May 3, 2004
Last night, the Rangers added a few more people to their growing bandwagon with a 4-1 win over the Red Sox. The victory completed a sweep and allowed them to maintain sole possession of first place in the AL West. They have the best record in the majors at 16-9, and that's no fluke; BP's Current Adjusted Standings have them atop their division, and also with the game's best mark.
There's something of a groundswell developing around this team, with two storylines that have nothing to do with their performance taking over the coverage. One is that this hot start was made possible by the Alex Rodriguez trade, and the second, that they're playing so well because of great chemistry.
Second error first: I'll buy a chemistry argument when someone can tell me in March which teams will have good chemistry and which ones will have bad, the same way performance analysts make predictions about pitching, hitting and defense. I'm not arguing that the Rangers do or do not have good chemistry; I'm saying that the relationship between it and on-field performance is specious at best, and what relationship there may be is of questionable causation. It's easy to point to the .640 team and say they're playing well because they're great guys who get along; my question is, which of baseball's .440 teams also share this trait? My guess it's whichever ones play better from here on out.
Chemistry arguments are an easy crutch for people who don't want to do, or can't do, real analysis. They're virtually impossible to disprove, and they're a reflection of the desire to ascribe good character traits to successful people after the fact. The Rangers are just the latest example of this, and if you wait two weeks, another one will come down the pipe.
As far as crediting the Rodriguez trade for the team's early performance, well, as much as John Hart and Tom Hicks would love for that theory to spread, it's just silly. The Rangers are about two or three wins worse off over a full season for having Alfonso Soriano rather than Rodriguez, and the difference between the two players so far this year is basically nil. While Soriano has a much higher batting average and perceived value, he holds just a 15-point edge in Equivalent Average and one Equivalent Run over A-Rod. Whatever difference there is between the two players defensively doesn't affect the analysis. (In fact, I'd argue that with Rodriguez a month into a new position, we have no real idea what that difference is.)
Moreover, the money that was theoretically freed up in that deal has had absolutely nothing to do with this roster. Since the trade, the biggest free agents the Rangers have signed are Doug Brocail and Nick Bierbrodt, and actually salary elsewhere, in the Einar Diaz dump. This team is exactly the same as it would be had the trade not occurred. Well, it's a little worse defensively, with Soriano at second base and Michael Young at shortstop.
Any success the Rangers have over the next few years, and any money they spend in doing so, is going to be credited to the trade of Rodriguez. Ignore the disinformation campaign. They really didn't free up much money in the short term, and the long-term savings aren't that important compared to the money they'll save as they stop paying Diaz and Rusty Greer and Jeff Zimmerman to not play for them, or stop paying Chan Ho Park to make the Darren Dreifort contract look good.
The Rangers claim that the Hank Blalock deal was made possible by the Rodriguez trade, which is an innumerate argument: if that five-year, $15 million contract--which is wildly favorable to them, anyway--was a good idea in the absence of Rodriguez, it was a good idea in his presence. The same goes for the Michael Young deal, although that one is much less a bargain from the Rangers' perspective. As John Hart tries to implement the strategy that worked so well in Cleveland, and signs Laynce Nix and Gerald Laird and Adrian Gonzalez to multi-year deals, remember that the strategy would look a lot better--and be just as viable--with one of the top 10 players in the game's history in the room, regardless of his salary.
So why are the Rangers winning? Defense has been a huge part of the equation, especially outfield defense. The Rangers were last in the AL in Defensive Efficiency in '03, 12th in '02. They're seventh so far this year, a gain I would attribute to having a real center fielder. I've argued in the last that much of the team's perceived problems in developing pitching has been tied to their park and their poor flycatchers. With Laynce Nix and Ramon Nivar getting the bulk of playing time so far this year, the Rangers are allowing a much lower rate of doubles and triples than they did the past two years. That's the biggest reason why they're second in the AL in ERA and runs allowed.
The defense is the primary reason why the pitching looks so much better than it did during the Rodriguez Era:
BB/9 K/9 HR/9 BABIP 2004 3.62 6.33 0.90 .303 2003 3.79 6.34 1.31 .320 2002 4.18 6.44 1.21 .303 2001 3.73 5.95 1.39 .319
The Rangers are doing a better job of turning balls into play into outs than they did last year, and they are getting some help, in the form of a much improved home run rate, from their pitchers. The problem is, as it as been in Texas since 2000, command. Rangers' pitchers have ranked either last or next-to-last in walks allowed in each of the last three years, and even in their current, improved state are ninth in the AL with 88 free passes granted. As much better as the defense is, the Rangers are unlikely to stay among the league leaders in runs prevented if their pitchers continue to walk 3.6 men a game.
Offensively, the Rangers will experience some decline from their current lofty height. It's unlikely that they continue to hit .312, and much of their current run production--second in the AL--comes from that batting average. They're last in the AL in walks and isolated OBP (OBP-AVG); despite a BA 24 points higher than the #2 team, they're just fourth in the league in OBP. Once that BA drops, it's going to take a concomitant rise in walks to maintain the team OBP, and this isn't a walking team.
While they're good young players, Laird, Nix and Young are all likely to see their averages drop from the mid-.300s. When that happens, the Rangers offense is going to stagnate a bit. Supporting players who have been terrific so far, like David Dellucci and Eric Young, will regress to their norms. Only Brad Fullmer and Mark Teixeira can reasonably be expected to hit better than they have so far.
So what we're seeing is a decent team, a .480-.500 team, on its hottest streak of the year. The defensive improvement is real, which is making the starting pitchers look much better than they've actually been. There is offensive talent here, just not "team BA of .312" talent. The bullpen, a disaster area the past few years, is actually a strength, especially from the right side.
That's why the Rangers are 16-9. And when they're 31-30, or 59-64, when it becomes clear that this isn't a .640 team, the bandwagon will have emptied, and the chemistry-seekers will have moved on to the Dodgers or Angels or whatever the flavor of the month is. That won't make the Rangers any different than they are today, but it will be another data point in the argument that test tubes and beakers are useless in baseball analysis.