How the West was Won

On September 10th, Dan Haren dominated the Yankees, and helped pull the Angels to within just a game-and-a-half of the division-leading Rangers. With arguably two of the top three pitchers in the league, the Angels were considered legitimate contenders for a playoff spot. However, an offense that finished the season ranked 9th in the AL in park-adjusted wOBA, and that scored an AL average 4.4 runs per game in September, just couldn’t keep up with their explosive division rivals (no, not the Ms).

Rewind to January this past year when the Angels traded Mike Napoli (C) and Juan Rivera (OF)  away to the Blue Jays for Vernon Wells (OF). Forget contracts and hindsight, this is what both front offices were working with at the time:

Name

Age

G

HR

BB%

ISO

wRC+

WAR

Vernon Wells

31

423

66

7.10%

0.191

108

5.3

Juan Rivera

31

351

52

6.50%

0.179

99

2.6

Jeff Mathis

27

246

17

7.10%

0.103

48

-0.8

Mike Napoli

28

332

66

9.60%

0.244

122

8.5


 

These are each player’s three-year stats leading up to the trade, and their ages during the 2010 season. I have included the inept Jeff Mathis to portray what the Angels left themselves with behind the plate.

Extending our analysis back to 2004, Wells and Rivera were basically the same player in terms of offensive value (especially when we consider the ballparks they played in). Observe:

wOBA is very indicative of offensive value, and Rivera (orange squadron leader) had a solid track record of keeping up with Wells (green) over the years. In 2008, Wells beat him by a solid margin, but Rivera countered in 2009. So while Wells had an edge in offensive value, the Angels were obviously operating as though 2010 was the deciding factor, and that a player who puts up a crooked number at age 31 is going to be able to repeat that for four more years. Fat chance. Didn’t help that those four years were going to cost $84M.

With the Angels taking on that huge contract, it probably would have been pretty fair to just swap Wells straight across for Rivera. The differences in overall value would easily have been negated with the salary swap. But the Angels were in a giving mood, and they went ahead and threw Napoli into the deal, leaving them with no viable catcher options, and an 84-million dollar stop gap impeding the arrival of minor league stud, Mike Trout. To rub it in, here’s another nice graph:

As Fangraphs write Matt Klaussen put it, when it comes to stats Jeff Mathis breaks mathematics. In the wrong direction. Above you see that not only is Napoli the better hitter, Napoli is in a different stratosphere. There’s never been a single year in which Mathis came even close to Napoli’s offensive ability.

Why the hell would you “throw in” a catcher that has produced 8.5 WAR in the last three seasons? Some reports indicated that Napoli and Angels manager Mike Scioscia didn’t get along, though Scioscia denies those claims. Scioscia told ESPN radio, “Mike had to work on stuff that didn’t come naturally to him, more so than other catchers who maybe do it more naturally.” Because, you know, most catchers naturally go three straight years with at least 20 HR and a 10% walk rate. By the way that walk rate put him squarely between Victor Martinez and Brian McCann over the same time period, and his .244 ISO (power metric) was in a league of its own, beating every other catcher by a wide margin. As for Napoli’s defense, Total Zone did not rate him highly at catcher. However, by the same metrics, Mathis was below average, himself.

Scioscia also claimed that the Angels gave Napoli more playing time the Rangers have, defending against any beef between the two (besides their stomachs). However, that’s only partially true. This from Rob Neyer:

“It wasn’t until 2010 that the Angels made a real effort to get Napoli into the lineup regularly — giving him 27 starts at first base and 18 as DH — and immediately after finally letting him play almost every day, they traded him for some magic beans. Some really, really, really expensive magic beans.”

Neyer’s point was that Napoli was often replaced in the lineup by the inferior Mathis, and his bat was never used anywhere else in the lineup—like 1B or DH—until 2010. Not only did Scioscia lack confidence in his catching ability, but in his hitting ability, too, it appears. Seems kind of the like the Angels were chomping at the bit to get rid of Napoli, and played him more often in 2010 in an attempt to raise his trade value (which should have been pretty high already).

The deal was bad all the way around for Anaheim (LA, my ass), and this is a case in which the results really punished the Angels for their stupidity. In the end, the Angels got player in Wells who added just 0.3 WAR to the winning cause. After performing similarly to Wells for years, Rivera was fittingly just as bad this season for the Jays and Dodgers, posting a 0.7 WAR. Oh, but how I loved watching Mike Napoli kick the shit of Jeff Mathis this season. Napoli 5.6, Mathis -1.0. Yeah, negative. It’s not hard to see that Napoli is the far superior catcher, but here’s to rubbing it in Scioscia’s face…

On opening day in Arlington, Napoli hit a three-run shot in the 4th to put Texas up on Boston 5-4. The Rangers never looked back, winning 9-5. Mathis went 0-for-3 against Jeff Francis with two strikeouts, making up half of Francis’ strikeout total on the night.

On May 29th, Napoli hit a single in the bottom of the ninth, and later scored the game-winning run on an Elvis Andrus base-hit. On the night, Napoli went 3-for-4 with a homerun. In Minnesota that same day, Mathis got two singles! It was the penultimate time that Mathis got more than one hit in the entirety of 2011…and it was only May.

The following day, Napoli went 3-for-6 with two homeruns, helping to put away the Rangers’ eventual playoff opponent, the Rays. The three homeruns in two days equaled Mathis’ total output all season. Mathis watched on from the dugout in Kansas City that evening as his rookie replacement, Hank Conger, tried to emulate him (1-for-5).

On July 8th, Napoli hit a granny in the first against the A’s in a game Texas eventually won by three. He finished the game 3-for-4. Mathis watched on as Conger hit his fifth homerun of the season, helping the Angels slip by the Mariners, 4-3.

On July 23rd, Napoli got the night off. Until the bottom of the ninth when he was asked to come in and pinch hit. He walked to lead off the inning, and later scored the game-tying run, emphasizing the value his patience brings to the Rangers. In Baltimore, Mathis took just 5 pitches in two plate appearances, and went 0-for-2 with a strikeout. Scioscia pulled him for a pinch hitter in the 8th, and the Angels lost 3-2.

On September 28th, as the season was winding down, the Rangers and Angels found themselves tied 1-1 in the ninth inning. Napoli took a 3-1 pitch from Angels closer Jordan Walden, and put it over the fence to give the Rangers a 3-1 win. Mathis, who appeared in just 13 games in September, did not play that game.

In game three of the ALDS against the Rays, Napoli blasted a 2-run dinger in the sixth to put Texas up for good. Mathis was sitting on his couch striking out as himself in MLB 2K12 (source not found).

In game five of the World Series the other night, Napoli mashed a Scrabble pitch to the wall scoring the go-ahead, and eventual game-winning runs. Mathis had by this time switched his team in Franchise Mode to the Rangers so that he could bat with Napoli (source not found).

Though the Angels didn’t trade Napoli directly to the Rangers, the final score of that trade ended up Rangers +5.6, Angels -1.4, for a 7-win difference. Bad decisions are not always punished in the real world, which allows managers and general managers to continuously elude due scrutiny from the bulk of fans. This is one case where the move was always stupid, and the Angels paid for it—they paid millions and millions of dollars for it.

 

 

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