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April 7, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

The Fast Starters

by Joey Matschulat

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You know how the old adage goes: “What goes up, must come down.” And in the cyclical world of baseball, the opposite is also a truism. Profound (or not) as all this may sound, I certainly didn’t expect that there would be an opportunity to apply either one a mere week into the season, and yet here we are. We’re all cognizant of the pitfalls involved in trying to make spring training performance into something more than it really is, but that didn’t prevent a few scattered whispers late in the spring about the Rangers’ Cactus League mediocrity (13-16) compared to the pre-season excellence of the Giants (23-12). Combined with the concerns over the Rangers’ starting pitching, something of a perception began to spread among certain members of the Dallas/Fort Worth media—the perception that San Francisco was primed for another great run, whereas Texas’ holes were becoming unsettlingly evident, or that the former was headed up whereas the latter was headed down.

As of April 7, however, the standings reflect a reality that’s very different from that stated perception. I’m certainly not blind to home/road differentials, but as of this morning, the first-place Rangers stand alone as the junior circuit’s lone undefeated team, having won all six of their home games to date, while the last-place Giants have won only two of their first six road games. Granted, there’s usually little point in monitoring the initial sprint out of the gates when the real focus is on the 162-game marathon, but any team holding a perfect record beyond the first 4-5 games of the season is going to capture progressively greater attention until the winning streak is broken and the team in question begins its descent back toward earth—and until that happens, the standings do merit greater attention than usual. You may not be able to win a playoff spot in April, but a sufficiently large deficit in the standings can lose you one.

Critics of Rangers manager Ron Washington usually focus their fire toward tactical actions on his part that fail to conform with good sabermetric sense (e.g. deploying bullpen demigod Neftali Feliz in low-leverage, non-save situations), but one of the recurring (and probably not unfounded) knocks against him during his four-year stint in Texas has been that his teams come out of spring training looking sloppy, mentally out of sorts, and generally unprepared for the season. That historical backdrop makes the Rangers’ early run appear simply that much more impressive, as every aspect of the team is synergistically humming along and performing at a higher level than anyone could have hoped possible. Case in point, Texas possesses the best team OPS (956) in baseball despite extracting very little offense from $96 million cleanup hitter Adrian Beltre. The Matt Harrison/Derek Holland/Alexi Ogando starting troika has looked even better than the rotation-fronting duo of Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson, and with the exception of a Julio Borbon error on the Rangers’ first defensive chance of the season, the glove work has been nothing short of fantastic.

Now that it has been established that Texas looks, well, fantastic, what can be said of their divisional counterparts? At the risk of sounding patently uninformed, Seattle has been what many of us thought they would be—a bit interesting, and even mildly intriguing with their present mixture of younger blue-chip talents (Michael Pineda, Justin Smoak, etc.), more established superstars (Ichiro, Felix Hernandez), and wild cards (Erik Bedard, Chone Figgins, and Milton Bradley), but not exactly impressive, and still in the gravest amount of danger of being the first to fall beyond the point of no return in the AL West race. Things are a bit more chaotic where the two California ballclubs are concerned. The Athletics have incurred trouble on every front except for their starting pitching, as their defense has amassed a major league-worst nine errors in just five games, and their presumably bolstered offense has brought a punchless .249/.295/.391 performance to the table. Again, it’s extremely early; much (or all) of this standout awfulness will smooth out in the long run. Oakland will have plenty of opportunities to make up large swathes of lost ground by performing well in head-to-head games, but there’s nothing good about being mired in a 4.5-game hole only a week into the season.

Anaheim, meanwhile, has clambered out of an early 1-3 hole and back to the .500 mark with a two-game series sweep over Tampa Bay, but their very competent hitting (.300/.351/.513) has been overshadowed by a couple of glaring meltdowns on the pitching front—namely, Scott Kazmir and a famously volatile Fernando Rodney, who just found himself supplanted from the closer’s role by young Jordan Walden after two save opportunities (and four walks in 1 1/3 innings). After Kazmir suffered a 1 2/3-inning, five-run battering at the hands of the Royals on Sunday in which his fastball (per PITCHf/x data) failed to crack 87 mph, a refreshingly candid Mike Scioscia commented that Kazmir’s situation was a “little more complicated … a little more baffling” in that “right now, he doesn’t have either velocity or command.” The impending returns of Joel Pineiro and Scott Downs should enable Anaheim to move past this spot of rotation trouble, but as far as Kazmir’s future major-league employment prospects are concerned, this doesn’t appear to be headed toward a happy ending.

 Fifteen years ago, the Rangers opened their regular season with seven consecutive wins (including a season-opening three-game sweep of Boston, just as they executed this past weekend), and ultimately went on to win 90 games and their first-ever playoff berth… but not before being forced to hold off a furious late charge by Seattle, who whittled the Rangers’ lead to a single game with less than 10 games to play. A 6-0 start does not provide any assurance of incredible things to come, and there’s plenty of time for this division race to be blown wide open again, but until the Texas’ competition catches fire or the Rangers themselves become ice cold, this is officially their division to lose.  

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