“We’re not going to take that woe-is-me mentality. It just doesn’t serve any purpose.”
Jon Daniels, Texas Rangers GM
That’s Jon Daniels, quoted in USA Today recently, trying to be optimistic. He’s always trying to be optimistic. For the last year, that’s really all he’s been able to do. Because to look at his team, his fortunes, and the crushing reality of it all… would be just horribly depressing.
The Texas Rangers, not very long ago, were a very good ball club. They had young stars, locked up to team-friendly contracts for years to come. A young core, built around promising young arms. And then those young arms (and one back) proceeded to bend and tear and fall apart. One right after another. Matt Harrison needed back surgery. Martin Perez needed Tommy John. Derek Holland needed microfracture surgery on his knee. Then came the position players. Prince Fielder. Jurickson Profar. By the end of the 2014 season, the Rangers were a shell of the team they were supposed to be. They finished 67-95, in the cellar of the AL West.
Then came 2015. Springtime is a time for optimism! Holland was nearing his return. Yovanni Gallardo was brought in to help. Prince Fielder was healthy again. There was reason for Daniels to be reasonably, rationally optimistic. And then the seemingly snakebit Rangers team found its foot in a den of copperheads. Their ace, the lone bright spot in a dismal 2014 season, is going under the knife. Yu Darvish. Tommy John surgery. Snakebit again.
And yet, there is still an entire season of baseball for these Rangers to play. How will they play it, and how will they fare without their ace to turn to every five games? Let’s take a look at your 2015 Texas Rangers. Or what’s left of them.
This was NOT a strength for Rangers in 2014. Some of that falls on the Fielder injury, and nagging injuries that slowed Shin-soo Choo most of the year. The team also had 20-year-old Rougned Odor as its full-time, starting second baseman, and seemed to think Michael Choice (.182/.250/.320) should get 250 plate appearances.
Statistically, the Rangers did not fare well offensively. The team’s 94 OPS+ was third worst in the American League. Its 111 home runs were second worst. They didn’t walk much (6.9% BB%), and they struck out a fair amount (19.3%), and that’s without Prince Fielder in the lineup.
Daniels blames some of the Rangers’ offensive woes on baserunning here, but the numbers only partially support that. The Rangers stole 44 fewer bases (105 total) than they did in 2013, and their stolen base percentage plummeted from 76% in 2013 to 64% last year. That certainly makes some difference. But if you put steals aside, the Rangers were around league average on the bases. Their Runs Scored % was right at league average, at 29%. Their Extra Base % of 44% was a tick above average (41%). But the big difference, along with steals, was their 3.93 runs scored per game, which was below league average (4.18) and down dramatically from 2013, when they scored a whopping 4.48 runs per game.
As for what Rangers hitters did when they hit the ball, the team hit an inordinate number of ground balls, a league high 47.9% GB rate. They hit line drives and fly balls at mostly normal rates, but only 8.1% of the fly balls they did hit cleared the fence, good for 12th in the AL.
So the profile for 2014 seems to have been a relatively punchless lineup, with hitters that didn’t walk much, didn’t run much, didn’t hit for a lot of power, hit the ball on the ground a lot, and didn’t score much. So not real good.
Looking ahead, the Rangers stand to benefit from a year of Prince Fielder, and a healthy-but-older Shin-Soo Choo. But what does that mean, exactly? ZiPS projects Fielder to hit .262/.360/.437, with 21 HR, which is pretty good, but it’s not what we’re used to from Prince Fielder. Steamer is a little more optimistic, projecting .275/.371/.460. Either one of those would be a drastic improvement on Rangers first basemen last year, because Rangers first basemen last year were a Frankenstein comprised of the likes of Adam Rosales, the remains of Carlos Pena, Brad Snyder, Mitch Moreland, Ryan Rua, and J.P. Arencibia. As for Choo, ZiPS has him projected to hit .260/.372/.406, which is an improvement on a dismal 2014, but nowhere near his stellar 2013. An improvement from both players can only help the offense, but there is still a glaring hole in LF, where Michael Choice and Ryan Rua are currently slated to get the bulk of the playing time. Rua flashed some pop in a small sample last year, and Choice has a strong minor league track record, but neither seems to be a long-term answer in left. One possible bright spot for the Rangers is the youngster at second, Odor. ZiPS seems to like him quite a bit, projecting a pretty optimistic .270/.309/.436 line with 17 HR.
