Wednesday August 19th, 2015

The surprising Rangers stayed busy on Tuesday night, adding another piece to their roster by trading for Padres outfielder Will Venable. He is the latest in a string of outside additions for Texas over the last three weeks—joining first baseman Mike Napoli, relievers Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman and, of course, lefty ace Cole Hamels—as the Rangers attempt to climb over the top in their dark-horse pursuit of a playoff position in the American League.

Entering Wednesday afternoon's rubber game against the Mariners, the Rangers find themselves just 1 1/2 games out of the second wild-card spot in the AL; the two teams ahead of them, the Angels and Orioles, are just one game up in the loss column. They got there by posting the third-best record in the league since May 4, trailing only the Royals and Blue Jays with a 52–42 (.553) mark over that span, which amounts to more than half of the regular season.

What’s confusing about that success, however, is that Texas hasn’t played nearly as well as its record over that stretch would suggest. Despite being ten games over .500 since May 4, the Rangers have been outscored by two runs over that span, and on the season as a whole, their third-order winning percentage of .463 stands as the third-worst in the AL, besting only those of the White Sox and Twins.

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The Rangers are a difficult team to figure out. After a dismal April, their offense exploded in May, scoring 5.3 runs per game and pushing the team over .500 for the first time all year on May 31. In June, however, the bats went cold, and though Texas managed a winning record on the month anyway thanks to a strong performance from its pitching staff, the team entered July in the middle of what would grow into a 6–16 skid by mid-month. Since the All-Star break, however, the Rangers have reversed course yet again, scoring 5.3 runs per game and going 18–12 since play resumed. Nonetheless, they have been outscored by five runs over those 30 games.

Much of the incongruity of the Rangers’ run differential can be blamed on a handful of blowout losses. Simply deleting their 21–5 loss to the Yankees on July 28 improves their differential by 16 runs, making them +11 in the second half and cutting the size of their scoring deficit on the season in half, from -30 to -14. The Rangers had positive run differentials in May, June, and August, but were outscored by 47 runs in July, a number that was inflated by a differential of 39 runs in just three July losses (the aforementioned loss to the Yankees plus a 13–0 loss the Angels and a 10–0 loss to the Astros).

One can’t simply dismiss those losses or their degree: Those are humiliating defeats at the hands of three teams currently occupying playoff positions. But they are also a reminder that Texas on the whole is playing better than its run differential might suggest. The Rangers are still a mediocre team whose playoff hopes are limited to edging out several other mediocre teams for a chance to play the Wild-Card Game on the road, but they’re also a team that is playing well and has just added several potentially helpful pieces in recent weeks.

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Dating back to the day after that 21–5 loss, which came just before the news broke of their acquisition of Hamels, the Rangers are 13–6. They rebounded from that 16-run drubbing to salvage a split in that series with the Yankees, then took two of three from the Giants and swept the Astros. More recently, they had won five in a row before losing to Seattle on Tuesday night. Hamels got off to a rocky start, giving up five home runs in his first two starts combined and suffering a groin strain in the latter. However, he returned to action on Monday with his first quality start for Texas, striking out eight Mariners in seven innings at home without allowing a round-tripper, and should provide the expected lift for the rotation going forward.

The Rangers have reason to be nearly as optimistic about the return of Derek Holland, who pitches on Wednesday. Holland has made just six starts over the last two seasons due to knee surgery prior to the 2014 season and a subscapular strain in his pitching shoulder suffered in his lone inning of work this season, back on April 10. However, he pitched well in his return last September from the knee injury—all five of his starts were quality, four of them lasting seven full innings and only one seeing him allow multiple runs—and reports from his rehab assignment have been encouraging. Sitting in the low 90s with his fastball, Holland struck out 13 men against two walks in 8 1/3 innings over his last two appearances and got up to 89 pitches in his last, and only, turn in Triple A.

Holland's return is well-timed. Fellow lefty Martin Perez is rounding into form in his return from Tommy John surgery (2.21 ERA over his last three starts, all Rangers wins); Yovani Gallardo is rebounding from a poor finish to July, with a 3.38 ERA in three starts since allowing five runs in three straight turns; and Colby Lewis has turned in a quality start in six of his last seven turns. A healthy Holland could make an already improved Texas rotation even better for the stretch run, filling in the fifth spot previously occupied by Nick Martinez, who posted a 6.25 ERA since the start of June before being demoted last week.

The bullpen also looks stronger, thanks largely to the additions of Diekman, acquired in the Hamels deal, and Dyson, acquired from the Marlins for catcher Tomas Telis and minor-league reliever Cody Ege. Diekman and Dyson have created a hard-throwing lefty/righty combination that has given the Rangers’ relief corps some desperately needed depth, with Dyson emerging as the team’s primary setup man and backup closer.

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As for Venable, he, like Napoli before him, arrives primarily as bench depth. A 32-year-old impending free agent who hits lefty and can play all three pastures, he seems likely to get his first exposure as a replacement for fellow southpaw Josh Hamilton in leftfield. Hamilton, who has started just one game against a lefthanded pitcher since returning from the disabled list at the end of June, has sat out four of the team’s last six games against righthanders due to soreness in his left knee and may require another trip to the DL. Once Hamilton is healthy, Venable can serve as an occasional lefty alternative to Delino DeShields in center or take one of Shin-soo Choo’s occasional off days in right. Off the bench, Venable offers speed (he has 11 steals in 12 attempts this year and an outstanding 81% success rate on his career), defensive flexibility and a capable though unexceptional platoon bat. Letting him face lefthanded pitching, however, would be a mistake: Venable is a career .226/.284/.336 hitter in 510 plate appearances against same-siders.

What Texas is doing may not be all that thrilling in the larger context of the league, measured against Toronto’s deadline additions and subsequent surge or Houston’s unexpected emergence as a potential division winner. Yet this is a Rangers team that has been devastated by injuries over the last two seasons, lost 95 games last year and opened this season by going 7–15 while losing Yu Darvish for the year to Tommy John surgery and former top prospect Jurickson Profar for a second consecutive year due to a right shoulder injury. To be this close to a playoff position in the third week of August while continuing to improve the roster via trades and returns from injury is a victory in and of itself.

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