Winning without the Captain … Part 2
I had the start of something good. I was analyzing how the Rangers have fared against every September opponent this season.
Scoring runs, preventing runs. Hitting. Pitching.
Minus Adrian Beltre, that analysis is worthless, or feels that way.
This is a different team without him. A worse team. A team desperately lacking in consistency and dependability.
Character wins—and it better
Last season, the Rangers won an inordinate amount of one-run games. They won a ridiculous number of close games, games with multiple “high leverage” situations. As I wrote last year, a large part of that was because Adrian Beltre wasn’t just the captain, he was Captain Clutch.
As Evan Grant writes, this team showed Friday that they have the character of a winner with a thrilling, back and forth win against Anaheim.
“Probably the best character win we’ve had all year. You usually don’t win games like that. Everybody up and down played a part. They stayed engaged and kept fighting.” – Rangers Manager Jeff Banister, after Friday’s win
That win was huge. As the column I was working on was going to show, EVERY game of every series is important for a wild card race THIS close, with THIS many teams involved.
You can’t watch the standings. You can’t play the math. Simply, you just have to go out and win two out of every three games, if not three of four. You have to forget every yesterday, ignore every tomorrow. Today, and today, and today. That’s what matters.
And that would be the math, and the scenario, with or without The Captain. It’s just a lot harder math to make work without him.
Without The Captain
We’ve been here before, not that long ago, and it wasn’t pretty. Beltre played his first game on May 29. Through May 28, the Rangers were 25-26. Since then? They’ve played .500 ball on the dot. But that doesn’t tell the story. Here are the Rangers offensive numbers without Beltre through those first two months (April and May) and since (June onward):
|PA||SO per BB||BA||OBP||SLG||OPS|
So obviously the Rangers are…wait, what?
According to the numbers, besides power, they’re basically the same team with Beltre as without, statistically. Why do I say that? Well, because teams as a whole hit better as the season goes on, generally. Pitching tends to be dominant in April and May, then hitters warm with the weather. That’s kind of common baseball knowledge.
But those are just the numbers. Let’s use some logic: is this team the same with Beltre as without? No. Why did guys like Mike Napoli get hot as Beltre re-entered the lineup? Simply because (and this is my speculation, understand) they weren’t trying to carry a lineup devoid of him. But maybe, just maybe, it’s close enough, given the track record of most of the hitters and pitchers, to be predictable. And about that track record stuff: Jon Daniels has already said not to expect rookies to ride to the rescue; he’s going with experienced talent down the stretch.
Jake takes the hill
Before we take a look at what September might hold for the Rangers: the most incredible news of this week didn’t take place at the hot corner, even if Beltre’s season-ending injury might be an ender for this team. Rather, it was Jake Diekman’s 2017 debut; despite my own reservations, and personal experience – both of which I’ve chronicled here before – Jake’s doctors would never let him on the mound if he wasn’t ready. They’re the regulators to the over-revved competitive juices and hearts of athletes like Diekman.
Based on his performance against Anaheim, Diekman might be a difference-maker down the stretch. Jeff Banister saw as much.
“To be able to hand the ball off to him in one of the highest leverage situations we’ve had all year, for him to get the third out was a tremendous effort by Jake,” Banister said. He also noted how Diekman’s absence had played a role in the Rangers bullpen struggles this season. “When you think about the instability in the bullpen this year, it would have been really nice to have had him out there,” Banister said. “It’s been a challenge without him.’
Make no mistake: with Beltre out of the lineup, the men on the mound will probably make or break September. And like we noted earlier, the stats with and without Beltre are surprisingly similar, so that means a look at what the Rangers have done, even if part of those games were with Beltre, might be instructive.
As of August 31st, here’s the Rangers’ season’s stats versus their remaining opponents, and their games left as of September 2nd:
|G Played (through Aug. 31)||Tex Win %||Run Diff||G Remaining (as of Sept. 3)|
How does that schedule look? Here’s the snapshot for September (and a single October regular-season ender):
What’s that schedule tell us? Well, first understand this: the Rangers are a considerably better team at home than on the road:
What’s that mean? 8 teams in the race for two spots, all within 5.5 games of each other. That’s as good a Wild Card race as I can remember in at least 10 years. The last time I saw a team face that kind of bunching, with the need for a miracle run to pass a half-dozen competitors? 2007, when the Colorado Rockies made their run through the NL Wild Card gauntlet to seize the playoff spot.
That was back before the two top finishers played a one-game playoff. One team, instead, got the Wild Card slot and played a series against the lowest-finishing division winner. And that was a magical September, and a magical team, stopped only by—irony of ironies—the Boston Red Sox.
The reason the Rockies 2007 run comes to mind? Because it took a red-hot run past a number of contenders by Colorado, and then the Rockies rode that heat wave right into the World Series.
As of September 1st, those Rockies were 69-66 and 4 games back in the NL West. From there to the end of the season, they went 21-8 behind the MVP-caliber leadership of Matt Holliday, who slashed .365/.447/.788 with 12 homers and 32 RBI. They held off a fading Padres team (15-13) down the stretch, finally winning the Wild Card in a one-game playoff with a 3-run 13th inning in a 9-8 walk-off win in Denver.
Blueprint for a miracle September
Can the Rangers put up a similar miracle run? Without Beltre, the best candidate for a Holliday-like stretch is gone, but there’s a chance.
