Angels' arms going back to the basics: Getting ahead

March 11th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Rhett Bollinger’s Angels Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- As Angels pitchers glance at their pitching schedule posted on the far wall of the clubhouse, they now have another important sheet of paper to look at that’s posted right next to that.

The Angels are displaying daily strike percentages on 0-0 and 1-1 counts to reinforce the importance of getting ahead and throwing strikes. It’s an obvious concept, but Angels pitchers believe that stressing it this spring has been helpful under new pitching coach Barry Enright and bullpen coach Steve Karsay.

“Now we’re talking about it,” said veteran lefty . “Like I knew that, but last year I got away from it for a whole bunch of other reasons. But they’ve made it a point of emphasis. Whereas last year we didn’t really talk about it and it wasn’t a part of our identity. But now it is.”

The numbers certainly bear out the importance of getting ahead of hitters and how the Angels got away from that last year and struggled as a result.

MLB hitters had a .619 OPS after an 0-1 count last year, but an .826 OPS after a 1-0 count. And hitters had a .503 OPS after a 1-2 count but a .793 OPS after a 2-1 count. They also had a .779 OPS with a full count. For context, the league-average OPS was .734 last season.

The Angels had a first-pitch strike percentage of 60.6 percent, which ranked below the league-average mark of 61.5 percent, and it correlated with their 4.64 ERA -- which ranked 23rd. They also had the third-highest walk rate in the Majors, walking 10.1 percent of opposing batters.

“If you take your average hitter and [the count is] 2-1, he’s hitting like an All-Star, but your average probably wouldn’t be good enough to be in the league if you’re hitting 1-2,” Anderson said. “I feel like if you can put more guys in those situations, we have good data on that. But just in general, you'd rather compete in the zone and go out getting hit than you would walking guys or falling behind.”

Lefty explained that it can be easy to get away from obvious concepts like getting ahead of hitters when there is so much other stuff to focus on like their mechanics, the advanced statistical reports and dealing with the mental side of the game.

“It’s a very basic concept but I think pitchers tend to overthink it and complicate it for ourselves,” Sandoval said. “So I think just constantly hammering in the philosophy of getting ahead and winning counts is good for us right now.”

Sandoval said it’s already led to a change in his mentality on the mound, as it allows him to clear his head and just think about getting ahead of the hitter instead of overthinking things or nibbling.

“It just kind of narrows your focus,” Sandoval said. “You don't think about anything else other than win this count and get ahead. [It’s such a] simple concept, but sometimes we need it.”

The Angels focused more on things such as their whiff rate last year, but it didn’t always correlate to success or even above-average strikeout totals. For example, they ranked sixth in the Majors in inducing a swing and miss on 27.3 percent of their pitches, but their strikeout rate ranked just 16th.

It shows the Angels have the ability to get swinging strikes but weren’t using their sequencing or pitch selection correctly, as making batters miss with two strikes is much more than important than with no strikes or one strike. They’re now no longer chasing early swings and misses, as they’re embracing early contact and getting quick outs.

“It’s baseball 101 -- you have to get ahead but you also have to finish guys,” said closer . “It’s something I think we’ve been missing. The way guys pitch today is different than six years ago. But you’re still going to have your stuff and still be able to put away guys. But you have to remember if you’re ahead and you’re throwing strikes, they’re going to be in trouble. The numbers show that by far.”