Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pinch me.

Rare is the chance I get to talk sports on BHG, mostly because the Cowboys, Mavericks, Stars and Rangers are annual disappointments in one way or another. But on this beautiful spring day, the last one in the month of May, I find myself somewhat astonished to find the Texas Rangers all alone in first place in the American League West. True, I could talk about how the Texas Longhorns won a 25-inning game in the College World Series last night, the longest in the history of college baseball, but I haven't been a fan of college baseball since the early 80s when the Longhorns had Roger Clemens and Spike Owen on the team. No, the early accomplishments of the Rangers this season is far more exciting to me. A few facts...

* The Rangers have a record of 30-19, second best in ALL of baseball.

* They've been in sole possession of first place for 25 straight days now, the longest they've done that since 1999---a division-winning year. With a 5.5 game lead over Anaheim, they seem destined to hold on to first for at least a good chunk of June.

* They've won 20 games in May, best ever for the team. The only other 20-plus winning month was September, 1978 (21-10). They could tie that with a win today.

* They're 13-2 against their division rivals in the West.

It's always been said that if the Rangers could just get "mediocre" pitching they could win 100 games on the strength of their offense alone. Well, with an ERA currently a full run lower than last season's, they now find themselves with the 6th best pitching in the AL...something that most definitely qualifies as mediocre or better.

Is it for real? Tim Brown at Yahoo Sports, a columnist who prepares a weekly MLB "power rankings" doesn't think so. He's been consistently ranking the Rangers well below what their record would dictate. His latest rankings have them 11th out of baseball's 30 teams, the second such week they've held that position despite having baseball's second best record for both weeks. His snarky comment for the week was, "A-a-a-nd, Rangers’ pitching collapses in 3 … 2 … 1 …". Given the Rangers' history with pitching and wilting in the summer heat, Brown's cynicism is well deserved. Still, this team is quite a bit different than in years past.

Perhaps the biggest change in 2009 is in team defense, one of the more underappreciated factors in the success of a pitching staff. The decision to promote 20-year-old phenom Elvis Andrus to the role of starting shortstop this year is proving to be nothing short of brilliant. Forgetting for the moment that he's actually contributing at the plate, something which was rather unexpected, Andrus has done exactly what the Rangers hoped he would do...get to balls. This kid is amazing and is going to put together a string of about 15 consecutive Gold Glove seasons before his career his over. His promotion forced All-Star Michael Young over to third base which has also proven to be another defensive boost. Statistically speaking, the Rangers have basically gone from worst to first in terms of their team ability to "get" to balls. That's the sort of thing which gives pitchers confidence, but it's also the sort of thing which will help the Rangers avoid any catastrophic streaks come summer. Yes, their pitching will likely weaken as the season continues, but with such a nimble defense it should keep 3-run innings from turning into 5-run disasters, and that's the sort of thing which should help the Rangers win more games than they usually do.

One other reason for a bright outlook is that their offense, traditionally one of the best in baseball, is hardly firing on all cylinders. While they do lead all of baseball in HRs, and while they are 6th in runs scored, they're largely doing it without significant contributions from two of their best hitters---Josh Hamilton and Chris Davis. Davis has 12 HRs, but he's hitting .194 and is on a record-shattering pace for strikeouts. Hamilton, who has already missed time due to a DL stint, is only hitting .234 with 6 HRs. Both players seem like prime candidates to heat up with the weather. And sure, other players can be expected to slow down offensively, but most would agree this is an underachieving offense at the moment...and that should scare everyone.

It's a cliche, but this is a looooong season and we're not even 1/3 of the way through. Nonetheless, this team looks and feels like a winner. They may not make the playoffs this year, but if you're looking for a team with the potential to be a perennial monster in the next decade, this is it. The fact they were voted as the team with the best farm system, too, should give other teams nightmares.


Blogger Morgan said...

i believe the cavs had the best record in basketball as well.

May 31, 2009 at 12:48 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

Good thing then they only have the second best record. I believe an NBA team by the name of "Lakers" has the second best record. Last I checked, they're still in. Also, I'd be hellathrilled just to have the Rangers make the playoffs and get swept in the first round. That would be awesome.

May 31, 2009 at 5:59 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

Yeah, if the Cavs analogy would mean Rangers go out in the ALCS, I think any sane fan would sign up for that right now. The pitching is . . . tenuous, but the offense is (as always) potent, and the defense is improved. Plus, the division kind of sucks this year. It will be fun to see how long they can make it last. Especially since you've now jinxed them with this post...

June 1, 2009 at 2:03 AM  

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