HOW KEY ADDITIONS AND A REVITALIZED PITCHING STAFF TURNED THE RANGERS' SEASON AROUND
This is an article from the Sept. 28, 2015 issue
ANY GOOD TV procedural gives you a peek at the culprit early in the show, leads you on to other suspects and then brings you back to the first guy at the end. Well, in Law and Order: AL West, the Rangers are emerging as the guy with the smirk, the too-cool demeanor and the basement filled with bodies.
Texas was written off before the season even started when the Rangers lost ace Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery and infielder Jurickson Profar to shoulder surgery. After a 7--14 April in which the team hit .210 and scored just 3.6 runs per game, followed by a 19--11 May (5.3 runs per game) that briefly pushed them into contention, the Rangers drifted through the summer. They were under .500 and in third place in the West, seven games behind the division-leading Astros, at the July 31 trade deadline.
Instead of selling, though, general manager Jon Daniels went out and bolstered the pitching staff, which had a 6.22 ERA in July, with a dramatic pickup. The Cole Hamels trade—Daniels sent five prospects and reliever Matt Harrison to the Phillies to acquire the lefthander, who is signed through 2018—was seen as a move to solidify the Rangers' rotation behind Darvish for the next few years. As it turned out, Hamels and other new additions joined hurlers Derek Holland and Martin Perez, both of whom came off the disabled list, to remake the staff and vault the Rangers to a 30--17 run and first place in the division.
The turnaround is all about improved run prevention. Globe Life Park is typically a nightmare for pitchers in August, with the Texas heat helping balls leave the yard in a hurry. This year, however, the Rangers had a 3.70 ERA that month, the second-best August their staff has had since the park opened in 1994. Hamels (above), with a 3.73 ERA as a Ranger, has been an upgrade on young starters Nick Martinez and Chi Chi Gonzalez, but he was just part of the solution. Lefty reliever Jake Diekman, who came from Philadelphia with Hamels, has a 2.37 ERA in 21 appearances. Righty Sam Dyson, stolen from the Marlins at the deadline for two marginal prospects, has a 1.52 ERA and an unreal 78.5% ground-ball rate with Texas. Emphasizing his power sinker, he has faced 91 batters since donning red and white and has allowed just five fly balls to the outfield. It's one thing to trade for a No. 2 starter using top prospects; it's another to find a solution to your bullpen issues languishing away on a bad team, then coach him into the best work of his life. Dyson's performance in Texas is a credit to the entire organization.
Diekman and Dyson have also helped spread the workload in a pen that had thrown 32/3 innings a game during that brutal July. All told, 40% of the team's innings since the trade deadline have come from pitchers who weren't there in July; that includes Holland, the 2011 World Series star who has come back from shoulder surgery to post a 4.75 ERA in eight starts. Those pitchers collectively have a 3.49 ERA in 1672/3 frames. Throw in Perez, the young lefty coming back from Tommy John surgery who has a 3.62 ERA since Aug. 1, and the Rangers have half a new pitching staff. That's how a team that was 47--52 and coming off a 21-run thrashing by the Yankees eight weeks ago is now using the phrase magic number.
Even in their current configuration, the Rangers aren't quite a juggernaut. Despite the benefits of Globe Life, the team is just ninth in the AL in slugging and seventh in home runs. Advanced metrics that account for Texas's good hitters' park, such as Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+), see this as one of the league's bottom six offenses. Manager Jeff Banister has made some ugly trade-offs to inject offense, playing Joey Gallo and Mike Napoli in leftfield and Delino DeShields in center, sometimes giving the Rangers the worst outfield defense in the game. That's a weakness to watch, although it is mitigated by a rebuilt starting staff that gets a lot of ground balls.
The Rangers still don't stand up to the Astros over the course of the whole season. Texas hasn't even outscored its opponents, whereas Houston has done so by 92 runs; no team has made the playoffs while being outscored since the Diamondbacks did it in 2007, and just five have done it in a full season since the advent of divisional play in 1969. Only one of those, the '87 Twins, won the World Series. Where the Rangers have made up ground on the Astros is in head-to-head play, taking 12 of 16 games from their intrastate rivals, including the four-game sweep last week that flipped the division lead. With all due respect to the Angels, who were four games back after Sunday, one last matchup—Texas's three games this weekend in Houston—may well determine the division winner.
In their current configurations, these teams are dead even. Which on Law and Order: AL West is the best kind of dead.
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