I guess I knew the Athletics were in rebuilding mode before the last series began, but it really took seeing the Diamondbacks sweep them to hammer the point home. The Oakland Athletics we saw over the weekend featured Seth Smith: The Cleanup Hitter Experience, and tried to pretend that Travis Blackley was an actual starting pitcher. I'm not mentioning this to belittle the Athletics or the Diamondbacks' accomplishment in sweeping them, but rather to point out that here was a team that gave themselves virtually no chance to win this year, in exchange for increasing their odds of winning in the future. And that's because they share a division with the Texas Rangers.
I'm not saying the Rangers are the best team in baseball. We've played 60 games, and 60 games into last year everyone was just sure we'd be in for a Phillies/Red Sox world series. But the Rangers have the best run differential in the game right now, and they're a half game from having the best record in the American League. No, they aren't clearly the best team, but they belong in the conversation. They probably belong at the beginning of the conversation.
You might have heard that the Rangers have gone through a "rough patch" recently. You might remember Jarrod Parker's near-perfect game, or the time the Mariners scored 21 runs against them. It's not untrue, they've fallen off of their pace a bit in the last month. It's June 12th, and since May 12th the Rangers have gone 13-14. It's worth mentioning that after their "rough patch," the Rangers are still on pace to win 93 games.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs):
The Rangers' offense gets most of the national press, and deservedly so. They do lead all of baseball in both OBP and SLG%, after all. The Diamondbacks have gotten relatively lucky this season in that they have faced a lot of mediocre to bad offenses. The only lineup they've faced so far that even belongs in the same conversation as the Rangers' belongs to St. Louis, and you might remember that as the series where they gave up 22 runs in three games.
But we also can't ignore what their pitching has done this year. That park-adjusted FIP above is the lowest mark in the AL. The starters have been alright, but the bullpen has simply been fantastic. As a unit, they have an ERA of 2.80 in an extreme hitter's park, and they lead all of baseball in BB/9, with 1.73. Based on this, the Rangers' blueprint for victory seems pretty simple: out-slug you for 6-7 innings, and lock things down with the best bullpen in baseball. It isn't exactly Ocean's Eleven, but it works.
I don't know about you, but this makes me really nostalgic for those Padres and Athletics series. You know, where all pitchers had to do was not screw up against Chase Headley or Josh Reddick and they would probably be fine? This lineup though, they just keep rolling out good hitters. The worst hitter this year is probably Michael Young, which is funny in and of itself because he's mostly been a DH this year. He has an OPS of .686, although he hasn't finished a season with an OPS under .700 since 2002, so that will probably rise. Yup, Michael Young: worst hitter in the lineup.
Of course, when talking about the Rangers' lineup, everything begins and ends with Josh Hamilton, who, like the Rangers themselves, may not be the best in baseball, but clearly belongs in the conversation. He has a batting line of .338/.399/.698, and is percentage points away from being the best player in baseball by both fWAR and bWAR. If you don't like advanced stats, he leads MLB in homers and RBIs. I guess what I'm trying to say is: he's the sort of guy you trade straight up for Edison Volquez.
The rest of the lineup is just steadily above-average around Hamilton. Ian Kinsler has been one of the better second basemen for a few years now, and he went to school in Tucson. He has an OPS of .793 on the year and he went to school in Tucson. Also, Daron and Grace want to make sure you know he went to school in Tucson. Elvis Andrus is 23, plays solid defense, and has finally began to show improvement on offense. So obviously the Rangers will trade him for Chris Young, especially with Craig Gentry and his unplayable .846 OPS in center field, right? Don't answer that, I'm happier in this fantasy world of mine.
Seriously, they can't just throw a Cliff Pennington or something in there to make this a little more fun for everyone?
Insightful Commentary: Remember like two weeks ago, when Kennedy had lost his last five decisions, had an ERA of nearly 5, a plummeting strikeout rate and, worst of all, almost no confidence? Well, all he's done since then is allow one run in his last 13.2 innings, during which time he also had a K:BB of 19:3. He's officially striking out more batters per nine innings than he was last year, with almost the same walk rate. And you people were worried...
Colby Lewis is a cool story. He couldn't cut it with the A's, so after the 2007 season, he spent a year in Japan. He was 28 at the time, and that could have been it for Lewis in the majors, but the Rangers evidently saw something they liked out of him and gave him a shot in 2010. He's been a mid-rotation starter on a playoff team ever since. And this has been his best season to date, as that 3.38 ERA is the best in the Rangers' rotation. There aren't a ton of 32-year-old right-handers that make a living with a fastball that tops out at 90 mph, but his location has been incredible all season with a BB/9 of just 1.13.
Insightful Commentary: So the Committee For the Regression of Wade Miley convened and came up with a game on the road against the Texas Rangers as the perfect challenge. He's been allowing freakishly few home runs, and he'll face the most powerful lineup in the majors in a home run friendly park. He's been skating by recently by not walking many batters and trusting his defense, and that might work less well against Texas than it did against Colorado and San Diego.
Matt Harrison was not a good pitcher in my mind. I'm not totally sure why, whether it's bias against people with bland names or vaguely remembered scouting from 2009, when he had an ERA of 6.11. Whatever the reason, I should clearly watch more AL baseball because Matt Harrison is a solid pitcher. He's a lefty, who doesn't throw hard or generate many strikeouts, but keeps the ball in the ballpark and doesn't walk many batters. This game would go a long way toward shaking the stereotype, deserved or not, that the Diamondbacks struggle against low-strikeout lefties.
Thursday: Daniel Hudson (2-1, 6.06) vs. Scott Feldman (0-5, 6.47)
Insightful Commentary: Again, I think Hudson should stay in the rotation. He has the body of work over the past season and a half, and his swinging strike rate suggests that the strikeouts should return in time. But that doesn't mean I'm not nervous. His BABIP is uncomfortably high at .333, but his LD% has spiked this year, so regression isn't necessarily right around the corner. Also, his home run rate has ballooned from seemingly out of nowhere, so it bears keeping an eye on.
The average strand rate is right about 72%. Scott Feldman's is currently stranding 48.3% of his baserunners, which is the most absurdly low strand rate I've seen from a pitcher this late in the season. I don't watch enough Ranger games to know whether this is bad luck or whether Feldman actually just turns into a one-eyed ocelot every time a runner reaches base, but it's a bizarre statistic. Hitters slug .568 against him with runners in scoring position. Andrew McCutchen has a slugging percentage of .563. You can see how this would lead to an ERA of 6.47.
Final Verdict: Apologies to the Dodgers (sorry I'm not sorry), but the Rangers are the best team the Diamondbacks have played this year. Again, the last time the Diamondbacks played an offense this good, they allowed nearly eight runs per game, and that was at home. I think the D-Backs can salvage a game here, but I expect the Rangers to take the series two games to one.
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(Numbers via Baseball-reference and Fangraphs)