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Rangers Defense Key To Early Season Success

As of today, the Texas Rangers lead the West division by 4 games.  They've done it, as everyone projected, with a potent offense that has them out scoring their opponents by 25 runs over this season's first 57 games.  However, another impact on their winning record can be attributed to their improved pitching, a serious weakness for the Rangers over the past few seasons.  Although the Rangers are 9th in the American league in team ERA, it is an improvement over 2008, as they ranked last in all of baseball.  The question to be asked, has the pitching gotten better or has their bolstered defense created circumstances for their pitching staff to improve?

HTML clipboard Using FanGraphs Ultimate Zone Ratings/150 (UZR/150 - The number of runs above or below average a fielder is in both range runs, outfield arm runs, double play runs and error runs combined per 150 games) metric, the Rangers have indeed improved their defense.  Their overall defense is tied for 2nd in the major leagues with a a UZR/150 of +7.6 (the Angels are 13th with a UZR/150 of +1.2).  The largest improvement has been provided by Elvis Andrus who replaced Michael Young as the Texas shortstop.  Last season, Young's UZR/150 was -5.4 runs.  So far in 2009, Andrus has saved the Rangers 6.0 runs, or +17.6 runs over the entire season (23 runs better than 2008).  Using UZR/150, the 2009 Rangers have the #1 shortstop rating compared to last season's 23rd rating.
  UZR UZR/150
Andrus - 2009 +6.0 +17.6
Young - 2008 -5.8 -5.4

How does this compare to the Angels' shortstops?  The Angels rank 16th in the major leagues this season after ranking 5th in 2008 (a -8.2 run differential).

2009 UZR UZR/150
Erick Aybar +1.0 +3.2
Maicer Izturis +0.1 +0.6

When moving from shortstop to the outfield, Texas has again improved their defense.  Last season the Rangers ranked 15th in the major leagues with a UZR/150 of -0.5 runs.  This season, Texas has the 5th best outfield in the majors with an UZR/150 of +9.9, an improvement of over 10 runs. Most fans realized heading into this season, the Angels' outfield defense was going to be weak after adding another year of age to Juan Rivera, Torii Hunter and Gary Matthews, plus the addition of Bobby Abreu.  This year's Angel outfield ranks 23rd in baseball with a UZR/150 of -5.1, which surprisingly is an improvement of 3.1 runs over last season.  When looking at individual players, Abreu hasn't been as bad as advertised, ranking slightly ahead of CF Torii Hunter (Hunter's UZR/150 is -5.9, while Abreu's is -5.1).  The weakest link in the Angels' outfield is Matthews who boasts an "impressive" UZR of -8.7 runs, or -31.3 runs over the course of a season.

Angels fans have been looking forward to the Halos overtaking Texas in the standings based on an anticipated Ranger pitching collapse.  However, based on the improvements to the Ranger defense, a drop in the standings will take more than the weather heating up in Arlington.  The Angels must first overcome their own weaknesses at the plate, on the field, and in the bullpen before thinking of moving up in the standings because I don't think the Rangers are going away.