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Improved defense key to an Angels rebound

Improved defense key to an Angels rebound

Improved defense key to an Angels rebound
ANAHEIM -- As the most difficult of baseball activities to quantify, given the many variables involved, defense is the most subjective element of the game. The findings of the numbers crunchers don't always line up with the eye test, leaving managers and coaches to question their accuracy.

Any way you slice it, any test you apply, the Angels did not measure up defensively in 2010. That is something they will aim to correct as they go about the business of rebounding from a losing season behind the two most important bricks in their foundation: pitching and its essential accomplice, defense.

After ranking tied for third in the American League in overall fielding percentage in 2009 at .986, and tied for fourth in '08 at .985, the club fell all the way to 13th last season. Only Kansas City was less efficient. An Angels defense that committed 85 errors in '09 and 91 in '08 was charged with 113 last year, adding to the stress on a pitching staff that wasn't getting much support from its offense.

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"We definitely need to tighten some things up, play more consistently," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "We have to give our pitching staff better support."

The outfield drew much of the criticism from the media, but the infield also regressed. The catcher's role was in a state of flux, with four players sharing the role, including Hank Conger, who joined in during September with some solid work.

According to "The Fielding Bible," authored by John Dewan, the Angels did not have a single player ranked among the top 10 defensively at his position. It should be noted that Torii Hunter's move from center field to right two-thirds of the way into the season probably took him out of consideration, as his run of nine consecutive Rawlings Gold Gloves ended.

In Hunter's old spot, the Angels uncovered a gem in Peter Bourjos. For the final two months of the season, the ultra-swift rookie was as good as any center fielder in the game -- arguably the very best. His numbers, according to "The Fielding Bible" and other publications focusing on defense, were off the charts.

Among center fielders playing at least 50 games, Bourjos had the highest range factor at 3.18. Getting quickly to balls in the gaps and throwing strikes, he produced a remarkable 10 assists in 51 games. The Major League leader, Adam Jones, had 12 in 149 games.

Bourjos was credited with saving 15 runs. Only Austin Jackson (21 runs saved in 149 games) and Michael Bourn (16 in 138 games) saved more. Bourjos was given a plus-16 rating; only Jackson, at plus-18, was higher.

Scioscia is hoping Bourjos develops enough offensively to hold down the job. He has the speed, obviously, and enough power to produce extra-base hits if he makes consistent contact. The taste of the Majors should benefit him immensely as he heads into his first full season.

At the corners, Hunter in right and Bobby Abreu in left are adjusting to new positions. Both are intelligent craftsmen, former Gold Glove winners who should be more comfortable in those roles.

In support are Juan Rivera and Reggie Willits. Rivera struggled with vision issues in 2010, affecting him in all phases of the game, but a year earlier, he was judged the fourth-best defensive left fielder in baseball by "The Fielding Bible's" panel. Willits, in his '07 rookie year, was ranked the sixth-best left fielder in the Majors.

In the infield, the return of Kendry Morales at first is a big plus right off the bat. He was rated the seventh-best defensive first baseman in 2009, improving as the year went along. Pressed into service, Mike Napoli was a surprising plus defender at first, faring better than behind the plate.

The Angels missed Chone Figgins, who was voted third in the Majors defensively at third in 2009, with a revolving door at the position. For all of his offensive struggles, Brandon Wood excelled with the glove. Only seven third basemen were rated higher than Wood defensively by "The Fielding Bible." Alberto Callaspo and Maicer Izturis also had plus ratings.

The big decline was at shortstop, with Erick Aybar. After finishing second in 2009 to Elvis Andrus in range factor among all Major Leaguers playing at least 120 games at the position, Aybar slipped from 4.68 to 4.14, all the way to 17th. In '08, his breakthrough year, he was the fourth-rated shortstop in the game with the glove.

Howard Kendrick, at second, also was ranked in the lower half at his position defensively in 2010. It's not unrealistic to anticipate improvement in the middle of the infield, given the relative youth of the two players.

Behind the plate, Jeff Mathis' fractured wrist fractured his season after a blazing start. He was never the same after coming back. "The Fielding Bible" had him ranked seventh in the Majors in 2009, with stats guru Bill James placing him first.

Scioscia is expecting Napoli to smooth out a few rough edges and deliver capable glove work to go with his booming bat. The club's most effective receivers in '10 were Bobby Wilson (3.63 catcher's ERA in 260 2/3 innings) and Conger (1.91 ERA in 80 innings).

Heading into spring, the job is wide open, creating what Scioscia considers healthy competition. With Bourjos for a full season and a return to past performance levels, the Angels can turn defense into an asset again.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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