What They Did: 96-66, 1st Place AL West. Won 2nd straight AL Pennant
Actual Runs: Scored 855 runs, Allowed 677.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 98.0 (2.0 above actual)
Restated: Scored 831 runs, Allowed 640.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 100.0 (4.0 above actual)
A glance at the box above indicates the Texas Rangers were the best team in the American League in 2011 during both the regular-season (with 100 expected wins based on its actual offensive and pitching production) and the post-season (in the form of a second consecutive appearance in the World Series). The final standings may have shown that they won one less regular season game than the Yankees but as the restated win total shows, unlike the Yankees, who benefited mildly from “cluster luck,” the Rangers were victimized by a run of bad sequencing when their opponents were at-bat. Based on its opponents on-base percentage, as well as the type of hits the Rangers allowed, Texas gave up 37 more runs than expected. (Restated runs, and the components that define them, are described in detail in the Red Sox essay.)
For those readers who were around last October, during each round of the playoffs my preview of the Rangers’ series described Texas as “a 105-win team in 96-win clothing.” Even though the restated results (from above) show a 100-win team over the entire 2011 season, because of 30+ game stints missed by Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Nelson Cruz, and Mike Napoli due to injury (or in Napoli’s case inexplicably* sitting on the bench) by my calculations the Rangers, with all their regulars in the line-up, were an additional five wins better than the team that played 100-win baseball during the regular season.
(* I found myself using the word using the word ‘inexplicably’ so often last October when writing about the Texas Rangers, and specifically manager Ron Washington, that my keyboard auto-suggests it every time I start a word with the letter ‘i’.)
Having previewed, last Friday, the Angels to win the AL West in 2012 with 90 wins, based on the 2011 results, it’s certainly surprising to project the Rangers as a sub-90 win team. Let’s take a look at the components of the projection and see why my model sees the Rangers going from the best team in baseball in 2011 to beneficiary of the second Wild Card entrant in 2012.
The Rangers received All-Star caliber performances from six different starters on offense including career years from Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli, and Elvis Andrus. Additionally, Michael Young had his best season in six years. Adrian Beltre posted the third-best performance of his 13-year career. Explosive offensive performances and career years are often signs of player development and in the case of the Dodgers' Matt Kemp and the Diamondbacks' Justin Upton in 2011, breakout seasons can portend future greatness. However, Upton and Kemp are 24- and 27-years old respectively with no history of injuries. The Rangers starting nine, on the other hand, only has two players on the happy side of 30, shortstop Elvis Andrus and first baseman Mitch Moreland.
Andrus, at 23-years old, is the one player Rangers fans can most likely count on to be better in 2012 than 2011 having posted better results each successive year of his young career, including a nice spike in power last year. That type of power increase is not uncommon in players in their young 20s and it usually represents the acquisition of a new skill, not an aberration.
Moreland, however, represents another problem. First base is the most important offensive producing position in the game and in 2011 the Rangers papered over Moreland’s lack of production with elite performances from other positions on the diamond. If Texas doesn’t get a .338 batting average from DH Michael Young (35-years old in 2012) or 1.045 OPS from C Mike Napoli, or 32 home runs each from 2B Ian Kinsler and 3B Adrian Beltre, as it did in 2011, suddenly Moreland’s batting line of .259/.320/.414 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) represents a huge deficit compared to the batting line of the average American League first baseman*, .271/.340/.452 – figures which are sure to increase in 2012 with the addition of Albert Pujols to the league.
(*Interestingly, and perhaps forgotten amidst the two-straight AL pennants the Rangers have won, is that the two other teams in baseball (Boston and the Yankees) which, like Texas, scored more than 800 runs in 2011, were anchored by first basemen traded away by Texas. Mark Texeria, was dealt to Atlanta in 2007 and, forgotten by all but die-hard Rangers fan, Texas traded Adrian Gonzalez to San Diego a year earlier.)
