In baseball terms, 96 is a big number.
After a spectacular 9th-inning rally against the Angels Wednesday night, the Rangers finished 30 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history. They authoritatively snatched the regular season mantle of success from the 1999 Rangers, who won 95 games with an unfair offense and AAA-worthy pitching staff (on their way to a first round sweep at the Yankees’ hands).
The Rangers posted easily their best run differential in franchise history, finishing the season positive by 178 runs – 49 more than the runner-up 1996 squad. This Rangers team boasted their hallmark of a terrific offense. But this one was unique in its own way; a powerful, balanced force led by a wide range of offensive contributors: Effective Anomaly Ian Kinsler, Aggressive Slugger Adrian Beltre, Singles Machine Michael Young, Occasional Superstar Josh Hamilton, and, of course, the team’s juggernaut, Mike Napoli.
Beyond the offense, though, lies a very good defensive team and one which manages to field one of the league’s best rotations despite entering the year with a wide range of question-marks.
The Rangers will face a very unlikely team in the playoffs’ first round.
The Tampa Bay Rays are the ultimate underdog. They lost so many high-priced free agents this summer that they were awarded nine additional first round picks in the 2011 draft. They came into the year with the 2nd-lowest payroll of any MLB team. On September 4th, they were nine games back of the Boston Red Sox. Even after pulling the deficit to three games, they had a hard time drawing fans to their penultimate series of the year against the Blue Jays.
But the Rays kept pushing, tying the series and coming back from a seven-run deficit in Wednesday night’s game against the Yankees to walk off on an extra-inning home run from Evan Longoria after the Red Sox lost in Baltimore. Their chances of making the playoffs were below 20% for most of the year, and below 1% into the early parts of September.
But despite everything working against them, the Rays inched their way in and will present a formidable opponent. They are an interesting team which presents quite a few real challenges. Let’s compare different facets of their profile with the Rangers’.
The Rays are not a great offensive team, but they do have a nice batch of above-average hitters. The St. Louis Cardinals are a team with three huge sluggers, then a black hole. The Rays take the opposite formula. Evan Longoria, Casey Kotchman, Matt Joyce, Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist and BJ Upton are all above-average at their positions. But none are elite hitters.
The Rays’ lineup has few weaknesses, and should be pitched to carefully. Tampa Bay is a patient bunch and can really take advantage of a pitcher if his control is lacking. If Derek Holland lapses into April or May form, or CJ can’t paint the corners like he is used to, trouble will beckon quickly.
Meanwhile, the Rangers are doing some bad, bad things to the baseball. They finished the year with baseball’s third-best offense after hitting an unbelievable .313/.367/.530 over the season’s final 30 days. The team works in a balanced, weakness-free way much like the Rays, but with a lot more juice and contact ability throughout the order. And as things stand right now, they field several hitters who are a threat to burn pitchers any time they rise to the plate.
The Septembers of Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli and Ian Kinsler are the stuff of legend. Meanwhile, Elvis Andrus is rounding into form, Nelson Cruz approaches full readiness after returning from injury and David Murphy has rebounded from his four-month cold spell to hit very well recently. The edge in this respect definitely goes to the Rangers, who are fielding their first fully healthy team since early April.
But keep in mind that the Rays’ offense has picked up as of late with the infusion of Desmond Jennings and a healthy Evan Longoria. Ranger pitchers will need to be on top of their game; The Rays’ overall numbers are in the middle of baseball’s pack, but they are better than that.
One great misconception has been floating around early prognostications about this series: That the Rays’ starting pitching is better than the Rangers’. On the surface, this has merit. Once a little digging is done, the thought becomes exposed as a half-truth. Yes, the Rays’ starters have been more effective over the course of the season. However, they’ve done it in a cavernous home ballpark while backed up by the league’s best defense (more on that in a minute).
The best way to capture a pitcher’s true ability is by looking at his skill-dependent numbers – the three stats which are not affected by the fielders behind him: Strikeouts, walks and home runs. These three compile a stat called “FIP,” or Fielding-Independent Pitching. While the Rays’ starting ERA of 3.53 is fourth in the league, their 3.99 FIP is actually 17th. And that was accomplished while they pitched in a home park which suppressed home runs.
The Ranger starters are 7th in ERA at 3.65 and 9th in FIP (3.8) despite playing in Arlington, the scene of daily home run parties. The Rays’ rotation won’t be ordered the way they would like, as James Shields and David Price have both pitched recently and won’t be ready for game 1. But let’s take a look at both team’s top four starters in order of optimal placement.
