Right Where They’re Supposed to Be
I’ve spent the entirety of 2015 being wrong. Blissfully, blessedly, entirely wrong.
And it has nothing to do with the 162. It has everything to do with what comes next.
That I was wrong about this Rangers team is beyond argument. That puts me in the vast majority, especially after the Yu Darvish injury, and the disaster that was May.
But where I was wrong, and the wrong I now embrace, was in my assessment of this team’s October odds for success. In a mid-season column, I wrote that, even if this team MAKES the postseason, they’re not built to win there.
Wrong – Blissfully, blessedly, entirely wrong. Feels so right.
This team, as much as any team in October, IS built to win.
It’s no longer bonus time. It’s now their time. And this team never stopped believing this is right where they’re supposed to be.
The marathon is over, and the crapshoot of a sprint has begun, but this team is built for it. And speed has a great deal to do with it.
This won’t be a sabermetrics column. Sorry to my colleagues who embrace that; I do as well, I just don’t think the current spate of sabermetrics apply nearly as well over 4-of-7 than they do over the stretch of 162. Slumps are as inherent as habits, and tendencies find and lose grooves. For the postseason, I think a great deal comes down to depth and trials by fire. That, and peaking at the right time. In that, I like what I see.
Simply put, speed forces errors. Regardless of the caliber of hitter, a grounder to shortstop is a higher-probability play when the hitter can burn. It doesn’t hurt, either, when that speed translates into outfield range. In looking at the Rangers bench, I like what I see.
Drew Stubbs and Ryan Strausborger are both moderate-impact bats at best, but they have wheels. Neither hits the ball on the ground as much as I’d like, but both put a ton of pressure on the defense with simple contact, and both are above-average gloves. Balancing them out is a veteran itching for October, Will Venable. Even at 32, Venable is an above-average runner, and a guy who hits a good number of grounders, and few infield popups. He’s what I like to call a “scatter bat”: he’s going to streak and slump, and he’s largely going to be at his best spraying singles, but if he can be hot at the right time, he makes an impact. For September, he’s had a down month. But for his career, he’s a roller-coaster. One rough month follows a good one. If that’s any indication, after a solid August, and as a first-time October performer, bet on him being a veteran presence on the bench and in spot duty for the Rangers outfield. And when he’s in, remember he’s another average to just-above-average defender. He’s lost some speed, and his arm isn’t stellar, but he’s reliable in left, especially when the comparison set is Mike Napoli.
Speaking of Napoli, all bets are off. His history with Texas suggests spectacular moments in October. Should we expect 2011? No. But is it unreasonable? No. Streaks happen. We saw a mammoth shot that he absolutely squared up on the screws versus Detroit this week.
He will not carry this team like he did offensively in 2011. First, he’s not a catcher anymore, which means his offense is not coming as a dual premium for his position. But can he be a solid spell on a hot streak? Absolutely. The key is not to over-expose him, and not to over-use him as a pinch hitter. I get the impression Napoli gets better with reps, and that means you may have to start him a game at first vs. lefties to get him hot, then ride that as a pinch-hit bat. I don’t do it early in a series, and I don’t DH him at the expense of Prince Fielder, but a veteran in a groove is something magical in October. I trust in Jeff Banister to know his guys and the room, and to balance that outfield.
As a note: I don’t expect to see much, if any, of Joey Gallo. He’s eligible for the playoff roster, and is an absolute power threat, but he’s been terribly exposed, and a veteran reliever will own him up and in. I keep him as a dangerous bat vs. a right-handed running-fastball reliever and let him soak in October. He’s not a lost roster spot, because his patience is exceptional, even in pressure situations, for his age. Remember his Frisco debut? Banister could almost use him to work a pitcher, which is unheard of for a guy that strikes out like he does, but in a situation with a reliever who runs the ball low and moving away from lefties, a 7-pitch AB late is not too much to ask. And nothing terrifies a manager in October as much as the light-‘em-up bomb, which brings a crowd and bench to life. Gallo offers that, and is worth a roster spot for it.
