Goodness gracious, the Rangers won a game. Isn't that fun?
As we sit here this morning, the Rangers find themselves in a freefall. They’ve won four games in the month of July. And if we’re being honest, things started before that on June 29, as the Rangers blew a 4-run ninth inning lead and lost 9-7 in New York against the Yankees, then lost again on June 30.
For awhile, it was easy to simply blame the schedule-makers for every woe. 37 games in 38 days is about as brutal a stretch that any team can go through, and add onto that that from June 27 to July 24, the Rangers will have played but four games at home. So, sure, it’s certainly a factor. Fatigue is real, and baseball players are human, too.
Despite that, another force has been at work: Regression. For much of the season, I’ve been bombarded with all sorts of vitriol regarding my stance on this team. The record was great, but there were glaring holes. While it’s easy to revel in wins and forget all else, I was concerned about what would happen when Texas began struggling the way their run differential said they should. When things with RISP began to get worse.
So as we sit here on July 21, that’s a factor as well. It’s not often that a team goes into 2013 St. Louis Cardinals mode and outperforms their projections and talent for an entire season.
But no, I’m not here to predict doom and gloom for the rest of eternity. That isn’t to take away from how bad things have been, but a fair number of projection systems are based on assumptions. For example, a ZiPS projection that had Prince Fielder worth 1.4 WAR rather than the -1.8 he’s put up couldn’t have known that his surgically repaired neck would rear its ugly head once again.
And as bad as it makes me feel saying it – I don’t wish injury on anyone – Prince Fielder being out of the lineup for the remainder of 2016 serves to help the Rangers down the stretch. He’s been, effectively, one of their biggest problems, even when the team was winning at such a torrid pace.
The bullpen, long seen as the biggest trouble spot, should be fine. There are now six relievers in the bullpen that I feel mostly comfortable giving the ball to once Jake Diekman returns, and that’s before considering that Tanner Scheppers could, in theory, end up providing some value himself by the end of this thing.
And that’s probably a good thing. A bullpen is only as good as the starting pitching in front of it, and the rotation has been the biggest concern. Beyond that, this current stretch all but ensures that any team looking to deal with the Rangers has the leverage to ask for the moon in regards to any assets they might trade. Effectively, that would seem to place Texas in a spot to only be looking at upper-tier talent for the starting rotation, and I’m OK with that.
The beauty of run differential to predict a team’s true talent level is that it is merely a snapshot in time. For example, seeing a +2 run differential today says that perhaps the Rangers should be closer to .500 than the best record in baseball. However, that figure doesn’t add in the hope that comes from maybe, just maybe, having Yu Darvish back in the rotation for the long haul. Or getting meaningful plate appearances for Jurickson Profar and his wOBA of .341 as opposed to Prince Fielder and his wOBA of .276. Or having the starting rotation give up less than a July ERA of 8.25.
So while I’m not saying that this team will turn everything around and best baseball’s best into October, I am saying that things won’t continue to be this bad. They’ll be somewhere in the middle. And which middle-point they end up at will be determined over the next two-plus months.
And who knows? At this point next week, a big trade could shape the landscape of things, further adjusting that expected middle-point more toward the positive. Because that’s the good thing about baseball: Things can change and adjust even a computer’s expectations accordingly.
The saga of Jurickson Profar has been well-chronicled here. Former top prospect, missed two years due to shoulder injuries, back on the map as a premiere talent, and struggling to get playing time from his manager. You probably know all this by now.
Yesterday, Jurickson began getting some additional work in the outfield, a spot he hadn't played since 2013, and a place the Rangers had previously been reluctant to work a player coming back from two years off due to shoulder issues.
The thought was that changing his arm angle might not be the best idea for a guy getting used to simply playing baseball again at his natural position. Of course, that mostly went out the window when Profar's late-May call-up turned into a show of talent and Texas needed to find places to play him just to get his bat in the lineup. He's seen time at SS, 2B, 3B, and even 1B. So at this point, if he can play the outfield, great! And Profar seems to agree.
I'm not clear on the exact question he was asked, but it was something to the effect of, "Are you OK with learning another new position?" The answer?
"I'm willing to do anything to play right now. I'm OK with this for now, but for next year I think I'm going to play shortstop. I want to be a shortstop. If my name is out there, it means I'm playing very well, so I'm going to be happy about that. The rest just is what it is."
Those quotes are apparently not sitting well among some Rangers fans, many who are crying foul. That has led for calls for him to be traded and questioning his loyalty to his team. And I think those people are wrong.
You see, Jurickson Profar is a professional baseball player. He has been since the moment the Rangers signed him at 16 years old for a $1.55 million signing bonus. Baseball is who he is and what he does. If, for some unfortunate reason, he became unable to play baseball tomorrow, there's probably not a whole lot he can fall back on. And I'm reminded of a tweet from May that shed some light on the kind of money most professional baseball players actually make.
