The Rangers Rebuild part 01: Tear It Down?

I don't have it in me right now to write an epic post discussing every possible aspect of what the Texas Rangers look like going forward.  I've got two videos to edit professionally, one of which requires the director's input (yech) and then I've got about a dozen to edit for myself; at least three other articles I've promised to write for various people by October because I was insane on the day, AND Windows 10 Creators Update just forced itself onto three different laptops I manage and I'm having to deal with all of the BS Microsoft forced into this update (It's not all that bad at the core, once you get rid of the cruft).

And then there's Yu Darvish.

OK, I have to eulogize here a bit.  Like most of you, dear readers, I've been a fan of the Texas Rangers basically all of my cognizant life.  I grew up with Texas being one of the "other" clubs...not even worthy of mention unless you needed to be precise.  The Rangers' purpose in life was to develop talent for the real baseball teams...New York, Boston, Los Angeles.  Texas didn't have it's own players...if they were any good, they would go to their real teams sooner or later.  Or in many cases, Texas got a player in their dotage, even if occasionally their dotage was really damned good, like Nolan Ryan.  But let's not fool ourselves...Nolan did great things as a Texas Ranger, but his best stretch of pitching was with the Los Angeles Angels.  And then the Astros.  Certainly he set all of the longevity records with Texas; and the almost inexplicable no-hitters; but he was still a borrowed hero.  Just because he was from Texas didn't make him an automatic Ranger.  This is why Pudge Rodriguez and Adrian Beltre are so important.  Both are implicitly Texas Rangers, regardless of what they did elsewhere.

Yu Darvish was a Texas Ranger.

And yet, seeing him have such a fabulous first game for L.A.  Seeing him throw the pitches he wanted, and succeed.  Seeing him happy, something that seemed to happen only sparingly in Texas, where everything was apologies and defending him from his own "fans"...he's not a Texas Ranger anymore, I suspect.  Darvish may not be a Hall of Famer, due to his age and the amount of time he has left, but he's going to be a footnote.  And a footnote to that footnote will be that he was signed out of Japan by Texas, but then went only to win a World Series with...whoever.  And then another one with someone else, probably.  He'll pitch until he's 45, and maybe he'll make the Hall of Fame in the end, and he won't be wearing a Texas cap.

Texas never deserved Yu Darvish.

But...now that he's gone, it's time to see clearly.  Texas has a rebuild in the works, and it's time for us interested fans to figure out what's going on, and I want your input.

The first question to be addressed:  is this a restart?  Are the Rangers going to tear it all down and start over from scratch?  This is the important first step, because it establishes the framework.  That is to say...if Texas is going to tear everything down and start over, then it's likely Jon Daniels will be gone at the end of the season.  If the owners feel he has failed in his main task and want everything retooled, it is highly likely they'll want a fresh opinion put in place making those decisions.  Banister and the other coaches likely aren't gone in this scenario...anybody will do while the team is rebuilding.  Their job is to just...mind the store, until it's time to compete.  Of course, one or more of the coaches may not find that an amenable opportunity and leave of their own volition, we don't know that.

As I said, I want input.  There's not much point in watching the games right now, so give it some serious thought.  I want to know, NOT whether Jon Daniels SHOULD be here next year, but given that some level of rebuild IS happening, will Jon Daniels be the person overseeing the first stages of it?  Will he be at the helm next year?

The Rangers Offense Is... Troubling

On the morning of May 3, 2017, the Texas Rangers find themselves with a record of 11-16. Last place in the AL West and seven games back of the Houston Astros. If you're one to look for coorelations, it's the same exact record Texas started with in 2015.

And if you're one to look for hope, there's always the fact that the 2015 iteration of the Rangers didn't have Yu Darvish or -- at least until late in the season -- Cole Hamels. Just how long Hamels will remain out remains to be seen, but he's on the roster, nonetheless.

That 2015 club was awaiting the returns of Martin Perez, Derek Holland, and to a lesser extent, Matt Harrison. The club ended up using the likes of Wandy Rodriguez, Phil Klein, Ross Detwiler, Chi Chi Gonzalez, Nick Martinz, and Anthony Ranaudo to start games. 57 of them, to be exact. So if you're looking for a silver lining, things don't appear to be *that* bad. Yet.