From an infield standpoint, I love the fireplug that is Hanser Alberto. There are no metrics to back this up, but seeing him on the field, and watching his teammates react to him, he reminds me of Juan Uribe. If there’s a better teammate in baseball than Uribe, you’ll have to prove it to me. I think Alberto is a Uribe starter kit, with his hitting approach, infield versatility, and approach to the game. Again, no evidence to back that up from either clubhouse interviews or metrics, but he looks like a young veteran on the field. I really believe he has one big moment in him, and is a strong enough spirit on the bench to make his spot tremendously valuable. He lit up Round Rock, is renowned by Banister as an above-average defender, and spells three of the most critical cogs in the Rangers lineup (Odor, Andrus, and Beltre) with bumps and bruises or in blowouts. Best-case scenario, he’s Brian Doyle in the 1978 World Series. Worst case, he’s a bench anchor getting October exposure and bringing maturity beyond his years.
At catcher, the Rangers may have the most diverse and dangerous three-headed monster in baseball. Chris Gimenez, Bobby Wilson, and Robinson Chirinos all bring different facets to the position. Make no mistake: Gimenez is my starter. He drives the ball to center and right-center with very solid hand action at the plate, and spells more defensively-oriented Bobby Wilson.
If I’m Jeff Banister, though, I throw bats out the window. I look at the comfort level of every starter and every reliever with each catcher.
I base my catcher every day not on the stick but on game-calling with each starter. A catcher who finds a rhythm with his starter is invaluable. I’m not digging into the numbers to try and match this up; simply put, I think they’re irrelevant. What I want is a catcher who is consistently on the same page as his starter, with as few shake-offs as possible. That brings confidence, cohesion, and a pace that keeps the infield and outfield alive. On such teaming is momentum born.
Much like the outfield, this Rangers bullpen has played far over and above itself the back half of the season. For a month, it might have been a fluke; over 162, it is proven quality. The performance of the likes of Jake Diekman, Sam Dyson, Keone Kela, and the much-doubted Shawn Tolleson since September 1 have assuaged my concerns about an autumn fade. Those aren’t the only arms, but each of those is power arms. Diekman and Kela are strikeout pitchers, Dyson a ground ball machine, and Tolleson the most unusual creature of all. By all rights, in watching him, he should not be able to live on one pitch – fastball, outside corner – without the movement of a Mariano Rivera. But through almost a full season, he has, and he’s come through when it mattered most. I’ve read and heard many calls for his spot to go to, at various points, both Kela and Dyson. I say, you dance with the one that brought you. At the least, he knows who he is; he will not be Mitch Williams trying to backdoor a slider to Joe Carter.
Dyson may be the crux of it all, though. Situational relief pitching dominates October baseball, and Dyson is situation pitching epitomized: a ground ball specialist, with no postseason depth or breadth to call on. He’s purely stuff, but his stuff runs in on right-handers’ hands and gets ground balls. Those ground balls turn into rally- and momentum-killing double plays that can turn around a best-of-7 series. His being both hot and healthy for the ALDS, particularly, with Toronto and their huge righty bats beckoning, is imperative. Once the West is won (knock on wood), Banister’s goal should be to set his rotation, of course, but also to prime the pen. Without being too simple and obvious, I have to stress limiting the pitch count for the prime movers in the pen. These post-clinch innings are what Luke Jackson, Tanner Scheppers, and Nick Martinez are here for – a battery charge for the A-Team. I think you give them just enough to keep them fresh. If, God forbid, the division race runs into Sunday, I let them do what they’re meant to do – pitch high-value innings – but not beyond 15-20 pitches apiece. Tolleson, I rest entirely, if the situation allows. He’s proven his ability to come in and lock down a game, trepidation be damned. By now, after 162, they ARE who they are. Giving him non-save innings to keep him ‘fresh’ is useless when there’s a bullpen catcher and plenty of baseball to come.
