It's a little hyperbolic to call a three-game series in late June "pivotal," but after this week's series against the Rangers, the Angels could be anywhere between 1.5 and 7.5 games out of first with just four weeks to go to the trade deadline. That's pretty damn important. Unfortunately, the most commonly known facts about the Rangers around here are...
- Their schedule has been easier than a cheerleader on prom night
- Vladimir Guerrero and Darren Oliver are out for revenge
- Ron Washington snorts lines in between innings
With 17 more Angels-Rangers games to come, including 7 of the last 13 games of the season, it's time to get to know thine enemy.
The key to understanding the Rangers offense is Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. When they play there, they score a lot of runs, 6.2 of them per game to be precise. When they play somewhere else, the offense fades like a Saharan mirage. As a unit they've hit .283 / .347 / .432, a slash line that includes the highest team average in baseball. However, that figure is heavily weighted by a .306 / .371 / .481 line at home, where they've been fortunate enough to play 40 of their 75 games so far. Road trips have exposed their lack of patience and middling power. Away from Arlington they've hit just .257 / .320 / .378 and scored 4.3 runs per game.
If you like comparisons you could say they've hit like a lineup of nine Matt Holidays at home, but they're just a bunch of Jeff Keppinger clones on the road. It's tempting to attribute a 154-point OPS split to some sort of freak cosmic event, but they had a 101-point spread last year, and a 100-point differential in 2008. Still, those games at home still count in the standings, and you don't have to be very good on the road to win over 90 games if you take 70% of the contests at home.
1. Elvis Andrus (SS): .291 / .375 / .333 in 330 PA
He's still just 21 and in only in his second season, but Andrus has quickly turned into a fine player. He has a terrific glove at short and his bat is a perfect fit for the leadoff spot. I almost wouldn't be surprised if a story broke claiming that deranged Texans had kidnapped Chone Figgins, brainwashed him into believing he was someone else, surgically altered his appearance and stuffed him in a Rangers jersey. The combination of plate discipline, line drive hitting, and stolen bases (21-for-30) coming from Andrus this year are more characteristic of Figgins than what the alleged Figgins is doing right now for Seattle. This kid is someone to keep an eye on, even if his batting average has been exaggerated by the ballpark. It's just too bad his name is Elvis.
2. Michael Young (3B): .316 / .364 / .508 in 343 PA
Young is putting the finishing touches on his campaign to become the most overrated player of the decade. This year he's doing what he's always done: taking extreme advantage of the Arlington bandbox (.990 OPS at home) while exposing his lack of patience and genuine home-run power on the road (.746 OPS away). As silly as this split appears, it's right in line with his career figures (.866 home to .740 away). Considering that he's posting the lowest line-drive rate of his career, his inflated .351 BABIP is probably doomed. He's also an absolute butcher in the field, no matter where they try to hide his glove. Did I mention that he's overrated?
3. Ian Kinsler (2B): .289 / .383 / .391 in 231 PA
Kinsler has had a weird career. Just when I think I've figured out who he is, he changes. From year to year he's gone from a swing-first, ask-questions-later line-drive doubles hitter to a swing-for-the-fences flyball hitter with moderate patience and decent pull power. This year I think even he is confused as to what kind of hitter he is. He's walking a lot, but he's putting the ball on the ground unlike he's ever done before. It's also worth noting that his home/away splits are even more extreme than Young's (.920 OPS at home to .621 on the road), which is also consistent with his career totals. I also had him pegged as one of the worst fielding second-basemen in all of baseball, until last season, when he suddenly turned into one of the best. Go figure.
4. Vladimir Guerrero (DH): .327 / .374 / .538 in 302 PA
Those numbers certainly look very Vlad-like. His career slash line is .322 / .386 / .567 after all. He'll be in Anaheim for the All-Star Game, and there will be many tears shed and many teeth gnashed. However, Vlad has just a slight OPS split in his career (.972 at home to .932 away). The Vladimir Guerrero of old could hit anywhere. But this year he's hitting a ridiculous .374 / .413 / .626 at home to a fairly tame .259 / .315 / .411 on the road. If that second slash line looks familiar, it's because it's pretty comparable to what he did in the first half of last year for the Angels (.290 / .319 / .415). I think he's still the same guy who has struggled in the last two seasons (relative to his previous success, of course). Look for his numbers to regress as the Rangers face tougher pitching and play more games on the road. If his knees don't fall off before then, that is.
