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May 14, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Ranging Far Afield

by Jay Jaffe

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Don't look now, but the Rangers are leading the American League West. Coming off of four straight sub-.500 seasons, projected for just 70 wins and the 29th spot on the pre-season edition of the Hit List, they're out of the gate at a 19-14 clip, with the fifth-best run differential in the majors. With the A's, Angels, and Mariners all stumbling and bumbling, the Rangers are beginning to look like plausible contenders in a division where 84 wins may be enough. Our PECOTA-based Playoff Odds report estimates they have around a 23 percent shot at the flag, more than double their chances as of Opening Day, but still roughly half of the Angels' estimate.

Helped by a ballpark that's seeing higher scoring rates than any park except Epic Fail Stadium in the Bronx, the Rangers' offense is third in the league in scoring (5.7 runs per game), second in batting average, and first in home runs, with Ian Kinsler, Chris Davis, and Hank Blalock all tied for the team lead at nine. Kinsler (.319 EqA) and Michael Young (.323) have been their only outstanding offensive performers, however, and among their regulars only Nelson Cruz (.279) and Hank Blalock (.280) have exceeded the major league-average EqA at their positions. Additionally, they've gotten strong part-time work from risen-from-the-dead Andruw Jones (.359, having already matched last year's home-run total of three) while Josh Hamilton (.243) has been laid up with a rib injury. After missing three weeks, Hamilton returned this week, smashing home runs in his first two games back.

The lineup has its laggards, particularly among its fresh-faced youngsters. Davis (.265) is experiencing major contact problems, having struck out 52 times (against eight walks) in 123 plate appearances. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.242) is struggling to make contact as well, with a 31:5 K/BB in 97 PA. By comparison, rookie Elvis Andrus has been a pleasant surprise with the stick. His .251 EqA is somewhere between his 75th- and 90th-percentile PECOTA projections, but with better contact skills and more punch than even our most optimistic forecasts. More on him in a moment.

At first glance, the Rangers' run prevention has been nothing special, ranking ninth in the league at 5.0 per game but still 0.6 ahead of their forecast. Starters Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, Matt Harrison, and Scott Feldman (who took over from resident piņata Kris Benson) all have ERAs under 5.00, with Millwood at a crisp 2.92 and Harrison riding a 19-inning scoreless streak-including a four-hit shutout of the ChiSox-thanks in part to an accelerated tempo suggested by pitching coach Mike Maddux. At this writing, the rotation ranks sixth in the league in SNLVAR, a showing that if it holds would end a long legacy of wretchedness:


Year  FRA_S  SNLVAR  AL Rk   W-L
1997   5.64   13.2    12    77-85
1998   5.93   11.4    13    88-74
1999   5.94   15.2    13    95-67
2000   6.20   13.1    14    71-91
2001   6.39    5.2    14    73-89
2002   5.58   11.9    13    72-90
2003   6.54    5.0    14    71-91
2004   5.65   14.1    12    89-73
2005   5.47   11.2    12    79-83
2006   5.41   14.4    12    80-82
2007   6.25    6.7    14    75-87
2008   6.28    4.2    14    79-83

FRA_S: starters' Fair Run Average
AL Rk: team rank in SNLVAR.

The Pirates' 16-year run of sub-.500 teams is the longest existing stretch of futility in baseball, and the Orioles' 11-year losing streak is a solid second. The utter ineptitude of the Rangers' rotation may well be the third-longest. Year in and year out for over a decade, they've been among the AL's bottom three in terms of their ability to keep their team in the ballgame. They outhit lousy rotations to win division titles in 1988 and 1999 via an offense that scored nearly 1,900 runs across those two years, but only once in the past nine seasons have they overcome a unit effectively yielding around six runs per nine innings. Not helping is the fact that the current regime led by GM Jon Daniels traded a quartet of high-functioning starters over the past three years in Chris Young, John Danks, Armando Galarraga, and Edinson Volquez.

