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July 21, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Streaking in the Wild West

by Joey Matschulat

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I'm beginning to wonder if I’ve broken the AL West. I'm being facetious, of course, but the timing has caught me a little off guard. Since writing at length about how Seattle was making something of a spirited go at the division crown and might have a decent shot at swinging a .500 season, the Mariners have dropped from an even 38-38 (2 ½ games back) to 43-54 (12 ½ games), effectively crushing any lingering hopes of contending in 2011. Something similarly strange has happened to the Angels, as my efforts to paint them as legitimate contenders for the division crown just seven days ago had been rewarded by a sharp 3 ½-game drop in the standings and a one-week post-season odds plunge of 11.9 percent going into Wednesday night.

But rather than falsely attribute the coincidentally-timed struggles of the Rangers' competition to any of my work at Baseball Prospectus, let's just be brutally honest about what's going on here: Texas has gone into hyperdrive. Seriously. Before dropping a 9-8 heartbreaker in Anaheim during the waning hours of Wednesday evening (a game the Rangers led by an 8-3 margin after chasing Dan Haren early, leading to a peak win expectancy of 96.4 percent), Texas had collected 12 straight wins, a high-water mark for winning streaks among American League ballclubs since the Red Sox accomplished that same feat back in June 2006.

And in the process of amassing those 12 consecutive wins, the Rangers had:

  • Scored 77 runs (459 PA, .321/.360/.549, 19 HR) while allowing their opposition to score only 24 runs (108.0 IP, 1.92 ERA, 92 K, 26 BB), or an average ratio of 6.4 runs scored to 2.0 runs allowed; and ...
  • Run their number of team shutouts this season to 13 in 97 games, representing their greatest number of team shutouts in a single season since the 13 shutouts amassed by the 1981 Rangers (who, curiously, accomplished that feat in just 105 games), and matching the pitching-rich Philadelphia Phillies for the most team shutouts in baseball this season; and...
  • Become the first American League team since the 1974 Baltimore Orioles (Sept. 2-7) to allow two (or fewer) runs over a six-game spanin a single regular season.

There are more bits of eye-widening trivia I could throw down here, but the above bullet points adequately capture the significance of what the Rangers have pulled off thus far. Or maybe they don't. For the better part of the last 15 years, Texas pitching had most closely approximated a huge, uproarious joke, with the punch line being the hot, swirling, jet stream-enhanced hellscape that, despite two name changes, is still referred to most commonly down in Texas as The Ballpark in Arlington.

I could pick out one of any number of different points in the timeline to illustrate the many organizational flaws (beginning with amateur/pro scouting, and extending to player development, free agency, trades, etc.) that so often led to the Rangers being sabotaged by one of the worst pitching staffs in the game, but I'd like to maintain some consistency here and take a look back at what the Rangers' starting rotations looked like from July 21-25 in 1996, 2001, and 2006, and then fast-forward back to the present-day starting rotation of 2011:

July 21-25, 1996: Darren Oliver (173 2/3 IP, 113 ERA+), Ken Hill (250 2/3 IP, 145 ERA+), Roger Pavlik (201 IP, 101 ERA+), Jose Alberro (9 1/3 IP, 94 ERA+), Bobby Witt (199 2/3 IP, 97 ERA+)

July 21-25, 2001: Darren Oliver (154 IP, 78 ERA+), Rob Bell (105 1/3 IP, 66 ERA+), Rick Helling (215 2/3 IP, 91 ERA+), Justin Duchscherer (14 2/3 IP, 39 ERA+), Doug Davis (186 IP, 106 ERA+)

July 21-25, 2006: John Wasdin (30 IP, 91 ERA+), John Koronka (125 IP, 81 ERA+), Vicente Padilla (200 IP, 103 ERA+), Kevin Millwood (215 IP, 102 ERA+), Adam Eaton (65 IP, 90 ERA+)

In all fairness, the Rangers' midseason starting rotation of 15 years ago wasn't bad by any stretch, despite posting what we would view in today's offense-depleted era as very unwelcome numbers. (For example, Pavlik's 101 ERA+ during that season worked out to a 5.19 ERA, and that's before even paying any mind to his 5.7 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, and 1.3 HR/9.) The early-‘00s were an utter disaster for the organization, which won between 71-73 games every season from 2000-03, and posted full-season team ERAs that crept above 5.50 on three separate occasions during that span.

