It's no secret that Billy Eppler likes defense.
Since taking over as the Angels' general manager, Eppler has made a concerted effort to upgrade the club's defense, beginning with the acquisition of shortstop Andrelton Simmons from the Braves in November 2015. The following winter, Eppler added two other defensively oriented players in catcher Martin Maldonado and second baseman Danny Espinosa.
With Simmons and Maldonado anchoring the infield and Michael Trout and Kole Calhoun patrolling the outfield, the Angels fielded one of the strongest defensive units in the Majors in 2017, ranking third with a 23.7 Ultimate Zone Rating. Their glovework was one of the reasons they managed to stay competitive for most of the season despite a lackluster offense, as the team recorded a plus-one run differential (710 runs scored and 709 runs allowed) en route to an 80-82 finish.
"From my first year in professional baseball, some of the people who mentored me and taught me very much honored the defensive profile and understanding that productivity can happen in a number of different ways," Eppler said. "You can have productivity in the batter's box, but you can also have productivity on the defensive side. One of the things our front office sets out to do is to understand the run production and the run prevention relationship and try to grow those two factors as much as possible and create as much separation between those two. So that's a little bit behind our methodology."
The Angels' fielding is projected to be even stronger in 2018, as they continued to shore up their infield this offseason by acquiring second baseman Ian Kinsler from the Tigers and signing free-agent infielder Zack Cozart, a longtime shortstop who is expected to play third base. The club's defense up the middle now includes Maldonado, Simmons, Kinsler and Trout, with Trout being the only one without a Gold Glove Award to his name.
The left side of the Angels' infield should also be special given the pairing of Simmons and Cozart, who rank first (144) and third (44), respectively, in Defensive Runs Saved at shortstop since 2013. While Cozart has never played third base professionally, his background at short should help him make a smooth transition to the hot corner.
While Eppler has traded for glove-first players like Maldonado and Espinosa in the past, he said the Cozart and Kinsler moves weren't entirely driven by their defensive value, as he believes the pair can also help improve the Angels' lineup in 2018.
"It's really not a kind of direct objective of ours to just chase defense and chase defense," Eppler said. "Personally, this year I think there's a little bit more balance."
Eppler also recognizes that strong defense has a trickle-down effect on a club's pitching staff by minimizing the amount of extra pitches it has to throw and giving starters an opportunity to pitch deeper into games. It's no small benefit for the Angels, whose starting rotation has been riddled by injuries over the past two seasons.
"I am a little cognizant of the fact that one way to help pitchers is to have them throw less pitches per inning," Eppler said. "If they're throwing less pitches per inning, that's probably a good thing for their ability to either go deep in games or alleviating a little bit of the stress that's put on them. So if we can convert more balls into play quicker, they're going to get off the mound sooner and we're going to get back to offense."