August 19, 2010
Rangers Drought Finally Looks Over
For Texas Rangers fans, the Aughts have been a rough decade. Despite some exciting teams and plenty of young talent throughout the decade, the team has been shut out of post-season success every year since 1999. The last time the Rangers played a playoff game, the No. 1 single was “Heartbreaker” by Mariah Carey (featuring Jay-Z), Bill Clinton was in office, and at least some people were still eagerly looking to the next Kevin Smith movie. The intervening drought looks likely to end soon—our current playoff odds gave the Rangers a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs entering Wednesday’s games. But a funny thing happened on the road back to the playoffs. Even if Eminem and Rihanna currently sit atop the Billboard charts (thus proving the staying power of the hip-hop/R&B pop crossover), there is plenty of reason to think this year’s Rangers won’t have any of the late-season struggles of their distant forbears.
Texas hasn’t always been without hope on August 19, even in the 2000s. The chart below shows their total games back in the AL West and the wild card in each of the seasons since their last playoff appearance.
Texas was quite clearly competitive in both 2004 and 2009, with at least a fighting chance in 2006. In 2004, the Rangers finished three games back in the West and nine in the wild card. In 2006, they slid another seven-and-a-half games to finish 13 back of the Athletics. Last year, in memorable fashion, they dropped a total of eight games behind the eventual wild-card winners, the Red Sox. Put it this way: Last year the Rangers coughed up more games in the standings from August 19 until the end of the season than they had on the Angels in the standings on Wednesday. This is potentially scary for Rangers fans, right?
Well, let’s not be hasty. The Rangers have gotten to where they are because they are a very good team. They are above average in defense (second in the majors in PADE), hitting (.263 TAv as a team), baserunning (fourth in the majors), and pitching (above average in both strikeout rate and unintentional walk rate). There are plenty of ways to be a good baseball team, but one path that nobody questions is to be pretty good at everything, and that is just what the Rangers have been this year.
Another major factor is that this year, the Rangers have an ace up their sleeves in Cliff Lee. Many people have held down the shift key and mashed the top row of their keyboards about how great Lee has been this year, but even since moving from Safeco Field in Seattle to the Ballpark at Arlington, Lee has all but maintained his K/BB ratio (14.8 with the Mariners, 14.5 with the Rangers). Lee has thrown seven complete games so far this season (two with the Rangers); as a team last year, Rangers pitchers only tossed eight. In other words, Lee will certainly stanch the bleeding every fifth go-round.
But it’s also absolutely critical to remember that the Rangers were a young team last year. They’re a young enough team this year, but with an extra year of adjustments and growth, they are much better poised to maintain their pace. Some of those young players who have appeared to struggle have been helping most in ways that are not immediately obvious. For example, after maintaining a .400 OBP for much of the spring, Elvis Andrus has fallen off significantly at the plate (batting .276/.361/.318). However, he’s been worth more than a half-win in the standings on the basepaths, and he ranks fourth in the majors in EqBRR. Reviews of his defense remain positive across the board—everything from Total Zone to UZR to DRS approves of his glove work.
There are other reasons to be positive about the Rangers for the next six weeks at least. Ian Kinsler should come back to the team at some point, which will provide a boost in nearly every aspect of their game. Josh Hamilton seems unable to make outs these days. Neftali Feliz continues not to worry, be happy, at the back end of the bullpen, which serves also to obscure the excellent seasons of Frank Francisco and the Darrens (Oliver, O’Day) (also, dibs on that band name).
When the Rangers do make the playoffs, they’ll presumably want to win a real, honest-to-god series. That should be tough, as they are likely to face one of either the Yankees or Rays. While both of those teams currently rank ahead of the Rangers in our Secret Sauce metric (which combines the three factors that correlate best with playoff success), those rankings do not fully describe the boost in equivalent strikeout rate that Cliff Lee provides over their previous fifth-starter options. The Rangers rank 12th in that category at the moment, but will likely finish higher at the end of the season. Even given that handicap, the Rangers still place fifth overall, just barely behind the Yankees.
Jon Daniels and the front office have put the talent on the field to win the division and contend in the playoffs. It remains to be seen if this Rangers team will fall early like Rangers teams past, but not knowing the answer to that question is a luxury Texas fans haven’t had to worry about in over a decade. Pinch yourselves in DFW, you’re headed for October.