Nonetheless, the current offense has managed to amply support the rotation, though the staff as a whole hasn't improved as much as you might be led to believe considering that improved ranking and the narratives involving the arrival of Maddux from Milwaukee and the proclamation of team president Nolan Ryan regarding the pitching staff's conditioning. Check the defense independent numbers:


Year   HR/9   BB/9   SO/9    FIP
2008   1.10   3.90   6.01   4.75
2009   1.24   3.44   5.30   4.97

Though the pitchers have gone backwards in two of the three key categories, they're surviving thanks to the Rangers' defense, which after ranking dead last in Defensive Efficiency in 2008 has improved by 45 points and now leads the AL. The shift of Young to third base to accommodate the arrival of the slick-fielding Andrus-a pair of decisions I criticized in this space, much to the dismay of our Rangerly readers-is bearing fruit.

More than that, it's following the template of one of last year's top story lines, the record-setting defensive turnaround of the Rays, a point that certainly factored into the decision to skip Andrus from Double-A to the majors even at the tender age of 20. In fact, the Rangers were one of three teams who elected to try replicating the Rays' recipe, patching a porous defense with a defensively sound shortstop regardless of his offensive limitations. The Tigers, who ranked 24th in DER, replaced Edgar Renteria with Adam Everett, and the Orioles, who ranked "only" 18th but put up a .668 DER in the second half, mostly with Juan Castro at short, brought in Cesar Izturis. Let's have a look at how those teams are faring:


Team        2008   2009     +/-
Rangers     .670   .715    .045
Pirates     .675   .716    .041
Dodgers     .691   .720    .029
Reds        .673   .701    .028
Brewers     .698   .713    .015
Tigers      .685   .700    .015
Phillies    .696   .706    .010
Blue Jays   .704   .711    .007
Twins       .687   .693    .006
Giants      .685   .690    .005
Rockies     .678   .679    .001
D'backs     .686   .686    .000
Mariners    .682   .682    .000
Angels      .692   .691   -.001
Mets        .698   .697   -.001
Cubs        .705   .701   -.004
Yankees     .682   .677   -.005
Athletics   .700   .695   -.005
Padres      .696   .690   -.006
Royals      .690   .683   -.007
Marlins     .693   .683   -.010
Cardinals   .695   .685   -.010
Braves      .694   .683   -.011
White Sox   .686   .671   -.015
Indians     .686   .669   -.017
Rays        .710   .693   -.017
Nationals   .689   .669   -.020
Astros      .698   .674   -.024
Orioles     .688   .662   -.026
Red Sox     .699   .670   -.029

The plan appears to be working in Detroit, though the return of Brandon Inge to third base, the arrival of Josh Anderson in left field, and the occasional absences of Everett in favor of Ramon Santiago cloud the picture of a single player's impact. Things aren't working so well in Baltimore, in part due to Ty Wigginton's residence at the hot corner during Melvin Mora's recent injury.

If the Rangers' 45-point DER improvement were to hold, it would rank as the third-best turnaround ever, behind the Rays and the 1980 A's (Billyball comes to Oakland) and ahead of the 1991 Braves, who kicked off a dynasty. That would translate into about 100 runs saved based on Ben Lindbergh's math, and perhaps more, given the inflated value of each hit in the Rangers' offensive environment. In all likelihood, that would probably spell a post-season berth.

It's too early to bank on that, however. For one thing, the Ranger staff's distribution of batted-ball types hasn't changed appreciably from last year; their line-drive rate (21.8 percent) remains the majors' highest and has actually increased, while their ground-ball rate (43.2 percent) has fallen by about the same amount and is now a notch below the major league average (44.5) in a place where every additional fly ball carries an increased cost. Together those figures suggest a good deal of eventual regression in their DER. For another, the Angels, who are a game and a half behind in the AL West, will welcome Ervin Santana and John Lackey back to their rotation over the next two nights, the latter of which marks the two teams' first meeting of the season. The Rangers may welcome top pitching prospects Derek Holland and/or Neftali Feliz to their rotation at some point during the season, and their future is indeed bright, but it's an extremely tall order expecting their immediate impact to offset that upgrade.

Finally, it bears noting that up until now, the Rangers have faced a much softer schedule than the Angels have in terms of opponents projected winning percentage, .482 to .510-that's the difference between quilted Charmin and institutional-grade sandpaper. The numbers the rest of the way run .489 to .505 in favor of the Halos. For Texas, the real test is only beginning.

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

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