Billy Eppler Lost The Arms Race

Billy Eppler's LA tenure was doomed at the start(er).

Billy Eppler’s reign as the General Manager of the Los Angeles Angels is over. Eppler was let go on September 27th, ending a 5-year stint as the primary roster architect in Los Angeles. On the whole, it was a disappointing tenure, one marked by the highest highs – the winning bid for Shohei Ohtani, an extension for Mike Trout – and the lowest lows – namely, wasting a huge chunk of Trout’s prime on non-competitive, non-playoff teams.

The latter note is nauseating failure, though it hardly falls on Eppler alone. More than anything, it’s confounding: a team with Trout in center would seem to have a gigantic head start. He is, after all, the going-away best player of his generation. He might be the best player to play since Babe Ruth. It’s unfathomable that a team with that player would miss the playoffs five seasons in a row.

And yet, this is the world we live in. The ice caps are melting, the President of the United States downplays the severity of a worldwide pandemic that he himself has contracted, and Mike Trout hasn’t played in a playoff game since 2014. Unfathomable as that may be, let’s fathom it.

The Albert Pujols Factor

The Angels hired Eppler as General Manager first thing in October of 2015. In a vacuum, Eppler’s new digs were pretty sweet:

  • the club was competitive: Angels won 98 games in 2014 and 85 games in 2015
  • a franchise – nay, a league cornerstone was set in centerfield
  • there was money to spend: payroll would increase by $15MM between 2015 and 2016

Dipoto lured Albert Pujols to the Angels with a monster 10-year, $254MM deal in 2011. The immovability of that contract single-handedly made it so that by the time Eppler took over, the organization had functionally regressed from a large market glutton to a mid-to-low market team. Not quite at the level of  scavenger franchise, but not far off either.

Pujols was still an All-Star when Eppler took over, but the signs of decline weren’t street-level – these were billboards. After averaging an MVP-like 7.9 rWAR in his final four seasons in St. Louis, Pujols averaged 3.3 rWAR in his first four seasons in Los Angeles. But the real decline began – coincidentally – the minute Eppler stepped into the office. Over the next four years, Pujols’ production would crater to an average of 0.23 rWAR per year. Stunning.

Consider this: from 2016 to 2019, the Angels ran out an opening day payroll that averaged $164MM. Over those four years, Pujols’ salary averaged $26.5MM. So while it seems like Eppler ran a large market team into the ground, he actually ran a mid-market team into the ground. His working payroll averaged closer to $137.5MM. That’s almost exactly league average. That’s not a top-10 payroll in the neighborhood of the Astros, Phillies, and Nationals – in actuality, it’s a flyover payroll closer to the Cleveland, Minnesota, and Cincinnati.

Error In Focus

During Eppler’s reign, they never-not-once staffed a pitching corps capable of sniffing the postseason. Here are their ranks in some key pitching metrics in the American League over the last five years:

  • 15th in fWAR
  • 9th in ERA
  • 11th in FIP
  • 9th in Runs Allowed
  • 9th in K/9
  • 10th in BB/9.

They only once finished top-3 in any of those six metrics during the Eppler era: 3rd in BB/9 in 2017. By contrast, they finished bottom-3 in one of those metrics 8 times. 

To overcome ineptitude at that level, the Angels would essentially need to field the best or one of the best lineups in the league every year, when they actually finished 7th in batting fWAR and 8th in runs over that time.

Eppler wasn’t without strategy, of course. He had a plan to address run prevention – it just didn’t work. Rather than directly address the woes of the pitching staff, Eppler looked for a backdoor: stocking the lineup with players who could help on the run prevention side of the game. Specifically, his approach was twofold. I managed to scrounge up an early draft that I imagine he penned on a napkin outside an In-n-Out. Read it as poetry.

Billy Eppler’s Roster Constructions Philosophy (In Two Parts)

Part 1: Hitting

Target bats

by trade,

the draft,

and free agency

to improve

the lineup.

Part 2: Pitching

When executing Part 1, aim for bats

that skew towards defense.

(end of poem)

This is…not a great plan (nor a great poem). Admittedly, it’s not horrible, it’s just not really comprehensive. To his credit, the execution was dynamite.

Andrelton Simmons and Ian Kinsler are considered two of the best defenders of their generation. Anthony Rendon might be the most underrated defensive third baseman of this generation. Even Justin Upton was coming off a season in which he scored 10 Defensive Runs Saved when Eppler acquired him. Brendan Ryan, Cameron Maybin, Danny Espinosa, Martin Maldonado, and Brandon Phillips were all players with strong defensive reputations. Even Zack Cozart and Yunel Escobar were former shortstops moving down the defensive spectrum.

And we can’t forget Ohtani, who is kind of the ultimate example of a bat who can help on the pitching side. He’s literally a pitcher.

The plan worked as well as can be expected. The Angels accrued more defensive fWAR than any other AL team during his tenure. They were 4th in DRS and 3rd in UZR/150. Much of that can be attributed to Simmons – Eppler’s 1st major addition after taking office. Unfortunately, defense is its own discipline and addressing it doesn’t actually fix pitching.

Therein lies to true failure of the Eppler era: bad strategy. It’s not as if Eppler boycotted pitchers, or intentionally avoided acquiring good ones, but it seems he made a priority to build a productive offense that could augment and prop up the pitching staff with slick fielding. He accomplished exactly that. And it just didn’t work. It turns out that the best way to build a quality pitching staff…is building a quality pitching staff.

Photos by Keith Allison/Flickr (Harvey), Arturo Pardavila III/Flickr (Eppler), Keith Allison/Flickr (Cahill), John Cordes/Icon Sportswire (Heaney) | Adapted by Rick Orengo (@OneFiddyOne on Twitter)

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

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