For my money, last year’s biggest story in baseball was the way the Tampa Bay Rays’ turnaround was triggered by a record-setting improvement in their Defensive Efficiency. Of course, it certainly helped to have a stockpile of young talent, a shrewd GM and an innovative manager, but none of them would have likely gotten such a dramatic reversal so quickly without that defensive improvement — a development that Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA forecasting system foresaw.

Over the winter a few teams took a page from the Rays’ book, one of them being a team that’s suddenly surprising people:

Don’t look now, but the Rangers are leading the American League West. Coming off four straight sub-.500 seasons, projected for just 70 wins and the #29 spot on the preseason Hit List, they’re out of the gate at 19-14 clip, with the fifth-best run differential in the majors. With the A’s, Angels and Mariners stumbling and bumbling, the Rangers are starting to look like plausible contenders in a division where 84 wins may be enough. Our PECOTA-based Playoff Odds report estimates they have around a 23 percent shot at the flag, more than double their chances as of Opening Day but still roughly half of the Angels’ estimate.

…Though the pitchers have gone backwards in two of the three key categories, they’re surviving thanks to the Rangers’ defense, which after ranking dead last in Defensive Efficiency in 2008 has improved by 45 points and now leads the AL. The shift of Young to third base to accommodate the arrival of the slick-fielding Andrus — a pair of decisions I criticized in this space, much to the dismay of our Rangerly readers — is bearing fruit.

More than that, it’s following the template of one of last year’s top story lines, the record-setting defensive turnaround of the Rays, a point that certainly factored into the decision to skip [Elvis] Andrus from Double-A to the majors even at the tender age of 20. In fact, the Rangers were one of three teams who elected to try replicating the Rays’ recipe, patching a porous defense with a defensively sound shortstop regardless of his offensive limitations.

…If the Rangers’ 45-point DE improvement were to hold, it would rank as the third-best turnaround ever, behind the Rays and the 1980 A’s (Billyball comes to Oakland) and ahead of the 1991 Braves, who kicked off a dynasty. That would translate into about 100 runs saved based on Ben Lindbergh’s math, and perhaps more, given the inflated value of each hit in the Rangers’ offensive environment. In all likelihood, that would probably spell a postseason berth.

As noted in the excerpt, I was critical of the decision to promote Andrus during a season where it didn’t look as though the Rangers could win much. But since then, the AL West favorite Angels, who won 100 games last year, took several hits in the pitching department, losing both Ervin Santana and John Lackey for the first month of the season, and suffering the tragic loss of Nick Adenhart. The A’s, who were predicted to win the division in BP’s preseason projections, have fizzled and already look a bit green around the gills.

I got my first extended look at Andrus on Wednesday night against the Mariners, who led the West until recently. The kid made a couple of really nice plays, including a spin-and-fire move behind second place which the Rangers’ announcers called his best one of the year. He also had a couple of hits, including a game-tying RBI triple in the sixth. The kid wasn’t expected to hit much (PECOTA .248/.301/.334), but he’s shown better contact skills and more gap power than the system gave him credit for, and his speed has helped him take advantage of that. I can see why Rangers fans were excited enough to rush him to the majors, and why they’re excited about their team’s chances after years of futility. I’m not incredibly optimistic they can pull it off, particularly with the Angels surging while getting Santana and Lackey back this week, but suddenly I’ve got another team to keep an eye out for on the Extra Innings package.

• • •

Meanwhile, this week’s Hit List is still topped by the Dodgers, who’ve seen Juan Pierre go 12-for-25 with five doubles since you-know-who was suspended. Sampling a few entries of interest:

[#3 Mets] Tossing the Bad Apple: The Mets reel off seven straight wins to take over first place in the NL East, yielding just 20 runs in that span. The streak is part of a larger stretch of nine straight quality starts for the previously beleaguered rotation, one that coincides exactly with Oliver Perez’s exile. The offense takes a hit as Carlos Delgado is sidelined by hip woes just as he’s heating up (.423/.516/.654 in May), but replacement Fernando Tatis (.328/.385/.517) has been no slouch.

[#5 Brewers] Prince and the New Power Generation: Rickie Weeks homers in three straight games, while Prince Fielder bashes a trio of homers in a three-game sweep of the Marlins, two of them go-ahead shots. Fielder’s hitting .341/.472/.659 ths month, one of five Brewers—along with Weeks, Ryan Braun, J.J. Hardy, and Craig Counsell (!)—who are slugging above .600 in May. The Brewers are tied for the league lead in homers, and they’re a major league-best 18-6 since their 3-8 start, helping them grab a share of the NL Central lead.

[#12 Tigers] D-Train and E-Jax: Dontrelle Willis returns to the majors in shaky fashion (4.2 8 4 4 2 0), but the real story in the rotation is their three shutouts in a four-game span, including a two-hitter by Justin Verlander and a combined seven-hitter spearheaded by Edwin Jackson. Jackson appears to have finally turned the corner. He’s got the rotation’s best ERA (2.60), his 3.18 K/BB ratio is more than double his career rate, and he’s still getting excellent double play support for such an extreme flyballer.

[#15 Yankees] Alex Rodriguez drills a three-run homer on the first regular-season pitch he sees, but he goes just 3-for-21 amid a stretch that sees Jorge Posada hit the DL and Derek Jeter and Hidkei Matsui both miss time due to nagging injuries. The Yanks need A-Rod to hit like the guy in the catalog, and they need Mark Teixeira (.203/.333/.424) to heat up as well. He’s getting his walks and homers (four of the latter in a seven-game span), but his .193 BABIP is the lowest among the league’s 105 batting title qualifiers.

Finally, I’ve been to each of the two new NYC ballparks twice over the past couple of weeks, and I’m quite sure I’m getting the short end of the stick with my current arrangement. CitiField, though it’s definitely overplaying the Brooklyn Dodgers angle at the expense of Mets history, and though it has some particularly hideous signage, particularly around their gigantotron video, has an intimacy that lends it an energy which has been sorely lacking at the new Yankee Stadium. Additionally, the refreshment prices are much more reasonable, and the management hasn’t embarrassed itself on a daily basis with odious pronouncements from Lonn Trost and Randy Levine about ingenious new ways to beat the peasants back from the playing field or otherwise separate them from their cash.

New name for the park in the Bronx, as noted in the Hit and Run article: Epic Fail Stadium. Use it.

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