Opening Day is two weeks away, and in the grand scheme of things, we really don’t know as much as we like to think we do… but it’s not like that has ever stopped anyone from voicing their opinions or issuing their proclamations on the upcoming season. Such is the nature of the annual lead-up to Game One. And depending on whom you choose to listen to, the Texas Rangers are either (a) runaway favorites who are destined to subjugate their AL West competition and claim the division title with relative ease, or (b) moderate favorites who will be tested to their limits by Oakland and Los Angeles (with Seattle playing a less consequential but potentially disruptive role in the proceedings), and quite possibly knocked down from their perch if enough things fail to break their way. That’s fine and all, but what are these vague and mysterious “things” that could conceivably subvert the Rangers’ post-season dreams?
The simplistic answer that anyone could toss out there boils down to something like this: “Texas could be overtaken by falling victim to harsh regression and attrition while Oakland and/or Los Angeles receive better performance than expected.” Unfortunately, this answer to the posed question is so broad and so reliant on generalities that it tells us essentially nothing. Here, then, we try to delve a bit deeper into the question of how this season could fail to produce the outcome that the Rangers are seeking:
The Starting Rotation: On paper, at least, the Rangers have the worst—but arguably highest-variance—starting rotation in the division, thanks to the heaping dose of uncertainty that exists behind staff aces C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis. Note that uncertainty doesn’t have to be a bad thing, because there really is abundant pitching talent here—Derek Holland seems to be perpetually on the cusp of a breakout, Michael Kirkman is viewed as a potential mid-rotation cog in due time, Matt Harrison and Tommy Hunter are decent back-rotation pieces, Brandon Webb figures to be ready to make his grand return from a two-year layoff in the next 1-2 months… oh, and there’s a vociferous debate in Rangers circles regarding Neftali Feliz, who may officially transition from closer to starter in just two weeks’ time.
So, what’s the problem? For starters, according to our own Jason Parks, Feliz’s polish and secondary arsenal may not yet be at the point needed to justify a move out of the ninth-inning role. Webb, of course, is a ridiculously huge wild card due to his injury and rehab chronology, and even if he proves himself technically healthy, there’s no assurance that he’s going to find his old groove in a timely manner. Hunter is useful and the most proven of any of the bunch outside of Webb, but optimally isn’t relied upon as much more than a fifth starter on a first-division ballclub; Harrison wields better stuff and theoretically has more upside than Hunter, but has yet to produce satisfactory results as even a fifth starter in 32 career starts. Kirkman is “getting there” developmentally speaking, but he would undoubtedly benefit from more schooling at Triple-A Round Rock. Holland offers the best blend of experience, talent, and results in the bunch, but more likely has the ceiling of a second or third starter than the ace potential his long-time adherents dream on, and for all his accomplishments to date, he’s still far more of an unknown quantity than you’d prefer a couple of years after his big-league debut.
To be clear, Texas overcame a lot of really poor starting pitching in 2010 and still handily won the division, which forms much of the basis for the argument that this isn’t something the Rangers need to be excessively worried about. It’s possible that the inevitable clump of players rotated through those back three rotation spots fare well enough to mitigate the bulk of the concern, especially with the fantastic supporting defensive cast behind them. It’s also possible that this transforms from a theoretical issue into a glaring actual problem that not only makes 60 percent of the Rangers’ starts far too adventurous and wears down their bullpen, but also gives the Angels’ and Athletics’ superior rotations ample opportunity to keep their ballclubs right in the thick of things.
The Regression: Depth-wise, Texas is in a very advantageous position; between Mike Napoli, David Murphy, and Michael Young, the Rangers have above-replacement level contingency plans for every position—excepting shortstop, where Andres Blanco serves as the emergency fill-in—in the event of injury to a regular. That, obviously, isn’t an issue. What concerns me to a greater extent is that the first half of 2010 was such a delightfully perfect storm for the Rangers’ big offensive guns, with Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz producing absolutely gaudy numbers and Vladimir Guerrero turning in a first-half performance that collectively facilitated the Rangers’ control over the division by the All-Star break.
Guerrero is gone now, his lineup spot occupied by a player (Adrian Beltre) whose bat probably won’t fully replace what Guerrero provided last year, and the concept of regression absolutely dictates that we shouldn’t expect such monstrous numbers out of Cruz and Hamilton again in 2011. I feel pretty good about full seasons out of Yorvit Torrealba and Mitch Moreland—at catcher and first base, respectively—going a long way toward replacing the production that will be lost this time around, and hope that Elvis Andrus and Julio Borbon take meaningful steps forward in their offensive development; if so, there won’t be much, if any, ground lost in this area, and Texas could actually take a small step forward offensively. If not, I can very easily see the raw run-scoring output falling a bit from its 2010 level, in spite of what would likely be a more evenly-balanced lineup. It’s certainly not a concern to the extent that the pitching is, but it’s on my radar.
The Interleague Aspect: Strength of schedule (SOS) differences generally don’t capture the kind of attention in baseball that they do in sports such as football, in part because of the 10x multiplier in games played for MLB teams relative to NFL teams, and because the general sense seems to be that those differences will mostly “even out” for all of the teams in a single division over the course of a full 162-game season. However, interleague play can (and does) throw a massive kink into this theory, as one team’s draw in a particular season can differ immensely from that of an intradivision foe.
Case in point: Texas posted the second-best interleague record in baseball in 2010 (14-4, or three games better than Los Angeles and six games better than Oakland), but at the time interleague play began in middle-late May, the Rangers’ interleague SOS was far and away the easiest in baseball (per Marc Normandin), whereas the rest of their divisional foes were all forced to contend with tougher-than-average interleague schedules. Given that context, pulling 18 interleague games against a set of teams with a composite regular-season winning percentage of .454 imparted Texas with a rather considerable scheduling advantage that couldn’t be expected to simply “even out” in the same season.
There’s some evidence that suggests the Rangers yet again have a favorable interleague draw, but in no way does it look to be as pronounced as it was in 2010. By emulating Marc’s original method (which was to add up the third-order winning percentages of each team’s upcoming interleague opponents and rank the final totals), but instead using each ballclub’s current PECOTA-projected winning percentages, we come up with the following figures (3.000 is an average SOS; above that is harder): Oakland (3.15), Seattle (3.04), Los Angeles (3.03), Texas (2.95). The Rangers still get to prey upon intrastate rival Houston for six total games, but must also deal with the four best teams in the NL East in the Mets, Marlins, Phillies, and Braves. This is hardly a perfect comparison, as Marc’s work relied on actual rather than projected records, but it’s good enough to illustrate the point that the Rangers could very easily lose a couple of games of ground relative to 2010 through this single uncontrollable factor alone.