The Rangers haven't been the team their record suggests. Here's why that's OK.
The Texas Rangers are currently sitting pretty atop the MLB standings, and through games played on Monday stood one win ahead of the ever-popular, ever-publicized Chicago Cubs. Both teams currently lead not just their divisions, but their leagues, and by wide margins at that.
But things aren’t all rosy in Arlington. The Rangers are currently running out an ailing rotation that can’t seem to catch a break, the numbers suggest that that they have one of the worst bullpens in baseball, and they’re middle-of-the-pack offensively.
Taken in isolation, that combination of facts leaves you scratching your head, wondering how the Rangers have gotten to this point and how they’ll manage to make it any further.
Fielder for Kinsler was supposed to be the fix for both teams' surpluses, but the 2016 season has put the clubs' returns in stark relief.
Three offseasons ago—November 20, 2013 to be exact—Detroit and Texas made a rare one-for-one, star-for-star trade between contending teams, with the Tigers sending five-time All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder to the Rangers in exchange for three-time All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler. In addition to the obvious star power involved, this particular trade had some interesting money-related factors and featured the analytical juxtaposition of a traditional slugger with shiny RBI totals and negative defensive value being swapped for an up-the-middle defender with less of a bat and a far more varied all-around game.
Three-and-a-half years later the trade looks like a blowout victory for the Tigers, to the extent that they added one of the best all-around infielders in the league and saddled the Rangers with a bad player on an albatross contract that runs through 2020 at an annual salary of $24 million. All of which is much different than things appeared around this time last year when Fielder, not Kinsler, was chosen for the All-Star team on the strength of his .339/.403/.521 first half that seemed to be proof of a full recovery from the neck surgery that halted his first season in Texas after 42 games.
Fielder’s production fell off in the second half, as he hit .264/.348/.394, and this season he’s been arguably the worst everyday player in baseball. WARP sees him as producing the sixth-worst overall value, with all five of the lower-WARP players—A.J. Pierzynski, Mark Teixeira, Dioner Navarro, Ryan Howard, Chris Coghlan—playing part-time or sitting on the disabled list. Fielder has started 67 of 72 games for the Rangers, hitting .203/.273/.325 with his usual bad defense and poor baserunning, which is how he’s the lone big leaguer with more than 200 plate appearances and a WARP worse than -1.0. Dating back to last year’s All-Star break Fielder has hit a combined .235/.313/.356 in 140 games.
The Rangers' star was a steal last winter--though how much of a steal we can't say.
There are several important things to say about the surprising, runaway division-leading Texas Rangers. The first thing we should say is that they might not actually be this good, or even close. They climbed to 45-25 on Sunday, but their run differential suggests they should have five wins fewer, and their second- and third-order winning percentages only push them further down. Their true talent level is not that of a 104-win team, or even a 94-win team. The Mariners trail Texas by 8.5 games in the standings, but are probably a better team.
Another thing to say about the Rangers: they’re outperforming their projections right now. Elvis Andrus has a .268 True Average this year, which is not only the highest of his career, but also outpaces his career TAv by over 20 points. It’s not exactly stunning, since Andrus is only 27 (yes, really, still), but there wasn’t much reason to expect this kind of breakout. His performance so far roughly matches PECOTA’s 80th percentile preseason projection for him. PECOTA projected Ryan Rua for a .260 TAv prior to this season, but with his .292 in 152 plate appearances so far, Rua has dragged the system’s esteem of him up to a rest-of-season projection of .265. Nomar Mazara was an elite prospect entering this season, but no one exactly foresaw him getting a serious opportunity this soon. PECOTA mostly matched him to players who didn’t play (or played sparingly) at age 21, and projected a .240 TAv if Mazara did see substantial playing time. Instead, Mazara is raking to the tune of a .283 TAv in a full-time role.
Colby Lewis' near-magical day, and more from Thursday's action.
The Thursday Takeaway Colby Lewis’ day didn’t start out as anything particularly special—a 20-pitch first inning of exactly the sort of unremarkable-but-decently effective stuff you expect from Colby Lewis. It didn’t take long, however, for him to look not simply decently effective but uncommonly so. There was an impressive swinging strikeout courtesy of his slider in the second, then there were three straight flyouts in the third, and from there, he was really dealing. The next few frames zipped by, as Lewis breezed through with eight or fewer pitches per inning through the seventh, including a series of six straight groundouts. True to his typical style, the performance wasn’t flashy—just three strikeouts through seven, with his standard mix of high-80s fastballs and a slider not too far behind—but it was perfect.
On the internet, nobody knows you're a Juan Gonzalez fanatic.
