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May 17, 2012

On the Beat

The Winning Formula

by John Perrotto

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Ian Kinsler is not a sabermetrician, but he is a heckuva baseball player and a logical enough guy. So, it only seemed natural to ask the All-Star second baseman if he thinks his Rangers are the best team in baseball.

Kinsler, as usual, gave a thoughtful answer. He talked about the Rangers' dangerous lineup and deep pitching staff. He also gave a nod to the team's defense and touched on the harmonious clubhouse atmosphere that is a spinoff from manager Ron Washington's upbeat personality.

Then, on the fly, Kinsler developed his own formula to prove the Rangers are the top team in the game.

"You look back at last year, we were four wins away from having the best record in baseball," Kinsler started. "Then we won the American League pennant for the second year in a row. Then we went to the seventh game of the World Series. We're the only team to be in the World Series each of the last two years. And we're off to a really good start this year. So, yeah, I think we're the best team in baseball. Who has had more success than us in that time?"

It might be hard to translate Kinsler's reasoning into a mathematical equation, and his formula might not win any contests at the SABR convention. However, it is easy enough to get his point; a look at this year's statistics show that the Rangers are against among baseball's elite. They lead the major leagues in runs scored per game (5.73) and run differential per game (2.03) and top the AL in runs allowed per game (3.70). They also entered Wednesday's action with a 23-14 record and a .622 winning percentage that ranked second in the majors to the Dodgers' .667.

When asked if he thought his team was the best in the big leagues, Washington politely deferred until a point to be determined later in the season.

"It's too early to think about those things," Washington said. "All seasons go through stages, and we're still in the early stages of this season. I like what I've seen of our club so far. We've played pretty good baseball for the most part, and I feel we have the potential to play even better."

This Rangers team seems stronger than the ones that won pennants the last two seasons, as it is scoring and preventing runs at a better pace. The 2011 Rangers scored 5.28 runs per game, which was third in the majors, and allowed 4.18 runs per game, which was 13th, for a 1.10 run differential. In 2010, they were fifth in the majors in runs scored with 4.86 per game and 11th in runs allowed with 4.24 per game for a 0.62 differential.

The Rangers also have the best player in baseball to this point in the season in center fielder Josh Hamilton. His 2.8 BWARP is ahead of Mets third baseman David Wright (2.5) and Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp (2.2). Hamilton had a .402/.457/.848 slash line in 151 plate appearances heading into Wednesday to go with a major league-best 18 home runs.

"I'm not ready to say we're better than we were last year or the year before," Washington said. "The one thing I do like about this club is its awareness. It has shown a great awareness since the first day of spring training. These guys have won two straight league champions and they know what it takes to get to a World Series. They have dedicated themselves to getting back there again this season."

Both trips to the World Series ended in defeat, as the Rangers lost in five games to the Giants in 2010 then had the excruciating seven-game loss to the Cardinals last season after twice being a strike away from clinching a series victory in Game Six. Amateur baseball psychologists wondered if the Rangers could overcome the disappointing of last year's World Series. Many analysts wondered if the Rangers were still the best team in the AL West after losing left-hander C.J. Wilson in the offseason to the rival Angels, who also signed first baseman and future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols in free agency.

Yet the Rangers held a four-game lead over the surprising Athletics going into Wednesday's play, while the Angels were seven games back in third place and fired veteran hitting coach Mickey Hatcher on Tuesday night. When it was casually mentioned to Kinsler that the Rangers had shaken off any post-World Series hangover, his eyes narrowed.

"That kind of talk didn't come from inside the walls of this clubhouse," Kinsler said. "Anybody who didn't think we weren't going to come back stronger than ever this season obviously doesn't know the Texas Rangers very well. We have a very talented team and we're also a team of great character.  As difficult as losing the World Series was last year, we're proud of what we've accomplished the last two years and we still feel there is a lot more winning to come."

---

A few minutes with the major leagues' shortest player, 5-foot-5 Astros second baseman Jose Altuve

On what it was like when he attended an Astros tryout camp in his native Venezuela as a 16-year-old and was told to go home because he was too young: "It was disappointing. They didn't believe I was old enough because I was small. I went home and I was kind of mad. So I went back the next day and convinced them to let me try out. I guess I showed them something. I really wanted to prove to the scouts that I could play."

On overcoming his size disadvantage: "By playing hard. I know I am the smallest guy on the field, but I have never let that stop me. I believe you can do anything if you work hard enough. I know I have to work hard and play hard to stay in the big leagues."

On settling into the major leagues after beginning last year at Class A then finishing it in the major leagues: "Last year was like a dream come true. My dream was to play in the big leagues since I started playing baseball when I was a little boy. I thought it would happen someday, but I didn't think it would happen last year. It was a blessing, and I definitely feel more comfortable being in the big leagues this year. I saw what I had to work on last year and I worked hard in winter ball to make sure I'm better this year, especially when it comes to things like being more patient at the plate and taking more pitches."

On being part of the Astros' youth movement: "We have a lot of good young players, and we've been playing pretty good baseball. We're not going to lose 106 games again like we did last year. We're playing with a lot more confidence than last year, and we're going to be a really good team someday soon."

---

Scouts' views

Blue Jays right-hander Henderson Alvarez: "He has some good games but, for me, his stuff and his command is a little fringy. He's not going to blow anyone away, so he has to be able to pitch to both sides of the plate, and he's still learning to do that consistently. I'm not saying he won't have a decent career, but I see him as a No. 4-type starter."

White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn: "He looks a lot more locked in this season. He looked distracted all last season. I don't know if there was something going on beyond the field, but he never looked like his heart was into it. This year, he's having good at-bats again, and it is showing in the production. He's the old Adam Dunn, and I'm glad because he's a good man."

Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair: "He could always hit, and he is finally showing it at the major-league level. I don't think this guy is a six-week wonder that the league is going to figure out in June. He's a legitimate power hitter. He's a bad defensive first baseman, though, and he's going to cost Starlin Castro some errors.

Tigers right-hander Max Scherzer: "He's spraying the ball all over the place in most of his starts. His command has been just awful. He looks very frustrated on the mound right now, like he's searching for answers."

Angels center fielder Mike Trout: "The thing I like about the kid is that he lets the game come to him, which is pretty rare for a player so young. He doesn't get overanxious or try to force the issue. He's a really cool customer."

---

Five observations

  • I had the chance to talk with Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow for the first time last weekend and was extremely impressed. He has a clear vision for the franchise and the daunting move next year to the American League from the National League.
     
  • The most telling part of hitting Mickey Hatcher paying the price for the Angels' anemic offense by being fired was that manager Mike Scioscia no longer holds sway of baseball decisions in Anaheim. The organization is now clearly run by first-year GM Jerry DiPoto.
     
  • I've said it before and I'll say it again—I like interleague play and it seems a majority of fans do, too. But after 15 years of mixing play between the leagues, why does Major League Baseball insist on only listing AL and NL statistical leaders rather than MLB leaders?
     
  • Not to be Mr. Repetitive, but a second juror has been dismissed from the Roger Clemens' trial for falling asleep. It just reiterates the whole foolishness of the government's obsession with busting athletes accused of taking steroids. Shouldn't the feds be trying to find real crooks?
     
  • I have a great love for immature pranks, but whoever put the Atomic Balm in Stephen Strasburg's jock strap on the day of the game really had bad timing or truly hates the guy.

---

Neil FitzGerald, writing for USA Today, uses PITCHf/x to show how new pitching approaches can yield dramatic results in this week's Must Read.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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