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August 31, 2015

Rubbing Mud

Don't Mess With Texas

by Matthew Trueblood

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In our preseason predictions piece, 45 of us tried to forecast the 2015 season. Not one of us thought the Texas Rangers would finish first in the AL West. That’s okay; they’re three games out and the Astros are still likely to hold them off. There also wasn’t a brave enough soul to predict that Texas would finish second in the division. Alright, they’re three and a half games clear of the Angels, but that still might not be enough cushion. The thing is, only one of the 45 of us (Bret Sayre, cheers) even had the audacity to suggest that the Rangers could finish third. Sixty percent of this staff of so-called experts had the Rangers finishing last. Instead, they wake up Monday morning with a game and a half to spare for the second Wild Card spot, at 68-61 and riding a four-game winning streak.

Were we wrong about the Rangers? About the Royals? About the Twins? That’s the question we’re here today to answer. (If we were wrong about those three teams, of course, we were also wrong about the Red Sox, Mariners, and Nationals, but we’ll explore the reasons for that wrongness—or innocent victimization at the hands of the universe—another time.) It’s perfectly possible, of course, to not foresee something simply because it couldn’t be foreseen. There’s no blame there. Some things happen simply because anything can happen, and not because they were likely to happen all along. Then again, there are cases every season in which we really, truly should have taken a little longer to understand a team a little better, and where if we had, we might have forecast their seasons better.

So, the Rangers. Let’s present both sides of the argument, because without doing so, it will be hard to arrive at a valuable conclusion.

Possibility 1: The Rangers are an irrational hiccup, an unforeseeable fluke.

Supporting Evidence: For one thing, the Rangers have been outscored. They’ve been outscored by kind of a lot. Even after winning 6-0 on Sunday, they’ve been outscored by 19 runs this season. If that run differential is a misleading statement about their full-season performance, it’s on the high side. The Rangers have the worst second- and third-order winning percentages (which are based not on actual runs scored and allowed, but on projected ones based on atomic outcomes, and the latter of which factors in quality of opponents) in the AL West, and 13th in the AL as a whole.

Their best position player, according to WARP, has been Shin-Shoo Choo (2.4 WARP), who looked like a colossal misuse of $130 million after his first season with the team. Yovani Gallardo has accrued the most pitching WARP, with 3.0 wins, after two seasons of being a one-win starter who only got that much value from piling up innings. Rougned Odor has been an absolute superstar since mid-June, when he was recalled after being sent to Triple-A in early May amid a disastrous start. Prince Fielder has been sensational, especially for a 31-year-old coming off a season-ending neck injury last year.

The Rangers have played the bulk of the season without either of their would-be top-two starting pitchers, Yu Darvish and Derek Holland, and their terrific August has been fueled in no small part by a series of trade acquisitions that bolstered that pitching staff right when it most needed bolstering.

Possibility 2: We missed on the Rangers, who always had the real potential to do this. We messed up.

Supporting Evidence: Prince Fielder may have lost much of a season to a fairly serious injury, but he remained Prince Fielder. Mitch Moreland, Adrian Beltre, and Choo joined Fielder in a lineup full of guys with significant track records of success at the plate, and without the sort of multi-year cratering that might lead one to think those track records no longer informed an evaluation of them.

There are guys all over this roster who can do something well, and who have significant upside. Delino DeShields was a Rule 5 draftee out of Houston, and though there were all kinds of ugly remarks about his makeup, his approach to the game, he was bursting with talent. The Rangers have tapped into that, and there have been noticeably fewer suggestions that he just lacks the desire to improve and achieve at the highest level. Odor was a regular at age 20 in 2014, and while he wasn’t the stud he’s been for the last 10 weeks, he impressively held his own. It wasn’t hard to foresee that he would develop into something good.

The Rangers had decent organizational depth, financial flexibility and a tolerable core of good hitters. From there, it wasn’t all that big a leap to contender status, in an American League fraught with teams that shared, more or less, that profile. They had one more thing, too: a very deep farm system. That’s an aspect of a team we tend to wildly underrate when talking about their chances of reaching October. Farm systems aren’t just about the future; they can churn up present value fast. Sometimes that takes the form of a pop-up rookie having a big, surprising impact. Other times, as with the Rangers, it takes the form of trade value.

