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April 28, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Scattershooting

by Joey Matschulat

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The date is April 28, the wild variation that permeated the AL West during the regular season's first three weeks is slowly but surely stabilizing (well, about as much as one could reasonably expect in a division race), and things are beginning to look a bit more fully-formed. Boring, right? Not so much. Even when a clear-cut and definable narrative isn't jumping out at you, there's always something—or, in this case, a few somethings—worth discussing with long-term implications attached.

This morning, I'm going to embark upon a sort of "scattershooting" tour through the division, a term coined by legendary Texas sportswriter Blackie Sherrod when he wanted to hit upon several completely unrelated points in a print column, but couldn't meld them all together in one cohesive essay. Genius.

Scattershooting while wondering what ever happened to Todd Zeile...

If one chose to base all of their judgments about each AL West ballclub only upon their win-loss records and runs scored/allowed totals to date, they would probably arrive at several different conclusions: that the Rangers' offense (which is currently on an 850-run pace through 24 games) looks fantastic in this new era of depressed run-scoring across the league, that the Athletics' pitching (3.28 runs allowed per game) is effectively as superb as their offense is pathetic (3.40 runs scored per game), and that not even the unique and exciting talents of Felix Hernandez and white-hot rookie Michael Pineda working in harmony with Safeco Field's pitcher-friendly characteristics can prevent the Mariners’ pitching staff from being among the AL's worst at run prevention (4.64 runs allowed per game).

We're all very well aware of the pitfalls and shortcomings associated with such a restrictive approach to team analysis, but there's something else I wanted to point out. Over the past week, several Mariners blogs have called attention to the team's horrific offensive output with runners on base and in scoring position relative to when there are no runners on base, and how this constitutes a pretty significant degree of unluckiness. It's a good thought, and when I decided to apply this to the AL West at large, some pretty startling disparities emerged:

Angels hitters, no runners on: 536 PA, .271/.332/.448, 124 sOPS+
Angels hitters, men on base: 403 PA, .240/.302/.359, 80 sOPS+
Angels hitters, runners in scoring position: 239 PA, .231/.308/.317, 72 sOPS+

Athletics hitters, no runners on: 491 PA, .258/.332/.378, 106 sOPS+
Athletics hitters, men on base: 415 PA, .216/.277/.314, 62 sOPS+
Athletics hitters, runners in scoring position: 250 PA, .215/.291/.304, 64 sOPS+

Mariners hitters, no runners on: 489 PA, .256/.329/.385, 107 sOPS+
Mariners hitters, men on base: 405 PA, .192/.284/.265, 52 sOPS+
Mariners hitters, runners in scoring position: 236 PA, .198/.306/.245, 53 sOPS+

Rangers hitters, no runners on: 478 PA, .259/.328/.462, 126 sOPS+
Rangers hitters, men on base: 362 PA, .283/.346/.505, 130 sOPS+
Rangers hitters, runners in scoring position: 215 PA, .309/.392/.569, 161 sOPS+

Obviously, a perfect one-to-one match between a team's production with runners on base and without is fairly rare even over the course of a full season. In a world gone horribly awry where such things as luck and random variation don't exist, they would match up, but that's not our reality. What I didn't expect to find here were such massive drop-offs in production with runners on base for every team except the Rangers, who have actually stepped it up when such situations have presented themselves. I know it's still early, but this still strikes me as a tad unusual.

Teams like Seattle and Oakland may have to claw and scrape for sufficient quantities of runs all season long, but I feel confident that their offensive numbers in opportune run-scoring situations are going to regress in a positive direction—and from that standpoint, there's something worth looking forward to.

... and wondering what ever happened to Gary DiSarcina...

The Rich Harden Reclamation Project may be in great injury-induced limbo, but there's one other ex-Rangers-turned-Athletics pitcher for whom I predicted doom and gloom that has made me look foolish so far: Brandon McCarthy. His comeback tour hit its first legitimate rough patch on Tuesday when he yielded seven earned runs on a whopping 14 hits and one walk in 5 1/3 innings at Anaheim, but you could grant him a modicum of leniency considering that he had allowed three earned runs over his last three starts combined, amounting to 22 innings and a 18.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

There are two more aspects of his pitching profile deserving of further note: (a) his average fastball velocity, which—according to PITCHf/x data—is presently sitting above 90 mph for the first time since 2007, and (b) his ground-to-fly-ball ratio, which has climbed above the 1.00 mark—1.47, to be exact, or 48.3 percent ground balls to 32.8 percent fly balls—for the first time in his major-league career. Considering that McCarthy's reputed focus is now more on craftiness and finesse than pure velocity or power, it's pretty interesting that his velocity is actually trending back in a positive direction after years of deterioration while still a member of the Rangers organization. He could certainly still break, but each successful start takes him a little bit further away from his injury-darkened Rangers career, and thus far this signing has worked out fantastically for Oakland.

... and wondering what ever happened to Heathcliff Slocumb... 

Texas has at least momentarily reclaimed first place from the clutches of Los Angeles (I still have to resist the compulsion to type Anaheim instead; then again, maybe I should be doing it that way anyway), but the Rangers' first month hasn't exactly remained on the all-is-well trajectory that the 8-1 start suggested might be possible. Aside from Colby Lewis' continued command problems and the lack of anything resembling a viable sixth starter until Tommy Hunter returns in two weeks' time, the bullpen has devolved into an absolute mess. Neftali Feliz landed on the 15-day disabled list last Saturday with shoulder soreness, and while the Rangers insist it was more of a precautionary move than anything else and that he'll return in the minimum 15 days' time, the weakness of the bullpen has been compounded by a torn labrum in Darren O'Day's hip, which has landed him on the 60-day disabled list.

This leaves the Rangers with one of the most ramshackle bullpens I can recall since the dark early-aughts days of Todd Van Poppel, Rudy Seanez, and Hideki Irabu lurking in the shadows. Veteran lefties Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes have mercifully avoided injury, but Dave Bush, Brett Tomko, Ryan Tucker, Cody Eppley, and Pedro Strop now occupy the right-handed relief spots. There's talent here, but it's all either unproven or unreliable. There's a debate brewing over whether Lewis or Alexi Ogando should be the first to be jettisoned from the starting rotation, with the argument for the latter revolving around the fact that Ogando could immediately reinforce the Rangers' beleaguered relief corps and reduce the workload-related concerns that surround him as a starter. It's too early to say what the outcome will be on this front, but the Rangers' pitching situation is but one more injury away on either the starting or relieving side from ballooning into a very significant issue.

 Blackie out.

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