All of this bullpen talk may make things seem iffy for the starters. Not at all. But it has been a long grind. Derek Holland has a pitching-hand injured finger which could limit his ability to go deep into games. Yovani Gallardo has been a 6-inning starter all season. Martin Perez is a crap shoot; I don’t bet on rolls above 7 for him. And both Cole Hamels and Colby Lewis are proven workhorses, each of different colors, but neither of whom I ride deep into 8th or 9th-inning trouble without 1) a 2-run-plus lead or 2) a game lead. Give them the chance to finishing innings, but perhaps only once. Banister will win the way he’s won all season – by managing to depth, and that means within AND beyond his staff. Come October, guys like Hamels have proven themselves to find another gear. Even 7 years later, I trust 2008 is still within Cole Hamels. In the same vein, I trust the road of Colby Lewis; one does not merely live on the brink of career extinction in Japan without gaining a certain mental fortitude that, as we saw in 2010 and 2011, makes games in October little different from those in July. Colby has to remember, for he as much as any Ranger, this was never supposed to happen again. Whatever comes of it, he’s playing with house money. He has to be himself. He has to be a fly-ball pitcher relying on a fast outfield, and hopefully cool October winds, to help him out of tight spots. October is, above all else, NOT the time to change.
This team – the lineup, the rotation, the pen, the bench – all have the advantage of being refined in a trial by fire. Left for dead in May, they rose, and across a full season, as much as one hot month, this was consistently one of the most well-rounded and dangerous teams in baseball. Did they lack an ace? Until Hamels, yes, and one can argue he’s been less than that since arriving, except he hasn’t. Aces pitch stopper games. Hamels has done that on at least three different occasions since coming to Texas, and shown up in each – his most recent being, of course, his win over Detroit his last week of September. Derek Holland’s injury to his pitching hand is troubling, but a division title will give him time to rest and let the injured digit heal. October is not ideal for feel when it comes to pitching, anyways; Holland will win on attitude, and if the last two months have shown anything, it is that he’s all set there. And I’ve written entire columns on Gallardo, but I’ll simply reiterate that his playoff ace pedigree in Milwaukee is what we envisioned, ideally, as a spell to our ace Darvish come fall. With Hamels playing the role of rotation anchor, Yovani’s mix of smarts, stuff, and experience over 5 or 6, possibly within a 4-man rotation, is exactly what you want to keep the bullpen fresh and the rest of the team fired up. In October, six dominant innings is plenty in front of a rested pen, especially when the likes of Holland, Hamels, and Lewis will readily go 7 or 8. And don’t discount the value of Ross Ohlendorf’s odd windup and sneaky-fast stuff if one start falters. Over the last month, he’s been a different pitcher than in April and May. The Rangers have to gamble that’ll continue, as he’s far more reliable in long relief than either Nick Martinez or Chi Chi Gonzalez in pressure situations.
The lineup is just what we want it to be – deep, and clicking at the right time. I’m not going to tick off name after name. I’m focusing on one: the heart and soul of this team. Adrian Beltre is peaking just when you need a leader to peak. He’s getting on top of every pitch and slamming gap-shot doubles and booming homers, and even on outs is scorching the ball. Perhaps even more so than the cogs and drivers of Delino Deshields, Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, he’s the most important piece of this lineup to have clicking, and he’s doing so right now.
If there’s a part of the Rangers I worry least about, it’s the lineup. They have been through hell and back, with each hitter going through and rising out of spelunk-worthy slumps. Kids like Deshields and Odor have proven to be largely pressure-proof this September. Fielder, Andrus, Beltre, and Moreland are known commodities. And the wild card, Josh Hamilton, is so incredibly unpredictable to be both maddening and wonderful, all at once. With a bit of health and a touch of disciple, there is no hitter in the Rangers lineup with as much talent available to carry a team on his bat. Anything we get from him is a bonus; few teams can say their “bonus production” player has the ceiling of Hamilton.
So doing the math, this Rangers team has proven that, in baseball, two plus two can equal five. The sum of these parts has proven greater than the whole. The record of this team is above the talent, and the record above reproach.
I am betting on the Rangers to own October baseball.
It’s not because they know they were never supposed to be here. It’s because they don’t.