Verdict: Possibility no. 2 has the better case here. The Rangers might not be a legitimate powerhouse, but the AL is a mess this season, and that part doesn’t really surprise us. Even heading into the season, there were vocal doubters of the Red Sox’s pitching, the Mariners’ homegrown talent (and their philosophy), and the Tigers’ sustainability. There were people talking about the Royals’ breakout last October, and positing that it wasn’t all that crazy to imagine them carrying it over to 2015. The league was a muddle; that’s what made it compelling. In that light, we all ought to have been more open to a wider set of possibilities, and thus, we ought to have given a greater benefit of the doubt to teams like the Rangers, the Blue Jays, the Royals, and the Twins.

Cole Hamels is the big name the Rangers acquired last month, but they also added Jake Diekman and Sam Dyson to their bullpen. That unit was the Achilles heel of the club through the first four months, but in August, they’ve been a boon:

Texas Rangers, Bullpen Performance by Month, 2015

Month

PA

SO

BB

AVG

OBP

SLG

April

359

66

33

.257

.328

.351

May

408

78

34

.255

.325

.465

June

285

56

28

.244

.319

.425

July

395

86

42

.282

.368

.456

August

318

79

32

.230

.309

.337


Bullpens are both susceptible to wide variance, especially over subsets of seasons, and easily changed, be it by promotions from the minors or demotions from the starting rotation, by trades or by waiver-wire trawling. If a team’s biggest weakness is its bullpen, that team’s peripheral stats—to wit, in this case, those ugly entries on the adjusted-standings reports—will grossly understate their prospects for significant improvement. The Rangers’ 18-9 August is no more a fluke than was their 10-14 July, when their bullpen was thrashed by opposing hitters.

Let’s widen the scope here. The Rangers are doing more or less what the Blue Jays, Mets, and Astros have also done this summer, remaking their team on a grand scale over the course of the season. The Rangers added Hamels, Diekman, Dyson, Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, and Will Venable. The Jays added Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, Ben Revere, LaTroy Hawkins, and Mark Lowe. The Mets: Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson, Tyler Clippard, Eric O’Flaherty, Addison Reed. The Astros: Carlos Gomez, Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers. Even the Twins have turned over two rotation spots, left field, shortstop, center field, DH, and half their bullpen. With the implementation of a new rule set that incentivizes bad teams to let go of their short-term and peak-value assets more easily and a new playoff system that rewards a much lower level of success, it’s become easier and more valuable to totally change one’s stripes during the season. For any team with even an outside shot at competing for a playoff spot, it’s hugely important to have the tools at hand to make such improvements.

The Rangers had those tools, and we failed to value them properly. We have gotten too used to dismissing teams, to pinning everyone as either a serious contender or a loser unworthy of a second thought. We’ve also gotten too good at seeing players’ weaknesses, and we chronically underrate the ability of fringe-caliber role players to contribute to winning teams.

This is still a deeply flawed team. Fielder, though he really has been great (I wasn’t lying to you before), has 41 extra-base hits in 540 plate appearances. He’s their best hitter. The outfield remains pretty thin. Questions remain about the health and/or viability of two or three members of their rotation. The bullpen is no longer a glaring weakness, but it’s not suddenly, permanently dominant. Still, they’re contenders. They always had the chance to be contenders, in this iteration of the AL. Through some combination of recency bias, lack of imagination, and misunderstanding of the current competitive environment in MLB, we all missed on them. Hopefully, they’ll provide one more example of the fact that low probabilities need to be distinguished from impossibilities. That way, the next time a struggling team trades for a huge asset in July, I won’t be so silly as to talk about the move like it takes effect the following season:

Injuries derailed their perfectly reasonable hopes of competing for a playoff spot last season, and this year, despite a strong stretch in May and early June that gave them at least a glimpse of their stolen glory, they're headed for another sub-.500 finish.

With this trade, Jon Daniels is sending as clear a message as he could possibly send: The Rangers have no plans to allow this to happen again in 2016.

Another sub-.500 finish is a 12-21 finish from here.

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

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