What really resonates with me, though, is how ugly things were only five years ago. Texas had agreed to terms with Kevin Millwood on a five-year, $60 million deal on Christmas Eve 2005, just months after he had secured his first-ever ERA title during a luck-drenched 192-inning campaign with the Indians. Initially heralded as the ace that Texas had coveted for so long, Millwood proved alternately competent and underwhelming, as his peripherals slowly worsened during his four years in Texas. Questions swirled in the local press about what was perceived by some as inadequate conditioning, prompting at least one front-page story in one of the Metroplex's dailies detailing Millwood's off-season kickboxing regimen. You could very easily argue that Millwood actually did produce to the value of his contract during his stint with the Rangers, but he's not remembered fondly in North Texas these days.

The other four players supply more in the way of amusement: Padilla was something of a revelation after coming over from the Phillies in what amounted to a cash dump (Philadelphia received only Ricardo Rodriguez in return), and was rewarded for his solid first year in Texas with a shiny new three-year, $34 million deal during the 2006-07 offseason. Alas, his surliness and head-hunting ways led him to wear out his welcome with both his teammates and coaches (as did his underwhelming performance after securing that big deal), as did his seeming lack of interest in what was going on around him: It was reported shortly after his abrupt release in August 2009 that he had made a habit out of ducking into the dugout tunnel during games and texting away on his mobile device. Years later, I get the feeling that Padilla is still one of the more reviled pitchers to end up in the Rangers' employ for an extended period of time.

Wasdin made only five starts in that 2006 season, his penultimate in the majors. Incredibly, he piled up 140 2/3 innings with the Rangers between 2004-05, and proved serviceable in 2005 while serving as a do-everything man, but he also lived up to his "Way Back" moniker in allowing 1.7 HR/9 over his three seasons in Texas; he still boasts the fifth-highest career homer rate of any major-league pitcher with at least 750 career innings to his name. Koronka was plucked from the Cubs just before the 2006 season in a three-way deal with Oakland and Chicago, and for a while earned plaudits on the basis of his reputedly nasty left-handed changeup and surprising outward success, but had pretty much run out of good fortune by mid-July and pitched only a few more major-league innings over the next few seasons before fading into obscurity.

And Eaton? Billed by the Rangers as a potential second starter on the basis of his high-quality stuff despite a long run of mediocrity in the pitching heaven known as San Diego, Eaton memorably tore a tendon in his right middle finger during his final start of the 2006 Cactus League season and, in fact, wasn't activated from the disabled list until the July 25 date listed above, when he yielded four walks in just 3 2/3 innings to the Yankees and took the loss. In exchange for both his services and those of quality setup man-turned-closer Akinori Otsuka, Texas relinquished both Chris Young and present-day MVP candidate Adrian Gonzalez. Before Rangers general manager Jon Daniels developed into one of baseball’s best executives, he was soundly raked over the coals for making deals like this.

Now, turn back around and compare those starting rotations to the Rangers' starting rotation of July 21-25, 2011, which, incredibly, is comprised of the same five starting pitchers that the Rangers named to their Opening Day starting rotation, with no interruption beyond a bit of an extended rest for Ogando just before the All-Star break:

Colby Lewis (121 2/3 IP, 103 ERA+), C.J. Wilson (139 IP, 135 ERA+), Matt Harrison (111 1/3 IP, 144 ERA+), Alexi Ogando (112 2/3 IP, 155 ERA+), Derek Holland (118 2/3 IP, 97 ERA+)

 This morning, the Rangers' 12-game winning streak is no more, and it is still my opinion that the starting rotation could benefit immensely from the addition of one more top-of-the-rotation guy (though it's beginning to appear more and more as though such a pitcher won't be available for sale over the next 10 days)... but after looking back through all of those hopeless pitching-deficient years, and then looking at the wealth of pitching that the organization is carrying at both the major- and minor-league levels right now, it almost seems as though it would be selfish for the Rangers to ask for anything more than what they have right now.  

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