The Angels entered the offseason with a long to-do list. At the top of it were, with Yunel Escobar hitting free agency, a third baseman and, with Brandon Phillips hitting free agency, a second baseman. This week, they managed to check both items off of their list.First, they acquired veteran second baseman Ian Kinsler in a trade with the Tigers. The deal required the Angels to surrender two prospects, Wilkel Hernandez and Troy Montgomery, who MLB Pipeline ranked as the number 20 and 24 prospects in the Angels’ farm system, respectively.
The price was predictably low for a 35-year-old coming off of one of his worst seasons. Kinsler is also only under contract through 2018, and the Angels are picking up his full $11 million salary. Still, Kinsler is a useful player whose consistency will be a welcome addition to a team that hasn’t had any at the position since Howie Kendrick’s departure a few years ago.
Kinsler debuted with the Rangers in 2006 and spent the first eight seasons of his career with Texas, enjoying a pair of 30-30 seasons and three All-Star selections while averaging 3.6 Wins Above Replacement per season. He was then shipped to Detroit in a swap for Prince Fielder and continued his excellence.
Since 2014, Kinsler’s 17.4 WAR ranks third among all second basemen. In that time, he has hit a respectable .275/.328/.436 (107 wRC+, where 100 is average), but much of his value is derived from his defense and baserunning.
During the same span, his 57 Defensive Runs Saved lead second basemen by a wide margin (DJ LeMahieu is second with 30) and his 34.0 Ultimate Zone Rating ranks second. In addition, he has been the fifth-most valuable second baseman on the bases since 2014.
This year, however, Kinsler’s production dipped, as he slashed just .236/.313/.412 (91 wRC+) with 22 home runs. This was a considerable drop off from his impressive 2016 when he hit .288/.348/.484 (123 wRC+) with 28 homers. His defense and baserunning were still solid, but the severe offensive decline resulted in his overall value nearly being cut in half, as his WAR fell from 5.7 in 2016 to 2.4 in 2017.
However, there are reasons to expect a bounceback offensive year from Kinsler next year. 2017 saw the second baseman accumulate a career-high 37% hard-contact rate and, at 9%, his highest walk rate since 2011, but he suffered from poor batted ball luck.
His batting average on balls in play was just .244 in 2017, lower than all but five qualified players and significantly worse than the .319 mark he carried the previous two years. Based on contact quality, Kinsler should have hit .262/.337/.451, per xStats.
Despite that, though, FanGraphs projects Kinsler to duplicate his 2017 next year, projecting him to produce an identical 2.4 WAR and a similar .254/.317/.410 (97 wRC+) line with 18 home runs, three fewer than this year.
Even if a return to his All-Star form isn’t on the horizon for Kinsler, simply fulfilling his projections would provide the Angels with a huge boost. This season, Angels second basemen hit a dreadful .207/.274/.318. Their 60 wRC+ was tied for the worst at the position while their -0.3 WAR was third-worst.
Kinsler is only a one-year solution at second base, but he gives the Angels a chance to win this year, and he didn’t come with an exorbitant cost of either personnel or money. Cesar Hernandez of the Phillies has been the number one target of the Angels and Angels fans alike for a while now. However, their 2018 projections look awfully similar.
One of the most attractive qualities about Hernandez is that he is only 27 years old and under club control for three more years. These qualities contributed to Philadelphia’s asking price being higher than the Angels were willing to go. But if those projections are any indication, the Angels may be better served waiting another year to dedicate resources to acquiring Hernandez.
Kinsler and Hernandez could very well end up producing a similar amount of value next year, and the Angels acquired Kinsler for a fraction of the price. Next winter, with Hernandez under contract for one less year, the Phillies will presumably lower their asking price.
If the Angels then acquire Hernandez and he and Kinsler have similar 2018 campaigns, they will have essentially obtained the same value that Hernandez would have provided had they traded for him this offseason without putting together the package of players that would have been required to do so. That is all assuming that the Phillies don’t trade him to a contender before then, but with a limited market, they don’t seem likely to find a match anytime soon.
After adding Kinsler, the Angels moved quickly to fix their third base problem, signing Zack Cozart to a three-year, $38 million deal a couple of days later. Cozart is 32 years old and has spent his entire career–since 2011–at shortstop for the Reds.
