Note: For previous Yankee Analyst 2011 team previews, click here.
In divvying up the 2011 team previews, I knew I wanted both the Rangers and Twins. Having spent massive amounts of time analyzing both teams for the the 2010 ALCS and 2010 ALDS, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on these two AL rivals, and so today our 2011 season preview series brings us to the 2010 American League pennant-winning Texas Rangers, who finished atop the AL West (90-72) for the first time since 1999, which was also the last time the franchise made it to the postseason prior to 2010. Coming into the 2010 playoffs, the Rangers had but one playoff victory to their name, a road win against the Yankees in the 1996 ALDS.
However, last year’s Rangers wasted no time in dispelling any lingering thoughts of playoff futility, as they beat the AL East-winning Rays in a tense five-game ALDS and followed that up by throttling the Yankee pitching staff senseless (.890 team OPS) while simultaneously locking the Yankee bats in cold storage (the Yankees’ team OPS of .670 in the 2010 ALCS was their sixth-worst mark of the 31 playoff series they’ve appeared in since 1995) in winning the American League Championship Series four games to two en route to the franchise’s first-ever World Series appearance. Unfortunately for the Rangers and their fans, the good times came to a rather abrupt end, as their own bats went ice cold against the superbly good pitching of the San Francisco Giants, ultimately losing the 2010 World Series in five games.
So how did the Rangers make it to the World Series? Having an elite offense was certainly a major factor, as their 5th-best-in-the-AL .333 team wOBA can attest to (as a point of comparison, the Yankees led all of MLB at .347). However, their pitching staff — led by career years from C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis, bolstered considerably by the mid-season acquisition of Cliff Lee, and punctuated by one of the stingiest bullpens in the American League — is what really helped the historically all-slug-no-arms Rangers reach the highest stage the game has to offer.
On the whole, the Rangers pitching staff finished with a 3.93 team ERA (third-best in the AL) and 4.17 FIP (9th-best), with the starters compiling a 4.23 ERA (6th) and 4.27 FIP (10th), and the bullpen a 3.38 ERA (2nd, just behind the Rays’ 3.33) and 3.99 FIP (4th).
However, some of those starting numbers are brought down by members of the rotation that were later jettisoned or shuffled to the back end of the rotation, (Scott Feldman was the opening day starter, followed by Rich Harden, C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison), and the Ranger rotation finished the season with a considerably different look (Lee-Wilson-Lewis-Tommy Hunter).
Though Lee didn’t quite replicate the insane numbers he’d compiled in the first half of the season in Seattle (103.2 IP, 2.34 ERA, 2.16 FIP), he still represented a true #1-type pitcher, and was one of the primary reasons Texas made it the World Series, throwing 16 innings of two-run ball (21 Ks against zero walks) against the Rays in Games 1 and 5 of the ALDS and absolutely destroying the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS to the tune of eight shutout innings of two-hit, 13-strikeout ball.
As for the regular season, the Rangers went 4-4 against the Yankees, which included a Yankee sweep of Texas in the Bronx in April against a very different Rangers squad than the one that showed up in the postseason, and a Texas sweep of the Yankees in Arlington (which was the first time the Yankees had been swept by anyone all season) in September, featuring two of the ugliest games the Yankees would be involved in all season. The Yankees and Texas remained intertwined throughout the winter even after the Rangers handily dispatched of New York, as both teams were thought to be the primary suitors for Lee’s services, until Lee shocked the baseball world and bolted for Philly for less money than both Texas and the Yankees offered.
Anyway, onto the projections. The below charts contain key offensive numbers for what I expect Texas’ Opening Day lineup to look like, along with the players that will be in the mix for bench spots. On the pitching side of the ledger I have the hurlers vying for spots in the Rangers’ rotation and bullpen.
I’m using 2010 actual numbers, along with each player’s 2011 CAIRO and PECOTA projections, due to the fact that they are both park-adjusted, enabling a more apples-to-apples comparison, and I opted for two projection systems instead of one because relying on only one really doesn’t tell you anything. One important thing to keep in mind in reviewing the CAIRO projections is that SG doesn’t factor baserunning into his wOBA calculation, which means for a speedier player you can probably add somewhere on the order of .010 to .015 points of wOBA to scale it to Fangraphs’ version.
Unfortunately Baseball Prospectus doesn’t use wOBA or FIP, so in the wOBA section the column on the far right is True Average, which is basically BP’s version of wOBA but scaled to batting average instead of on-base percentage; and in the FIP section I have WHIP in the far right — WHIP obviously doesn’t correlate with FIP at all, but I wanted to at least put something in that column for the PECOTA projection. I’ve gone ahead and highlighted the team leader in yellow in each statistical category for each data set for quick reference.
I’d also like to take a moment to thank both Joey Matschulat from Baseball Time in Arlington and Adam Morris from Lone Star Ball for their time, expertise and graciousness in helping me ensure I covered more or less every player in contention for Texas’ 25-man roster.
To the surprise of no one, 2010 AL MVP Josh Hamilton was of course the best hitter on the team by a good margin, leading the team in most of the significant offensive categories, although Nelson Cruz had a monster year of his own. Unsurprisingly CAIRO does not foresee another .447 wOBA campaign from Hamilton, although that’s certainly not to say that he couldn’t do it again. After all, CAIRO’s .384 projection is the 8th-highest in all of baseball.
