On January 22nd, 2019, The Los Angeles Angels ‘stretched their payroll’ to add Cody Allen, a seemingly solid closer who took a bit of a step back the previous season. Allen would join a bevy of free-agent signings the Halos made, including Matt Harvey, Trevor Cahill, Justin Bour, and Jonathan Lucroy. Little did they know that that quintet (costing $34.35M !!) would produce a -2.4 WAR overall, with three of them ultimately being released before the thick of the playoffs. As you can see below, none of these additions even added positive value to the roster during their stint.
|Cody Allen (DFA’d)||-0.1 WAR||$8.5M|
|Matt Harvey (DFA’d)||-0.6 WAR||$11M|
|Trevor Cahill (demoted)||-0.6 WAR||$9M|
|Justin Bour (AAA)||-0.4 WAR||$2.5M|
|Jonathan Lucroy (DFA’d)||-0.7 WAR||$3.35M|
Let’s take a look at what went wrong with each failed free agent acquisition:
Cody Allen – Over Allen’s eight seasons as a big leaguer, he never reached the lows he went to this year. The veteran reliever, signed as a late-offseason reclamation project, posted an ugly 6.26 ERA in just 25 games, as his velocity and control continued to trend downwards aggressively fast. Brad Ausmus acted quickly to combat his struggles, demoting Allen from his closer role by just April 24th. By June 14, Allen was DFA’d, eventually latching onto the Twins system (before he was released). In 2019, Cody’s walk rate doubled, from 3.5 to a horrendous 7.8 for every 9 innings. His 20 walks in just 23 innings, for context, is just one more than his 21 walks in 2017. Here’s the thing, though; in 2017, he pitched 67.1 innings.
This chart here tells the whole story.
|CLE (7 yrs)||11.5||3.5||0.9|
|LAA (1 yr)||11.3||7.8||3.5 (!!)|
Another thing to note about Allen is that his struggles can’t just be chalked up to bad luck. Hitters averaged 94 mph exit velocity and a barrel% of 15.4%. That’s not to mention the xSLG of .595 against him. Hitters didn’t just get by Allen, they crushed him.
|Vs. Allen (2019):||.260||.595||.415|
Matt Harvey – Where do I even start? Well first, I’ll address the elephant in the room; Yes, I said that he would stabilize in his change of scenery with a 4.05 ERA with a 7.6 K/9. Boy, was I wrong.
First of all, for an Angels rotation that direly needed stability and length, Harvey was not the solution at all. The 30 year old righty only threw 59.1 innings over 12 starts (an average of about 5 IP/start). Over his 12 starts, he only struck out 39 batters — further proving that Harvey’s days of blowing hitters away is far behind him. Additionally, his 10.9 BB% matched his career high from 2017, in which he posted a 6.70 ERA. His ERA this year? 7.10. Coincidence? I think not.
Like Allen, Harvey got hit and got hit hard. His opponents’ xBA (.302) and xSLG (.524) ranked in the bottom 2% of the league. Even worse, his opponents xWOBA (.390) was in the bottom 1% of the league. It’s not much of a stretch to say that the Dark Knight was one of the worst — if not THE worst — pitchers in the league this year. A quick look at Baseball Savant shows how weakly Harvey compared to the rest of the league in terms of those categories, as well as exit velocity, K%, and hard hit%
|Exit Velo||xSLG||xwOBA||K%||Hard hit %||xBA|
Suffice to say, the Angels gave up on the Harvey experiment. On July 20th, the Halos released the Dark Knight, and he later signed a minor league deal with the Oakland Athletics. They are said to be experimenting with putting him in the bullpen in lower leverage situations to eat innings and hopefully regain some of his confidence. If Oakland can’t work their magic with Harvey, there’s a chance the once promising flamethrower can end his baseball career with a fizzle rather than a bang.
Trevor Cahill – After posting a very solid, albeit unspectacular 3.76 ERA and 1.19 WHIP in 2018, many baseball fans generally agreed that the Angels’ signing of the 31-year old was a low-risk move. Unfortunately, as you probably expected, we were way off.
There are many facets of Cahill’s game that have deteriorated this year, but we’ll start with barrels. Opponents have been hitting Cahill harder than ever before, evidenced by the stark contrast between 2018 and 2019 seen below.