Through 2016, Cozart owned an uninspiring career .246/.289/.385 line (80 wRC+). His glove made up for the subpar offense, though. Cozart’s 54 DRS from 2011-2016 were tied for third-most among shortstops, which is why the Angels are comfortable with inserting him at third base every day next year despite having never played a professional inning at the hot corner. Cozart’s defense made him a useful, if unspectacular, player throughout his pre-2017 career, topping out at 2.5 WAR in 2016.
Something changed this year, however, as he slashed .297/.385/.548 (141 wRC+) with 24 long balls. Cozart suddenly went from a below average hitter to one of the most productive hitters in the game, which, paired with his usual defensive expertise, resulted in a 5.0 WAR season, the 18th-best mark in the majors.
A breakout like that in a player’s age-31 season is rare, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s impossible to repeat. Cozart’s season, though, looks like it might be.
The most obvious change in Cozart’s game is that he became more selective at the plate and, in turn, drew more walks. He swung at fewer pitches out of the zone, lowering his chase rate by nearly 4%. He also dropped his overall swing rate from about 47% in 2016 to about 41% in 2017. In addition, he increased his walk rate dramatically to 12.2%, which is almost twice his career mark.
Outside of that, however, the changes are difficult to find. Lifting the ball is a common trend among hitters who have experienced power surges recently. But while Cozart’s fly ball rate was a career-high 42.3% in 2017, his previous career-high was 42.2%. He also didn’t hit the ball any harder. In fact, his hard-contact rate actually decreased from 2016 to 2017.
A look into Statcast’s xwOBA puts Cozart’s 2017 campaign into perspective. Here is FanGraphs’ definition of wOBA:
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is a rate statistic which attempts to credit a hitter for the value of each outcome (single, double, etc.) rather than treating all hits or times on base equally. wOBA is on the same scale as On-Base Percentage (OBP)…
And Put simply, xwOBA estimates a player’s expected wOBA based on the quality of the contact they make, so the difference between the two can generally tell you how lucky (or unlucky) a player was in any given season.
Here are the players with at least 250 plate appearances who had the biggest wOBA-xwOBA differences in 2017:
By this measure, Cozart was among the three luckiest hitters in baseball this year. For context, here are last year’s leaders in wOBA-xwOBA differential and how they fared in 2017 compared to 2016.
Turner, Leon, and Maybin all had breakout seasons in 2016 in a similar way that Cozart did in 2017, and they were all hit with serious regression the following year. That doesn’t mean that Cozart will definitely regress, but it certainly looks like he will.
According to xStats, Cozart’s line should have looked more like this: .278/.369/.473. That’s still very good, and the Angels would be more than happy with numbers like that from Cozart next year.
But FanGraphs isn’t optimistic about his chances to produce like that, as they are projecting him to hit just .254/.321/.416 (99 wRC+) in 2018. The good news, though, is that he is projected to accumulate 14.9 Defensive Runs Above Average; only one third baseman, Anthony Rendon, did that this year.
That elite defense is the leading factor behind his 3.4 projected 2018 WAR. 3.4 WAR from third base would be about league average, but Angels third basemen have averaged just 1.8 WAR per season since 2013, and they haven’t produced at least 3.4 WAR from the hot corner since 2012. So, while Cozart’s presence might not be felt all that much on offense, he will still make a noticeable impact.
Another advantage that Cozart brings the Angels is his versatility. He will spend most of his time at third base, but he can also cover shortstop and, presumably, second base. His ability to play second gives the Angels the option of pursuing either a second baseman or a third baseman in 2019, as they could simply shift Cozart to second base if they opted for the latter.
Though neither are flashy acquisitions that suddenly make the Angels a formidable challenger for the defending World Series champion Astros, both Kinsler and Cozart will fit nicely with the Angels and help form one of the top defenses in the majors.
The club received a total of 1.7 WAR from second and third base in 2017, so the impact of simply having a reliable everyday player at each position will be immense, regardless of whether or not Kinsler bounces back or Cozart regresses.
Featured image via Hayden Schiff/Flickr.