On Monday night, the Rangers gave up the ghost in the AL West race, falling to the Angels 11-0, and on Tuesday, they were eliminated from the AL’s Wild Card as well. It’s a bittersweet moment, as the team spent two months in first place from May to July, but they’ll finish above .500 for the first time since 2004, an impressive showing given that their PECOTA forecast was for just 70 wins.

As noted in Monday’s edition of “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye,” the Rangers’ improvement has been attributable to better run prevention. From an AL-worst 5.97 runs per game last year, they’d tightened up to 4.60 runs per game through Monday’s drubbing, fifth-best in the league. The magnitude of that drop alone is enough to crack a list of the largest year-to-year improvements since World War II:

                           Previous  Delta         Previous  Delta
Rk  Year Team         RA      RA      RA     WPct    WPct    WPct
 1  1997 Tigers      4.88    6.81    1.93    .488    .327    .160
 2  2008 Rays        4.14    5.83    1.69    .599    .407    .191
 3  1954 Tigers      4.31    5.99    1.68    .442    .390    .052
 4  1998 Padres      3.92    5.50    1.58    .605    .469    .136
 5  1963 Cubs        3.57    5.10    1.54    .506    .364    .142
 6  1978 Padres      3.69    5.15    1.46    .519    .426    .093
 7  1988 Indians     4.51    5.91    1.40    .481    .377    .105
 8  1971 White Sox   3.69    5.07    1.39    .488    .346    .142
9t  1997 Orioles     4.20    5.57    1.37    .605    .543    .062
9t  2009 Rangers     4.60    5.97    1.37    .545    .488    .057
11  1980 A's         3.96    5.31    1.35    .512    .333    .179
12  1974 Braves      3.48    4.81    1.33    .543    .472    .071
13  2005 Indians     3.96    5.29    1.33    .574    .494    .080
14  1972 Indians     3.33    4.61    1.28    .462    .370    .091
15  1954 Giants      3.57    4.85    1.28    .630    .455    .175
16  2001 Cubs        4.33    5.58    1.25    .543    .401    .142
17  1988 Brewers     3.80    5.04    1.24    .537    .562   -.025
18  1971 Astros      3.49    4.71    1.22    .488    .488    .000
19  1989 Angels      3.57    4.76    1.19    .562    .463    .099
20  2007 Royals      4.80    5.99    1.19    .426    .383    .043

It’s interesting to note that while the other teams here averaged a 102-point increase in winning percentage-over 16 wins-thanks to their sudden interest in stopping the opponents from scoring, the Rangers have gained just 57 points, the fifth-lowest gain of these clubs. That has everything to do with an offense that fell off from a league-high 5.56 runs per game last year to a mid-pack 4.87 this year, a level that’s nonetheless inflated by their park; their .255 team EqA is certainly nothing to write home about. For all the hubbub about how far off their overall projection was, it’s worth noting that PECOTA foresaw a lineup where seven of the nine slots would post OBPs below .336, last year’s park-adjusted league average, and that’s exactly what happened, with only Michael Young (.376) and David Murphy (.344) bucking the trend.

The run prevention is the real story, particularly the fact that the Rangers pulled it off despite a staff which has ranked just 12th in the league in strikeout rate, with 6.3 per nine. The foundation of their improvement has been in the field, where the shift of Young from shortstop to third base to accommodate slick-fielding Elvis Andrus bore fruit-a topic I first explored back in mid-May. After ranking dead last in the majors with a .670 Defensive Efficiency in 2008, they rank second in the AL at .702 this time around, with the majors’ second-largest year-to-year improvement:

