When the Yankees first played the Rangers in late May, I took a look at Texas and saw Toronto, at hot team with a strong defense that had yet to be tested by its schedule and thus seemed headed for a fall. The Blue Jays fulfilled that prophecy by going 10-24 (.294) against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays and playing at a .429 overall clip after going 15-9 in April. The Rangers, however, have proven me wrong.
Against the Red Sox, Angels, Rays, and White Sox this season, the Rangers have gone 24-9 (.727), and they nearly matched their 20-9 May with a 17-8 July. As a result, Texas enters this week’s three-game series in the Bronx just 1.5 games behind Boston in the Wild Card race, and 11.5 games ahead of the seventh-place Blue Jays.
How have they done it? That great defense, led by rookie shortstop Elvis Andrus and break-out right-field slugger Nelson Cruz, has played a large part, as it has helped the Texas pitching staff (brace yourself) allow the fewest runs per game in the American League. Yes, the Texas Rangers‘ pitching staff.
The Rangers have needed pitching since they arrived from Washington. Even two of their three playoff entries allowed more than the league average of runs per game. This year, however, that’s all changed. Leading the charge has been veteran Kevin Millwood, who starts tonight. Millwood has benefited tremendously from the improved defense behind him. In his first three seasons as a Ranger, Millwood’s BABIPs were .310, .340, and .358. This year, opposing batters are hitting just .274 on balls in play, and Millwood’s ERA has dropped a full run and a half as a result.
Behind Millwood, 26-year-old sophomore starter Scott Feldman has paired a similarly low BABIP with improved peripherals to shave a run and a half off of his own ERA. Toss aside his three ugly relief outings in April and he has gone 13-4 with a 3.46 ERA in his 23 starts. More recently, 22-year-old rookie Tommy Hunter has gone 6-2 with a 2.66 ERA in ten starts since joining the rotation at the end of June, thanks in part to a still-lower BABIP.
One Ranger starter who is not just a product of his team’s defense is 22-year-old rookie Derek Holland. Holland, who starts tomorrow night, has thrived since his mid-July return to the rotation, going 4-2 with a 2.95 ERA over seven starts and 4-1 with a 1.85 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, and 3.5 K/BB over his last five. He’s a legitimate prospect who could pair with recently promoted 21-year-old Neftali Feliz (part of the Mark Teixeira booty) to give the Rangers a legitimate rotation in the years to come. Feliz is working out of the major league pen for now and has struck out 19 men in 14 2/3 innings against just one walk and four hits. Be afraid.
The Rangers’ bullpen has been a large part of their success this year. First-year closer Frank Francisco has been on and off the DL, but has struck out 41 in 35 innings against just 8 walks (10.5 K/9, 5.13 K/BB). Deposed closer and current lefty set-up man C.J. Wilson has done admirably both setting up and closing for Francisco, striking out 61 in 56 innings and allowing just three home runs. Righty Darren O’Day, a mid-season waiver claim from the Mets, has posted a 1.87 ERA with similarly sharp peripherals in 50 games since arriving in Texas and leads the team in the win-expectancy-based WXRL.
The Rangers have pitched so well, in fact, that it’s easy to overlook the fact that they’re not hitting as much as they used to. Josh Hamilton has been hurt and only recently found his stroke (.373/.425/.513 since August 3, .657 OPS before that). Chris Davis struck out 114 times in 77 games and was demoted in early July. Hank Blalock has taken Davis’s place by getting on base at a .274 clip and doing little other than hitting homers. Andrus is hitting (and running) just enough to make his glove valuable, but no more. Prior to his current arm injury, fellow Teixeira-trade product Jarrod Saltalamacchia wasn’t doing that. Ian Kinsler is not repeating his production from last year and was hurt for a while himself. All of that has counteracted Cruz’s breakout, Andruw Jones ultimately half-hearted comeback, and Michael Young’s MVP-quality performance (if not for his stone glove and that Joe Mauer guy, of course). As a result the Rangers are actually a tick below league average in runs scored per game at 4.85. As usual, that gets worse on the road, where they’ve scored just 4.2 runs per game on the season.
Could this Yankees-Rangers series in the hitting-friendly Yankee Stadium yield a series of pitchers’ duels? Don’t be surprised if it does.
Joba Chamberlain goes against Millwood tonight on eight-day’s rest. He had nine days off around the All-Star break and came back looking like and ace, allowing two runs on eight hits over his next three starts. He then had seven days off before facing the Red Sox at the beginning of the month and came back looking like the nibbler we saw in the first half of the season, walking seven in five innings. Which Joba takes the mound tonight is anyone’s guess. It was the nibbler who faced Texas in Arlington back in late May (4 IP, 4 BB).
2009 Record: 69-54 (.561)
2009 Pythagorean Record: 68-55 (.553)
Manager: Ron Washington
General Manager: Jon Daniels
Home Ballpark: Rangers Ballpark (100/101)
Who’s Replaced Whom:
- Ivan Rodriguez replaces Jarrod Saltalamacchia (DL)
- Julio Borbon (minors) replaces Chris Davis (minors)
- Tommy Hunter (minors) and Dustin Nippert (DL) replace Brandon McCarthy (DL) and Vicente Padilla
- Jason Grilli has replaced Eddie Guardado (DL)
- Doug Mathis and Neftali Feliz replace Warner Madrigal (minors) and Kris Benson
1B – Hank Blalock (L)
2B – Ian Kinsler (R)
SS – Elvis Andrus (R)
3B – Michael Young (R)
C – Taylor Teagarden (R)
RF – Nelson Cruz (R)
CF – Josh Hamilton (L)
LF – Marlon Byrd (R)
DH – Julio Borbon (L)
R – Andruw Jones (OF)
L – David Murphy (OF)
R – Ivan Rodriguez (C)
S – Omar Vizquel (SS)
R – Kevin Millwood
L – Derek Holland
R – Dustin Nippert
R – Tommy Hunter
R – Scott Feldman
R – Frank Francisco
L – C.J. Wilson
R – Jason Grilli
R – Darren O’Day
R – Jason Jennings
R – Doug Mathis
R – Neftali Perez
15-day DL: LHP – Eddie Guardado (inflamed knee); C – Jarrod Saltalamacchia (right arm); IF – Esteban German (groin)
60-day DL: RHP – Joaquin Benoit (rotator cuff surgery); RHP – Eric Hurley (torn rotator cuff); RHP – Brandon McCarthy (shoulder fracture); LHP – Matt Harrison (Thoracic Outlet Syndrome)
L – Julio Borbon (DH)
R – Michael Young (3B)
L – Josh Hamilton (CF)
R – Marlon Byrd (LF)
R – ian Kinsler (2B)
R – Nelson Cruz (RF)
L – Hank Blalock (3B)
R – Taylor Teagarden (C)
R – Elvis Andrus (SS)