On May 8, the Texas Rangers stood at 13-20 and 8.5 games back in their division. The next day, they embarked on a ten-game winning streak, which, while it wasn’t setting any records, firmly put the Rangers back into the realm of “viable baseball teams.” While that streak ended with a loss in Detroit, they came back to take the three-game series from the Tigers, which moved them to only 5.5 games back and back into the mix for a Wild Card spot, which is not something I expected to be saying earlier this month.
If you’re partial to playoff percentage probability stats, Fangraphs had them move from a low of 6.8% to 23.4% as of today and Baseball Prospectus moved them from 16.5% to 31.9%. This is to say that, yes, the Rangers are “back in it.” The “will the Rangers trade [player who is performing well]” can end (for now) and we can start to think about whether the Rangers have a legitimate chance at making it back to the postseason for a third year in a row, which is what we’re here to ponder on today.
Quality (of Competition) Assurance
Before we move on to players and groups of players, we have to note that all but one game of that ten-game streak came against the Padres, Phillies and Athletics, who have a combined 0.383 winning percentage. Not exactly the stuff that gives you a lot of insight into whether a team will succeed as a Wild Card against the team with the best record in their league. Still, “a win’s a win” and wins against bad teams are just as important (during the regular season). Furthermore, the eight wins in the middle of the streak came in Arlington and the Rangers now are in possession of the best home-record in MLB. Still, “a win’s a win” and home-road splits don’t really matter (during the regular season).
This is simply to say that the Rangers’ streak comes with a caveat. Not an asterisk or anything so risqué; just an aside that expectations for upcoming series against the Red Sox, Astros and Nationals may paint a more telling picture as to where the Rangers’ true talent level lies going forward.
Is Yu Darvish Whirling Again?
Darvish has been the brightest spot for the Rangers this season, at least in terms of results and traditional metrics. He has a 2.83 ERA, has made a quality start in nine of his ten starts and the Rangers are 5-2 in games he started (and have gone on to win two of his three no-decisions).
The peripheral stats, however, tell a slightly different story. By pretty much every metric, Darvish is not looking like the dominant force he was during his run from 2012 to 2014. He’s striking out (9.61 K/9) less hitters than ever, walking more (3.82 BB/9), giving up more home runs (1.13 HR/9) and all of this is coming with a .248 BABIP (vs. a .290 for his career) and a 85.8% stranded rate that suggest that he’s been getting lucky. So it’s not surprising that his FIP (3.80) is almost a whole integer higher than his ERA.
Darvish’s velocity is actually up this year compared to the last couple and he’s made adjustments in the past, so I’m not here to predict doom and gloom for Darvish. But it’s worth pointing out that there are definitely some warning signs here that Darvish might not keep getting results as positive as he has been.
The Rest of the Rotation
Texas has to be hoping that what we’re seeing with Darvish isn’t any sort of mirage, because after Darvish (1.0 fWAR), their starting pitching situation gets iffy very fast. Martin Perez has been having the best season of his career (3.71 ERA, 3.88 FIP), perhaps due to a new approach where he just tries to pound the zone, and has been worth 0.8 fWAR. The four other pitchers that have taken the majority of the Rangers’ starts (Nick Martinez, Cole Hamels, Andrew Cashner and A.J. Griffin) have combined for 0.3 fWAR, with Griffin contributing 0.0 fWAR and the others each chipping in a cool 0.1 fWAR.
Out of the 136 MLB pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings, three of those pitchers (plus Martinez) are sporting the 136th (Cashner, -1.2%), 135th (Hamels, 2.3%), 114th (Perez, 6.7%) and 102nd (Martinez, 8.1%) worst strikeout-to-walk ratios (K-BB%). The only player who hasn’t been posting an unimpressive K-BB% is Griffin (whose 2.63 HR/9 is the 6th worst in MLB), and he probably just gave up another home run while I was typing this.
K-BB% isn’t The One Perfect Statistic for Evaluating Future Pitcher Performance (and if you have that one, please DM me, we need to chat), but most of the the Rangers’ rotation doesn’t exactly strike fear into opposing hitters with their command. Now, Tyson Ross is recovering from thoracic outlet surgery and dealing with back pain is pitching again and might be back soon. Whether he will return as anything near the 2015 Ross (3.26 ERA, 2.98 FIP, 4.4 fWAR) version of himself is anybody’s guess at this point. Likewise for Hamels, who is on the bench for an oblique strain and not expected back until the end of June.
Who’s on First? And Second? And Catching?