Team        2009   2008     +/- 
Reds        .705   .673    .032
Rangers     .701   .670    .031
Mariners    .712   .682    .030
Dodgers     .714   .691    .023
Giants      .705   .685    .020
Yankees     .699   .682    .017
Pirates     .691   .675    .016
Rockies     .690   .678    .012
Tigers      .696   .685    .011
Twins       .692   .687    .005
White Sox   .687   .686    .001
D'backs     .686   .686    .000
Cardinals   .695   .695    .000
Phillies    .695   .696   -.001
Angels      .689   .692   -.003
Cubs        .702   .705   -.003
Padres      .693   .696   -.003
Nationals   .684   .689   -.005
Braves      .688   .694   -.006
Indians     .680   .686   -.006
Mets        .691   .698   -.007
Marlins     .685   .693   -.008
Brewers     .690   .698   -.008
Orioles     .679   .688   -.009
Rays        .696   .710   -.014
Athletics   .685   .700   -.015
Royals      .674   .690   -.016
Red Sox     .678   .699   -.021
Astros      .677   .698   -.021
Blue Jays   .683   .704   -.021

While that 31-point improvement doesn’t top the record-setting 54-point improvement achieved by last year’s Rays, it would tie for the eighth-largest year-to-year increase in the Retrosheet era (since 1954), a tidy accomplishment. The improvement isn’t solely due to Andrus, who ranks fourth among major league shortstops in Fielding Runs Above Average (+13) and Plus/Minus (+11 runs), and second in UZR (+10.1). Ian Kinsler (+16 FRAA, +7.5 UZR, +16 Plus/Minus) outdoes Andrus by some metrics, and right fielder Nelson Cruz‘s numbers are particularly off the charts in both FRAA (+21) and UZR (+13), though they weigh in more conservatively at +7 in Plus/Minus. While the magnitude of his contribution may be in doubt, there’s no question that Cruz deserves at least some of the credit for the fact that the team ranks sixth in slugging percentage in balls in play after ranking last in 2008, as Matt Swartz noted last week.

The Rangers aren’t the only team to show wholesale defensive improvement over last year. The Reds have the largest improvement thanks chiefly to the additions of shortstops Alex Gonzalez and Paul Janish and center fielders Willy Taveras and Drew Stubbs to the lineup; the team has gone from allowing 4.94 runs per game last year to 4.49 this year, improving from 13th in the league to eighth. Alas, the improvement from the defense has been mooted by the decline of the offense. The since-traded Gonzalez (.195 EqA), Janish (.221), and Taveras (.214) couldn’t hit water if they fell out of a boat, and all have done their share to hamper an offense whose .249 EqA ranks second-to-last in the league.

The Mariners’ fate is considerably happier. After losing 101 games last year-becoming the first $100 million payroll team to reach the century mark in losses-they’ve clinched at least a .500 season, though they have still been outscored by 60 runs thanks to the offense’s .246 EqA. Still, the addition of center fielder Franklin Gutierrez (+7 FRAA, +27.1 UZR, +22 Plus/Minus) has helped them hold opponents to the majors’ lowest slugging percentage on balls in play (.354); the departure of the defensively execrable Raul Ibañez hasn’t hurt that cause either. Likewise, the infield has received a considerable boost from Yuliesky Betancourt’s mid-season exile to Kansas City-hey Dayton, notice anything about where your team ranks here?-and the arrival of Jack Wilson, who between his Pittsburgh and Seattle stints leads all shortstops in UZR (14.2) and Plus/Minus (+24 runs).

Also particularly notable among the improved defenses are the playoff-bound Dodgers and Yankees. Rafael Furcal‘s return to regular duty, the upgrade from Jeff Kent to Orlando Hudson, and a surprisingly strong season with the leather from Casey Blake have made the difference for the former, particularly in helping Randy Wolf place 11th in the league in SNLVAR via a league-low .254 BABIP. As for the Yanks, they owe their improvement to the arrivals of Mark Teixeira and Nick Swisher, the departures of Jason Giambi and Bobby Abreu, the increased presence of both Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera, and a surprisingly strong season from Derek Jeter. Their Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency (-0.14) shows that they’re basically an average unit at best.

Which puts them ahead of their AL East rivals; indeed the division seems to be leaking defense, given that the Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays all rank among the six teams with the largest declines from last year. In Toronto, center fielder Vernon Wells is as much of a drag in the field (-6 FRAA, -18.3 UZR, -17 Plus/Minus) as he is on the payroll. In Tampa Bay, the Rays have dropped back to the middle of the pack after last year’s turnaround; the various fielding systems differ as to where the responsibility for that lies, with Jason Bartlett, Carlos Peña, and B.J. Upton each showing up as solidly below average in two of the three major ones.