As a unit, Rangers hitters swung at the first pitch 24% of the time, which is roughly league average (25.9%). They saw 260 3-0 counts, but only swung 10 times in those counts, which suggests they either had a manager-imposed red-light in those counts, or were just simply judicious as a unit. They also swung in 271 of 470 3-1 counts, so set against a 6.9% walk rate, the approach seems a little on the aggressive side, over all.
In 2014, Ron Washington was at the Rangers helm, with a reputation as an old-school, player’s manager type. He wasn’t afraid to sacrifice, using three players primarily: Elvis Andrus, Leonys Martin, and Robinson Chirinos, who all had over 70% success rates. He used a pinch hitter 85 times, with Jim Adducci and Michael Choice seeing the most at bats. He seemed to take platoon advantages into consideration, particularly with lefties, as left-handed batters made only 546 plate appearances against left handed pitchers, while right-handed batters had more than 2500 plate appearances against right handed pitchers. It remains to be seen what Washington’s successor, Jeff Bannister’s tendencies will be. But he has already anointed a hitter with a profile that doesn’t fit a top-of-the-order slot as his leadoff hitter, in Leonys Martin, who slashed .274/.325/.364. So there’s that.
Despite having arguably one of the game’s best pitchers in Yu Darvish take the mound every five days, the Rangers put up abysmal pitching numbers in 2014. Their 4.22 FIP was dead last in the AL, and they racked up 505 walks, which was good for second-most, to go with a second-worst mark of 1110 strikeouts. That’s a 7.0 K/9 and 3.19 BB/9, and those aren’t good numbers for a major league pitching staff. This year, they’ve lost Darvish, and their three most effective relievers, in Joakim Soria, Neal Cotts, and Jason Frasor. They’ve gained Yovani Gallardo, who ZiPS projects to deliver a 4.05 FIP this year. Neftali Feliz came back last year after missing 18th months rehabbing from TJ, and while he flashed a promising 1.99 ERA, his FIP was an astronomical 4.90! ZiPS has him down for a 4.06 FIP in 2015, so the computers aren’t buying his return to greatness just yet. Add to these uncertainties a collection of untested/unproven starters like Nick Tepesch and Nick Martinez, and Tanner Scheppers’ 4.49 career FIP returning to a high-leverage role in the bullpen, and there are some reasons to cringe. Derek Holland returns, theoretically, and that’s a good thing, but a rotation of Holland, Gallardo, Colby Lewis, Ross Detwiler, and TBD should hardly strike fear into the hearts of opposing hitters. Oh, and also, Lisalverto Bonilla.
Right now, Robinson Chirinos figures to be the Rangers’ starting catcher, both because of some promise with the stick, and the lack of any other viable alternatives. He hit .239/.290/.415 over 300 + plate appearances, so there’s some pop in the bat. As for the glove, there’s some promise there, and some work to do, it seems. According to BIS, Chirinos came in at -1 Pitch Calling Runs Above Average. That isn’t terrible, but it certainly could be improved upon, which one might assume will or could happen with repetition. As for the arm, Chirinos posted a pretty impressive Caught Stealing Rate of 40%. His biggest weakness, at this point, seems to be pitch framing. The matter is hotly debated as to its merits and accuracy, but for argument’s sake, Matt Carruth, who has done a lot of work in this area, rates Chirinos at -7.9 Runs Above Average, with 14.2% of pitches thrown within the zone called balls, and only 6.8% of pitches outside the zone called strikes.
