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July 1, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The Lone Rangers?

by Joey Matschulat

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Before the Texas Rangers collected a narrow 3-2 win over the major league-worst Houston Astros on Wednesday night and earned the right to proudly hoist the coveted Silver Boot—awarded each year to the winner of the six-game season series between the Rangers and their intrastate "rivals" down at the other end of Interstate 45; yes, it's just as thrilling for the victor's fans as I'm making it sound here—above their heads, the traveling delegation of Rangers beat writers asked team president Nolan Ryan if he wantedthe Houston Astros to make the rumored league-to-league jump from the NL Central to the AL West. 

His answer—an emphatic "yes"—cited the potential benefits of more normalized start times and added fan interest within the state (read: extra gate revenues, which have historically followed the Astros' visits to Arlington), but one has to think that the recent one-sidedness of this matchup made it at least a skosh easier for Ryan to endorse an Astros transplantation. From 2009-present, the Rangers have compiled a brilliant 14-3 record against Houston, and just as their 5-1 run against last season’s 76-win Astros helped power the Rangers' run to their first division title in more than a decade, four victories in five tries against Houston this season has also served a very important function: keeping the Rangers' slim first-place margin intact. 

Colin Wyers summed it up best when he wrote on February 16 that "somebody has to win this division"—a statement that appears something less than profound on its surface, but in actuality speaks to the inherent problems of all four AL West teams that will likely prevent a runaway division champion. (Or maybe I'm trying too hard to read into a hidden subtext that isn't there. Yeah, that's probably it. Or maybe Colin's entire body of work is rife with cryptic messages that contain the secrets to prosperity, enlightenment, and how to write the quintessential takedown article.) For their part, the Rangers have proven exasperating for their fan base to watch because of their struggles and perceived inconsistency in the face of heightened expectations after last year's World Series thrill ride... but, obviously, the problems have been more specific than that.

The good news here is that Texas did not allow the totality of their 9-1 start to go to waste, as they still clung to an above-.500 record (24-23) on May 23—the day Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz returned to the lineup after missing extended time with injuries. The bad news is that the sporting world loves recency, and since the Rangers completed a four-game sweep of Cleveland in early June and reached a high-water mark of eight games above .500 (34-26), they've won just nine of 21 games. That stretch includes a nasty 2-8 spin against the Tigers, Twins, and Yankees that has only been smoothed out by their good fortune in drawing six games against the lowly Astros. What, then, has been the prime driver of the Rangers' mediocrity of late, and where is it headed next?

At one point in June, Texas was on pace to post one of the worst single-month team walk rates of the last several major-league seasons, but the offense didn't really end being at blame; the Rangers mustered an overall .274/.322/.434 showing at the dish in June, with their average-hitting ability and decent team power fairly compensating for the drop in plate patience and leaving their per-game run production (4.77 R/G) squarely above average. That leaves only the disappointing run prevention side of the equation (4.96 R/G). Digging into the Rangers' team pitching splits on a per-month basis uncovers a very startling series of data points:

April: .268 BABIP (fourth), 75.0 percent LOB% (fifth), 3.89 ERA (17th), 4.50 FIP (27th), -0.60 ERA-FIP (second)
May: .259 BABIP (first), 77.7 percent LOB% (third), 3.53 ERA (third), 4.58 FIP (28th), -1.05 ERA-FIP (first)
June: .317 BABIP (30th), 66.9 percent LOB% (30th), 4.27 ERA (21st), 3.55 FIP (eighth), +0.72 ERA-FIP (29th)

I've heard of living at the extremes, but this is ridiculous. Despite thriving from a fielding-independent standpoint during June (their 7.35 staff K/9 ranked seventh in baseball, while their 2.50 BB/9 ranked fifth), the Rangers have been massacred in that same period when it has come to preventing hits on balls in play and preventing baserunners from scoring. This represents a stark contrast against the first two months of the season, when virtually every ranking was flipped around and Texas threw their comparatively lousy FIP totals to the wind because they were doing a respectable job of keeping runs off the board. As if that all weren't strange enough, the vast BABIP fluctuations are accompanied by relatively stable line-drive rates—from 20.7 percent in April to 19.2 percent in May to 21.1 percent in June. 

As far as potentially explanatory personnel changes are concerned, there truly is little to see here. Josh Hamilton snagged a few extra starts in center field and Michael Young nabbed a bit of extra work at first base during the Rangers' few stopdowns at National League ballparks during June (which created the added problem of moving regular first baseman Mitch Moreland to right field, where he's barely adequate defensively, and then moving Nelson Cruz from right to left field, where he has appeared less than comfortable in the past), but that only accounts for a small fraction of the total games played on the month. There's Elvis Andrus succumbing to a seven-day wrist injury on an ill-fated slide, but that only occurred last Friday, and backup shortstop Andres Blanco is a quality defender who's more than capable of holding down the fort in the meantime.

Now that I've, erm, failed to explain the cause behind the drastic month-to-month variance we've seen here beyond pointing to the small associated sample size, I can tell you why the Rangers are in both a good and a bad spot. The long-beleaguered bullpen is preparing to receive some reinforcements, with the return of sidewinder Darren O'Day from the disabled list being imminent, one of the rehabbing Scott Feldman or Tommy Hunter soon being able to supplant long-reliever Dave Bush, and power relief monster Tanner Scheppers inexorably shredding his way through the minors toward a late-inning relief job in the majors. If closer Neftali Feliz can harness some consistency in the ninth inning, and if the Rangers acquire another late-inning power arm (which they've been hinting at for quite some time), this could become an above-average bullpen unit in a very short period of time.

More concerning is the starting rotation, which boasts the quality (and arguably No. 1-caliber) stylings of C.J. Wilson, followed by an on-and-off (and unnervingly homer-prone) Colby Lewis, followed by relief convert Alexi Ogando, who has collided with the brick wall of regression after riding good but not elite peripherals and an insane BABIP/LOB% to a 2.10 ERA through his 12th start of the season on June 8; that mark has since climbed to 2.87 after three consecutive rough starts. There is talk of Texas reassigning him to the bullpen indefinitely out of concern for his workload, which raises all kinds of questions about his availability as a starter the rest of the way.

 Both Matt Harrison and Derek Holland are intriguing in their own rights, and the approaching returns of Feldman and Hunter should give the Rangers enough starting pitching depth to retain their status as the odds-on favorite to win this division—but if they should be so fortunate as to play baseball in October and are forced to square off against the class of the American League in a short series, the lack of front-end rotation quality/consistency could seriously come back to bite them in a way that it didn't during the golden era of Cliff Lee. And after what transpired last October, simply making it back to the postseason and progressing no further than the first round is no longer an acceptable outcome in Texas.  

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  Rangers,  First Month

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