Because they’ll have to live with their defense beyond this weekend, it’s the Red Sox who are of the most interest from among this group. Shortstop has been the team’s Achilles heel; in the absence of Jed Lowrie, they’ve gotten below-average work from Nick Green, Julio Lugo, and Alex Gonzalez. The team’s BABIP since acquiring the supposedly slick-fielding Gonzalez in mid-August has risen from .314 to .325, and that’s with the departures of John Smoltz and Brad Penny, who were doing little more than tossing batting practice while in Boston unis. Mike Lowell hasn’t been the same since hip surgery, declining by 27 runs according to FRAA, 21.6 according to UZR, and 22 according to Plus/Minus. The outfield’s been a problem as well, with Jacoby Ellsbury falling off a whopping 38 runs according to FRAA, 18.6 runs according to UZR, and 14 according to Plus/Minus. Don’t even ask about the catching situation, which doesn’t figure into Defensive Efficiency, but which rates as a major concern given their upcoming first-round matchup with the fleet-footed Angels.

Back to the Rangers and looking ahead to next year, it’s worth noting that some regression to the mean is almost inevitable-just ask this year’s Rays and Marlins. Taking last year’s historical improvement leaderboard as a starting point and tossing out the 1980 A’s because their successors played a strike-shortened schedule, of the 23 teams to improve their Defensive Efficiency by at least 26 points from Year 0 to Year 1, 18 of them declined in Year 2, and two more came within a point of doing so:

Year Team         Yr0    Yr1    Yr2    1st     2nd     Net
2008 Rays        .656   .710   .696   .054   -.014    .040
1991 Braves      .679   .714   .715   .035    .001    .036
1988 Brewers     .683   .716   .695   .033   -.021    .012
1971 Giants      .689   .721   .715   .032   -.006    .026
1978 White Sox   .682   .714   .712   .032   -.002    .030
2008 Marlins     .661   .693   .685   .031   -.008    .024
1955 Cubs        .705   .735   .723   .030   -.012    .018
1997 Tigers      .671   .700   .685   .029   -.015    .014
1988 Reds        .698   .726   .706   .028   -.020    .008
2001 Mariners    .699   .727   .704   .028   -.023    .005
1965 Pirates     .688   .716   .695   .027   -.021    .007
1971 Astros      .688   .715   .699   .027   -.016    .011
1985 Yankees     .683   .711   .704   .027   -.007    .021
1985 Giants      .680   .707   .718   .027    .011    .038
1991 Angels      .680   .708   .696   .027   -.012    .016
1992 Brewers     .698   .725   .698   .027   -.027    .000
1998 Yankees     .685   .712   .699   .027   -.013    .014
1968 Indians     .715   .741   .707   .026   -.034   -.008
1978 Braves      .680   .706   .689   .026   -.017    .009
1997 Astros      .668   .693   .693   .026    .000    .025
1998 Red Sox     .677   .703   .693   .026   -.010    .016
2000 Mariners    .673   .699   .727   .026    .028    .054
2001 Twins       .674   .700   .705   .026    .005    .031

In the above chart, Yr1 refers to the year in which the improvement was made (the one for which the team is labeled) and 1st to the magnitude of that improvement, with Yr2 and 2nd referring to the following seasons, and Net to the difference between Year 2 and Year 0. All told, the average decline from Year 1 to Year 2 was 10 points. Still, just one of those 23 teams posted a worse Defensive Efficiency in Year 2 than in Year 1, and the average gain across the two-year timespan was 19 points. This year’s Rays are 40 points better than the be-Devil’d 2007 edition, mainly because of personnel; the team weeded the bad fielders out while replacing them with better ones who have become lineup cornerstones (Bartlett, Evan Longoria, and the shifted Upton and Akinori Iwamura).

All of which suggests that the Rangers, with the arrival of Andrus and the improvement of Kinsler at the keystone, are in good shape to maintain the lion’s share of this year’s defensive gains. Even with the team’s uncertain financial state, that fact and the strength of their system suggest we could be talking about them again in a positive light next year.

