Saturday, August 1, 2009

Texas Rangers: In it to win it.

I last wrote about the Texas Rangers on May 31st, back when they were 30-19 and sporting the second best record in all of baseball. This was obviously very early in the 162-game season, but it was an encouraging enough start to merit an optimistic post. Besides, given the team's track record come the long, hot summers in Texas, this was likely my best chance to celebrate their being in first. At the time of that post they had a rather sizable 5.5 game lead over the Los Angeles Angels for best record in the American League West division. Now, exactly two months later, they find themselves in second place three games back. Sounds like they've finally come down to earth, right? Not exactly.

The Angels have been, unfortunately, the best team in baseball the last two months. With a record of 61-40, they trail only the Los Angeles Dodgers for major league supremacy. In fact, since the Rangers took two of three games from them in Anaheim, the Angels have surged ahead with a 15-3 spurt. If there was ever a time for the young Rangers to fail, this was it. Except they haven't. After a 1-5 stumble following the successful series against the Angels, the Rangers have now run off a 10-2 record over the last two weeks, including an impressive sweep of the Boston Red Sox. This leaves the Rangers with a record of 58-43, sixth best in major league baseball. With July having been a scorcher in Texas, temperatures routinely over 100 degrees, it's safe to say the summer heat is not impacting this team. No team in baseball has more home wins (36) than these Rangers.

Perhaps most impressive is how well the Rangers have done against the elite teams in baseball. Consider the following:

Boston Red Sox, 5-1
LA Angels, 7-2
NY Yankees, 2-4
LA Dodgers, 1-2

Those are four of the five teams with records better than the Rangers. The fifth, the Philadelphia Phillies, have not played them. So, against four of the truly elite teams in baseball, the underdog Rangers have managed to go 15-9. That's outstanding.

With the Rangers in the thick of the playoff hunt, there was much speculation this week that they might try to improve their chances by trading for ace pitcher Roy Halladay. In the end, the Rangers stood pat...refusing to trade away multiple prospects from their #1 rated farm system. It's a move I agree with. It's not that the Rangers couldn't use a guy like Roy Halladay, or a guy like Cliff Lee whom the Phillies traded for, but one of the main reasons for this year's success is management's willingness to let the kids let them succeed, and to let them fail. It's a philosophy which started last year, and this year it's paying huge dividends. With strong results from kids like Scott Feldman (9-4, 3.99 ERA) and Tommy Hunter (3-1, 2.00 ERA), along with top prospect Derek Holland, whose last start pretty much made him untouchable in trade talks (a dominant one-hitter into the 9th inning), it's better these guys see as many meaningful innings this year as they can. Even with a trade for a guy like Halladay, the odds are against the Rangers making the playoffs. Best to not sell the farm for a short-term run at the playoffs.

So what is the key to the success for the Rangers? Three things:

1) Chemistry
2) Pitching
3) Defense

Yeah, you heard me. PITCHING. They now have the 11th best ERA in all of baseball, 6th best in the AL. And if you were worried about them getting tired, think again. Since the All-Star break, the Rangers are sporting an AL-best 3.23 ERA, fourth best in baseball over that time period. It's here where I should mention that the Rangers had the WORST pitching in baseball last year---30th out of 30 teams. The pitching on this team isn't just adequate---it's good. And getting better. The Rangers did it right last year by getting some of their kids innings and sticking with them. This year they're seeing those efforts rewarded by seeing the natural progression of talented pitchers. Add in a rookie stud defensive shortstop (Elvis Andrus) who is helping the Rangers turn more double plays than any other team in baseball, and add in a very good bullpen with lots of depth, and voila. You have this year's biggest surprise.

Now, if only they could hit! The one thing they're known for, they no longer can do! Sure, they lead all of baseball in home runs, but they're 24th and 25th in batting average and on-base-average. Yikes! Still, if hitting is the biggest problem the Rangers have, the future looks very, very bright.


Blogger Spender said...

I can;t recall the last time that I felt this good about the Rangers chances of winning the West. By not making any moves at the deadline, the Angels didn't do anything to widen the gap between the two teams and, in the long run, I think that the Angels' woes with players on the DL will give the boys a chance to climb into first.
Excellent post, sir.

August 1, 2009 at 7:14 PM  
Blogger Kraig Smith said...

Thanks, Spender. If only those Angels would lose a game every now and then! It's killing me.

August 3, 2009 at 12:40 PM  

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