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April 27, 2010

Expanded Horizons

A Change in Style

by Tommy Bennett

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The Stars at Night…

I've been thinking about Texas. No, here, I'll prove it. Take a moment with me to consider the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. It's a spacious stadium (seating just shy of 50,000), but its fences are inviting—particularly the right-center power alley. Due in part to the heat (unlike Minute Maid Park in Houston, the Rangers' stadium does not have a retractable roof) and low fences, the Ballpark in Arlington has helped some of Texas' already good hitters produce plenty of runs. The Rangers have done particularly well in the run-scoring department lately. Since 2001, in fact, the Rangers haven't ranked in the bottom half of the American League in runs per game.

Here are the number of runs the Rangers scored per game in recent seasons (AL rank in parentheses):

2001: 5.5 (3)
2002: 5.2 (5)
2003: 5.1 (5)
2004: 5.3 (4)
2005: 5.3 (3)
2006: 5.2 (4)
2007: 5.0 (5)
2008: 5.6 (1)
2009: 4.8 (7)

Last year was the Rangers' worst run-scoring year in recent memory, and it appears to be part of a trend. Since the Rangers haven't changed home fields and it's not getting any colder in Dallas (which might be a good name for a country-and-western song), it must be in part due to the type of position players the Rangers are employing.

One way to analyze the hitters they've had is by looking at the number of Rangers batters with at least 300 plate appearances and a True Average over .280. Remember, TAv includes park adjustment, so we're now looking at a neutralized figure that strips away the effect of home park and league offense levels. Here are the results (batters in parentheses):

2001: 5 (A. Rodriguez, Palmeiro, Catalanotto, I. Rodriguez, Sierra)
2002: 3 (A. Rodriguez, Palmeiro, I. Rodriguez)
2003: 3 (A. Rodriguez, Everett, J. Gonzalez)
2004: 1 (Teixeira)
2005: 3 (Teixeira, Young, Dellucci)
2006: 2 (Teixeira, Matthews, Jr., )
2007: 3 (Teixeira, Lofton, Kinsler)
2008: 5 (Bradley, Kinsler, Hamilton, Byrd, Davis)
2009: 2 (Young, Cruz)

With the exception of 2004 (a year in which several players just missed the .280 cutoff), last season was a bit of an anomaly in recent Rangers history. Traditionally, the Rangers have sported serious offensive threats in three or more spots in the middle of their lineup. Last year, only the contact-skills wonder Young and better-late-than-never Cruz really challenged opposing pitchers. And yet, the 2009 Rangers posted the team's highest win mark (87) since they won 89 in 2004 (and second-most since 1999).

The 2010 season does not promise to be much different. This year, PECOTA projects only Ian Kinsler to post a TAv above .280. But many experts (including seven out of twelve dentists) have picked the Rangers to win a competitive AL West race. So we are faced with a tricky question: How do the Rangers win games?

It's the Pitching? Stupid!

Could it be the starting pitching? The Rangers have certainly had a history of questionable (to say the least) starting pitching. Here, without significant comment, are the number of pitchers the Rangers have had who have pitched at least 100 innings with a strikeout-to-walk ratio of at least 2.0 (names in parentheses):

2001: 1 (Helling)
2002: 1 (Valdez)
2003: 2 (Thompson, Dickey)
2004: 1 (Benoit)
2005: 1 (Young)
2006: 2 (Millwood, Padilla)
2007: 0
2008: 1 (Millwood)
2009: 1 (Holland)

Well, that doesn't seem to be the explanation. Despite Millwood's nice enough looking 3.67 ERA last year, he struck out fewer than six batters per nine innings while walking more than three per nine. Only rookie Derek Holland, who got touched up behind a .321 BABIP, 1.7 HR/9, and a 6.12 ERA, managed to strike out twice as many batters as he walked.

Holland is currently pitching for Triple-A Oklahoma City, Millwood is pitching in Baltimore, and Dickey is trying to get back to the majors with the Mets' Triple-A Buffalo farm club. The C.J. WIlson transformation project seems to be going about as well as anyone could have expected, but it's anybody's guess how he will hold up as his arm gets stretched out. And while the Rangers rotation has some promising arms headed its way in the future (19 year-old lefty Martin Perez is already pitching well for Double-A Frisco), it isn't going to carry them in 2010.

Runner, Texas Ranger

Led by speedsters Elvis Andrus and Julio Borbon, the Rangers have stolen 20 bases this season and enjoy an 83-percent success rate. To be sure, the Rangers enjoyed a boost from playing a four-game set against Boston, which has caught one would-be base stealer in 35 attempts, including a nine-stolen base effort. Nevertheless, the Rangers have become one of baseball's premiere baserunning teams.

Even last year, the Rangers tallied 149 stolen bases against just 36 caught stealings, good for an 81-percent success rate. However, as Equivalent Base Running Runs (EqBRR) shows, the Rangers failed to execute on plays that called for advancing on hits, ground balls, and sacrifice flies in 2009. In fact, in all aspects of baserunning other than stolen bases, the Rangers cost themselves runs.

Fast forward to 2010 and the Rangers lead the majors in EqBRR, having already secured more than half a win (5.2 runs) with their feet alone. The Rangers best runner, Andrus, has grown a year wiser in his second major-league season. To date, Andrus ranks fourth in individual EqBRR (1.8, behind only Rajai Davis, Michael Bourn, and Brett Gardner) after ranking 15th in 2009.

Borbon, the rookie center fielder, has been characteristically speedy despite a slow start with the bat. Over the last two years in the minor leagues, Borbon stole 97 bases. Despite reaching base just 13 times this year, Borbon has already stolen four bags. Texas manager Ron Washington has alternated Andrus and Borbon at the first and ninth slots in the lineup, meaning the Rangers should have plenty of opportunities to run wild on opponents.

With a core of young base runners, the Rangers are set to give American League catchers some sleepless nights. Even the slugging Cruz ranks 15th in EqBRR in the early going. If fellow sluggers Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero, and the newly-promoted Justin Smoak can avoid making blunders on the basepaths, the Rangers should see a one- to two-game boost in the win column without being any better at pitching or hitting.

Don't Call it The New Market Inefficiency

The Rangers have also improved their defensive play. In the early going, their Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency ranks seventh in the AL and 11th in the majors. Last year, they ranked second in the AL and fifth overall. In 2008? They were 29th. In fact, from 2005-08, the Rangers didn't finish any higher than 24th in PADE. With the slick-fielding Andrus at short and Michael Young at third base, the Rangers play better defense than they have in the past, and the outfield of Cruz, Borbon, and Hamilton can track down plenty of fly balls.

Question of the Day

Much of the Rangers' success comes from their increased ability to (a) generate runs on the basepaths, and (b) play some of the best defense in the league. Do you think that gives them enough talent to take the flag in the American League West?

Related Content:  Texas Rangers,  Rangers

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