When I was a kid, I loved old magazines. Books were fine too, as far as they went. But there was something surreptitious about reading old magazine articles, reading outdated reviews and glancing at anachronistic advertisements. Something about the transitory nature of them made them feel forbidden, like they were written for a specific moment that I was intruding on. Like the powder blue pullovers and the shaggy hair of the baseball generation just before mine, they made me feel like I was peeking into the wisdom of adulthood.
In a sport that fetishizes comebacks, it can be difficult to tell a return from a redemption.
I was following along, like maybe a lot of you, with the Matt Bush story the past few weeks. Bush likely needs no real intro to a committed baseball readership, but here’s the short version for context’s sake. Bush was drafted as a shortstop with the first overall pick in the 2003 draft by the San Diego Padres. He was bad at hitting—which led to his conversion to pitching—and bad at avoiding injury. Worse than either, though, were his problems with drugs, domestic violence, and DUI. He spent three years in prison.
Now, he’s with the Texas Rangers—the team most closely associated with another former first-overall draft pick/recovering substance abuser—and pitching in the major leagues for the first time ever. He’s throwing 98 miles an hour, he’s on a zero tolerance policy for drugs or booze, and he’s rapidly climbing the ladder in the Rangers’ bullpen. In short, Matt Bush has reinvented himself.
I’m taken in easily by stories like Bush’s, and that can be a problem. Bush’s anomalous transformation, his ability to become something different in order to succeed in what is a brutal game of failure, makes it tempting to forgive and (more problematically) forget his past sins. And while we all might have different opinions on the value of redemption or retribution, the fact is that we can’t really enjoy the rise of Matt Bush without asking ourselves some serious questions about our relationship to the actions that made him fall.
Bush’s sins aren’t of the Josh Hamilton variety, after all—there’s an easy link by way of substance abuse, and I’ll admit I’ve drawn it without thinking a few times. But Hamilton’s problems were self-destructive, limited for the most part to his own abuse of drugs and his fight to get over that. Bush hurt a lot of people on his way back to the majors, the most famous example of which was running over a man’s head while fleeing a hit-and-run DUI. (The man survived thanks to his wearing a helmet.) While this incident is what landed Bush in prison for a little over three years, he was also involved in the assault of a high school lacrosse player with a golf club (getting him released from the Padres) and he threw a baseball at a woman’s head (which got him kicked off the Blue Jays). In short, Matt Bush made his bed in a fairly dramatic and troubling way. He was awful.
But now he’s back, and it’s tempting to revel in the baseball return story. After all, the comeback is one of our most treasured genres as fans, and for good reason. These stories make us believe, however briefly, in our ability as people to beat the odds. I mentioned Hamilton above, and his story is likely one of the most inspiring in this way, as he kicked his drug habit and tasted some of the Mickey Mantle-esque appeal he had when being drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays. And while Hamilton’s journey has been a little windy since then, the fact that he saw any success after flaming out for years in the minor leagues is remarkable. Baseball, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again, is powerfully unforgiving.
And so when we see most of the nameless first-round busts or snake-bitten injured phenoms go the way of our Brian Bullingtons and Mark Priors, we’re rightly amazed to see a happy ending. When Rich Hill can stick to the pursuit of baseball as long as he has, and then end up pitching beyond our wildest expectations at 36, that’s pretty cool. That’s a story we can tell our kids about all the great, warm fuzzy feelings baseball is classically supposed to give us: perseverance, self-confidence, belief. These guys beat the odds in a game that is literally already about beating long odds, and we remember and revere them for that.
Yu Darvish returns in full force, the Royals stage an unlikely comeback, and the Mariners embarrass themselves on the basepaths in new and creative ways.
The Weekend Takeaway
It only took 659 days, but Yu Darvish is back where he belongs: striking out the league’s best hitters and taking names. The 29-year-old returned to the major-league stage on Saturday afternoon, where he pitched for the first time since August 9, 2014, in front of a sellout crowd in Arlington, Texas.
Can baseball thrive in cities where nostalgia is suffocated?
The Texas Rangers are getting a new ballpark. We’re used to thinking about the stadium question in terms of tax dollars, and it is an obviously smart way to approach it because of all the things tax dollars turn into that aren’t baseball. Tax dollars are schools and roads and recycling bins, and their allocation is a collective expression of what is important to us, or ought to be. It’s an exceptionally boring way of declaring that most of us like this thing more than this other thing, not merely as sports fans or consumers, but as citizens and parents and people. So when the Arlington City Council voted to approve a master plan for a new stadium for the Texas Rangers, they kicked off a process by which voters will decide if they like air conditioned baseball more than whatever else you can buy with $500 million. Like recycling bins or public transit or a comical number of two-foot-long hot dogs. We’re used to thinking of this question in that way, and it is a good way to think about it.