5. Josh Hamilton (LF): .346 / .389 / .620 in 315 PA
Everyone's favorite tattooed master of the universe, ever since he cleaned up, found Jesus, and lost the Home Run Derby by hitting more home runs than anyone ever has before in the history of that competition. He was popular enough to get himself voted onto the All-Star Team last year, despite hitting about .220 and then getting hurt. This year the badass bruiser is back, or is he? He's still walking and striking out at the same rates he did last year (which were not very good), and although he is hitting quite a lot of line drives (23.5%), they're not nearly enough to support a ludicrous .393 BABIP. I don't see much to indicate a shift in underlying ability. Last year he got unlucky, and this year he seems to be regressing to the mean in the positive sense. The real Josh is somewhere in the middle, which is still dangerous at the plate, but not likely to rend the earth's crust with the thunder of his mighty footsteps. He does have a legitimate cannon in left, which more than makes up for his below-average range. He's worth worrying about as long as he's healthy, which is by no means guaranteed given his unusual career path.
6. Nelson Cruz (RF): .323 / .392 / .669 in 153 PA
A perpetual AAA journeyman until last season, Cruz has, against all odds, become a pretty decent ball player in his late-twenties. He can hit a baseball far enough that it doesn't really matter how short the fences are in Texas. With a little plate discipline and surprisingly good defensive numbers in the outfield, Cruz is a respectable talent. There's no chance his batting average remains this high--he hasn't played as much due to injury (another pressing concern with him) and so there hasn't been much of an opportunity for his .226 average on the road to drag down his stupid .390 average at home. Overall, a solid player, but still an injury liability.
7. Justin Smoak (1B): .225 / .340 / .395 in 238 PA
Despite the low batting average, this kid terrifies me more than anyone else on the Rangers' roster. He's huge, he switch hits, he has a solid glove, and he hits the ball really hard. When you consider that as a 23 year-old he has an outstanding 15.1% walk rate (sixth-highest in baseball) with a manageable 24.5% K-rate, his future looks really, really scary. The obvious comparison is Mark Teixeira, but honestly, I'm not sure if even Mark Teixeira has a chance of being as good as Smoak is likely to be soon. Smoak has been incredibly unlucky on balls in play, just a .255 BABIP backed by a 23.5% line-drive rate, which says to me that his bat is ready to explode, right here and right now. He has megatons of power, but scouts say his line-drive approach probably won't produce as many home runs as, say, Teixeira. But a potential 25-30 HR threat along with a .300 batting average, tons of doubles, and an OBP north of .400 is something to take extremely seriously in the next few seasons (if not the remainder of this season). Watch this name very closely.
8. Matt Treanor (C): .234 / .309 / .377 in 179 PA
A serve and spike that are legends in their own time, one of the greatest to ever play the sport...oh wait, that's his wife, never mind. Matt Treanor is nothing. The man who put the Misses in Misty Mae is a 34 year-old third-string catcher who hits like one and is not particularly good behind the plate either. It's not such a big deal, since he's just holding down the fort until one of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Max Ramirez, or Taylor Teagarden emerges as an everyday player (my money is on Max). By the way, did you know that Taylor Teagarden is currently in fourth place in All-Star balloting for the AL catcher spot (higher than Mike Napoli), despite being demoted to AA in late April and going just 1-for-14 for the Rangers beforehand!? And even this is a slip from a month ago, when he was in third place! This almost single-handedly invalidates the concept of the All-Star Game. Still, even Teagarden is probably better than Jeff Mathis.
9. Julio Borbon (CF): .292 / .322 / .379 in 234 PA
The Rangers had high hopes that Borbon would be an effective leadoff guy this season. Unfortunately, he's been terrible at getting on base and similarly terrible at staying on base (only 8-for-14 on stolen base attempts). On the other hand, the emergence of Andrus has made this largely irrelevant. He's been about average in center field as well. He's still just a rookie and relatively young at 24, but his impatience and popgun power in the minors suggest he is not likely to be a star in the majors. Sound familiar? It seems the only difference between Julio Borbon and Erick Aybar, besides their position in the field, is the fact that Aybar is still in the leadoff spot.
Bench players in the AL are not as significant as they are in the NL, but it still counts for depth when someone gets injured, and the Rangers have plenty of injury risks at the heart of their order. Let's see, we've got career fourth-outfielder David Murphy, who is probably still competent in spite of a tough start. In the infield, there's a replacement player poached from Kansas City named Andres Blanco and AAA favorite Joaquin Arias, who is terrible. Max Ramirez, who could be an power-hitting offensive catcher in the image of Mike Napoli once he starts putting the ball in the air more consistently, is backing up Matt Treanor. They don't have any exciting position players left in AAA now that they've called up Smoak, so in other words, they're pretty thin. But they're fortunate enough to have all their guys at the moment, and that's what matters. They have more than enough pieces to make a move if the need arises.
