The thing about the freshly-minted American League West champs — that would be the Texas Rangers — is that the underlying numbers don’t really support their nifty win-loss record. Yes, they may wind up with 95 or more wins in 2016, but in terms of runs scored and runs allowed they’ve played more like a team that’s played .506 baseball, which comes to an 82-win pace.
Drill a little deeper and look at the BaseRuns standings available at FanGraphs, which correct for some of the sequencing and clustering effects inherent in run differential, and the Rangers have played like a team winning at a .507 clip.
Given all that, there’s reason to think that the Rangers going into the playoffs aren’t as good as their division title and lofty win total might lead you to believe. In raw, season-long terms, that’s certainly true. After all, thanks in part to some timely and very likely unsustainable clutch hitting, the Rangers have been able to overcome a rotation that ranks just eighth in the AL in starters’ ERA and a bullpen that ranks last in the AL in relievers’ ERA. In a vacuum, those would be reasons to fade the Rangers in the playoffs.
Those numbers, though, don’t really reflect the current state of the Texas roster.
In broad terms, trades, call-ups, and an improving injury profile have conspired to give the Rangers their strongest roster of the season thus far. As such, that season-long run differential and those season-long pitching indicators don’t really reflect their current capabilities. For instance …
Yes, that bullpen ERA of 4.63 is ugly, but consider what the Rangers have going for them right now:
- Closer Sam Dyson has been excellent all year, thanks in large part to some of the strongest ground-ball tendencies in the game.
- Tony Barnette , a 32-year-old rookie, has kept runs off the board this season thanks to his combination of control and knack for keeping the ball in the park.
- Since being called up in mid May, Matt Bush has given the Rangers a 2.61 ERA and the swing-and-miss chops from the right side that they so badly needed.
- Speaking of swing-and-miss, from the left side Jake Diekman has struck out 58 batters in 51 1/3 innings while running a 3.33 ERA/3.46 FIP.
- The second lefty may just be 24-year-old junkballer Alex Claudio , who’s pitched to a 153 ERA+ and 3.30 K/BB ratio across 69 career relief appearances.
That’s five high-grade relievers, and that’s relevant for the postseason. The postseason, after all, demands much less in terms of pitching depth thanks to the frequent off days.
But wait: There’s more! Deadline acquisition Jeremy Jeffress is another bullpen arm with lock-down potential, but unfortunately he went on the restricted list in late August in order to seek treatment following a DWI arrest. Now, though, Jeffress has been cleared by MLB and activated by the club.
As well, Tanner Scheppers recently returned from a knee injury that cost him almost the entire season. That’s another arm who’s not fully baked into those overall bullpen numbers. Potentially, the Texas relief corps will be a pronounced strength going into the postseason.
As for the rotation, the good news is that teams need just four starters in the postseason. Yu Darvish has been limited to just 15 starts this season because of his recovery from Tommy John surgery and subsequent shoulder problems, but he’s a present fixture. Cole Hamels takes another spot, and manager Jeff Banister recently shuffled things so that Darvish and Hamels will get extra rest prior to the Division Series. Veteran stalwart Colby Lewis also seems like a lock, given how well he’s pitched across his 17 starts this season. That leaves Derek Holland , Martin Perez , and perhaps A.J. Griffin as candidates for the fourth spot.
On the other side of things, you’ve got a lineup that now includes Jonathan Lucroy at catcher (acquired Aug. 1) and Carlos Beltran (also acquired Aug. 1) significantly upgrading the DH spot, which had been a glaring weakness. Also, when Lucroy’s behind the plate the Rangers have enjoyed a better ERA and better K/BB ratio from their staff, which is in keeping with his reputation as a veteran handler. That’s to say nothing of Lucroy’s potent bat.
As well, Carlos Gomez has been quite productive since coming over from Houston, and there’s reason to believe his improvement will stick. By extension, those acquisitions have improved the Texas bench and depth as a general matter. Let’s also not forget about Shin-Soo Choo , who’s working his way back from a broken forearm and could be ready for the postseason.
So, yes, the Rangers’ body of work in the standings outstrips its body of work at a more fundamental level. However, that’s not a reason to dismiss them in there here and now. Playoff outcomes are driven by a great deal of luck and randomness, but it’s also about the quality of a team’s current roster and depth chart, and that’s something that can get lost when we take in the sprawl of six months’ worth of regular season numbers. That’s certainly the case with the 2016 Rangers, AL West champs and World Series contenders.