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September 30, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

To the Victor go the Spoils

by Joey Matschulat

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With nearly 40,000 in attendance at their final 2011 home game on Wednesday night, Mike Scioscia's Angels went out with a resounding bang—but not of their own doing, unfortunately. The Halos found themselves on the receiving end of a torturous game-winning blast by the slugger who had played out his entire pre-2011 career in an Angels uniform. I would make some kind of remark about Mike Napoli's two-homer game being tantamount to adding insult to injury for the Angels, but the problem is that Napoli had already taken care of that the previous night when he clubbed two more homers during a 10-3 drubbing of his former team.

And during the intervening hours between his team's final two games, Scioscia found himself in the awkward position of simultaneously defending Napoli's chops behind the plate and assigning responsibility for the consummation of the Napoli-for-Wells deal: "The issue was [Kendrys] Morales was expected back, and we needed to get better in the outfield, so some decisions were made by Tony [Reagins] and Arte [Moreno] as to what the team would look like." If I really wanted to make this article about the Angels, I'd point again towards Ken Rosenthal's recent assertion that the real power in the Angels organization lies with Scioscia and Moreno, and maybe wonder out loud about Scioscia's apparent fingering of Reagins and Moreno as the lone parties responsible for shaping the Napoli trade... but this article is less about the Halos, and more about the team that ultimately ended up steamrolling its way to the division crown.

On the morning of September 11, the Rangers found themselves just 1 ½ games ahead of an Angels team that still had every appearance of taking the divisional fight down to the final series of the regular season. From that point onward, the Angels mustered a meager 6-11 limp to the finish, while the Rangers lit up their West Coast-based opposition to the tune of a season-ending 14-2 rampage. As you might expect, that run coincided with some monster two-way numbers; during that 16-game stretch, Texas pitching threw up a 2.66 ERA and 145 strikeouts against just 36 walks over 142 innings of work, whereas the bats caught fire to the beat of .323/.370/.545 with 33 home runs in 621 plate appearances.

There is, of course, an argument to be made about the relatively woeful quality of the Rangers' competition during that period, as 10 of those 16 games were played against Oakland and Seattle. But zoom the focus out enough to encompass the entire month, and you find that those games against less fortunate competition were counterbalanced by seven games against Tampa Bay and Boston, with enough decent pitching to render this next statistic sufficiently impressive: Despite playing only 25 games during the month of September (15 of which came on the road), the Rangers' offense produced more park-adjusted runs above average (+56.7 runs above average) than any other offense in baseball produced during any single month of the 2011 season. With everything on the line, the Rangers ratcheted up their game to another level en route to securing their winningest regular season (96-66) in franchise history—and if that wasn't impressive enough, the Rangers finished up with the best third-order record (104-58) in baseball. 

A little more than six months ago, I asked what could possibly transpire this season to subvert the Rangers' post-season dreams, and managed to conjure up a few different possibilities: The starting rotation, which was disturbingly light on depth behind the Opening Day rotation of C.J. Wilson (223 1/3 IP), Colby Lewis (200 1/3 IP), Matt Harrison (185 2/3 IP), Derek Holland (198.0 IP), and surprise last-minute replacement Alexi Ogando (169.0 IP), who supplanted Tommy Hunter after another ill-timed groin injury at the end of spring training. Despite a few close calls with injuries and flagging performances, the Rangers made it through the entire season with 157 of their 162 games being started by a member of the Opening Day rotation—and if that wasn't shocking enough, four of their five main starters finished the season with ERAs and FIPs south of four. The only exclusion from that group? Lewis, who battled command problems throughout the season (possibly as a result of a persistent hip injury that the organization divulged few details about), still managed to give Texas a 4.40 ERA and 4.54 FIP over his 32 starts, which no doubt rendered him one of the best fifth starters in all of baseball. 

The bullpen wasn't quite so fortunate, as a nasty spate of early-season injuries and ineffectiveness led the Rangers to a point where their seven-man relief corps on May 1 looked like this: Dave Bush, Ryan Tucker, Pedro Strop, Darren Oliver, Cody Eppley, Arthur Rhodes, and Brett Tomko. It was a brutal mix of live-armed volatility, veteran mediocrity, and not-yet-ready youth that didn't seem to fit into the blueprint for a team with further World Series aspirations After two-disabled list activations, three trades, and a minor-league promotion, here is what it that same bullpen looked like on September 1: Mark Lowe, Yoshinori Tateyama, Darren Oliver, Mike Gonzalez, Koji Uehara, Mike Adams, and Neftali Feliz. The Uehara and Adams acquisitions weren't costless by any means, but the high-leverage component of Texas’ bullpen is now good enough to match up with that of any playoff team. 

I suggested the positional side of things could be being dragged down by the seemingly inevitable regression of Nelson Cruz and Josh Hamilton. I ended up being right about the regression (Cruz hit just .263/.312/.509 during an injury-abridged campaign, albeit with 29 homers in only 513 plate appearances, and Hamilton slipped from his MVP-caliber numbers of 2010 to a strong-but-not-elite .298/.346/.536 showing in 2011), but very wrong with my claim that Adrian Beltre "probably [wouldn't] fully replace what Guerrero provided last year" (he actually blew away Guerrero's numbers en route to a borderline MVP campaign). I was also especially wrong in my belief that Yorvit Torrealba and Mitch Moreland would compensate for any lost production going from 2010 to 2011, as Torrealba ended up being relegated to backup catcher status by season's end, and Moreland's post-June campaign (248 PA, .229/.285/.344) was disastrous enough to merit re-opening the debate on whether he has a long-term future at first base in Texas.

No, where the Rangers actually made up for that lost production in spades was at second base, where Ian Kinsler (723 PA, .255/.355/.477, 32 HR) mounted a strong campaign for the title of best second baseman in the American League, at third base, where Beltre (525 PA, .296/.331/.561, 32 HR) churned out one of the best power/defense seasons by a third baseman in this generation, and at designated hitter, where Michael Young (689 PA, .338/.380/.474, 11 HR) bucked his defensive limitations and the aging curve to produce an unexpectedly strong season—and at catcher, where Mike Napoli (432 PA, .320/.414/.631, 30 HR) accounted for more than half of the 10-game divide between the Rangers and the Angels at the end of the regular season.

 It's still unknown whether any or all of this will vault Texas to a second consecutive American League pennant, but what is known is that the Angels have a hell of a lot of work to do this coming offseason to live down last winter's unsightly sequence of gaffes. They're going to remain a divisional threat so long as Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana are still around... but with the Rangers now on the brink of emerging as a legitimate American League superpower, the Angels may not be able to afford committing too many more mistakes.  

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  The Who,  Halos

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