All right, so the Rangers score a lot of runs at home. That means their opponents must score a lot of runs there too. It has to even out, right? Curiously, that hasn't been the case. Yet. The Rangers staff has a paradoxical 3.60 ERA at home but a 4.28 ERA on the road. Their peripheral stats are just about the same, and they've even been insanely lucky on balls in play on the road (.269 BABIP). I'm not sure what to attribute this to other than blind good fortune in their own park. They've spread their base runners out and the ball has stayed in the yard more than it should have. A similar phenomenon was taking place this time last year, but the disparity closed as the season went on. I expect the same to happen this year.
1. Scott Feldman: 5.32 ERA / 4.21 FIP / 4.57 xFIP in 89 2/3 IP
Scott Feldman is the Rangers' Joe Saunders. He built a reputation as a "winner" by going 17-8 last year, earning himself designation as the team's ace by default after the departure of Kevin Millwood, their prior ace by default. Feldman has "rewarded" his team by putting up an unsightly 5.32 ERA and losing the majority of his decisions. However, a close look at the numbers shows that Feldman isn't really performing any differently: his velocity is fine, his strikeouts and walks are almost identical and comparable to his career numbers, and his home run, line drive, and ground ball rates are all similar. The difference? He had a favorable .275 BABIP this year but he's getting punished by a .352 BABIP this year. If you add those two figures together, you get a BABIP of exactly .300 in his last 280 innings, precisely the expected value. There just happened to be an offseason between innings 190 and 191. Regression to the mean is not a joke, because Scott Feldman is not laughing.
2. C.J. Wilson: 3.35 ERA / 4.06 FIP / 4.60 xFIP in 96 2/3 IP
If Scott Feldman's luck wasn't sapped away by an evil succubus, then it was probably stolen by C.J. Wilson. After finally getting his career on track with a solid effort out of the bullpen last year, Wilson has pitched like trash as a starter. Fortunately for him, he's mostly gotten away with it. Last year's gaudy strikeout rate has all but evaporated while his control issues have remained. His overall strikeout-to-walk ratio is almost as bad as Scott Kazmir's. The reason seems clear enough: Wilson just doesn't throw as hard when he knows he needs to pitch six innings instead of one. He's also shied away from his fastball in favor of off-speed stuff, probably for the same reason. He does get grounders with a decent cutter and curve, but he's taken a step backward here as well. An unlikely .256 BABIP and a favorable HR/FB rate are what's keeping him afloat. I'll be surprised if he doesn't pitch his way back to the bullpen in the second half.
3. Colby Lewis: 3.28 ERA / 3.70 FIP / 3.95 xFIP in 98 2/3 IP
Lewis is currently resurrecting his major-league career after two outstanding seasons in Japan. His success is genuinely warranted: a 8.57 K/9 and 3.10 BB/9 are solid. He might have tag-teamed with C.J. when they beat up Scott Feldman and stole his BABIP, as his is also an unsustainably low .252. I expect his ERA to rise somewhat, especially in that bandbox he calls home. Still, he's proven to be a reliable arm, and many general managers should be re-evaluating their off-season performances if they never considered the shrewd move Jon Daniels made by re-importing Lewis from Asia.
4. Tommy Hunter: 2.15 ERA / 3.44 FIP / 4.67 xFIP in 29 1/3 IP
We haven't seen much of Hunter this season, but his peripherals thus far are just about the same as they were last year and also in line with his minor league career. His stuff is nothing to get excited about: he throws strikes, but he pays for it with a lot of contact. Most pitchers of this type have ground-ball tendencies, but Hunter seems to swing the other way. This is a serious liability in Arlington, where his current 2.8% HR/FB rate won't stick around much longer than a middle-class family in a low-income neighborhood. But even his back-of-the-rotation arm can thrive with the support of a quality defense and a little extra run support. This guy isn't a rising star or anything, but he seems sturdy enough that we could be seeing him around for a long time.
5. Dustin Nippert: 5.09 ERA / 4.75 FIP / 4.63 xFIP in 35 1/3 IP
This is another one of those guys. He's just a random dude with control problems, but he throws the ball just hard enough to keep convincing people he's worth another shot. You can sometimes get away with that in the bullpen (Jason Bulger has made a living of it), but it rarely lasts in the rotation. Somewhere along the line, Dustin Nippert got himself assigned to be the Rangers' sixth starter, but I doubt he's there because they want him to be. He'll be the first guy out of the rotation, if not off the team, as soon they can manage. With two starters in rehab and lots of trade pieces, this should be sooner rather than later.
