The first-place Yankees (69-42, 1.5 GA) are in Arlington tonight for the first time all year to play the AL West-leading Texas Rangers (64-47, 8 GA) for a two-game quickie. A lot has changed since the Yankees swept the Rangers at home during the second week of the season: Most notably, both the Yankee offense and starting rotation — while very good on the year (.347 wOBA and 4.29 FIP, respectively) — haven’t been quite as exceptional as each unit was in April (.363 wOBA and 3.76 FIP). The Yankee offense in particular has had quite a bit of difficulty scoring runs thus far in August — though it’s the smallest of small samples, a .298 wOBA in seven games is still ugly. On the flip side, the Rangers have gone from 4th place after that ill-fated April weekend in the Bronx to building the largest division lead in Major League Baseball.
How have the Rangers done it? After years of fielding offenses specializing in pounding the tar out of the ball while boasting pitching staffs that were even better at giving runs up than the Rangers were at scoring them, Texas finally has a bona fide excellent Major League starting rotation. C.J. Wilson (3.30 ERA; 4.01 FIP; 4.59 xFIP), Colby Lewis (3.37 ERA; 3.59 FIP; 3.88 xFIP) and Tommy Hunter (3.01 ERA; 4.56 FIP; 4.85 xFIP) are, as evidenced by those gaudy numbers, all having phenomenal seasons. Lewis ranks 12th in the AL among pitchers with a 3.1 WAR and Wilson 21st with 2.3 WAR.
Oh, and, as you may have heard, they also added the best pitcher in the American League (5.5 WAR) to their rotation in the person of free-agent-and-very-wealthy-man-to-be Cliff Lee (2.63 ERA; 2.91 FIP; 3.65 xFIP) last month, and Josh Hamilton is leading all AL hitters in WAR (5.8, though he gives a lot of it back on defense) and is 3rd in wOBA, with a beautiful .439. These are not, on paper, your sweep-’em-in-the-first-round-late-’90s Texas Rangers.
In tonight’s game A.J. Burnett (4.93 ERA; 4.78 FIP; 4.72 xFIP) has apparently declared himself healthy enough to face C.J. Wilson. Burnett missed his start against Boston due to back spasms and his last outing prior to that against Toronto was one of his worst of the season (and he has quite a few to choose from). This looks like a total mismatch on paper, although the Yankees didn’t seem to have a ton of trouble with Wilson the one time they faced him this year.
The Yankees better hope they can figure out a way to win the first game, because Javier Vazquez (4.63 ERA; 5.06 FIP; 4.71 xFIP) gets Cliff Lee on Wednesday. The Yanks have only had to face Lee once this season (he was traded right before his second scheduled start against the team) and, as per usual, he beat them, yielding three runs while throwing a complete game. As you know, Lee also beat the Yankees twice in the World Series, and hasn’t lost to New York since May 29, 2009. As good as Lee is, he’s not infallible, but facing Home Run Javy at the Ballpark at Arlington seems about as close to a guaranteed victory for the Rangers as it gets.
The Yankees have a slight edge in team wOBA over the Rangers (.347 to .334), though both teams have struggled to score runs this month (Texas even moreso than the Yankees, with a 2.93 wOBA). Additionally, the overall pitching numbers are very close (the Yankees have a 3.85 ERA and 4.20 FIP; the Rangers a 3.78 ERA and 4.24 FIP).
If the Yankee bats can finally break out the way we’ve been waiting for them to — and the Yankees have historically always played very well in Arlington — they should be able to garner a split. However, with the team’s two least reliable starters on the mound opposing two of the best in the game, that could be a rather tall order.
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