Despite a pitching staff ravaged by injuries to Garrett Richards, C.J. Wilson, Andrew Heaney, Cory Rasmus, Tyler Skaggs and Nick Tropeano (among others), the Angels do lead baseball in one interesting pitching category: pickoffs. Los Angeles has picked off 15 runners, which is the most in baseball and nearly double
Despite a pitching staff ravaged by injuries to Garrett Richards, C.J. Wilson, Andrew Heaney, Cory Rasmus, Tyler Skaggs and Nick Tropeano (among others), the Angels do lead baseball in one interesting pitching category: pickoffs. Los Angeles has picked off 15 runners, which is the most in baseball and nearly double that of the Braves and Reds, tied for second with eight. The Halos are on pace to top the Major League record of 39, set by the 1992 Braves.
Why is that? Mike Trout thinks he knows.
Over the weekend, Trout told the local media that "our times to home plate are sometimes a little bit slower than what they should be," and that "if your times aren't real quick to the plate, you gotta throw over a lot."
Trout is right, on both counts. With 289 pickoff attempts to first base through June 5, the Angels do rank fourth in baseball behind the Phillies, Tigers and Reds. (The Major League team average is 203.) But the first part of Trout's statement, about slow times to the plate, is even more interesting. We can now measure how fast pitchers are to home with Statcast™, so that's exactly what we did.
As it turns out, Trout's skill in eyeballing pitcher times from center field is nearly equal to his skill in, well, everything else on the baseball field. The Angels' pitchers are slow to home plate in situations where a runner may steal, and we can put numbers to that.
MLB pitcher release time with runner on first and second base open
1. Blue Jays -- 1.18 seconds
- (tie) Red Sox, D-backs -- 1.19 seconds
MLB average -- 1.22 seconds
- (tie) Angels, A's, Rockies, Giants -- 1.25 seconds
- Cubs -- 1.26 seconds
"Pitcher release time" is defined as the amount of time that elapses from a pitcher's first move to the ball leaving his hand, and it's a good way to see who has a fast or slow windup. With a runner on first and second base empty, the Major League average is 1.22 seconds, and the slowest regular pitchers this year have been Kenley Jansen (1.51 seconds) and Clayton Richard (1.42). The quickest have been Bartolo Colon (1.04 seconds) and R.A. Dickey (1.05), which is interesting in itself -- combined, that pair has thrown only 2.3 percent of their pitches above 92 mph, which seems to demand a fast motion to the plate.
That's relevant to the Angels, since they have baseball's lowest-average four-seam fastball velocity (91.7 mph). In addition, while Los Angeles' pitchers do get faster to the plate when comparing our men-on scenario above to "all situations," the truth is that all teams get faster -- and the Halos are tied with four other teams for shaving the least amount of time off (just 0.06 seconds). They get slightly faster to the plate, but not much, and that's how they end up still barely ahead of the 30th-place Cubs.
Take all that and add in the fact that neither of their regular catchers (Carlos Perez and Geovany Soto) has shown more than an average arm, in terms of velocity, and in theory, opposing baserunners ought to be running wild against Los Angeles. But that's not necessarily what's happened. Nine teams have allowed more stolen bases, and only five have a better caught-stealing percentage. While "more pickoffs" do not quite always correlate to "fewer stolen bases," everything else is lined up for the Angels to be hurt badly on the bases, and that hasn't happened.
If Trout's suggestion that the slow deliveries are the reason for the high number of pickoff throws is true, then at least it's giving the Angels a chance to take advantage of what appears to be a skill, because this group is good at it. It's not just that they throw over often, it's that they're the most efficient when they do:
Highest pickoff success percentage to first base, 2016
- Angels -- 4.8 percent (14 pickoffs in 289 throws)
- Rockies -- 4.1 percent (5-for-122)
- Rays -- 3.3 percent (6-for-182)
- Braves -- 2.8 percent (8-for-281)
- A's -- 2.7 percent (6-for-223)
Consider this: 223 pitchers have attempted at least 10 pickoffs to first base. Of those, 163 (or 73 percent) have failed to pick off even a single runner. Tropeano leads baseball with four runners caught. Hector Santiago is tied for second with three; Mike Morin has the third-best percentage of those 223, catching two runners in 16 tries for a 12.5 percent pickoff rate. The five pitchers who throw over the most often -- Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Jerad Eickhoff, Jeremy Hellickson and Aaron Nola -- have nailed just two runners in 330 attempts. Seven different Angels have pickoffs at first base; only the Braves have more than that as a team.
It's not just about how often you throw over, then. It's about how effective you are in doing it and how much you can affect the other team's running game. Trout wasn't wrong, anyway -- the Angels' pitchers are slow to the plate. But if opponents are trying to use that to take advantage, they're taking a risk. Pickoffs, on this team, are a weapon.
Mike Petriello** is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.