The Rangers rotation is pretty uninspiring as presently constituted, but the same cannot be said of their relief pitching. While they've enjoyed the same dumb luck as the starting pitching, there are some legitimately fearsome arms here. If the Rangers edge the Angels in the division race, I think relief pitching will be the underlying cause.
Neftali Feliz (CL): 2.70 ERA / 2.95 FIP / 3.85 xFIP in 33 1/3 IP
The man they all said would ignite the atmosphere with his heater and warp spacetime with his curve has been pretty much as advertised. Only Joel Zumaya, Daniel Bard, and some guy named Ubaldo have thrown harder this season, but Feliz has been as good or even better than any of them at punching guys out. A 9.99 K/9 is pretty great, especially paired with a quality 2.97 BB/9. And he just turned 22, so he'll probably get even better. An extreme fly ball tendency might be the chink in his armor, but then again, solo home runs can only hurt you so much. More importantly, this season is a fork in the proverbial road for Feliz. The Rangers have apparently decided to use him as a closer instead of attempting to re-convert him into a starter. This keeps his arm in the bigs where it can help the team immediately, but with a can't-miss prospect such as Feliz, you have to wonder if this will result in disappointment in the long run. Even the most baddest assed of badass closers are "only" worth about 3 wins over replacement per season. A Hall-of-Fame caliber starter might do three times better than that in a peak season. That's a lot of potential wins to leave on the table. But extended bullpen assignments seriously alter the development of a young pitcher such as Feliz and the change not easily reversed. Maybe a dominating reliever is who he is destined to be, but if I were a Ranger fan I would be asking if he could be something more.
Frank Francisco (SU): 4.36 ERA / 2.50 FIP / 3.03 xFIP in 33 IP
Don't be deceived by the ERA: Frank Francisco is having an excellent season. Only Matt Thorton has exceeded Francisco's 43 strikeouts among AL relievers. He's always had excellent stuff, but recently Francisco has cut down on the walks and, if there was some kind of committee that determined who was an "elite" reliever, his case should probably be under consideration. The problem is that, like most power arms, he surrenders a lot of fly balls, which obviously spells trouble in Texas, but not nearly as much trouble as suggested by his mediocre ERA. A hapless .382 BABIP is at fault for that. Still, this guy is very under-appreciated. Coincidentally, he will be a free agent this off-season and he's right on the cusp of Type A status, meaning that if his BABIP continues to fail him (doubtful, unfortunately), he could be signed without paying the draft-pick compensation tax. Which reminds me...
Darren Oliver (SU): 1.27 ERA / 2.28 FIP / 2.47 xFIP in 35 1/3 IP
I was nonchalant about the loss of Guerrero, but this is a tragedy worth a nightly shedding of tears into your most comforting pillow. Darren Oliver was so solid for the Angels in 2009 that Tony Reagins offered him arbitration and retained his services for a nominal fee, insuring against the uncertainty of Scot Shield's recovery from knee surgery and...oh no, that's not what happened. That was just a dream I had back in November, which has now become a recurring ironic nightmare. Oliver has only built on his Methuselah-like resurgence of strength and vitality that made him such an effective reliever for the Angels. Now he's striking guys out, not walking them, and getting ground balls all at career high rates. That probably won't hold up all season, but even with some moderate regression his peripherals will still look fantastic. And to think that the Angels didn't even make the Rangers give up a first-round pick to add this veteran force to their pen. But hey, they got Fernando Rodney for a bargain at $12 million!
Darren O'Day (MR): 1.78 ERA / 3.17 FIP / 4.13 xFIP in 30 1/3 IP
Here's the other Darren who should still be wearing an Angels' uniform. Since they let the Mets pilfer him in the Rule Five draft, all O'Day has done is put up a 1.89 ERA in 89 innings. The Mets even offered him back after they bored of him in just 3 innings, but the Angels said "no thanks, we like Rafael Rodriguez just fine," and then let him fall into the hands of the enemy. I'm sure everyone is bored with that story by now. Maybe it makes things better that O'Day doesn't exactly deserve that 1.89 ERA. His BABIP this season is a silly .237, and he was similarly fortunate in 2009. But he can punch guys out: 77 of them in those 89 innings, and he almost never walks people. He's also almost impossible to take deep. You might ask for a few more ground balls from a pitcher with such a low arm slot, but then you would just be getting picky. O'Day is a solid middle reliever, way better than anyone in the Angels' pen not named Jepsen.
