Monday, April 23, 2012
Rangers have the sweet look of greatness
By David Schoenfield
It's too early to call the Texas Rangers a great team, but it's also not too early to get excited by their 13-3 start. What's makes the Rangers impressive is they can beat you in so many ways. They even pulled out some small ball in the 11th inning to beat the Detroit Tigers on Sunday, winning on Alberto Gonzalez's squeeze bunt. OK, so the bunt glanced off his knee and should have been ruled a foul ball; that's the way the season has gone for the Rangers.
Yes, the Rangers have beat up on the lowly Mariners and Twins for six of their 13 victories, but they just took three of four from the Tigers in Detroit and also took two in Boston. If you think their schedule has been soft so far, we'll get a truer test of this club in the upcoming weeks. They host the Yankees on Monday night on ESPN (7 p.m. ET), a nice matchup between Derek Holland and CC Sabathia. After the series against the Yankees, they play Tampa Bay, at Toronto, at Cleveland, at Baltimore and then go home for the Angels. That 19-game stretch gets them to mid-May and by then we'll know if this club has a chance to become one of the best in recent memory.
The two most perfect teams of the past 15 years were the 1998 Yankees and 2001 Mariners. Those teams won 114 and 116 games respectively, as they steamrolled opponents with a combination of starting pitching, offense, bullpen, speed and defense. The Rangers remind of those two clubs in that I can't find a weakness. Entering Monday's action, the Rangers lead the majors in runs scored and fewest runs allowed. Their run differential is an amazing +52 already, a bigger differential than the Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers, White Sox and Indians added together (the other AL teams with a positive run differential so far).
Are the Rangers a perfect team? Again, it's just 16 games, but let's take a look.
1. Rotation. I wrote several times in the offseason that I consider the Rangers' rotation potentially as good as any in baseball, especially if Holland's second-half surge last year proved true and Yu Darvish pitched to his hype. Darvish has been shaky through three starts but the Rangers' rotation has still been outstanding. Holland looks terrific, Matt Harrison has turned into a groundball machine (fourth-best groundball percentage among starters) and is 3-0, Colby Lewis has a 24/1 strikeout/walk ratio and Neftali Feliz just threw a complete game. The Ballpark isn't an easy place to pitch and their numbers may go up once the summer heat kicks in, but put these guys in a neutral park and they'd get more recognition.
Similar to the '98 Yankees and '01 Mariners, they may lack a dominant ace like Roy Halladay or Justin Verlander, but make up for it in depth. The '98 Yankees rotation was led by David Wells and David Cone, but they also had Andy Pettitte and Hideki Irabu and the midseason addition of Orlando Hernandez. The '01 Mariners featured AL ERA leader Freddy Garcia and behind him Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele and 17-game winner Paul Abbott. Those rotations stayed healthy, as you would expect from teams that win that many games. That, of course, remains to be seen with the Rangers, but manager Ron Washington and pitching coach Mike Maddux got 157 starts a year ago from their top five guys.
2. Bullpen. The Rangers' setup duo of Alexi Ogando and Mike Adams could be the most dominant in the majors (so far: 14 strikeouts, no walks) and rookie lefty Robbie Ross looks like a third weapon. If there's one potential weakness on the team it could be closer Joe Nathan, who has suffered two of the three Rangers' defeats. But even if he's not the Nathan of old that isn't necessary a severe problem since Washington will use mostly Ogando and Adams in high-leverage situations with runners on base. It wouldn't shock me if Nathan doesn't enter a game with a runner on base all season.
3. Offensive firepower.Josh Hamilton went 3-for-3 on Sunday with his seventh home run. He's hitting .418. Michael Young is hitting .403. Mike Napoli has six home runs and a 1.042 OPS. Leadoff hitter Ian Kinsler has four home runs and a .597 slugging percentage. As hot as they are, there is one big difference between this club and the '98 Yankees and '01 Mariners, both of whom led their leagues in runs even though they didn't lead in home runs. Those teams walked a lot: the Yankees drew 653 walks and had a .364 OBP; the Mariners drew 614 walks and had a .360 OBP.
The Rangers, however, are a different breed. Entering Sunday they ranked just 16th in the majors in walks. Last season they ranked just 21st. It's difficult to lead your league in runs scored if you don't walk more; so far, the Rangers have been relying on an unsustainable .334 average on balls in play. The fact they rank ninth in line-drive percentage indicates a fair share of grounders that are sneaking through. What's interesting about the Rangers is that while they don't walk a lot, they don't really expand the strike zone either. Entering Sunday, only six teams had swung at a lower percentage of pitchers outside the strike zone. It seems they have a controlled aggression at the plate. You can try to get ahead of them with a strike, but guys like Hamilton, Young and Adrian Beltre also like to attack those first-pitch strikes.
4. Baserunning. The '98 Yankees were an underrated team on the basepaths, ranking second in the league in stolen bases with six players stealing at least 15 bases. Overall, that team was six runs above average with its baserunning. The '01 Mariners were one of the smartest baserunning teams I've ever seen. Led by Ichiro Suzuki, Mark McLemore and Mike Cameron, they led the AL in steals and were a collective 16 runs above average on the bases. For the Rangers, Kinsler and Elvis Andrus are two of the best baserunners in baseball -- Kinsler ranked first in Baseball-Reference's metric a year ago at +8 runs, with Andrus tied for second at +7 runs. Throw in part-time center fielder Craig Gentry (18-for-18 in steals in 2011) and you have another way the Rangers can beat you.
5. Defense. With Suzuki, Cameron, Bret Boone, John Olerud and David Bell, those Mariners were a manager's dream on defense. Baseball-Reference's defensive metric rates that team as +104 runs on defense, an incredible total. The Yankees, not always known for their defense through the years, were above average that year with Scott Brosius, Paul O'Neill and Chad Curtis their best defenders. The Rangers infield trio of Kinsler, Andrus and Beltre is phenomenal, arguably one of the best second-short-third combos we've seen in a long time. Hamilton is solid in the outfield and Gentry is an elite fly chaser when he plays center. They may not be the 2001 Mariners, but they can pick it. Entering Sunday they ranked fourth in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved.
6. Depth. Great teams have depth. The '98 Yankees didn't need a lot of it as they had six players play 140-plus games, but they had Tim Raines on the bench and then added Chili Davis (from injury) and Shane Spencer (September call-up) late in the season. Joe Girardi backed up Jorge Posada at catcher. The Mariners had supersub McLemore and outfielder Stan Javier put up big seasons. The Rangers have options in the rotation with the likes of Scott Feldman, plus Ross or Ogando if needed. David Murphy, Gentry and prospect Leonys Martin provide outfield depth and Napoli can play first. Young provides added flexibility if one of the infielders goes down, as he played first, third and second a year ago.
A weakness? I'm trying to find one. They do have some injury-prone players -- Hamilton, Cruz and Beltre each missed more than 30 games last season and Kinsler has had injuries in the past. But whatever you want in a team, the Rangers seem to have it. They play hard, they have fun, they play smart, they have the perfect combination of youth and experience and they know they're good.
Perfection rarely happens and I'm certainly not saying this team will win 110 games, but this is one beautiful team to watch play baseball.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
As the Royals die by inches daily, their 10-game losing streak is made of near-miss moments like this.