Furthermore, the long ball has become a huge problem this season. In 30 games, Cahill has coughed up 24 long balls — 7 more than last year (in 18.9 less innings). In the month of August, he’s been especially bad, posting a putrid 8.03 ERA, only escaping with no damage twice in seven starts — just twice. The recipe for his tendency to give up the long ball isn’t hard to see when looking at his statcast averages.
|Launch Angle||Exit velocity|
|2018||5.9 degrees||87.2 mph|
|2019||9.3 degrees||88.8 mph|
The launch angle increase seen this season is way higher than his career marks at 5.3
As you see above, it wasn’t a drastic change in how hard he was being hit, but more based on how he’s locating pitches. His hard hit% in the 29th percentile is very poor, but not as much as Allen’s or Harvey’s. Cahill has recovered from major struggles in his career (as seen in his transition from the Royals to the A’s), so his career doesn’t seem as doomed as the other arms; Perhaps that’s why the Halos have held onto him as a mop up reliever in the depths of their pen. At this point in the season, it seems likely they’ll hold onto him and hope he gives their starters some help when his numbers finally stabilize. Whether or not that happens, however, remains to be seen.
Justin Bour – It was only a few weeks into his Angels career that even fans of the team were cheering for the lefty slugger’s demotion. After many cases of lacking focus and his frustrating tendency to strike out, the Angels finally demoted Bour (with options remaining) to AAA. Bour posted an 1.104 OPS in a hitter’s friendly Pacific Coast League, but at the bigs he’s put up a weak collective .182/.267/.385 slash line. While Bour’s 2018 struggles was seen as an outlier compared to the last few years, 2019 showed that it may be even more downhill from there.
Taking a look at two of Bour’s three typical outcomes, the trends don’t look to good.
|2018||.248||24.8%||14.6% (top 5%)|
Side note: Bour’s average exit velocity and launch angle increased, but not notably so.
Unlike others in the free agent bundle the Halos picked up, Bour has something at stake for next season as a September call-up.With Pujols likely to get more rest as the Angels fall out of contention completely, Bour could find himself getting semi-regular at bats down the stretch. If he competes very well this month, there’s a slight chance he makes the decision of whether or not to non-tender him more interesting. At this point, though, his numbers look far from salvageable.
Jonathan Lucroy – Despite putrid defensive and an evident lack of power, Lucroy generally performed as expected. Let’s be honest here — Lucroy’s best days are far behind him; since he was dealt to Texas, his OPS and SLG has fallen off dramatically.
|Brewers (2010-2016)||.342 OBP||.436 SLG|
|Rangers (2016-2017)||.314 OBP||.409 SLG|
|Athletics (2018)||.291 OBP||.325 SLG|
|Angels (2019)||.310 OBP||.371 SLG|
*Lucroy’s 46 games with the Rockies in 2017 was omitted*
Luckily, Lucroy’s numbers fell more in line with his 2016-2017 stint than his brutal 2019 performance, but offensively he’s a far cry from the peak of his career. A 84 wRC+ sums up his mediocrity pretty well. His blocking and framing skills have also deteriorated significantly, making him a negative impact on the team’s success.
Additionally, a collision at home plate with Jake Marisnick kept him on the IL for a while, likely souring his chances of finishing off the season on the roster. His replacement, Max Stassi has been awful at the dish this season (.137/.203/.171 –sorry, I just threw up in my mouth typing that out) but is a far better defender. With the Angels’ poor and fragile rotation, they could use any help they can get. The other side of that platoon, Kevan Smith, struggles defensively but brings more to the plate, creating a decent platoon for the rest of the season.
Although there is quite a bit of doom and gloom for the Angels’ 2018-2019 offseason signings, there are two bright sides to the situation. First of all, all five acquisitions were under a one year deal (take a breath, Angels fans, they’ll all be gone soon). Bour is the only one under control next season, but is a prime candidate to be let go of this offseason. The flexibility of one year deals allows the Angels to either roll the dice again or go for a prized arm this offseason (Gerrit Cole?) with the $30+ million coming off the books. Additionally, Billy Eppler did a really solid job on the trade market, adding all-star and launch angle success story Tommy La Stella (.848 OPS) and Brian Goodwin (.823 OPS) for a bag of chips and a piece of gum.
Minor free agency additions can be very rewarding, as evidenced by the Brewers’ acquisition of Mike Moustakas, but the room for failure is far bigger. Even though the Angels had an awful offseason, there’s always more money and a new year to look forward to.
Photo Credit: CBS Sports