I remember sitting back as the Rangers started off last season 13-3, with an 8-1 record on the road and a locomotive offense that putting up close to six runs a game, and thinking about how little that blazing hot start could mean in the long run. I had been through the historical stretches of offensive domination before, only to see it all fade away at the end of the year. To be clear, Texas’ offense was consistently brilliant, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around a third straight trip to the World Series given all that has to go right for a team to get that far just once, much less three times in a row.
When Texas started struggling down the stretch last year, you could tell that the team had lost it’s way. If a collapse wasn’t evident in the boxscore each night, it was easy to see disintegration in the body language of the players. When Oakland finished off their incredible surge to take the division title from Texas on the final day of the season, just about every Ranger walked off the field hanging their heads, and their season wasn’t even over yet.
Last year’s demoralizing finish set into motion a fundamental change to the Rangers’ roster. It started with Josh Hamilton going to the Angels, which turned out to be a blessing disguise, and ended with the Rangers choosing not to make a major move involving Elvis Andrus or Jurickson Profar that would have netted them a major slugger to fill Hamilton’s void. Instead, the Rangers decided to make smaller moves to secure role players and solid starters. They didn’t overreact to the losses of Hamilton and Mike Napoli and instead kept their foundation of young, versatile players together, with the exception of trading Mike Olt for Matt Garza at the trade deadline.
This has left the Rangers with a team less reliant on the longball and more dependent on their contact hitters and loaded pitching staff. The Rangers may well end up with the same amount of homeruns as they had last year, but the overwhelming majority of their longballs came in the first half of the season, which was back when Nelson Cruz (and Lance Berkman) were playing regularly. Now Texas only has one player carrying a substantial load on offense from a power perspective, and the result has been a more balanced offense than we saw in years past.
According to FanGraphs, the Rangers are one of only two teams currently in the playoff picture (Oakland is the other) that only has one player worth over 3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) this season. Most teams have an all-star caliber player leading the way – your Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutchen’s of the world – and Texas holds up well in that department with the ageless Adrian Beltre. Where the Rangers don’t compare well to the rest of the contenders around the league is with their secondary star or offensive co-pilot. The Pirates have McCutchen AND Starling Marte, the Dodgers have Hanley Ramirez AND Yasiel Puig, the Red Sox have Jacoby Ellsbury AND Dustin Pedroia. The Rangers have Beltre and … Leonys Martin?
And it’s not as if those teams only have two above average players, either. The Pirates also have Russell Martin, the Dodgers have Adrian Gonzalez and the Red Sox have Shane Victorino. Statistically speaking, Texas’ third best player this season has been Craig Gentry, who has played nearly 50 fewer games this season than Elvis Andrus. I’m a huge fan of Gentry’s and I think he gives the Rangers value in a lot of places, but for him to be the Rangers’ third most productive position player right now perfectly illustrates how much change has occurred over the past 12 months.
With the suspension of Cruz, who had 27 bombs and a career high strikeout rate before the Biogenesis scandal came to light, an average year from Ian Kinsler and setback seasons for Mitch Moreland and David Murphy (in Murphy’s case, it has been a catastrophic setback), the Rangers are hitting the stretch run with a very different offense than the one that struck fear into each and every opponent on their path to the World Series.
After Beltre, the contributions the Rangers have gotten from their next five best position players are about equal. Martin, Gentry, Elvis Andrus, Ian Kinsler and A.J. Pierzynski are all on track to finish the season with around 2-3 WAR, which places them in the “solid” to “good” category. For perspective, Texas had six players worth over 3 WAR in 2011, including three over 5 WAR (Beltre, Napoli and Kinsler). Texas has lost a substantial amount of thump in their line-up and the edge they had heading into games over the past few seasons is definitely gone, but they’ve found a way to remain productive.
One of the biggest reasons the Rangers have maintained a top seven scoring offense is an extremely simple concept: they are getting the bat on the ball more often. Last season, the Rangers made contact on 79% of their swings, which ranked 22nd in baseball. This season the Rangers have the third best contact rate in the league at 82.3%. An increase of 3.3% may not seem like much, but when you’re dealing with thousands of swings over the course a 162-game season, it’s a significant bump that has played a part in keeping Texas’ offense chugging along.
A side effect of their improved contact rate is that the Rangers rank dead last in swinging strikes this season, which means they swing and miss less than every other team in baseball. Anyone who watched the Rangers last year understands how large a role Hamilton’s departure played in that statistical development. On a related note: the Rangers have the second lowest strikeout rate in the league this season. Putting more balls in play, or being more patient at the plate, leads to a higher number of baserunners and more baserunners is exactly what a team that can’t rely on the longball needs. The Rangers are no longer a detrimentally free-swinging bunch; they’ve taken a more conservative approach at the dish and it’s paid off.
The other major factor in the Rangers success this season, outside of their pitching, has been their tremendous defense. Last season the Rangers ranked 13th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 innings, which is the most widely accepted advanced metric for defense, at 1.4 UZR/150. This season the Rangers have jumped to fifth in baseball this season at 6.2 UZR/150, due in large part to Leonys Martin becoming an everyday player this season.
Martin has been great offensively for the Rangers this season, hitting a solid .275 with 27 stolen bases in his first full season in the bigs, but his value has been even greater on defense. He’s played 93 games in centerfield this season and he’s already emerged as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. On top of displaying great range in center, Martin has been a recurring character on nightly highlight reels because of his rocket arm. Martin combines every element of throwing – the power, accuracy, footwork and grace – and has thrown out runners in situations that usually don’t even merit throws. He’s saved Texas a few runs with his arm alone, and he’s been a huge upgrade over Hamilton defensively this year.
With Gentry, one of the best defensive outfielders in the league, and the above average Alex Rios alongside Martin in the outfield, the Rangers have the best defensive outfield in baseball (Murphy is a solid defensive back-up as well, but he’s been a nightmare at the plate this season). With Elvis Andrus at short, Moreland’s underrated glove at first and the always brilliant Beltre at the hot corner, the Rangers have several defensive stalwarts and no weakspot amongst their everyday position players. Even Jeff Baker has been solid in spots at first base (and his bat has been a pleasant surprise as well), and anytime Profar has gotten on the field, he’s looked solid.
Texas lost some big name players and some big time production this offseason, but as we enter the stretch run, they are tied for the best record in the American League. Fans may look at the ceiling of these differently because they don’t possess the star power that they used to, but the Rangers know far too well that the team with the big names and the big homerun totals don’t always win. Even looking back at last year, it wasn’t the team with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder that won it all; in fact, they didn’t win a single game against the Giants while Marco Scutaro and Pablo Sandoval lead their team to victory.
With an improved pitching staff, including a deeper rotation and one of the best bullpens in baseball, and a more balanced offensive group, one that actually fits Ron Washington’s micromanaged smallball attack, Texas has found a different way to win games this season. It may not seem as impressive or flashy, but a “substance over style” approach is the common denominator amongst most World Series champions, and it’s nice to see the Rangers testing out a new philosophy.