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A look at the Angels’ promising young lefties

For years, there have been commonly cited (and generally deserved/accurate) narratives surrounding the Angels: They’re squandering the primes of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. They can’t keep their roster healthy. They overspend on the wrong free agents. Holy cow, do they need pitching.

There’s merit to each and every one of those criticisms, but perhaps the longest-running critique has been that the Angels are in dire need of starting pitching. Year in and year out, the team would trot out an expensive core of position players while hoping to patch things together on the pitching staff.

Generally speaking, the Angels have shown an aversion to committing virtually any long-term risk to a starting pitcher. The team’s pursuit of Gerrit Cole is an exception to this thinking, but he may have been the exception. And the (obvious) fact of the matter is that even if the Angels were legitimately interested, Cole chose to sign elsewhere. The last time the Angels signed a free-agent starter for multiple years, Jerry Dipoto was the GM and Joe Blanton was inking a two-year deal.

That the Angels haven’t spent on starting pitching is just a fact — one that spans multiple general managers, thus pointing more toward an ownership preference. The team’s lack of investment beyond one-year deals, often for former stars in need of a rebound (e.g. Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, Julio Teheran), was generally apparent in the results.

A repeated inability to develop homegrown arms is as big a factor, if not a larger factor of course, but from 2016-21, the Angels’ rotation ERA ranked 20th (4.78 in 2016), 12th (4.38 in 2017), 19th (4.34 in 2018), 29th (5.64 in 2019), 29th again (5.54 in 2020), and 22nd (4.78 in 2021). Taken as a whole, the 2016-21 Angels ranked 24th in the Majors with a 4.76 rotation ERA and 29th with just 39.8 fWAR out of their starting pitchers — about 42% of the nearby Dodgers’ MLB-best 92.4 fWAR in that time.

With yet another disappointing season brewing in Anaheim, it’s tempting to assume that it’s more of the same. The Angels, once again, stuck to one-year free agent deals for Syndergaard and Michael Lorenzen. They didn’t trade for anyone meaningful. And yet… the Angels’ rotation this season has not only been pretty good — ninth-best ERA in the sport — but finally appears poised for some longevity.

Ohtani, of course, is at the center of all things Angels — well, when Trout isn’t homering in seven straight games — and he’s been a huge part of the Angels’ rotation success this year. A lower innings count will probably keep Ohtani from legitimate Cy Young candidacy, but he’s tossed 141 innings of 2.55 ERA ball with a 33% strikeout rate that trails only Atlanta’s Spencer Strider for best in the game among starters. For once, Ohtani isn’t the only horse pulling his weight, however. Here’s a look at the next three up in the Anaheim rotation:

  • Patrick Sandoval, 25, LHP (controlled through 2026): 132 1/3 innings, 2.99 ERA, 23.6% strikeout rate, 9.3% walk rate, 3.19 FIP, 3.95 SIERA
  • Reid Detmers, 23, LHP (controlled through 2027): 113 innings, 3.82 ERA, 23% strikeout rate, 9.1% walk rate, 4.03 FIP, 4.13 SIERA
  • Jose Suarez, 24, LHP (controlled through 2026): 91 1/3 innings, 3.84 ERA, 22.3% strikeout rate, 7.9% walk rate, 4.03 FIP, 4.03 SIERA

It’s an impressive group of lefties all under 26 years of age and all controlled for at least four seasons beyond the current campaign. Health and year-to-year volatility are obviously considerations with any group of starting pitchers, but the Angels still have a solid trio here on which to build.

Sandoval is the “most experienced” of the bunch, though he’ll finish the season with just over two years of big league service time. Yesterday marked the 18th time in 24 starts this season that Sandoval has allowed two or fewer runs to an opponent.

The Halos originally acquired Sandoval from the Astros alongside a $250K international bonus slot in exchange for a Martin Maldonado rental back in 2018 (Maldonado re-signed in Houston a couple of years later and has since signed an extension). 

It’ll go down as one of the best moves now-Mets GM Billy Eppler made during his time as general manager of the Halos, as Sandoval looks to have established himself as a high-quality hurler.

While the 25-year-old southpaw isn’t a flamethrower, he’s turned in an above-average strikeout rate, a slightly worse-than-average walk rate, a strong ground-ball rate, and very good marks in swinging-strike and opponents’ chase rates (13.1% and 35.6%, respectively). He generates plenty of spin and whiffs with his breaking pitches and sits in the top quarter of big league pitchers in terms of limiting hard contact.

Dating back to last season, Sandoval has a 3.28 ERA in 219 2/3 innings. He’s fanned nearly a quarter of his opponents in that time — a bit more than a batter per inning — and kept nearly half of the batted balls against him on the ground.

Among the 104 pitchers who’ve totaled at least 200 innings since Opening Day 2021, only eleven have induced swinging strikes at a greater clip than Sandoval, and the names atop him on the list are a group of the game’s best: Corbin Burnes, Shane McClanahan, Max Scherzer, Kevin Gausman, Dylan Cease, Clayton Kershaw, Robbie Ray, Shane Bieber, Carlos Rodon, Cole and Ohtani. Not bad company! Sandoval has also posted the ninth-lowest opponents’ contact rate, trailing only Burnes, Cease, McClanahan, Freddy Peralta, Bieber, Kershaw, Scherzer and Blake Snell. Again — not a bad list of names with which to surround oneself.

