Like the offense, defense also struggling.
Writing about a bad baseball team is not fun. Writing about a bad baseball team is also hard. The Texas Rangers are currently a bad baseball team, and are also not very fun to watch play baseball. At 7-14, the team is tied for their second worst start through 21 games in team history. Many have tweeted on the tweet box the team is not this bad, but their Pythag Record is 8-13, and their Base Runs record (which strips out sequencing in games and is more telling of true talent level) is….7-14. Unfortunately, they do indeed appear to be this bad.
The struggles should not be too surprising considering Fangraphs had the Rangers finishing with one of the worst records in baseball post Yu Darvish injury. Some fans still remained optimistic the team could remain competitive in 2015, and were cynical of the nerdy projections that do not watch games on the field and are incapable of quantifying things such as team chemistry. However, 21 games in, the foolish projections calculated by contemptible individuals in their mother’s basements appear to have correctly prognosticated ’15. Yes, 21 games is a tiny sample, but former Baseball Prospectus writer and current Grantland author Rany Jazayerli, conducted research and found in the most recent BP book, Extra Innings, that win-loss record in the first 17 games of the season can actually be rather predictive. The Rangers were 6-11 through 17.
There are so many areas in which the team has performed poorly. Not including pitchers, the Rangers current team wRC+ of 69 is the worst in all of baseball. I have a disdain for using batting average, but the .210 team batting average yielded in April was the second worst such mark in team history in March/April. The .248 team BABIP is also the second worst in team history through April. One could indolently look at the BABIP and classify that as bad luck, but the 16.7% team line drive percentage is worst in baseball, four percentage points below league average. High line drive percentages correlate well with success in BABIP, so the hard luck on batted balls is actually probably well deserved.
357 words in, and I have still not discussed what my post is intended to cover, the defense. The offense has been putrid, and has received the majority of the blame, but the defense has been just as horrendous. While this is an extremely small sample, the Rangers are tied for last in baseball with -16 defensive runs saved. Citing defensive metrics is best done when using multi-year samples, so criticizing the Rangers for a poor start in DRS in ’15 might be unfair, but only three teams were worse in DRS last year, so this seems to be the continuation of a disturbing trend.
If one prefers to use Defensive Efficiency, which is simply the rate at which balls put into play are turned into outs, the Rangers are fourth worst in baseball at .689, sixty points worse than first place Houston. Wanna park adjust that number? We can do just that. The team then only elevates one spot to 26th in baseball in park adjusted defensive efficiency. I do not like to use errors as a way to judge defensive prowess, but if one does, they rank second to last in errors committed.
The team probably is not shocked by the poor defense on the corners as Prince Fielder has been seeing a lot of time at DH recently to try to atone for said defense, but might be perplexed by the poor defense in the middle of the diamond. Shortstop Elvis Andrus is in the first year of a massive eight year extension signed two years ago. Andrus’ strengths were always his defense and base running, but his DRS in ’14 of -13 was actually lower than the total generated by an antiquated Derek Jeter. In ’15, with talk of being in better shape and all that spring training noise we always hear with various players, more was expected of Andrus. Andrus has already yielded -4 defensive runs saved in the opening month, second worst among qualified short stops. Defense peaks early for shortstops, and if Andrus is going to continue down the path of offensive decline, for him to provide any sort of positive value, he has to be better defensively.
Second baseman Rougned Odor has improved his plate discipline, but is still struggling with the glove, -4 DRS. Leonys Martin has an exceptional arm which he has put on display a few times in ’15, but he also grades below average so far in both DRS and UZR, which he typically rates well in. Carlos Corporan was acquired from Houston during the offseason to provide value with his framing, but according to BP and Stat Corner’s framing metrics, Corporan actually ranks below previously below average framer Robinson Chirinos in both metrics. One might say similar to defensive metrics, framing takes a while to be taken seriously, but the numbers, especially BP’s, stabilize fairly quickly. The fact Chirinos has improved in framing slightly is promising considering he has always helped control the running game well, but he has only thrown out one of nine potential base stealers in ’15 after catching 40% of potential larcenists last year. His lack of success this year could be blamed on the pitcher, or just small sample, however. Corporan has thrown out only one of eight, so the pitchers might need to work on holding runners on a little.