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Jay ... would you say that Ryan's emphasis on having the starting pitchers throw deeper into games resulted in their September swandive? Their K/9 rate dipped dramatically, while their ERA rose more than a full run in September (despite their slash stats mimicking August's).
The numbers there certainly aren't very encouraging (5.60 ERA and 5.4 K/9 for September), but linking that to Ryan's directive probably isn't so simple. Recall that the rotation was similarly awful in April (5.43 ERA, 5.2 K/9), and that the team has been without Young or Josh Hamilton for most of this month, which has cost them on both offense and defense.
Indeed, it seems that the Rangers infield is probably set for next year, with Young, Andrus, Kinsler and Davis Returning. Blalock is probably gone, as is Jones (though Jones didn't play much first at all). Its possible that we'll see some Justin Smoak at first next year, but despite being very slow is supposed to have extremely good hands at first. In fact, with Team USA's season over, and the Rangers sliminated, we might see Smoak in a Rangers Uni this week (especially since Davis strained a hammy and will probably be shut down for the rest of the year). The big issue for next year is the outfield. There's going to be a push to resign Marlon Byrd by the media, fans, and even the players, but in the end, I'm guessing that he goes elsewhere and is way overpaid (calling Gary Matthews jr.) returning is the injury risk (Hamilton), the young speedster (Borbon), the late blooming slugger (Cruz), and David Murphy, who I don't have any clever descriptive tags for, but makes a very nice 4th outfielder. That fills all the slots (except DH) but doesn't leave much depth, and with Hamilton's injuy history that's not a good thing. I'm guessing the Rangers bring in a DH and a centerfielder (Mr. Wells? Mr. Vernon Wells on line three....) and try and keep Omar Vizquel around, as he's quite a shortstop still.
In a 2007 NY Sun piece, I called Murphy "a card-carrying member of the Future Fourth Outfielders of America" and I still think that describes him pretty well — not quite an asset as a regular except relative to age and salary. Looking at his splits, though, I think that if you took out a restraining order to prevent him from playing against lefties and paired him with a lefty masher, you'd have something incrementally better than that.
Jay, just to check, but I'm pretty sure that in your penultimate paragraph, when you said "Still, just one of those 23 teams posted a worse Defensive Efficiency in Year 2 than in Year 1. . ." that you mean Year 0 instead of Year 1?
Er, yes. Good catch.
Interesting. Cruz is perceived locally as a major liability in right field: If Borbon proves he can play center in winter ball, I hope JD is wise enough to put Hamilton at DH to keep him healthy and leave Cruz alone in RF.
Since the Angels have lost the 7th most runs by stealing bases, I wouldn't be as worried about their stealing. The Red Sox being weak at preventing steals is a weakness against the Angels' weakness, not a weakness against a strength. Most of their base-running prowess (9th overall) results from advancement, rather than steals. Of course, the Sox are 10th overall...
Call it a working theory, but I'm not so sure I actually count the Angels' base stealing as a weakness, despite what the EqSBR numbers say. The frequency with which they steal (2nd most in the majors) is itself an issue which I believe has contributed to their above-average showing at the plate with men on base, particularly including those with runners on first and a base open (.406/.418/.672 in 216 PA with runners on 1st and 3rd!). The effects of pitching from the stretch, making throws over to first, and repositioning infielders to accommodate for potential steals may all have an influence on the Angels' impressive offensive performance (2nd in the majors in scoring) and their Pythagorean overachievement. Against a team that doesn't hold runners well or have catchers who can throw well, the sheer threat might be an issue. Oh, and in a small sample size, they were 15/17 in SB versus Boston this year. Additionally, the other problem with EqSBR and EqBRR is that while it captures value via run expectancy (baserunners and outs), it doesn't capture it via win expectancy (inning and score margin) because it ignores leverage - similar to the difference between Adjusted Runs Prevented and WXRL. I don't actually know that the Angels would fare better in the latter analysis, but I haven't discounted that possibility, again particularly in the context of their overachievement.