Angels chasing fewer pitches, fueling rise to division lead

The Angels’ Taylor Ward follows through on a grand slam against the Cleveland Guardians on April 27. He entered Saturday with a 19.2% chase rate, the third lowest in the majors. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

The Angels ranked among baseball’s top four teams in runs, home runs, on-base-plus-slugging percentage and walks entering Saturday night’s game against the Washington Nationals, their offense helping fuel a surge to the top of the American League West standings.

It is no coincidence that the Angels also had a major league-low 26.9% chase rate, the percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone, a huge improvement over last season, when they ranked 25th with a 33% chase rate, according to FanGraphs.

“I think it’s all correlated,” Angels hitting coach Jeremy Reed said. “It’s definitely early — that’s a category you want to lead at the end of the season — but I think our scouting reports are better, our game plans are better, and the communication of player to player, helping one another out, is better. ”

So is the personnel. Two veterans with discerning eyes who missed most of 2021 because of injuries have injected more plate discipline into the lineup, Anthony Rendon (20.5%) and Mike Trout (22.4%) possessing two of the lowest 14 chase rates for hitters with at least 80 plate appearances.

The biggest difference-maker has been Taylor Ward, the right fielder who moved to the leadoff spot April 25 and entered Saturday with a 19.2% chase rate, the third lowest in the major leagues. Ward had a 29% chase rate in 237 plate appearances last season.

Ward drew three walks in Friday night’s 3-0 win over the Nationals, giving him a team-high 17 walks on the season. He has struck out 18 times.

“He’s OK with accepting a walk,” manager Joe Maddon said. “It doesn’t bruise his ego to not get a hit or to at least try to get ahead” in the count. “He’s got that chip that was inserted at birth, and it’s working really well right now.

“And he’s still a good hitter. Don’t get me wrong. He can hit, and he has power. But he really looks over a pitch.”

Plate discipline does not equal passivity. Trout (second), Ward (30th), Jared Walsh (57th) and Shohei Ohtani (61st) rank among the top 61 hitters in “barrels per plate appearance,” according to Baseball Savant.

Trout, who entered Saturday with a .325 batting average, 1.124 OPS, six homers and 13 RBIs, and Ward, who was hitting .362 with a 1.199 OPS, six homers and 15 RBIs, have done considerable damage in the box.

“It’s not just laying off pitches,” Reed said. “It’s being ready to hit when they throw it where you’re looking to hit it.”

The benefits of laying off bad pitches include driving up the pitch counts of opposing starters, putting men on base with walks, getting ahead in counts, which could result in more fastballs, and forcing pitchers to throw the ball over the plate, where they are more apt to make mistakes.

The Angels'  Mike Trout doubles to center field during the fifth inning May 6, 2022.

The Angels’ Mike Trout has a low chase rate (22.4%) and does damage when he does swing, like on this two-run double in Friday night’s 3-0 win over the Washington Nationals. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

The Angels stress plate discipline every season — “It’s not like the message is different this year,” Reed said — but they seem to have made it a greater point of emphasis this season.

Ohtani’s 27.9% chase rate is better than the 30.1% rate he had during his American League most valuable player season in 2021. Walsh has improved from 34.4% last season to 30.4% this season. Infielder Tyler Wade (25.6%) and catcher Max Stassi (26.0%) have very respectable chase rates.

Even outfielder Brandon Marsh, who was mired in a two-for-25 slump with 17 strikeouts and no walks before Saturday, had a decent 27.6% chase rate.

David Fletcher is an outlier, the middle infielder known for his bad-ball swinging and hitting carrying a 41.9% chase rate into Saturday, up from 32.7% in 2021.

Outfielder Jo Adell, who had a 32.4% chase rate with 24 strikeouts and one walk in 66 plate appearances in 19 games, was demoted to triple A on Tuesday.

The Angels have garnered attention for their home run celebrations, in which a cowboy hat is placed on the head of the hitter who went deep, and that player gallops through the dugout accepting high-fives from his teammates.

But just as important to their success — and their improved plate discipline — have been the low-key conversations in the on-deck circle and at the bat rack.

“We might have talked in a meeting about what a pitcher is doing, and then maybe he’s doing something slightly different out there,” Reed said. “They’re communicating it here in a way where it’s very noticeable.

“You’ll see a guy come back after an out and talk to the on-deck hitter about what the shape of the pitch was and what the pitcher was doing. So the guys are working together, helping each other out.”

Roster moves

Backup catcher Kurt Suzuki was put on the injured list without a design Saturday, and catcher Chad Wallach was activated. Left-hander Jhonathan Diaz was optioned to triple A, and right-hander Kyle Barraclough was called up to bolster the bullpen. Diaz, who threw five shutout innings Friday night, could return for Saturday’s doubleheader in Oakland.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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