After Hamilton, Nelson Cruz projects to have the second-best wOBA on the team, at .371, followed by Adrian Beltre‘s .358 (though PECOTA is even less of a fan of Beltre, projecting the third baseman to fall to .276/.325/.453 — even if Beltre isn’t able to reproduce his 2010, projecting him to lose .040 points of OBP is pretty aggressive) and Ian Kinsler‘s .353. Mitch Moreland, who was excellent in limited duty last year, is forecasted for a bit of a decline, at .338, while Michael Young is at .336, essentially what he did last season. CAIRO thinks little of Elvis Andrus, forecasting declines in BA (.257) and OBP (.317), and an increase in SLG (.331, though given that Andrus only slugged .301 I don’t see how a system couldn’t project a higher number in this instance), while PECOTA is slightly less bearish but not by much (.266/.323/.340).
For a player with Andrus’ speed he’s posted somewhat surprisingly low BABIPs in his two Major League seasons — I’d have expected his absurdly high GB% would have resulted in a fair number of infield hits, but his BABIP on ground balls was only .282. I found Andrus to be a much more exciting and dynamic player than the numbers would’ve indicated during the ALCS — although that’s probably due in part to the fact that every batter on the Rangers made the Yankees look like a bunch of stone-cold chumps — but if I were a Texas fan I’d be a bit concerned if Elvis continues to hit the ball on the ground at a 60% rate, as those balls are not turning into hits with enough frequency and he doesn’t exactly make up for it by lacing doubles all over the park (he only had 18 total extra-base hits in 2010 — 15 doubles, three triples and zero home runs).
Andrus does appear to have some plate discipline (.342 OBP in 2010), but I really like what the Rangers are doing in moving Kinsler up to the leadoff slot and dropping Andrus down to the two-hole. The only problem with that is that The Book tells us that you want your three best hitters batting second, fourth and fifth, and Andrus most definitely is not one of the three best hitters on this team. I’d almost suggest hitting him ninth, but if Julio Borbon winds up being the starting left fielder over David Murphy then that recommendations makes less sense than Murphy not starting. Obviously I don’t follow the Rangers anywhere near as closely as I do my own team, but Murphy looked amazing to me last season — though again, bias is once again at play here due to him smoking the Yankees in the playoffs (.231/.412/.538) — and I can’t quote fathom why Ron Washington would start Borbon (CAIRO-projected wOBA of .290) over Murphy (.358!). Unless the team is convinced Murphy’s 2010 was somehow a major fluke (and I don’t know how you could draw that conclusion; Murphy’s improved his wOBA in each of his three seasons with Texas), this decision is rather baffling.
Moving to the pitching end of the equation, here’s where Texas will have an opportunity to prove to any doubters that missing out on Cliff Lee won’t significantly hinder the team’s capabilities.
As we all know, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis both turned in excellent campaigns in 2010, which had to be a pleasant surprise to everyone involved in the team, being that Wilson was being converted from relief duty, while Lewis had spent the previous two seasons in Japan, rebuilding his value. Having watched both pitchers throw several times last season, I don’t think there are any underlying reasons to expect either to take any significant steps back, although certain facets of their games are unlikely to remain the exact same — if Wilson continues to walk more than four batters per nine, chances are he won’t also benefit from a .266 BABIP again, likely inflating the ERA; and it strikes me as incredibly unlikely that Wilson will only surrender 0.44 HR/9 (the fifth-lowest mark in all of baseball in 2010) again. The projection systems acknowledge this and expect Wilson to regress fairly hard, with CAIRO seeing his ERA increasing by a half a run along with a nearly .040 FIP increase. These numbers would still make him the staff ace, but it’s not unreasonable to expect Wilson to get hit a bit harder than he did in 2010.
Lewis’ BB/9 (2.91) and K/9 (8.78) were even better than Wilson’s in 2010 (did you know he had the 5th-best K/9 in the AL in 2010? I didn’t until just looking it up now), though his closer-to-league-average HR/9 resulted in a near-matching FIP with Wilson (3.55). I actually think Lewis is a better bet to reproduce his 2010 than Wilson, given his stronger strikeout and walk rates, though his fly-ball tendencies (44.9%; fourth-worst in the AL) and weak ground ball rate (37.9%) could pose some issues. CAIRO sees an ERA spike for Lewis, while PECOTA is projecting a similar ERA to 2010. Both systems see him losing about one strikeout per nine.
After the two big C’s, the remainder of the rotation looks to be pretty wide open. Tommy Hunter appears to be the nominal third starter (though neither projection system thinks all that much of him), with Brandon Webb not likely to join the rotation until late April/Early May, while Derek Holland, Michael Kirkman and Matt Harrison have been the primary competitors for the final two slots. To me, the most interesting candidate is Neftali Feliz, who appears to be going back and forth regarding whether or not he actually wants to start, but the latest is that he does indeed want to crack the Rangers’ rotation. Given my hatred of wasting valuable arms in the bullpen, I am all for Feliz-to-the-rotation. For as great a reliever as he’s been, this falling in love with elite arms as closers/set-up men thing has got to stop, and Feliz as a starter — a role in which he performed quite well in in the minors — would ideally go a long way in helping to quell future shortsighted decisions.
As for the bullpen, the Rangers once again will likely have one of the best relief corps in the bigs. Even if Feliz sticks in the rotation, they’ll still have flame-throwing Alexi Ogando, Darren Oliver (projected by CAIRO to have the best FIP in the ‘pen), the ageless Arthur Rhodes and Darren O’Day anchoring the ‘pen.
So what’s the ultimate prognosis for Texas? Their offensive firepower combined with a stellar bullpen should be enough for Texas to capture its second straight AL West divisional crown, although losing Lee could make a return trip to the World Series a fairly tall order. While the A’s have made some nice improvements and likely have an overall edge in starting pitching, Oakland’s offensive attack still doesn’t seem strong enough to overtake the big bats in the Rangers’ lineup. However, should Texas’ starting pitching falter, the AL West could wind up being a fairly wide open race.
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