So much for conventional wisdom. April in the American League West is yet another reminder of why you have to play the games before you can truly figure out where everyone stands. It's not a surprise that the top three teams in this division are the Texas Rangers, Oakland Athletics and Los Angeles Angels. On paper, those are the three best teams. Sure, the Seattle Mariners improved during the offseason, but it takes more than one $240 million player to compete with the trio at the top over the long haul.
What is surprising is how the Rangers have managed to win games despite all of their injuries. We've talked a bunch about this club's supersubs and how this rotation has come together. Heck, on Tuesday, the Rangers were playing with Michael Choice at leadoff, Josh Wilson and Donnie Murphy in the lineup and a Double-A spot starter on the mound. And they won.
But there's another big reason for the club's early success: the bullpen. Texas has put together a group that is confident and comfortable in their roles, while Oakland's relief corps, considered one of the best in baseball, hasn't looked as good as billed, especially in the ninth.
Consider how good the Athletics' record might be if they hadn't blown six saves. Six! On the season, they have more blown saves than saves (five). Only the Chicago White Sox have a worse percentage in the league. This is a case in which the other numbers look better than they appear. Oakland's pen has a 2.55 ERA, second in the league. The A's are holding opponents to a .198 batting average against, the best in the league. But the relievers throw the second-most pitches per inning in the AL, and in crunch time -- when you need those final three outs in the ninth -- they haven't consistently done the job. Jim Johnson was moved out of the closer's role, and replacement Luke Gregerson hasn't found his rhythm. The A's were in position to win the first two games of their recent series with Texas and couldn't close the deal. They had Wilson, a backup utility infielder, down to his final strike in the ninth Tuesday and still lost the game.
The Rangers' bullpen doesn't have the gaudy numbers of the A's'. The Rangers are in the middle of the AL in ERA, nearly two runs higher than the A's. Opponents are hitting .259 off them. But Texas also has the third-most holds in the league, has blown only two saves and has a quartet of pitchers who are nailing games down late in winning or close situations. Jason Frasor, Neal Cotts, Alexi Ogando and Joakim Soria have delivered. Others are contributing in key spots, too: Shawn Tolleson was called upon to keep things tight Tuesday and did so, allowing the Rangers a chance to make the comeback in the ninth.
This is also a reminder of why the Rangers front office considers the bullpens something it can cobble together at a decent price each season. Texas doesn't normally spend a bunch of money on its pen. Joe Nathan was an exception, but after two seasons as the closer, the club decided to allocate more funds to the lineup and moved the cheaper Soria into that role. In fact, the estimated salaries and bonuses of those in the bullpen in 2014 account for 12 to 14 percent of the club's payroll. Not bad.
So, while the numbers at first glance might tell you one story, the reality is manager Ron Washington and the Rangers have discovered a group of relievers they trust. And that group is getting a ton of help from its starters, as it sits 10th in the league in innings pitched thanks to some deep outings by the starters (specifically Martin Perez, who has two complete games).
Watch that bullpen. While the lineup and rotation get plenty of pub, the relievers must do the job in locking down games. They have, and the A's haven't, leaving the Rangers on top of the division as they get set to face Seattle.