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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.