Jonah Freedman
Monday May 11th, 2009

You've got to feel a little badly for the Texas Rangers. Over the past four seasons, they've developed one exciting young hitter after another, and yet they can't catch a break from two clichés that follow them around like the common cold: "hitter's park" and, of course, "A-Fraud."

To a degree, both are out of their control. They have no power over the onrush of gloomy new revelations from Alex Rodriguez's three seasons in Arlington. And no matter how well they hit, critics point to the fact that their home stadium offers mouthwatering dimensions and steamy summer heat that turn mere base hits into something more.

"It'd be one thing if we didn't have a roster full of good hitters," said third baseman Michael Young, who believes the Rangers Ballpark advantage is overplayed. "But all of us can hit."

Last season, the potent Rangers lineup led the majors in most offensive categories, including batting average (.283), hits (1,619), RBIs (867), slugging percentage (.462), total bases (2,647) and runs per game (5.56). The best inspirational story, of course, was that of center fielder Josh Hamilton, who bashed his way to 30 home runs and an American League-leading 130 RBIs in his first full season in the majors after drugs almost derailed his promising career. A little further under the radar was perhaps an even better story: the emergence of five-tool second baseman Ian Kinsler.

In just his third year in the majors, Kinsler was in the midst of a career-defining season, hitting .319 with 18 homers, 71 RBIs, a .375 on-base percentage and 26 stolen bases from the leadoff spot. But then a mid-August sports-hernia surgery shut him down for the season. Up until that point, he had been mentioned as an MVP candidate in the same breath as eventual winner Dustin Pedroia and was named to his first All-Star team.

Kinsler, 26, may be the best player in the majors you still don't know about. But the secret is starting to get out, especially after his epic 6-for-6 explosion while hitting for the cycle last month against Baltimore. He became only the second player ever to achieve both feats (it was last done 109 years ago). In his second season batting leadoff, Kinsler again is putting up gaudy numbers, at or near the top of most offensive categories in the American League.

But if you take a closer look, you start to realize why the hitter's park cliché keeps rearing its ugly head. Kinsler's numbers at home are plain sick: His .467 batting average through 14 home games is second in the majors among eligible hitters. On the road, the difference is jarring: He's hitting only .192 through Sunday, a ridiculous swing of 275 points. So what's the deal, Kins?

"I have no idea," he said, almost shocked at learning there's that much of a discrepancy. "It's a weird sport where everything is overanalyzed. I probably have more homers on the road. It just seems like I have fewer base hits."

That first guess? Not quite true. Of Kinsler's nine dingers, four have come on the road. And "fewer base hits" is an understatement: His 14 hits on the road are half his total (28) at home. Ignorance is bliss, perhaps, for a leadoff man with power and speed who has been given the green light to hack away. "I'm a free-swinger," he said. "I'm a guy who can take walks if they give them to me, steal some bases."

It certainly doesn't appear to be hurting the team thus far, either. The Rangers have busted out of the gates with a 17-14 record and lead the AL West by half a game, their best start in three years. They own winning records both at home and on the road, and once again, they've exploded on offense to start the season -- Texas leads the majors with 53 home runs and is in the top five in batting average, hits, runs, slugging percentage, total bases and stolen bases.

But the fact remains that across the board, their starting lineup hits far better in Arlington than it does on the road. Third baseman Young, right fielder Nelson Cruz and rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus in particular also have relatively wide swings between their performance at home and on the road. But nobody typifies the trend more than Kinsler, a career .333 hitter at home and .253 on the road. During the Rangers' six-game homestand in mid-April, for instance, Kinsler went 15-for-27 (including that historic 6-for-6 performance). Then, when Texas hit the road for seven games, Kinsler went only 5-for-32. Almost predictably, he broke out again after returning to Arlington.

That creates a dangerous sense of false security for players in slumps: relying on their tantalizing home park to get them back into a groove. But Kinsler isn't buying it. "You go home and you just kind of feel comfortable," he said. "You take batting practice six times as much as a park on the road. You're just comfortable with the surroundings. At the same time, the mound is still the same distance away."

And for now, manager Ron Washington isn't concerned with the flakiness of his leadoff man. "That doesn't bother me one bit," Washington said. "As well as this guy plays, it seems like maybe when we hit the road, that's when his fatigue sets in."

That assessment may provide insight into something more worrying: Kinsler's durability. For all his talent at the plate, he has never made it through an entire season. In each of his first three years in the majors, he missed varied amounts of time with a dislocated thumb, a stress fracture in his left foot and, last season, a sports hernia. All told, he has never played more than 130 games in a season. And he freely admits that sometimes makes him worry if he's going to make it through '09.

"It's not like I have a bad hammy or something and I have to keep rehabbing it," he said. "It's been one freak thing after another. It's just something that's happened to me and hopefully it doesn't happen this year.

Still, the Rangers know they need their talented leadoff hitter to set the tone for them as the season progresses. And ultimately, Kinsler's health is more important than his road performance. "He's always had the ability," Young said. "As the season progresses, those [statistics] will start to creep back closer to each other. What we really need is for him to stay healthy."

With a fit Kinsler pacing a potent lineup and some cooperation from Texas' pitching, and the Rangers could have a recipe for something they haven't seen in 10 years: the playoffs. That would be a feel-good story that everyone could get behind.

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