Adrian Beltre has rated close to average, but after just turning 36 recently, one should not reasonably expect the great defensive seasons of years past from him to continue as Beltre’s has reached the age where third basemen’s production begins to decline drastically. He is still, however, a joy to watch play baseball. Fielder has been DHing the majority of the time recently, and seems to accept the team is better when he is not wearing a glove. With Fielder playing the field less often, he improves his chances of providing value because his glove compromises it. Mitch Moreland’s defense had been overrated in years past by the eyeball test, but he was an improvement over Fielder. With Moreland now out for two to three weeks, Fielder might have to play first occasionally in the meantime because he actually might be better than Kyle Blanks. After Ryan Rua was placed on the disabled list after five games, Carlos Peguero has received time in left field and has surprisingly yielded 2 DRS. Despite beginning the year in the worst possible way offensively, Shin-Soo Choo has actually not performed as poorly according to the defensive metrics, yielding a higher UZR than Jason Heyward, which is a prime example of why many people are skeptical of defensive metrics in general. This is what can happen in small samples, so maybe you can ignore everything I have written so far. I am accustomed to it.
One is allowed to be skeptical of one month of defensive metrics as there is some subjectivity involved, and you typically want a three year sample, but with strong defensive teams such as the Royals, and poor defensive teams like the Indians already rating close to where they did last season, I think the metrics should at least be taken with some consideration. Also, the team ranks low in defensive efficiency and errors if you prefer using those numbers, and the team is definitely failing the eyeball test if one has been able to watch the majority of their games recently.
General Manager Jon Daniels has been lambasted by many fans and hot takers for doltish reasons the past couple of years. If one has been on social media, or not been living in exile, one is aware of this nonsense. The team has had a myriad of injuries few teams can overcome the past couple of years, but the misfortune can hardly all be blamed on the general manager. If one is going to criticize Daniels, one should stop throwing out ridiculous supernatural bullsh such as a Nolan curse or Globe Life curse, or whatever. I do however think there is something Daniels has been guilty of the last couple of years which is worthy of maybe a little criticism.
Offense has been down, and strikeouts have been up across baseball the last half decade or so. We have seen AJ Preller and the San Diego Padres this past offseason acquire the likes of Wil Myers, Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Derek Norris, players with formidable bats, but not known for having stellar gloves. Despite trying to acquire overall value, the Padres seemed to think with offense down, they should try to acquire as much offense as possible, and not have too much anxiety over their defense because fewer balls are in play due to strikeouts anyways. The results have produced some hilarious gifs in the first month in San Diego, however, the Padres are at least hitting the baseball well. While the outfield is predictably yielding a below average DRS, the Padres augment their below average defense with pitchers who strike hitters out. Less balls in play means less opportunities for bad defensive players to fall on their faces.
Daniels has tried a similar strategy the last couple of years as he has traded away good defensive players such as Ian Kinsler, Craig Gentry, and allowed Mike Napoli to leave without extending him a qualifying offer two off seasons ago. He has then pursued bat first players with less than stellar defensive reputations such as Fielder, Choo, JP Arencibia, and reacquired Josh Hamilton for free basically due to their offensive capability. While injuries to Darvish and Derek Holland have not helped matters, Daniels has augmented his subpar defenders with pitchers who do not generate enough strike outs to limit balls in play such as Ross Detwiler, Yovani Gallardo (who has actually more missed bats early on), Colby Lewis, Anthony Ranaudo, and Joe Saunders. Again, injuries have contributed to the disappointing overall strike out totals (Although Matt Harrison and Martin Perez were not striking out many before suffering injuries), but the Rangers have seemed to be intrigued by lower strikeout pitchers in an era where fewer balls are in play. More balls in play against a below average defense can lead to increased batted ball misfortune, which is what has happened. Their pitchers this year have struck out the second fewest hitters in baseball. Ranger starters have a 15.2% K% (27th), while the bullpen has punched out 18.4% (25th). The Rangers have seemed to realize their defensive struggles as Fielder has been DHing more as previously mentioned, and while Hamilton is expected to add offensive value, he has actually improved defensively according to DRS since 2012, but might not be as productive defensively as Peguero. JD is an excellent general manager, and a lot of the criticism he receives is unfair and inaccurate, but the fascination with less whiffy pitchers the last few seasons is somewhat puzzling, and if he wants to improve his defense, he will need to not only return Darvish and Holland to full health, but acquire more strikeout artists (easier said than done). However, JD did trade for Corporan to try and improve framing and strikeouts, so maybe my point is even nit picky.
The Rangers have been bad. The offense has been bad. The defense has been bad. The team appears to be on their path of continuing to be bad. Writing about bad baseball is bad for me, and not fun to watch or write about. Here’s hoping bad baseball is not around much longer because this is not fun.