Key to Halos' October hopes? It's not Trout

May 14th, 2021

With their loss to the Astros on Wednesday, the Angels dropped to 16-20. They sit in last place in the American League West, and it's looking like the team is going to need some divine intervention from Christopher Lloyd and Co. to avoid sitting at home in October again.

However, there may be hope for the Halos yet. Rather, Los Angeles' playoff chances could be rejuvenated by the club's rotation. No, really.

Any skepticism is understandable. The Angels have struggled to field a competent rotation for almost the entirety of 's career.

Dating back to Trout’s 2012 rookie year, the team’s starting staff ranks 28th in FanGraphs wins above replacement with 68.9 -- nearly 10 fWAR fewer than Trout has produced himself in that time. The club’s issues on that front are a big reason why the superstar center fielder has played just three career postseason games -- none since 2014.

It’s been more of the same in 2021, with the Angels entering Thursday’s action having recorded the highest rotation ERA (5.20) in the Majors.

But the team's starting pitchers are faring very well in two crucial areas.

1) They are missing bats at an elite level

The Angels' rotation has proven adept at avoiding contact this season. In fact, the team's starters collectively own the highest whiff rate (misses/swings) in baseball at 32.2%.

Contrary to the Angels, the five teams that rank directly behind them are seventh or better in rotation ERA.

Highest whiff rate, SP, 2021
Angels: 32.2% (5.20 starters’ ERA, 30th in MLB)
Mets: 30.3% (2.82 starters’ ERA, 1st in MLB)
Dodgers: 30.2% (2.99 starters’ ERA, T-4th in MLB)
Yankees: 30.2% (3.33 starters’ ERA, 7th in MLB)
Padres: 29.9% (2.99 starters’ ERA, T-4th in MLB)
White Sox: 28.8% (2.95 starters’ ERA, 2nd in MLB)

Two-way star is doing his part to boost that figure, as he’s posted the fifth-highest whiff rate (37.7%) among the 153 starting pitchers who have generated at least 100 swings this season.

But it’s not just Ohtani. The Angels’ other starters also have above-average whiff rates. (36.1%) ranks seventh in the Majors. (34.8%) is 11th. (31.9%) is tied for 21st. (29.6%) is 37th. And (27.3%) is tied for 64th. (The MLB average whiff rate for starting pitchers this year is 26.2%.)

The whiffs aren’t just window dressing. All of those missed bats have translated to a ton of strikeouts -- Angels starters have fanned 30.6% of the batters they’ve faced, the highest rate in MLB.

2) They are suppressing quality contact

No AL team’s starters have allowed a lower hard-hit rate (percentage of batted balls with 95+ mph exit velocity) than the Angels’ 36.5% mark in 2021. The club ranks second in the Majors in that department.

Additionally, Halos starters have the fifth-lowest rate of batted balls that have been both hard hit and launched in the sweet-spot zone (launch angle of 8-32 degrees). Why is this important? Because batted balls that meet both qualifications have produced a .667 average and a 1.494 slugging percentage across the Majors in 2021.

Lowest hard-hit + sweet-spot rate allowed, SP, 2021
Giants: 15.2%
Yankees: 15.9%
Brewers: 16.0%
Marlins: 16.6%
Angels: 16.9%

Granted, while minimizing quality contact and limiting contact in general are essential elements for a pitching staff, there are other factors at play that could prevent the Angels’ rotation from making a dramatic turnaround.

For one, the Angels are among the worst defensive teams in the game. The club has recorded -7 Outs Above Average in 2021, MLB’s fifth-lowest mark. Their infield alone is a -10.

Third baseman 's return from the injured list should help, but the team needs a better defensive performance from offseason addition , who replaced the esteemed at shortstop. Iglesias leads the AL in errors with eight, and he’s recorded -3 OAA.

The shaky glovework is out of character for Iglesias, whose 13 OAA across 2019-20 was 14th among infielders.

Although the team’s OAA total doesn’t reflect it, Los Angeles’ defensive issues extend to the catcher position, where rates as one of the game’s worst framers.

It’s one of the reasons Angels starters have the highest walk rate (10.9%) in MLB. It’s not the only reason, of course. No team’s starters have thrown a higher percentage of their pitches out of the zone than the Halos’. But the club also has a high edge rate -- the percentage of pitches thrown around the edges of the strike zone. A better framer could help convert some of those into strikes.

The Angels happen to have a better framer on their roster in , but he remains sidelined by a concussion.

Angels starters may continue to be held back by poor defense and lofty walk totals, but even so, there should be at least some level of improvement coming for Los Angeles' rotation.

The Angels' rotation has a measly 65.2% strand rate, the second lowest in the Majors and more than seven percentage points lower than the MLB average (72.4%). Even if the Angels weren't racking up so many whiffs and limiting hard contact, we'd likely see their low strand rate regress toward the mean.

Perhaps it's wishful thinking to say the Angels could make the playoffs. The team's offense is extremely top-heavy, its bullpen has struggled and its defense remains a problem.

But there's at least a glimmer of hope that, with an improved rotation setting the tone, the Halos can hang around and give the baseball world the privilege of watching Trout and Ohtani play meaningful games in September.