Good as Sandoval has been, it might be Detmers that proves the best of the bunch. The No. 10 overall pick in the 2020 draft, Detmers sprinted through the minors and made his big league debut less than 14 months after being selected. Had there been a minor league season in 2020, the former Louisville standout might have reached the Majors even sooner.

Last year’s debut was rough for Detmers, and there’s no sugar-coating that fact. He was excellent across three minor league levels but was absolutely rocked in the Majors, yielding a 7.40 ERA with disappointing K-BB numbers and a hefty five long balls allowed in just 20 2/3 innings (five starts). Not the way anyone wants to make his debut — and certainly not a top prospect and former first-rounder who comes with a good bit of hype and lofty long-term expectations.

Detmers improved early in the 2022 season, even throwing a May 10 no-hitter against a contending Rays club. Skeptics could point out that he managed only two strikeouts that day, but a no-hitter in any capacity is a feat. The greater course of concern was simply that Detmers’ no-no was bookended by general mediocrity; as of late June, Detmers had a 4.66 ERA and 5.36 FIP in 58 innings. His career, to that point, included 17 starts of 5.38 ERA ball with peripherals that generally matched.

On June 22, Detmers was optioned to Triple-A. On July 8, he came back a different pitcher. Detmers threw 47.8% fastballs, 21.5% curveballs, 16.6% sliders and 14% changeups prior to being optioned. Since returning, he’s thrown 42.7% heaters, 32.4% sliders, 15.3% curveballs and 9.6% changeups. The slider usage is way up — nearly doubled — and all other offerings have been scaled back a few percentage points.

Prior to being optioned, Detmers’ 4.66 ERA/5.36 FIP was backed by an 18.6% strikeout rate, an 8.9% walk rate, a 35.9% grounder rate and an 8.7% swinging-strike rate. Since returning and ramping up his slider use, Detmers touts a 2.95 ERA/2.62 FIP with a 27.5% strikeout rate, a 9.4% walk rate, a 42% ground-ball rate and a 12.5% swinging-strike rate.

Detmers has given up eight runs in his past 9 1/3 innings — beginning the very day I mentioned this altered repertoire in a broader piece for our Trade Rumors Front Office subscribers…sorry for the jinx, Reid — but he also threw his slider less frequently in Monday’s start than he has since the June 21 outing that saw him optioned. It’s also worth pointing out that Detmers is up to 119 innings on the season between his one minor league appearance and 22 big league starts; there’s probably some fatigue for a pitcher who only threw 82 2/3 innings last year and didn’t have an actual minor league season in 2020.

The bottom line for Detmers is that he features high-end breaking stuff, even if his fastball is more hittable. Opponents are hitting .206/.257/.302 and have fanned in 29.2% of the plate appearances Detmers has ended with a slider this year; they’re hitting .192/.288/.365 off the curve and punching out at a 27.1% clip. No wonder he’s throwing the heater less and less often.

Not to be overshadowed, the 24-year-old Suarez has had a fine season of his own. He’s flown even more under the radar than his two teammates — so much so that I initially planned to title this “The Angels’ Pair of Promising Lefties” before reminding myself what a strong season Suarez has had.

Suarez hasn’t been as flashy as either Sandoval or Detmers. He throws a bit softer than both (92.8 mph average fastball compared to 93.3 mph for Detmers and Sandoval), doesn’t have a gaudy strikeout rate and is about average in terms of his walk rate. Suarez limits hard contact nicely, but not anywhere near league-leading levels. He’s posted solid but not elite marks in swinging-strike and opponents’ chase rate. Suarez hasn’t excelled in any one specific category, but he also hasn’t been bad or even much below-average in many areas, either.

It’s not the dominant ace profile around which to build your rotation… but no one’s asking Suarez to be that. He’s the Angels’ fourth starter right now, and he’s posting solid numbers while averaging 5 2/3 innings per start. It’s the second straight year that Suarez has notched an ERA right in this same vicinity — he was at 3.75 in 98 1/3 innings last year as a swingman — but he’s improved each of his strikeout rate, walk rate, swinging-strike rate, chase rate and first-pitch strike rate. Suarez has been more aggressive in the strike zone, and a quite likely corollary has seen hitters chase off the plate more often (while making contact on those chases at a lower rate than in 2021).

It’s not an out-of-nowhere development, either. Suarez doesn’t have the big-time draft pedigree that Detmers does. Still, he was a well-regarded prospect in an admittedly thin Angels system, even reaching top-100 status at FanGraphs back in 2019, when he was listed as baseball’s No. 79 prospect. At the time, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel noted on their scouting report that an uptick in velocity elevated Suarez to “project as a good fourth starter,” which is exactly what he’s become.

Understandably, the long-term focus for Angels fans is on what the future holds for Ohtani. Will he be traded? Can a new owner somehow convince him to sign an extension, even though Ohtani has publicly stated a desire to win? Those questions might not be answered until it’s clear who’s purchasing the team and when that theoretical new owner might be installed as the club’s control person.

At least for the time being, however, Ohtani is in line to return for his final season of club control, when he’ll both serve as DH and the ace to a staff that can follow him with a pair of solid No. 2/No. 3 starters (Detmers, Sandoval) and a quality No. 4 starter (Suarez). It’s a very nice foundation on which to build a starting staff, and while the Halos might need another starter — or even two, if they continue to deploy a six-man group — for once, the primary question surrounding them won’t be, “When are they going to get some pitching?”

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