2020 Angels Rotation Options By the Numbers

It’s no secret that the Angels’ 2019 pitching staff has been decimated (and then some) by injury, ineffectiveness, and even tragic death. Seeking to add depth to the rotation, Billy Eppler signed Trevor Cahill and Matt Harvey, a pair of veteran stabilizers coming off of promising years, to make the Angels’ depth at the position fairly reasonable. Going into the season, an optimistic Angels fan might have seen as many as nine or ten solid rotation options for 2019: Andrew Heaney, Tyler Skaggs, Jaime Barria, Felix Peña, Nick Tropeano, Alex Meyer, and Parker Bridwell combined with the two new free agents to give the Angels some depth and flexibility.

Obviously this didn’t work out as planned, and so some rookies have been thrown into the fire. Griffin Canning, Jose Suarez, and Patrick Sandoval were each rushed to the majors in a time of need for the big league club, and they’ve had varying degrees of success. Jaime Barria has taken on more responsibility and more innings than Angels fans hoped when the year began.

On the plus side, these will make great auditions for the 2020 rotation, determining who has a long-term future for the Angels’ rotation and who might ultimately be relegated to a spot starter or bullpen role. In theory, Billy Eppler will be adding veteran arms to the rotation and Shohei Ohtani will return to the top of the Angels rotation, reprising his early 2018 role as combination middle of the order slugger and flamethrowing ace. In this post we’ll assume the six-man rotation from early 2018 is back on, and the rotation looks something like this:

Ohtani
Heaney
FA Pickup 1
FA Pickup 2
2019 Holdover 1
2019 Holdover 2

The Angels have several options for the two “2019 Holdover” spots. Griffin Canning, Felix Peña, Jose Suarez, Jaime Barria, and Patrick Sandoval will have the inside track at holding them down. Who’s got the best shot at these slots? Let’s dive into their underlying arsenals (using Eno Sarris’ excellent rubric, subscription only) and see who has the stuff they’ll need to stick in a competitive Angels rotation mix in 2020.

Griffin Canning

Canning looks at first glance like the most promising candidate, virtually assured of a rotation spot after rocketing through the Angels’ minor league system. He’s had success in his rookie season (before being shut down for the season), posting encouraging peripherals in 90.1 innings with the Angels.

Here are the relevant numbers for Canning in 2019, per Brooks Baseball:

The fastball barely ticks one of Sarris’ boxes (94+ mph) and just misses his other criterion (10+ VMov). It profiles as an above-average pitch by movement, though as you can see here he’s throwing it substantially less than half of the time. Fangraphs’ Pitch Values data has it substantially negative by the results (-4.4 this season) which may explain its minimal usage.

The other part of that equation is the excellent package of secondary pitches Canning brings to the table, which starts with the slider. By Sarris’ reckoning this would fall more into the “slutter” category–nearly a cutter in its proximity to the fastball’s velocity, but with more drop. Pitch Values has it at +3, with a high effectiveness on a per-pitch basis. The slider does a good job of making hitters look foolish:

The real gem, by movement, in Canning’s repertoire is the changeup, which is much more a Zack Greinke style power changeup than one that plays off velocity difference. The changeup averages nearly 89mph and is often up at 90. By both horizontal and vertical movement differential (-3.28, -4.97 respectively) he’s near or over Sarris’ cutoff for good movement (-3, -5). Perhaps Canning could increase his usage of this pitch, especially against lefties (like the unfortunate Tony Kemp) where his signature slider is less deadly.

Canning’s results, peripherals, pedigree, and movement numbers combine to assure him a prominent spot in the rotation in 2020. Who’s the best of the rest?

Felix Peña

Peña has put up some numbers in the Angels’ rotation and as a “bulk guy” or follower after an opener the last two years. He will lead the Angels in innings pitched in 2019, when all is said and done, and he’s posted respectable strikeout and walk numbers as an Angel.

As for the movement numbers in 2019, however, there’s not a lot to recommend Peña for a rotation role next year. Again, per Brooks:

The sinker is the highlight here, and it makes sense that the Angels’ pitching staff has chosen to emphasize that aspect of Peña’s repertoire. The horizontal movement here is plus, though there’s not an exceptional amount of sink on the pitch.

The changeup possesses neither plus movement nor a substantial velocity differential with either fastball, so there’s not a lot of potential there.

Peña has got his best results with his slider, which doesn’t fit in either of the categories Sarris describes but has nonetheless generated an excellent 46.2% Whiff ratio. It’s fair to say this is a plus pitch after a couple years’ success with it, despite its unconventional profile. It sure passes the eye test:

With only the two solid-to-plus pitches, no real third pitch, and subpar fastball velocity, though, it’s easy to make a case that Peña is most useful to the Angels in 2020 relegated to a bullpen role, where that sinker-slider combination could play up in shorter stints.