That's not a whole lot, and so it's not hard to see why Profar, making significantly more in 2016 than a minor league player at $605,000 but less than the life-changing money he surely will deservedly command in the future, wants to stick somewhere. He wants what all of us want from our jobs: stability, a good environment, and reassurance that if he does his job well, he'll keep that job.
Jurickson is intensely confident in his abilities, and why not? He's been performing better than could be expected while not having a defined position. And if we're OK with Rougned Odor being brash, confident, and a little cocky, then why would we not also be OK with Jurickson Profar answering a question honestly?
He's a smart guy. He knows the Rangers have Odor and Elvis Andrus. That Adrian Beltre is in Texas through 2018. He also probably realizes that his maximum value isn't at 1B or in the outfield. It's as a middle infielder.
Something's got to give. Or, in this case, someone. And barring the unfortunate scenario in which an injury puts him in a position to maximize his value, Jurickson Profar knows someone will end up traded to make this thing work.
So, for now, he'll gladly play wherever the Rangers ask him to in order to earn playing time. He's at least forced their hand that much. The rest is up to the front office, and an honest Jurickson Profar knows that somehow, some way, he'll likely be playing his natural position sooner rather than later.
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So, as you've probably noticed, I've been a bit tied up lately. Between moving and starting a new job, I just haven't had the time I'd have liked to write. If you haven't noticed, then... where have you been?!
In any case, today seemed as good a time as any for some real talk.
We're now past the All-Star break. The point in which decisions that will shape the remainder of the summer and fall begin to take place. Trades, promotions, demotions, all those great things.
The Rangers, for their part, are overall in a great position. If I said back in March that the team would wake up on July 18 at 55-38, 4.5 games up in the AL West over the Astros, nearly all of us would have taken in. For the rest of you, you're lying.
As with everything else in life, however, context is important. And so just as there was context behind at least SOME luck being involved with the Rangers heading into July with a .638 win percentage, there has also been some context behind the recent dip in performance.
Injuries, to be sure, have played their part. And yet, sometimes, it's just plain old regression that bites a team in the rear. And this bite has been centered squarely on one Prince Fielder, and to a lesser extent, Mitch Moreland.
There's been a running line that somehow, Prince has been "turning it around" lately. That he's looked better than his abysmal start. And being fair, it would be hard to really be worse than a .561 OPS and .252 wOBA after the month of May.
And yet, for all that talk of him turning it around, a quick look shows that in July, his OPS is... .593. wOBA? .277. So sure, while that's a little better, and while that's cherry-picking out of a small-sample size to an extent, it's exactly in line with what many of us have come to expect at this point, and makes his slightly above average June (OPS of .803 and wOBA of .348) look more like an aberration than any sort of norm.
Prince Fielder is who he is at this point. And what is he? A below-average hitter who provides no value -- even negative value -- defensively, and who takes away plate appearances from more deserving players.
In this case, that player is none other than Jurickson Profar, he of former top prospect status.
Profar, in 137 plate appearances, has amassed an OPS of .830. His wOBA is .358. If you're keeping track at home, that's still cumulatively better -- even with some slowdown after a torrid start in May -- than Fielder's best month to date.
Defensively, Profar has jumped around at every infield spot thus far, and in doing so, has been about average. Mostly what you'd expect from a young player without a defined position. Oh, did I mention he missed two seasons?
So while Profar should certainly be seen as a player that will trend upward, Fielder has nowhere to go but down.
"But Brandon, they're paying Prince Fielder all that money. Shouldn't they at least play him?"
Look, I get that most teams will operate that way. And yet, just because "that's how it's done" doesn't make it the best way to do it.
I don't know what the solution is. What I do know is that, on Saturday, Jeff Banister had Prince Fielder sitting on his bench as possibility to pinch-hit for Shawn Tolleson. Despite having a well-rested bullpen coming out of the break, Banister chose instead to have Tolleson hit for himself. That's how much faith the Rangers manager had in his well-paid DH.
And it's ironic, really. Prior to 2014, Ian Kinsler was traded for Fielder to make room for Profar to play. Two years and change later, it's Fielder who is now seen as blocking Profar from significant playing time. And we've reached a point where each excuse for him not being in the lineup is a poor one. There's a sample size there. The old Prince Fielder isn't coming back.
The second half of the season figures to be much more competitive than the first. The Rangers won't be able to get away with stashing one of baseball's worst players in the middle of their lineup for long. Should the trend of refusing to pencil in the best 9 players into the lineup continue, Jeff Banister's team could find themselves struggling to merely compete for a wild card spot come October.
Rangers win in extras, avoiding their third straight walkoff loss.
Desmond continues to prove he is the team MVP, Bush looked unhittable, Dyson threw sinkers that sunk, and Profar is clutch.
81 games in.
Who would have ever imagine this team would be where they are at the half way point?