had negative numbers in defensive runs saved (minus-six) and UZR (minus-4.5).

It should be noted that Trout plays a position manned by some of the best defenders in baseball, including Byron Buxton, Billy Hamilton, Kevin Pillar and Jackie Bradley Jr.

“Mike is a great center fielder,” manager Mike Scioscia said. “You can have 30 of the best golfers in the world. One of them is No. 30, one is No. 1, and one is No. 15. They’re all great golfers.

“Mike has been working very hard with Dino, who is really happy with Mike’s first step and his reach to the ball. It’s going to show up. This guy is a terrific defensive center fielder, and he wants to improve.”

The Angels ranked second behind the Boston Red Sox in overall team defense last season. If they are as good or better this season, it will ease the pressure on a pitching staff that does not have an abundance of power arms. The Angels ranked 15th among 30 teams with 1,312 strikeouts in 2017.

“If you take away some hits and don’t give away hits, then guys won’t have to throw those extra 10 pitches and sometimes more to get out of an inning,” Simmons said. “That goes a long way.

“If you’re giving away hits by not playing defense, guys are gonna have to make more pitches with more runners on base and fewer outs. Eventually, over the course of the season, if you’re not playing good defense, it’s gonna cost you.”

Times reporter Jeff Miller contributed to this story.

mike.digiovanna@latimes.com

@MikeDiGiovanna


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