For most of the season, the Texas Rangers have been semi-overlooked as a true World Series contender. But is that fair? What is their record hiding? And can BaseRuns and their one-run record tell us more?
Let’s take a look at the American League West standings:
No problems there. The Rangers have the AL West locked up for all intents and purposes. But take a look at these alternate standings:
These are the BaseRuns standings, according to Fangraphs. You may have heard of Pythagorean record, which uses team runs scored and team runs allowed for a ‘more accurate’ measure of a team performance than straight wins and losses. BaseRuns goes one further and incorporates a team’s individual hitting, pitching, baserunning and fielding into BaseRuns, which can then be tabulated into a win-loss percentage. (You can read all the nitty-gritty details on the Fangraphs site here.)
So, what does this tell us? Judging from the standings, the Rangers have vastly outperformed their underlying skills. In fact, BaseRuns pegs them at being 13 games over where they ‘should be.’ And looking at the raw stats, with the Rangers run differential only being +10 on the year, it makes sense. (To be fair, the Astros and Mariners records have also outpaced their skills, to the tune of 3 and 2 games respectively.)
The next question has to be – How did the Rangers do this? BaseRuns tabulates these results in a vaccuum, where all results (hit, error, strikeout, home run, etc.) correspond to a certain expected run value. In effect, the Rangers have clustered their positive results together more often than would be normal for a team to do.
As an example, let’s say a team’s inning goes K, K, 2B, BB, BB, HR, FO. That team has scored four runs in that inning. But conversely, if a team’s inning instead goes HR, 2B, BB, BB, K, K, FO, that team only scores 1 run, even with the same individual at-bat results, just in different order. Over a large sample of many innings and games, these bunched results tend to even themselves out, so a team’s record by BaseRuns becomes a more ‘true level’ of their performance.
But not the Rangers. Over the course of the season, their BaseRuns record and overall record have diverged and kept diverging. To try to explain this divergence, we can look at what BaseRuns doesn’t incorporate, and also what the Rangers are doing themselves to outdistance their BaseRuns.
First of all, BaseRuns doesn’t take base running into effect very well. Stolen bases are accounted for, but if a team is good at going first-to-third or first-to-home, their runs scored are going to end up better than BaseRuns would estimate. And looking at the Rangers, the top-of-order hitters are very adept at taking the extra base.
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Ian Desmond currently is seven full runs ahead of league average in baserunning (BsR), and Rougned Odor isn’t very far behind him at 4.6 BsR. In fact, those rank as 5th best and 11th best in the American League in BsR. So, the top/middle of the order is producing more runs than BaseRuns give them credit for.
But there has to be more to it than that, right? Taking the extra base can only count for so much. A team can get lucky in bunching up their hits for awhile, but eventually it evens out, right? Well, not the Rangers this year.
There is one stat that jumps off the page when it comes to the Rangers season: their record in one-run games. Most teams end up bunched around .500, because it isn’t likely to consistently win the close games. Leaning too far, one way or the other, is fairly fluky and isn’t often reproduced, year-to-year. As an example, here are the playoff contenders and their one-run records:
Besides the Indians and Nationals, nobody in that entire pack is more than 5 games from .500.
Oh, and the Rangers?
36-10?! That just doesn’t happen. Any explanation for it being more than just dumb luck requires some digging.
Thinking about this, if a team wants to win close games, they probably need good relief pitching, right? Hold down the lead, keep the other team in striking distance so your team can come back, or whatever baseball cliche you want to use, good relief pitching should get you more close wins.
So how do the Rangers fare? They have a 4.67 ERA in relief this year, which is good for 27th in Major League Baseball and dead last in the American League. Yuck. If anything, the relievers could be contributing to the one-run record by letting opposing teams back into the game, not closing them out. So, scratch that idea.
Alright, so how about ‘clutch’ hitting? If a team gets the late hits and runs, they win the close ones, or so the story goes. And while there is no repeatable ‘clutch gene’ for players or teams, during individual seasons some players or teams can just end up getting the hit when it counts.
Of the 16 position players with more than 100 plate appearances, 12 of them have a positive Fangraphs Clutch score. So, now we are getting somewhere. That solves it, the Rangers come through when it matters, end of story. Well, kind of…
The Clutch score tells us some things, but leaves out others. Not to wade too far into advanced stats, but the Clutch score shows how much better a player is during “late-and-close” situations, as compared to their normal batting line. That’s all well and good, but if a player stinks normally, just outperforming their normal line doesn’t really tell us much. So, we need to look at the overall picture of the Rangers hitters.
AL team rankings, Rangers:
So they are top-five in most hitting categories, out of 15 teams. Not otherworldly, but good enough that having a positive Clutch score could mean the difference between winning and losing. They are getting their opportunities and taking advantage.
But overall, none of these factors can take an expected .500 record and turn it into 36-10 (or 90-62, for that matter). There is no getting around the fact that the Rangers have been lucky. And looking forward, while that may mean little in the small sample size known as the playoffs, just a few less favorable outcomes could mean the end of the Rangers season. Just don’t expect it, because these Rangers have defied expectations or normal outcomes all season long.