In Fear and Faith
By Eric Reining
Life is getting scary for Rangers fans. They can’t handle the 2.5-game lead with 5 left to play. They can’t handle the best record in the American League. They don’t understand why the pitching staff won’t just go out and throw shutouts every night, and are bemoaning the offense for not scoring 10 runs a game. What is wrong with the pitching? What is wrong with the offense? WHAT IS WRONG WITH THE TEXAS RANGERS?
It’s getting scary, right?
There are two concepts to fanaticism that are as old as time, and as frustrating as being a petulant child and not getting precisely what you want, when you want it. And, to be completely honest, I’m at my wit’s end. Shall we dive in?
The first is known as recency bias. Basically, as a Rangers fan, it boils down to expecting the wins when they come, and exercising behavior as if the world is coming to an end when they lose. With 157 games in the books, the Rangers are 92-65, holding onto a 2.5-game lead on the A’s in the AL West, and a 1.5-game edge on the AL in owning home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. This general mark would lead you to believe the Rangers are the best team in the league, and that would make you correct. Recency bias comes into play in times such as this last week, when pitchers Scott Feldman (4 IP), Derek Holland (3 IP) and Martin Perez (.2 IP) each pitched poorly compared to expectations (maybe with the exception of Feldman) against the Athletics. The quick-trigger fan reaction was that “The Rangers pitching staff sucks,” or ” We’re not going to make it very far in the playoffs with this staff.” Ryan Dempster further exacerbated matters on Friday night by essentially laying an egg in a loss to the Angels.
Two of my favorite future ex-Rangers
Despite the frustrating nature of not being able to close out the division in time to rest up starters for the playoffs, none of these performances has any bearing on future output. If you judge every player based on each at bat, or every start they make, or every 1-inning bullpen stint, every unforeseen loss, then you’re sure to be let down. That’s why baseball isn’t based off small sample sizes, but rather the complete body of work in the large sample. The large sample suggests the Rangers pitching is just fine, that the Rangers offense will be fine, and that the Rangers are the most complete team in the American League.
But don’t take my word for it. The sky is falling, remember?
The second concept, which isn’t wholly related to baseball, but is more a symptom of life in general, is known as revisionist history. That, combined with recency bias, go hand-in-hand in the Reactionary Fan’s Guide To Understanding Nothing About Baseball. The premise of revisionist history in relation to baseball is simple: If a player has a bad two or three-game sample at the plate, they are deemed to be in a “slump”; they stink; if a pitcher has a bad start or two in a row, they are “broken”; they forgot how to pitch.
A starter like Derek Holland is the prototypical example of what’s it’s like to be the whipping boy of a really good pitching staff. Holland was largely ineffective during the first half, which may or may not have had something to do with the strange stomach flu he came down with during a road-trip to Seattle in which he, eventually, lost some 20 pounds. However, since August, he’s compiled one of the more respectable pitching runs of the entire rotation, going 64.1 IP, striking out 61, allowing just 14 walks, posting a semi-nice ERA of 3.77. But after his last start against the A’s, having delivered just 3 pretty awful innings, the collective of the fan base seemed to forget just how good he’s been of late, favoring to go down the ridiculous route of irrationality. He sucked, so therefore he has always sucked, and always will suck.
Obviously he shouldn’t be pitching for this team. Definitely not in the playoffs. Hide your children.
The same goes for the offense. Before Thursday afternoon’s 9-run outburst against Oakland in what was a must-win type of game, the Rangers lineup had been largely ineffective, scoring just 30 runs in its previous 10 games. Despite Adrian Beltre’s continued brilliance (.385 wOBA/139 wRC+/6.2 fWAR), and the small resurrection of what has otherwise been Michael Young’s worst season as a professional (.292 wOBA/75 wRC+/-1.5 fWAR), the offense as a whole hasn’t done a whole lot. Sure, you’ll still catch Josh Hamilton popping some majestic moonshots onto the right-field porch, you’ll see Nelson Cruz or Ian Kinsler putting some charge into the ball, but what they’ve conquered in trivial sexiness they’ve failed at in consistency and rhythmic fluidity. Lately, the offense has appeared more as 9 individuals who play on the same team rather than one unit filled with 9 players revolving through the lineup in cohesion.
And even though people want to pretend such a thing doesn’t exist in sports, or life, a great deal of luck can be attributed to that sort of slump. For instance, during Texas’s impressive 19-10 run in August, the offense enjoyed a BABIP (batting average of balls in play) of .321, 6th-best in baseball during that stretch. However, in September, that average has dropped to just .279, and you can’t undervalue how much 42 points adds up over the course about 1000 plate appearances; that’s 42 extra hits, and probably something in the range of 2 or 3 extra wins.
Over an entire season, these are the types of phenomena that tend to average out. There’s almost always a regression to the mean, and on the season the Rangers BABIP is .307, tied for 7th in baseball. So while it might not be as good as it was in August, it’s almost certainly to get better than it has been in September, which bodes extremely well for when the Rangers are dancing in the playoffs.
In essence, what I’m really trying to say is that the Rangers are just fine. Last season we enjoyed a 17-6 September, career offensive seasons from Ian Kinsler, Nelson Cruz, Mike Napoli and Michael Young; we witnessed breakout years from Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, and solid production from CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis. From September through the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 6 in the World Series, there was not a team out there who could contain the Rangers. They were simply the best.
But, you know what? They still lost the World Series. It was the best season of baseball in the history of the franchise, and yet still fell just short of achieving its ultimate goal. So, sure, you’d like to see the Rangers playing well heading into what should be another exciting run through the postseason, but there’s no correlation between playing exceptionally well going in and sustaining it while you’re there (unless you’re the Cardinals, or something). All we can really ask is to have our hats in the ring, and let this loaded roster of champions continue to wow us with their unremitting greatness.
So call me blind, call me misinformed, call me stupid, call me whatever it is you’d like, but I’m just not that worried about this team.
It won’t be too much longer before we have our 3rd consecutive West crown.