Angels hope playing the numbers game adds up to something special
To Mike Scioscia, UZR might as well be a demilitarized zone between warring countries and VORP a word Captain Kirk used when he wanted Scotty to beam him up to the Starship Enterprise.
To the statistics-savvy baseball follower, UZR stands for ultimate zone rating, an advanced metric that estimates a fielder’s defensive contribution, and VORP is value over replacement player, the number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute.
Scioscia, entering his 12th season as Angels manager, concedes that he is a bit of a dinosaur when it comes to baseball’s more exotic stats, especially the ones measuring defense and forecasting player and team performance.
He has reason to be skeptical.
In its annual PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Algorithm) projections, Baseball Prospectus has predicted 76 to 86 wins for the Angels in each of the last seven seasons. They have averaged 92 wins in that span.
“They’ve had us losing 90 games for the last [seven] years, and we managed to win 90 [five times],” Scioscia said. “I think it’s a young science … I don’t know.”
Scioscia has doubts about the new-age stats, but the Angels front office is coming out of the Stone Age — or, more precisely, the Bill Stoneman Age — in its use of statistics to evaluate players and opponents.
“We definitely use them,” said Tony Reagins, who replaced Stoneman as the Angels’ general manager after the 2007 season. “It’s like baking a cake. It’s an ingredient, something you can use to evaluate your team and your opposition.”
When teams such as the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox began incorporating more “Moneyball” philosophies emphasizing plate discipline and on-base percentage in the early 2000s, the Angels lagged behind.
Instead of putting a premium on players who worked counts, drew walks and drove up opposing starters’ pitch counts, the Angels seemed to favor such free-swingers as Vladimir Guerrero, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar.
It’s hard to argue with their approach; the Angels won the 2002 World Series and reached the playoffs five of the last seven years.
But the perception that the Angels are too old-school for baseball’s “sabermetric” age is changing.
“Moving from Stoney to Tony, my sense is they’re using more of the statistical-based information,” said David Forst, assistant GM of the Oakland Athletics, one of baseball’s more stats-savvy clubs. “Tony seems more open to it in the GM chair than Bill was.”
The Angels did not go so far as the Red Sox, who hired Bill James, famed baseball historian, statistician and the father of sabermetrics, as a senior advisor in 2002.
But four years ago they hired law-school graduate Justin Hollander as an assistant for player development and scouting, and his primary job is to evaluate and analyze statistics for Reagins and the coaching staff.
“We use it for base-running, offense, defense, everything out there, we use,” said Hollander, 33. “If Tony asks me to look at a guy in terms of a long-term contract, trade, free-agent signing, minor leaguer, he will know what I’m thinking and assign a value to it.”
The volume of statistics available with a few clicks of a mouse is mind-boggling and gives a comprehensive picture of players and teams, especially on offense.
The last five years has also seen a new wave of defensive stats, with websites such as fangraphs.com and John Dewan’s Fielding Bible, first published in 2006, quantifying things such as range, positioning, arm strength and error rate.
“We feel like we’ve put together a good defensive team the last few seasons, and there’s no doubt those stats have been a factor in our decisions,” Forst said of the A’s, who had the fifth-best UZR in baseball last season.
“What you like is when the stats match up with what scouts see with their eyes. That’s when the best decisions are made.”
Stats such as UZR assign numerical values to defensive components in an attempt to determine how many runs a player saved or gave up as a fielder.
But Scioscia argues that the data or formulas are flawed because they don’t consider advance scouting reports and spray charts that affect the positioning of players.
“I couldn’t tell you if Derek Jeter is a plus player because I don’t know where their spray charts tell him to play,” Scioscia said. “We understand it when Aybar doesn’t get to a slow roller up the middle because he was shaded so far toward third base. No shortstop would get to that ball, but if you’re grading it, it’s a minus.”
Angels rookie Peter Bourjos rated third among American League center fielders with 15 runs saved last season, even though he played only two months in the big leagues, stats that support Scioscia’s belief that Bourjos has Gold Glove potential.
But the manager remains skeptical.
“What criteria did they use?” he said. “How about stopping a team from running first to third? Did [strong-armed right fielder] Ellis Valentine ever throw out a runner? No. Why? Because no one even thought about making the turn at second. …
“I don’t think you need tangible statistical evidence to know that Ozzie Smith and Garry Templeton had range. Maybe Cal Ripken Jr. wasn’t as quick as Templeton and Smith, but his knowledge of hitters and innate feel out there made his range play much better.”
Some of the numbers don’t seem to add up. For instance, Torii Hunter’s UZR (minus-3.8) in center field last season was only slightly better than Juan Rivera’s (minus-4.5) in left. Anyone who watched the Angels would say Hunter was far superior to Rivera.
Still, the new stats are factoring in front-office decisions.
“I don’t know if you can use them in a historical context, but you can establish a baseline to compare a player relative to others,” Forst said. “It’s a useful tool.”
But certainly not the only one.
“We use them a lot,” Dodgers GM Ned Colletti said. “You talk to your scouts, your staff who might know the player. You also look at stats and try to filter and cull through them to find the true meaning of how the player performs. It’s part of the combination.”
Scioscia, the former Dodgers catcher, leans heavily on stats to determine which pitcher-catcher pairings work best. And the Angels monitor how their minor league hitters fare against the 20 pitchers with the best earned-run averages in each league to determine which prospects have mastered a level or hit pitchers with the best stuff.
However, if you want to discuss stats such as UZR, DRS (defensive runs saved), WPA (win probability added) and OOZ (out of zone plays made) with the Angels manager, get ready to be challenged.
“I don’t know if there’s anything I’ve looked at on the defensive end that paints a very accurate picture of a guy’s ability,” Scioscia said. “There’s nothing I’ve looked at that has knocked me out.”
Times staff writer Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.
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