If the Rangers starters as a whole (2.0 fWAR, 23rd in MLB) have been worrisome, the same goes for their hitters, who combined for 4.7 fWAR, which is tied for 17th in MLB with the Red Sox. If the rotation was stronger, that sort of ranking wouldn’t be an issue, but here we are, and the Rangers’ infield and catcher situations are a mess right now, at least in terms of expectations and results.
The biggest contributor for Texas to date has been Joey Gallo (who has been spending most of his time at third filling in for Adrian Beltre, which, more in a minute). He is second in MLB in 63 strikeouts (63) and K% (38.2%) and, boy oh boy, does his .184 AVG reflect that. Fortunately for the Rangers, he’s walking enough and hitting for enough power that it doesn’t even matter, as he’s also in a six-way tie for fourth place with 13 home runs, so his .184/.303/.504 slashline combined with less than stellar defense has been worth 1.1 fWAR. Shortstop has been fine as well, with Elvis Andrus hitting (.283/.330/.434, 104 wRC+) and fielding well enough that he’s been worth 0.7 fWAR. But that’s where the good news ends in the Rangers’ non-outfield position players.
Catcher Jonathan Lucroy has been hitting .277/.320/.412 for a 95 wRC+. While not up to the standards of the Lucroy we’ve come to expect, it’s certainly adequate as long as he’s the elite pitch framer we had come to believe he was. Baseball Prospectus, however, has him as the MLB’s worst receiver with -8.1 runs, which means that by their WAR formulation (WARP), he has been a -0.3 WAR player to date in 2017.
At second, Rougned Odor is struggling mightily and hitting .199/.254/.347, for a 55 wRC+, and putting up -0.1 fWAR. At first, Ryan Rua (.229/.299/.400, 86 wRC+) and Mike Napoli (.188/.262/.416, 71 wRC+) have combined for -0.4 fWAR. Basically, the rest of the infield is cancelling out Andrus’s contributions.
As mentioned above, Adrian Beltre has been dealing with a calf injury and has yet to play in a game, although he should be starting rehabbing soon. While, under normal circumstances, a 38-year old player who has missed over a month would raise some serious red flags, Beltre put up 6.1 fWAR in his age-37 season, so I’m going to be the last person to scream “doom and gloom” on that front just yet.
Gallo is hitting well enough that the Rangers can play around with some defensive configurations and figure something out that keeps their best players in the lineup, so there’s room for addition through subtraction.There’s also definitely room to hope that some of the aforementioned folks who are struggling could improve. If they don’t, though, the Rangers are going to need some serious luck to make it to the postseason with a bunch of gaping holes in the infield.
Luck Won’t Be a Lady Tonight
After a season where Texas inexplicably managed to win 95 games despite the fact that they had only a +8 run differential and managed a 36-11 record in one-run games, the baseball gods have come to collect. This season, their 24-21 record features a much better +25 run differential and they are 4-7 in one-run games. There’s nothing really else to say about this except to sit back and just marvel about how lucky they were last year when their Pythagorean record had them as an 82-win team. Well, that and point out that, while they were able to win their division last year despite posting modest rankings for fWAR (23rd in MLB for their pitchers and 16th for their batters), that probably isn’t going to happen again.
The Astros are clearly the division favorites at this point, as they were going into the season. If the rumors are true that they are looking to upgrade their starting pitching, their one Achilles heel, then that should only further Houston’s chances. But after the Astros, the AL West is kind of a mess. The Mariners have been absolutely decimated by injuries. Out of their preseason expected starting rotation, the only pitcher currently in their rotation is Yovani Gallardo, which is, shall we say, less than optimal. The Athletics are performing about as well as we could have expected going into the season, which is to say they are under .500, but not that far. The Angels have Mike Trout and Andrelton Simmons and some pitching which has looked better than anyone expected, but are far from being a complete team.
If the Rangers can just beat up on their non-Lone-Star-State division rivals, that would a big help to their postseason hopes. Right now, they’re 11-14, not that that statistic imbues any import for future intra-divisional games.
A ten-game winning streak would do a lot to change our immediate perceptions about a lot of teams, but it doesn’t tell you much about what’s going to happen over the next few months. The Rangers are definitely in a much better place than they were after their torrid start to 2017, and it’s certainly possible that the Rangers could look like a totally different team in a month if their injured players come back and find success again or a couple of slumpy players can, you know, just stop that. But we’re going to have to wait a bit to see whether the Rangers who just went win-crazy are for real, because there are some serious questions surrounding a lot of their players.