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“June already? Damn.”

That line was dropped in my inbox by Will Carroll, and is a fairly good summation of how I feel as well. This season has been flying by, perhaps accelerated by the faster games we’re seeing as a result of fewer feet touching the plate (and, to my mind, the greater number of strikes being called).

It being June, however, means that it’s time to start taking so-called “surprise teams” seriously. The American League’s three divisions are each led by one, and if the season ended today, only the Twins would repeat as a playoff team in the junior circuit. So for the rest of the week, we’ll be looking at the AL’s three upstarts, evaluating their performance to date as well as their chances of sustaining success over the next four months.

Today, the hottest team in baseball goes under the microscope. The Texas Rangers have won nine in a row to sneak past the Angels in the AL West, a run that includes a sweep of the White Sox over the weekend. Their 30-20 record is legitimate; they’ve picked up about two games over their “expected” record, per BP’s Adjusted Standings Report, thanks to some efficiency in scoring and preventing runs and a favorable schedule, but they lead the West regardless of the adjustments you make.

When you think of the Rangers, you think of their offense, and rightly so. The Rangers lead the AL in runs scored, and are fourth in the AL in EqA. The perception that recent Rangers teams have had strong offenses was park-driven; they haven’t been an above-average AL team at the plate since 2002, largely because a strong core, especially in the infield, has been dragged down by sub-par performances and lousy depth elsewhere.

This year, though, David Dellucci‘s dream season (.273/.457/.554) has given the Rangers the OBP boost at the top of the lineup–and from an outfield corner–that they lacked for the last two seasons. With Kevin Mench playing regularly and playing well (.304/.372/.595), the Rangers’ lineup is seven deep. That’s raised them from a below-average offense (11th in the AL in EqA last year) to a good one, and from an AL West trailer to its leader, as the Rangers’ core hitters–Mark Teixeira, Michael Young, Alfonso Soriano and Hank Blalock–are all meeting expectations.

As was the case with last year’s team, though, the Rangers are in contention because they’ve become much better at keeping the opposition off the scoreboard. Their raw total of 225 runs allowed puts them in the middle of the pack, but again, consider the run environment. Ameriquest Field is a very good hitters’ park, the best in the AL over a period of years (although its current park factor makes it fifth in the league).

Once again, the credit for the pitching has to go to Orel Hershiser. Without a significant amount of talent to work with, Hershiser has been able to get the Rangers to pitch a bit…well, a bit like Orel Hershisher did back in the late 1980s. The Rangers have allowed just 35 home runs this year, the fewest in the AL by six, an amazing feat given their home park. They’re fourth in lowest SLG allowed as well, a number that might be lower if they had a better outfield defense (116 doubles and triples allowed is the second-highest total in the league; the blame is shared by the outfielders and the park). These figures are the result of Hershiser getting his charges to keep the ball on the ground; the Rangers are fourth in the AL in groundout/flyout ratio (per MLB.com).

The Hershiser influence is less apparent in the other indicators: the Rangers are in the middle of the pack in walk rate and have a below-average K/BB thanks to a strikeout rate of just 5.58 K/9, 13th in the AL. Again, this is in part by design–the Rangers have a ball-in-play staff that wants to let the infielders make plays–but also reflects a lack of raw pitching talent that may be the team’s biggest weakness. Still, if you can allow the fewest homers in the league while playing in one of the league’s best home-run parks, you’ve got a big head start on success.

This isn’t the AL West of 2000-2004. The A’s are going to be hard-pressed to get back to .500, while the Mariners aren’t likely to contend behind a very bad pitching staff. The Angels have much deeper and more effective pitching than do the Rangers, but they can’t come close to the Rangers’ offensive capabilities, even with Vladimir Guerrero in the lineup. It might take just 87 or 88 wins to lead the division, and the Rangers are well-positioned to get to that number.

The offensive key for the Rangers is whether the surprise hitters–Dellucci and Mench–can sustain their performance and their playing time. Neither player has performed at this level before, and, perhaps more to the point, neither has a track record of staying healthy for a complete season. If they can, this lineup can lead the league in runs.

The pitching side is a bit more complicated. The extremely low strikeout rate is tempered by the high groundball rate; in fact, the two are both the result of the Rangers’ collective approach. However, because the Rangers do walk an average amount of hitters, have a fairly large gap between the quality of their infield defense (good) and outfield defense (not so good), and play in a home park that is good for home runs, any drop in GB/FB ratio is going to be penalized swiftly.

Something to think about: In Cleveland, John Hart was never able to make the trade to put the Indians over the top. Those Indians teams were usually one front-line starter shy of being complete, and usually had a hole or two in the lineup that went unfilled. Hart’s trades during his time in Cleveland were by far the weakest part of his tenure there.

At last year’s trade deadline, the Rangers were in contention, yet Hart failed to add help in the outfield corners or on the pitching staff. Now again in 2005, Hart is the GM of a team that is good, but perhaps not good enough, with obvious holes–back of rotation, catcher–that, if filled correctly, could add critical wins in a close race. Simply relying on Dellucci and Kenny Rogers and Brian Shouse to continue their career years is a recipe for failure.

The Rangers are going to score enough runs to contend, and they should be able to prevent enough runs to contend. Whether they can score and prevent enough to win, however, may depend entirely on Hart’s ability to do what he couldn’t do last year, and what he rarely did in Cleveland: improve the team at midseason by leveraging future value for present value.

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