Much of the attention surrounding the Los Angeles Angels has been centered around Shohei Ohtani, along with Mike Trout, and for good reason. The Angels, however, made a few other moves during the offseason that significantly improved the roster for 2018.
Shortly after the Angels signed Shohei Ohtani, Angels General Manager Billy Eppler traded for second baseman Ian Kinsler and signed shortstop Zack Cozart, who will play third base for the Angels, to a three-year deal. The Angels also brought Justin Upton back on a five-year deal earlier in the offseason and shored up their catching depth by bringing veteran Rene Rivera on board.
As a result, the Angels have not only improved their whole roster but they turned their already very-good defense into an elite defense. After finishing as the second best defensive team in baseball last year, the Angels are now projected to be the best defensive team this season, as Jeff Sullivan wrote about at Fangraphs.
Justin Upton, Mike Trout and Kole Calhoun is a solid defensive outfield but much of the Angels defensive value will come from an absurdly talented infield. Led by Andrelton Simmons and Martin Maldonado, both 2017 American League Gold Glove Award winners, the unit has now introduced Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart into the fold, who are both extremely good defenders in their own right.
To illustrate just how good this infield will be, we’ll resort back to Fangraphs and use one of their main defensive tools, Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which calculates how many runs a defender saves. While it’s an imperfect measure for evaluating single season performances, it does a good job over bigger samples. To take this a step further, I’ll introduce DRS/162, which is simply a player’s DRS total over the average 162-game season.
Here are the career DRS/162 rates for the projected Angels starting infielders for 2018. Zero is considered average, with anything above zero rating as above-average and anything below zero as below-average. +10 is considered good while +20 puts you in elite company.
C, Martin Maldonado: 21.03 DRS/162
2B, Ian Kinsler: 10.74 DRS/162
SS, Andrelton Simmons: 33.85 DRS/162
3B, Zack Cozart: 12.2 DRS/162
It’s a fair bet to assume this group will not play every game in 2018. With Shohei Ohtani slated for some DH duties, Albert Pujols is expected to play more games at first base, a tall task for a 38-year-old who played just six games at the position in 2017. Luis Valbuena has missed time the last two years with a hamstring issue. Martin Maldonado, who played 138 games last year, might see less time to preserve his body throughout the season.
The depth options for the Angels, however, own some real defensive skills, which keep the overall defensive quality high. By the same measure, newcomer Rene Rivera has a strong career 8.76 DRS/162 and has always rated as a strong pitch-framer . Potential utility infielder Kaleb Cowart, who was rated as a strong defensive infielder in the minors, has dazzled with a few defensive plays in limited MLB time.
The Angels have also been a strong proponent of shifting in recent years, which gives Angels Manager Mike Scioscia another tool for enhancing defensive value. With positional flexibility from several Angels (Cozart can handle backup shortstop duties, Valbuena can handle backup third base duties), Scioscia also has several infielders he can shift around from game-to-game.
Add this all together and you have the makings of a very special defensive team but more specifically, a very good defensive infield. The Angels are aspiring contenders who may be plagued by pitching issues, issues that could be mitigated by a strong defense behind those pitchers. 2018 looks to be a very exciting year for the Angels and much of the excitement will stem from the potentially great Angels’ infield defense.