Jose Suarez

Suarez has gotten a lot of exposure with the Angels in 2019, and largely it’s been ugly. He, too, has had decent peripherals at times but has been badly bit by the home run bug, to the tune of a 2.48 HR/9, fourth-worst among pitchers with 50+ innings. Let’s dig into the movement numbers, again per Brooks:

Not a lot to love here, either. Suarez’s fastball is barely average velocity for a lefty; VMov isn’t especially promising either. Suarez has rarely thrown a slider this year, but when he has, it doesn’t drop enough to be effective at the velocity he’s throwing it. If Suarez is going to succeed, it’ll have to be on the strength of his curveball and especially his signature changeup.

There’s a fair amount to like about Suarez’ curve: it has plus spin rate and at least gets double-digit swinging strikes. On the other hand, it definitely isn’t either a power knuckle curve (like Canning exhibits) or a loopy curve with a lot of movement, so the Angels may want to work with him on a new grip or similar adjustments.

Suarez’ real bread and butter is the changeup:

He throws the pitch to righties and lefties to good effect, and the movement numbers are fairly promising. It’s just about 10mph different from his fastball, with very little horizontal separation and late vertical movement. If Suarez can develop his curveball further, and find a way to get better results from his mediocre fastball, he just might be the answer for the Angels in their sixth starter spot.

Patrick Sandoval

Acquired from the Astros in 2018 for a half-season of Martin Maldonado’s services, Sandoval is looking like a shrewd pickup from Billy Eppler after quickly ascending the majors from High-A ball when he was acquired. He’s struggled by the bottom-line results in the majors to this point, but he was pitching well in the minors and his peripheral numbers (3.85 FIP, 3.50 xFIP) paint a rosier picture. Here’s the movement data from Brooks:

Sandoval’s got a fastball with slightly above-average velocity for a lefty, and it can run up to 95 at times, but its spin rate is very unusually low, in just the third percentile, which results in mediocre movement. He likes to pitch up in the zone with the fastball, which conventional wisdom indicates might be a better strategy for a high-spin fastball pitcher. The real question is how the changeup plays off the fastball, since that combination is (like Suarez) Sandoval’s staple combination.

Movement-wise, it looks strong. It has neither an exceptional velocity gap with the fastball nor a ton of movement, but it does have a good amount of both (9.53 mph velocity gap, 3.12 HMov gap, 3.86 VMov gap). The results are hard to argue with: batters are swinging at the pitch nearly 54% of the time, and missing on almost half their swings (48.3%). In total batters are swinging and missing at the pitch a stellar 25.2% of the time. Just look at the action here:

Sandoval’s slider doesn’t appear to be anything special, but like Suarez, his curveball shows promise as a third pitch. It has still higher spin than Suarez’s and more drop at a higher velocity. Overall, by the movement numbers and results, Sandoval appears much like an improved Suarez: similar repertoires, but across-the-board better stuff with higher velocity and more movement.

Jaime Barria

Lastly, let’s turn to Jaime Barria, who put together a solid 2018 with a 3.41 ERA and has made some adjustments to his pitch mix this season, with suboptimal results (6.10 ERA). His peripherals have improved substantially, though, as his strikeouts have increased and walks fallen.

Here’s the movement data from Brooks:

The Angels have clearly made a commitment to having Barria increase his slider usage this season, and it’s hard to deny that there’s some merit to that. It’s come mostly at the expense of his fastball, but there’s evidence that overuse of the slider has decreased its effectiveness: Barria’s slider in 2018 was worth 2.18 runs per 100 times thrown (2.18 wSL/C) per Fangraphs, but that number’s plummeted to 0.31 this year. Barria’s slider is clearly his best pitch, but other pitchers who feature the slider extremely prominently (Jhoulys Chacin, Patrick Corbin) show much more drop and much more glove-side horizontal movement.

There’s little to suggest that Barria should be a primary option in the Angels’ rotation in 2020, but perhaps he could tandem with Jose Suarez or Felix Peña in shorter outings, if the Angels should need additional pitching depth beyond the six.

Conclusion

There are a number of options for the Angels’ rotation in 2020, but the numbers would indicate that many of these pitchers would be best off relegated to a bullpen role (Peña) or stashed in AAA as depth (Suarez, Barria).

No matter what, if they hope to compete in 2020, the Angels will need some health and to pick up another two major league level starters, at least. For the last two spots? If it were up to me, Canning’s four-pitch mix, each with something to recommend it, would lock him down for a rotation spot. Meanwhile, Patrick Sandoval’s changeup movement would qualify him to take the first crack at starting in that sixth spot, possibly with an opener against tough righty-heavy lineups if the curveball doesn’t develop in the way we’d hope as Angels fans.

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