Death of a Race
Although the Texas Rangers were up by five games in the AL West entering the
All-Star break, there was only a 6 1/2-game spread from top to bottom in the
division. All three teams entertained dreams of catching the Rangers, but
Texas came out of the break hotter than the Astroturf at Riverfront, laying
waste to the divisional dreamers. The blue and red have now switched their
scoreboard-watching focus to teams in the East in the battle for home-field
advantage throughout the playoffs.
So what kind of post-break team performance forged such a dramatic change in
the divisional picture?
W L BA OBP SLG RPG ERA Texas 20 6 .313 .380 .497 6.8 4.97 Oakland 18 9 .280 .392 .523 7.2 4.57 Seattle 14 13 .262 .337 .426 4.6 4.67 Anaheim 5 22 .236 .307 .327 3.0 5.21
Indeed, the Rangers have put up some very formidable numbers, particularly
offensively. However, the Athletics’ raw statistics are even better,
indicating that had they caught a few more breaks and Texas a few less, the
AL West flag wouldn’t already be being packaged for shipment to Arlington.
The Angels’ numbers are instructive: we now know how a team comprised solely
of David Howard and Jaime Navarro clones would fare.
Ruben Mateo‘s broken hamate bone coincided with Tom Goodwin‘s
return from the disabled list, granting Johnny Oates a reprieve from having
to make a decision between the two. While Goodwin was out of the lineup,
Oates shifted Mark McLemore from the number two spot up to leadoff.
McLemore responded nicely–significantly bumping his walk rate–and has
posted a .379 OBP since inheriting that role. Texas’ run scoring has
increased by a quarter of a run per game since McLemore was inserted at the
top of the order, demonstrating how useless Goodwin’s speed is when he
carries a .319 OBP.
Goodwin’s balky hip provides a good excuse to bat him ninth. Assuming
McLemore keeps doing the job and Oates is as sharp as he seems, the
Rag-Armed One won’t be the first name in the Rangers’ boxscore again.
While General Manager Billy Beane has been hailed as a shaman in baseball
circles for his work at the trading deadline, much of the praise has come
with a caveat, something to the effect of, "But how could he trade away
his closer?". Beane is one of the few front-office men in the game who
realizes that the only differences between a good set-up man and a closer are
the innings in which they pitch and the money they are paid.
The departed Billy Taylor had been pitching poorly leading up to the
deadline and had seven blown saves on the season. Additionally, the
37-year-old is a free agent after the season and would have been seeking
closer-type money. Beane opted to replace him with quadrogenerian off-speed
junkie Doug Jones, with T.J. Mathews and Jason
Isringhausen waiting in the wings. He also has flame-throwing Chad
Harville at the ready in Vancouver in case any of them stumble. Kudos to
Beane for dispatching with conventional wisdom and maximizing the Athletics’
chances in their playoff push.
When Carlos Guillen went down with a season-ending knee injury in the
first week of the season, utilityman David Bell was pressed into
full-time service at second base. Bell proceeded to go on a power tear,
ranking among the league leaders in home runs and conjuring up memories of
1973-vintage Davey Johnson.
The knock on Bell when he arrived from the Indians last August was that he
wasn’t suited to being a regular, as he wilts like field corn in a midwest
drought. His numbers this season indicate that the tag may have some merit:
HR BA OBP SLG Thru 5/23: 13 .256 .321 .542 Since 5/23: 3 .274 .341 .371
The local media mouthpieces say that pitchers are working Bell differently;
that he is no longer being served the same meatball platters that he was
early in the season and is smartly taking the ball the other way. While this
may be true, if Bell’s numbers continue to fall his reputation as a
part-time player will be cemented.
In an season replete with unfulfilled expectations, there may be no bigger
disappointment toiling in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom than Darin
Erstad (.246/.307/.366). The Angels’ number-one draft choice in 1995,
Erstad was an All-Star last year and seemed poised for a breakout campaign
this year. Instead, he has suffered through a season that may have him
pondering the career in punting that he left behind at Nebraska.
Erstad has split his time between first base and left field, and if it weren’t
for the execrable Brian Hunter, he would have the distinction of
being the worst starter in the league at any position. See Darin dive, see
Darin crash into walls, see Darin get dirty, listen to Darin rip into his
teammates for not playing with intensity…it’s all good fun! Unfortunately,
it takes more than a hard-nosed attitude to win baseball games.