Chris Ray (MR): 3.41 ERA / 5.28 FIP / 5.88 xFIP in 31 1/3 IP
Five spaces down on the depth chart, we finally find someone who sucks. Chris Ray is a proven bum, so go figure he's the one with the preposterously low .214 BABIP, a laughably high 81.2% strand rate, and an uncharacteristic 7.7% HR/FB. With just 16 K's to complement his 16 BB's, none of those will be true for much longer. When his numbers do come crashing down to earth, he and Fernando Rodney can form a support group for lousy ex-closers with declining strikeout rates and serious control issues. They can tell them that with a little luck, anyone can enjoy medium-term success as a relief pitcher. Miguel Batista and Bob Howry can come. It'll be fun and educational.
Alexi Ogando (MR): 0.00 ERA / 3.27 FIP / 3.83 xFIP in 7 1/3 IP
These numbers don't mean anything because Ogando has only pitched in four games. But where did this guy come from? He's almost 27, and it looks like he was an outfielder in the A's organization for awhile in the early 2000's. Since the Rangers got him from whatever ash heap they got him from, he's struck out everything in sight. He has 21 in 15 innings at Oklahoma City and almost one for every inning since he joined the big league club. He also throws around 97 MPH with a hard slider. It's hard to evaluate raw arms like this based on just a limited sample, so it remains to be seen if he actually knows where the ball is going. He's walked 5 already. So he could be anything from a diamond in the rough to a complete non sequitur. We'll see if he sticks around, but more likely he gets dumped back in AAA when the Rangers next add a pitcher.
Matt Harrison (LR): 4.47 ERA / 5.04 FIP / 4.70 xFIP in 50 1/3 IP
Matt Harrison is not very good, and he can't stay healthy either. He's never been able to strike guys out, but he can't avoid walking them either. In other words, Harrison is a younger Matt Palmer. He's more than earned his demotion from fifth starter to low leverage garbage man. I guess every team needs someone to take out the trash. For bagging it up and closing the lids, you could do worse than Matt Harrison.
It may be too early to call the Rich Harden experiment a failure, but it hasn't gone too well either. The perennial porcelain doll pitched 65 ineffective innings for the Rangers before literally busting his ass. He certainly looked like he was broken, as his velocity and control were both terrible. Supposedly he should be beginning a rehab assignment soon, so now is the time to place your bets on which of his constituent pieces will fall off next (short odds are on the shoulder). The loss of Derek Holland, however, has been genuinely unfortunate. I really like this kid's arm. If you forgive the punishment he's received courtesy of the Rangers Bandbox in Arlington, his rookie numbers start to look pretty respectable. He's also supposed to be reactivated sooner rather than later, but they really have no business rushing a young arm like his. If both of their injured pitchers do end up returning in the next few weeks, the Rangers could have an empty DL heading into the second half, and that is good fortune greater than any amount of favorable BABIP.
I enjoy listening to a sportscaster in the New York area who sometimes says that in baseball "it's better to be lucky than good, but if you're both lucky and good, you have a chance to be great." I think that is a very wise perspective on the game of baseball. The Rangers' current 46-29 record is built on a lot of good fortune: they were blessed with a light schedule, their offense has over-performed thanks to the highest BABIP in baseball (.321), and their defense has an ERA over 50 points better than their xFIP (3.90 to 4.45). This is exactly the same situation they found themselves in after 75 games last year, except they've managed to make it to the same point in the season with six more wins. The 2009 Rangers won 87 games, so it's reasonable to assume that the 2010 edition will win 90 games or more, even after regressing against tougher competition. They only need to play .500 ball to achieve this, and I think they're better than a .500 ball club. They're both lucky and good, and if they don't pull it off this year, they should be even stronger in 2011.
So the question is, can the Angels do better? This is a topic for another discussion, but I think the two teams are fairly evenly matched right now. If the rest of the season began today, remember that Texas has a 4.5 game handicap. The Rangers probably have a slight edge from a superior bullpen, and I have doubts about the ability of the Angel offense to pick up all the slack after the loss of their best hitter. We'll see what the trade deadline fairy brings, but the Rangers' farm system gives them an advantage here too, unless their legal and financial problems prevent them from making the necessary move. The best the Angels can hope for is a close finish at the end of the season, because I think there's almost no chance the Angels can blow the Rangers away this time. If you asked me to pick the winner in that situation, I'd have to ask you, heads or tails?