To do it, they’ll have to win all the games they should win—and a few that their season’s record says they shouldn’t. They’re also not likely to be carried by one hitter.
The only player with both the playoff pedigree and current-season track record to carry this team? Elvis Andrus. He’s not your prototypical lineup anchor.
- I’d tend to lean more heavily on Nomar Mazara, but I’m not sure you can put that on a 22-year-old with a season’s worth of experience.
- Mike Napoli’s not got that kind of run in him any longer, I just don’t believe. For a week, maybe two, but not a month of hotness in September. His contact rate is just too low.
- Joey Gallo’s under the same low-contact-rate albatross. Much of the Ranger lineup is, to be honest, which comes from depending so heavily on the long ball.
Instead, they have to take a “takes a village” approach to a run. They have to hit in the clutch, with runners in scoring position. They have to take walks, and most of all, even if it’s rough and a strain on consistency, they do have to be themselves. That means they’ll strike out a lot, hopefully walk a bit, and especially rely on the long ball.
Is that a great recipe? No.
Go be you; it’s how you got this far
But it’s how this team is built, and you don’t ask a team to change who it is at the end of a season. The habits take an offseason of work to correct. Would I rather see an OBP-heavy, higher-contact team with fewer home runs that puts pressure on the defense instead of striking out? Yes, because despite the blur of joy that is a home run, it’s more fun to watch wins.
And we’ve had too many games with a Gallo or Napoli homer in a loss.
So what is that run going to look like, and who’s it against? Well, I can’t tell you the former. I just don’t have any idea.
I believe it has to happen, but the how is beyond me.
The offense has to be better against these opponents than it has been:
|Through Aug. 31th|
|BA||OBP||SLG||K per BB|
That’s not a bad line, althThat’s what we’ve generally seen all year: alot of power, but inconcistency just getting on base and hitting in those opportune situations. That, alas, can’t change in a month. It might shift, but it can’t outright change. More on that later. It’s too big a move. If the Rangers are going to have an MVP for September? It might have to be Anthony Iopace, and his stress of approach at the plate
Needless to say, starting pitching and bullpen work have to be, if not spectacular, at least consistent enough not to bury the lineup before it gets started.
|Through Aug. 31th|
That’s not a bad trend, but it won’t work with offensive inconsistency like the Rangers have displayed (thus their .500 record). Instead, they need better work, particularly out of the bullpen. You can’t expect more than 6 or 7, even from Hamels.
Cole Hamels and Andrew Cashner are a good duo there, as Andrew was quietly but surely as consistent, if not more so, than Yu Darvish for most of 2017. They have to be spectacularly consistent in quality starts, in my book (3 runs or less, 6 innings), to win in September until the lineup gains steam. And the bullpen has to catch some of 2016’s vibe, pure and simple. It’s clear the likes of Jose Leclerc are overwhelmed. Some of the experienced but not elite arms may be the only way to go. I still trust, also, in Yohander Mendez awesome changeup.
The road ahead
Starting off tonight, they’ll face an underwhelming Braves team in Atlanta (minus the DH, which hurts), then play a fairly dominant Yankees team (they lead the wild card contenders in run differential by close to 100 runs overall, even though they’ve seen their lead on Minnesota for the first Wild Card dwindle to only a game.
Heck, given their series this weekend against Boston, there’s no certainty the Yankees HAVE to worry about the Wild Card. They may cede those worries to Boston by late September.
But back to the Rangers: if they can play .700 ball through early September, my bet is they go into September’s midpoint within 2 games of the last wild card spot, and probably looking up at two teams between them and that spot (if the trend holds.)
That’s where the schedule is both good and bad. To start out, it’s rough. They face Anaheim on the road, followed by three in Seattle, then the three hardest games of that stretch: three in Oakland, where they’re 1-5 on the season.
Fortunately, then they go home, where they’re well over .500 and well ahead of the run differential curve.
That starts with a challenge, as they’re facing Houston, who has both out-talented and out-played them, and who will be playing with a special swell of pride throughout September to distract fans from an ungodly cleanup.
Also, it’ll be a Houston team bolstered by Justin Verlander, playing for something other than pride in September for the first time since the early years of this decade.
Beyond Houston, they have Oakland, which regardless of standings, always seems to be a test for this Rangers team. True, they’re at .500 on the season against Oakland, but that’s an Oakland-heavy run of losses. At home, they’ve had Oakland’s number, going 5-1. So there’s more to look forward to down the stretch than to worry about.
So is that a stretch that has .667 potential? Yes. It’s West-heavy, which, for all the Rangers struggles in Oakland and poor play against Seattle, those are still not the same caliber of teams facing the likes of Baltimore, the Yankees, or even Minnesota or Kansas City has left.
So that’s what I think it takes: a hero has to rise (or a brigade of them), and this team has to play .667 ball for a month. I think, much less than that, and we’re watching October from home.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from this Rangers team: don’t ever think you have them figured. Good or bad, they’ve cornered the market on unexpected.
What do you think? I want your thoughts; I’m a big fan of collective thinking:
- Can they do it?
- Who can carry the lineup (or, honestly, can anyone on this team as currently constituted)?
- What are your thoughts on the Rangers’ decision to go with veterans over young talent for this September?
- Which arm will emerge (or continue to roll up clutch starts or bullpen innings?
I look forward to your comments.