The Rangers also have to deal with the loss of their best pitcher from 2011, C.J. Wilson. Wilson emerged as a true ace last season. His above-average strikeout rate, below-average walk rate, and ground ball tendencies were tailor-made for games pitched in Arlington. That type of skill set, and the 2.94 ERA that accompanied it last year, will be hard for Texas to replace. The rest of the returning starters are either league-average (Derek Holland and Colby Lewis) or had below-average skills disguised by decent results (Matt Harrison). The Rangers are hoping that baseball’s most anticipated and accomplished Japanese player to come stateside since Ichiro, Yu Darvish, instantly fills the role of ace vacated by Wilson’s free-agent departure. Based largely on the Davenport translations, pioneered by Clay Davenport, which turn non-MLB league data into MLB equivalents, my model has Darvish posting a team-leading ERA hovering around 3.50. As solid as those results would be, it still represents a year-over-year increase in runs allowed, compared to Wilson, of about 15 runs (.6 more per every 9 innings pitched over the 225 innings Wilson started last year.)
Elsewhere in the rotation, the Rangers will try to duplicate its success in converting a hard throwing reliever to the starting rotation when Neftali Feliz attempts to follow the trail Alexi Ogando blazed last year. Ogando went from throwing 42 innings in relief with an eye-popping ERA of 1.30 to 29 starts good for four times the amount of innings pitched. There is considerable value in finding a starter who can take the ball for 170 innings a year, especially when posting an ERA of 3.51 along the way as Ogando did. Curiously though the Rangers are moving Ogando back to a setup role in the pen, and he figures to make just occasional starts this year. Instead Texas would like its hard-throwing closer from last year Neftali Feliz to make a full season of starts. I understand and applaud the concept – an above average starter is harder to find, and therefore more valuable than a closer posting 36 saves a year, which is what Feliz has done as the Rangers closer the last two seasons. As this thinking permeates baseball, a number of teams (White Sox, Red Sox, Royals, and Reds) have taken note of the Ogando success last year, and are mirroring the Rangers move with bullpen conversions of their own.
Neftali Feliz, however, comes with enough flags to start an Olympic village. All post-season, announcers saw his fastball threatening to hit triple digits on the broadcast radar gun, and the resulting puffs of smoke in the graphics made them swoon. However Feliz had an alarming decay in his skill-based statistics in 2011.
ERA K % BB % GB%
2010 2.73 26.4 6.7 36.8%
2011 2.74 21.4 11.9 37.2%
Feliz’ 2011 performance suggests he is too wild to be a closer, let alone a starter. Amazingly, despite the eye-popping fastball, he didn’t even strikeout batters at an average rate for a closer. His 2011 rates suggest an ERA above 4.00 and the only reason that didn’t happen was that Feliz got lucky. Lucky his strong fly ball tendencies only resulted in home runs 5.3% of the time, about half the league rate. Lucky that balls hit into play were often hit at fielders as evidenced by a .232 opponent batting average on balls hit into play. That number will assuredly approach .300 as a starter. As a result, Feliz projects to be yet another average starter in the Ranger rotation.
It’s very hard to look at the names in the Rangers line up, remember how they mashed the ball during the 2011 post-season, and believe they could possibly score 100 less runs in 2012. I’ll be the first to admit that projection doesn’t pass the “eye-test”. When players cross age 30 however, projection systems aren’t kind to career years, treating them without exception as outliers, and not repeatable events. The Rangers have bludgeoned its AL West division opponents the last two seasons with powerful bats and a mediocre rotation. Because of the unforgiving aging curve, a rotation with even more downside than before, and a sudden juggernaut on both sides of the ledger in Anaheim, the Rangers could dramatically underperform the organization’s evolving goal to challenge for the World Championship every year.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: When I first ran projections for the 2012 season, I was shocked to see the Rangers on the wrong side of the American League Wild Card battle. Then MLB added a second team to the mix, and my model calls for Texas to grab that slot. However, as I understood the model’s process, I gained confidence in the projection. Then came a second surprise when the Las Vegas-based futures came out. Initially overseas markets had the Rangers pegged as the division favorites but stateside, the Angels are solid favorites to win the division, making my bearish Rangers view not as out-of-consensus as I thought it was. At 91 ½ wins, which seems to be the Vegas’ consensus for the Rangers season over/under wins, there is some value to the downside. I suspect, however, that once the season starts, Texas’ daily lines will revert to the heavily favored team of the last two years. That’s where I think we’ll see the most value in fading Texas.
86-76 – Second in AL West
743 Runs Scored 697 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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