This is another area of some debate, as there are a variety of ways to measure defense, as well as skeptics of each. By any measure, though, the Rangers were quite poor at playing defense and preventing runs. If you like UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), the team as a unit came in at -6.9. If you’re into Defensive Runs Saved, the Rangers were rated at -41 Runs Above Average. That is, of course, quite well below-average. The culprits? You can point to Rougned Odor, and his -11 DRS, Shin-Soo Choo, with -13, or Elvis Andrus, who also had -13. Michael Choice was good for -10 in limited time in the outfield. These numbers aren’t etched in stone, however, and Andrus, for one, is generally seen as above-average with the glove. But the overall picture isn’t pretty. There is some hope Andrus’ season was a blip. UZR has him consistently above average, for instance. Odor is young, and could ostensibly improve with the glove. He is athletic, to be sure. So there’s some hope with those guys, but less with someone like Choo, who has been regarded as something of a defensive liability for at least the last three seasons.
The Rangers did seem to take some steps forward in defensive shifting in 2014, perhaps to combat some defensive shortcomings, increasing their deployment of the shift from 357 times in 2013 to 490 last year. That’s 133 more shifts used, but still 100 below the league average.
It’s no secret the Rangers could use an additional piece in the rotation. The problem is that Daniels has very little in the way of payroll flexibility, and little in the way of an impact arm in the minors, although Jake Thompson and Alex Gonzalez both profile to be 3-4 types, which could bolster the rotation at the very least. But there’s no clear timetable for their arrival in the bigs, and no guarantee of instant success. On offense, the glaring hole in LF as well as DH should bug Daniels quite a bit as the season grinds on, unless Choice takes a real step forward. Mitch Moreland is currently penciled in as the DH, and he is really not one, based on the way he’s hit the last couple years, really falling off a cliff last year at .246/.297/.347. The presence of one Joey Gallo, smasher of car windshields with his epic moonshots is a definite bright spot for the Rangers, but expectations should be tempered by the fact or strong possibility, at least, that Gallo is still a year away from contributing to the big league club. He split 2014 between High-A and AA, and struggled in his adjustment to better pitching with his strikeout rate spiking from 26% to 39.6%, and his walk rate dropping from 20.7% to 12.4%. He did still hit 21 home runs in less than 300 at bats after making the jump, giving him 42 for the year, but that strikeout rate has to come down to at least George Springer levels before Rangers fans can responsibly start pining for a promotion. At this point, you wonder when Daniels pulls the trigger on a trade, because a season of Mitch Moreland at DH is nothing anyone but Mitch Moreland and his family really wants to go through. A buy low on someone like Allen Craig seems like a possibility, even if it’s a gamble.
It’s tough to objectively be too optimistic about the 2015 Rangers. There are some things to dream on, like the resurgence of Prince Fielder, who, unfortunately, is now on the wrong side of 30. Rougned Odor looked like a young guy with some pop and promise, but he seems to have some shortcomings on defense, and a very aggressive approach at the plate that you could imagine pitchers might learn to exploit. Joey Gallo is coming! But it might not be this year, and he really needs to get that strikeout rate down to 30% at the very, very least. Most. At the very most. The bullpen is… unsettled. To put it lightly. Sure, a bunch of guys we’ve never heard of and aren’t giving enough credit to could step up and do some amazing things, but that’s pretty pie-in-the-sky kind of thinking, and it doesn’t really seem like something you can hitch your wagon to. Not securely, at least. With a family on board. Bottom line: short of a trade or something I’m not seeing, these Rangers don’t have the pitching to compete. Not in the rotation, and not in the pen. I could be wrong. I’d love to be pleasantly surprised. But that’s what makes the games worth watching, right?
80-82. 4th Place in the AL West. Unless something crazy happens. Like Yu discovers he can throw really hard with his LEFT arm…Next post: Season Preview Series, Part 22: The A’s in a Box
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