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Monday, August 3, 2009
Mariners, Rangers unlikely contenders


Posted by Steve Buffum

One of the more intriguing matchups yesterday featured Seattle and Texas, two teams that weren't supposed to be serious contenders. On April 1, you wouldn't have found many people signing up to watch Ian Snell vs. Scott Feldman, either.

Snell was either supposed to have bloomed into a solid power pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, or have immolated himself on his own pitard, so to speak. And Feldman was, well, who the heck is Feldman?

Thus far, Snell largely lived up to his end of the bargain in Pittsburgh, nibbling his way to a 5.36 ERA and 2-8 record for the Bucs. With 52 strikeouts and 45 walks in 80-plus innings, Snell put himself in bad spots and got the typical bad results: a full 40 percent of his starts didn't involve him throwing a pitch in the 6th inning or beyond. It seemed obvious to everyone that Snell badly needed a change of scenery. To the Pirates' credit, they took this seriously and traded him to Seattle in a deal with Jack Wilson. So there was plenty of intrigue to see if Snell would respond to the shift, even though pitching in Jet Stream Park at Arlington is no one's idea of a pleasant debut environment.

But who is Feldman?

See, here too, Feldman has been an anchor of my terrible fantasy team, snagged as a waiver pickup because of his quintessential Scott Feldmanity. Here's the thing, though: Feldman has somehow been terrific this season. He has not been Cy Young terrific, but he sports a 10-4 record with a 3.91 ERA. If you have a sub-4.00 ERA in TEXAS, you are having a whale of a season. This understates his value. As a starter (moved there in late April after three very poor relief outings), his ERA is 3.43, which would tie him for 10th-best in the AL among qualifying pitchers.

Now, run prevention is a very big deal in Texas. At 454 runs allowed, the Rangers are just two runs off the league-leading Mariners and Boston Red Sox, albeit in two fewer games than Seattle and one fewer than Boston. How unusual is this? Last year the Rangers gave up an unconscionable 967 runs, worst in the A.L. by a whopping 98 runs. In 2007, their 844 was only third-worst in the A.L. but still pretty bad.

Kevin Millwood justifiably gets the press as the ace of the Texas staff, but Millwood's 13 quality starts in 21 starts are (practically) matched by Feldman's 13 in 22. Their third-best starter is Vicente Padilla, who is reliable in the way that argon is heavy. After that, you're looking at whippersnappers like Tommy Hunter and Derek Holland.

Of course, Feldman is only 26 himself.

Feldman is almost certainly not a 3.43 pitcher. He has 52 strikeouts and 34 walks in 113 innings as a starter. Batters are hitting .242 against him, but have a .250 BABIP, which is too low to sustain. He was advertised as a groundball pitcher because of a low arm slot, but he doesn't really have the numbers to back that up this season.

One of the huge keys for Feldman is that in the past he was highly susceptible to left-handed hitters because of his delivery .This season, lefties are only hitting .216/.281/.373 off him. In the past three years, Feldman gave up a .293/.278/.476 clip to portsiders.

Regardless of whether this is a one-year blip, the fact is that this year is this year, and Feldman was facing the Mariners, a team so feeble on offense that the CLEVELAND rotation throttled them in two straight series:

Cliff Lee: 9 IP, 1 R
David Huff: 5 IP, 3 R
Tomo Ohka (!): 7 IP, 3 R
Aaron Laffey: 6 IP, 3 R
Aaron Laffey: 7 IP, 0 R
Jeremy Sowers: 7 IP, 0 R
Cliff Lee: 7 IP, 2 R

So yes, there are two Cliff Lee performances in there, but his was the weakest performance in the second series, below those of Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers, neither of whom is going to be confused with Lee any time soon. Feldman shutting down the Mariners is not entirely a bolt from the blue.

To his credit, this is exactly what he did. He faced the minimum through three, erasing his only baserunner (a walk) with a double play, and posting three strikeouts. After yielding his first hit in the fourth inning on an infield single, Feldman wafted through a perfect fifth before newtifying a bit in the sixth, giving up two runs on three singles and a walk. This was a huge sigh of relief for the Rangers, as Feldman's previous start against the Tigers ended much in the manner of a hydrogen-filled dirigible.

Snell was nearly as good. His control was not very sharp (3 walks in 6 IP), and his propensity for the longball hurt him (his only two runs came on solo shots: all three of his hits were for extra bases). Now, why Snell was lifted after six innings isn't entirely clear. But Snell's day ended after only 84 pitches and bodes well for the future, especially given that at least one of the homers he allowed (to Michael Young) would not have gotten out of his new home park, Safeco Field.

At 10 games back in the AL West and 8.5 out of the wild card, Seattle is probably a severe longshot for the playoffs at this point. However, if Snell is able to slot in as a reliable starter, this should take the load off the Ryan Rowland-Smiths of the world and make the loss of Jarrod Washburn a bit less gruesome.

Meanwhile, Texas is a robust 59-44 and only four games behind the Angels and 2.5 behind the Red Sox for the wild card. If Feldman is back on track (8 QS in his past 10) and the kids can continue to prop up the rotation, the Rangers may be playing meaningful games in late September. This would be exceptionally pleasant in Texas, as the temperature will have dropped to 98 by then. Also, Jerry Jones won't be involved. That is a net plus for everyone.

Steve Buffum works as a data cudgeller in Austin, Texas, and writes a theoretically-popular column on the Cleveland Indians for TheClevelandFan.com.