CJ Wilson and James Shields are evenly matched at the top of their respective rotations. David Price and Derek Holland present an interesting matchup of the game’s two hardest-throwing lefties. There is no question Price is the better regarded pitcher, but Holland has been better over the season’s second half.
Matt Harrison and Jeremy Hellickson are the #3 starters. Hellickson is an interesting study. Arguably the league’s top pitching prospect coming into 2011, his rookie season looks excellent and he’s the presumptive favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award. But his FIP numbers are nowhere near as pretty as his ERA, and he is very flyball-prone. The Rangers could really tee off on Hellickson if he hangs a few meatballs.
At #4, the Rangers will bring 2010 playoff hero Colby Lewis to the hill, opposed by either Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis or Matt Moore. Niemann is the safe pick; Davis would be a questionable one. Moore is the potentially scariest proposition.
Another jewel in the Rays’ minor-league machine, Matt Moore is an even better prospect than Hellickson, boasting some of the best stuff in all of baseball. He has nine major league innings to his name – nine dominant, eye-opening innings. Moore would be a gamble, but one Tampa manager Joe Maddon could conceivably bring to the table. His upside is immense. One issue: The Rays’ #4 starter would be the most likely to pitch the series’ first game. Throwing Moore into such a situation would lay shame to the word ‘bold.’
The Rangers’ bullpen was the worst in baseball for much of the year, but it has been seriously fortified by three late-season trades and a revived Neftali Feliz, and is now one of the best. The Rangers’ group includes Feliz, two great setup men (Koji Uehara and Mike Adams), a very solid 7th-inning arm (Darren Oliver), and one of the best lefty specialists around (Mike Gonzalez) in addition to some efficient, wily control artists with home run problems.
The Rays lost quite a few relief stalwarts during the offseason, but have rebuilt their bullpen corps admirably. Kyle Farnsworth has somehow become a good closer, while Joel Peralta and Brandon Gomes have done good work all year long. Meanwhile, young callup Jake McGee is rounding into form as the season ends.
It’s a slightly below-average group, as the Rays’ relief depth is very questionable. But the deep ends of the bullpen are not often exposed in playoff series. Overall, the Rangers take a slight edge in both their starters and relievers – with the caveat that the Rays’ run prevention may still be better overall. Why?
The Rangers field a very strong defensive team, especially shining in the infield. The Rays, however, take all of that and eclipse it. Their ranks in baseball’s best three measurements of defense: 2nd in Ultimate Zone Rating, 1st in Defensive Runs Saved (by a huge margin) and 1st in Defensive Efficiency (By another large margin). Rays defenders are talented, rangy and very versatile.
The good news? The Rangers are not far behind. They rank 6th in UZR, 4th in DRS and 2nd in Defensive Efficiency. Over the length of the season, Tampa Bay has converted 73.5% of balls in play into outs, while Texas has executed on 72.2%.
It’s a significant difference, though both teams are very, very good. Texas has the better infield (Beltre-Andrus-Kinsler are absolutely unreal) but Tampa Bay’s outfield D is fantastic, while their infielders, notably Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist, are far from garden gnomes. The difference between these two teams could easily be one bobble on a hard ground ball or a running catch in left field.
One interesting thing to keep an eye on: The Rangers’ outfield alignment. Against right handed pitchers, Texas will almost certainly go with David Murphy in Left Field, Josh Hamilton in Center, and Nelson Cruz in the Right corner. When facing left handers, against whom Murphy struggles, the Rangers could conceivably play right-handed speed demon Craig Gentry in Centerfield, shifting Hamilton to Left. This would give the Rangers a defensive outfield on par with almost any across baseball.
Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba will likely alternate at catcher, with Napoli, Michael Young, and Mitch Moreland splitting time at first base depending on matchups and whether Moreland wakes up from a four-month slumber. The rest of the positions are well-entrenched.
This should be a fun series to watch for fans across the league. The Rangers and Rays are both fast, aggressive teams with quite a bit of young talent and some truly great pitchers. The Rangers hold an obvious advantage by virtue of fielding the better regular season team, resting their players, and holding home field.
However, the Rays held every one of those advantages when the two teams faced each other in last year’s ALDS. The Rangers triumphed in five games then, and the Rays could easily do the same in 2011. All that’s left: Watch. And enjoy it. As we found out during a crazy slate of Wednesday night games, baseball is fun. And it only gets better as the season goes on.
The Rangers can only hope their season goes on for a little while longer.