Yet, it's not 2015. It's 2017, and the Astros are a better team than in 2015. Texas wouldn't appear to be primed to go snag a top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher at the trade deadline. And on top of it all, April was supposed to be the easiest month of the schedule for the Rangers. That's now in the rear view mirror.

There are things to like about what Texas has done thus far. They've scored 123 runs, which is in the top-ten in MLB. Unfortunately, they've also allowed 120, which leaves very little room for error only a season removed from a club that seemingly managed to keep up that high-wire act through the conclusion of the regular season.

It goes without saying that you have to score more runs than you allow on a consistent basis to be good at baseball. It's why the Washington Nationals, who have given up 128 runs of their own, still sport the National League's best record at 17-9: They've also scored 173 runs.

When it comes to pitching, Texas has what it has. At this point, you're going to have Yu Darvish doing underappreciated Darvish things at the top, hopefully flashes of brilliance from Cole Hamels and, to a lesser extent, Martin Perez, and A.J. Griffin perhaps being an innings-eater. Beyond that, you can pick your own poison for that fifth rotation spot; I'm not so sure it really matters.

The point is, this team was always built to score runs. A lot of them. And a top-ten offense simply isn't going to cut it if Texas hopes to cut into the deficit in the division as we head into the summer months.

Collectively, Texas has put up a wRC+ of 90 on the season. That is, they're ten percent worse than league average. That comes despite having hit the fifth-most home runs in baseball with 40.

With a home run total like that, you'd expect an offense that has a flair for power. You'd likely be wrong. Team slugging sits at .403, which is exactly middle-of-the-pack in baseball. That is, Texas is hitting home runs, and combined with the sixth-worst on-base percentage of .297, they're not doing a whole heck of a lot else.

In other words, the Texas Rangers offense would seem to have a problem with making contact. Indeed, a 75.4% contact rate is the fifth-worst in baseball, and with a team that is swinging at pitches outside of the zone at a higher rate (31.7%) than all but two other teams... there's very little plate discipline happening within the Rangers batting order.

As much as fans love to hate on Shin-Soo Choo because of his contract and Carlos Gomez because he looks so awful when he strikes out, those two guys have actually been fine with wRC+ figures of 116 and 106, respectively. They're both above league-average hitters.

Perhaps most concerning is that of the 226 plate appearances taken from the fourth and fifth spots in the lineup this season, 217 of them have been some combination of Rougned Odor and Mike Napoli.

Odor sports a .568 OPS and a wRC+ of 47 in 111 plate appearances.

Napoli sports a .536 OPS and a wRC+ of 37 in 107 plate appearances.

There's still time, but it's at least concerning.

For Odor, the concern is the same as it always has been. He's a free-swinging hitter, doesn't take walks very often, and there's really no reason for a pitcher to ever throw him a strike. Through the course of a plate appearance, the likelihood of Rougie laying off of four pitches is much less likely than him swinging through three of them.

I'm not sure what the issue is there, but would guess that as a younger player, Rougie gets caught in the moment. It's a lot easier to feel like you're helping your team win when you come through with big hits rather than standing at the plate with the bat on your shoulder. I might be wrong on this, but I'm probably not.

At best, Rougned Odor is mildly overrated. At worst, pitchers are going to continue exploiting his biggest flaw and he'll continue looking helpless. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. With his new contract, he's not going anywhere anytime soon, so it's mostly a moot point. Other than moving him down in the lineup, there's not just a whole lot the Rangers can do.

Napoli, on the other hand, is much more troublesome, and it wouldn't surprise me to see him run out of chances soon. At 35 years old, he's not the same player he once was, and even his vaunted on-base skills of the past are mostly negated by the fact that he appears to have lost his bat speed.

Below, you'll see heat maps of Napoli's swing rate and contact rate for various parts inside and outside of the strike zone.

Courtesy: ESPN Stats & Information

Courtesy: ESPN Stats & Information

Courtesy: ESPN Stats & Information

Courtesy: ESPN Stats & Information

As you can see, Napoli is swinging at pitches in the upper half of the strike zone, but he's... not exactly making a whole lot of contact.

More troublesome is that two areas where he's making the most contact are way inside and way outside of the strike zone.

I'm no scout, but one area of concern for me regarding bat speed would be a hitter that is swinging through fastballs in the zone and guessing incorrectly on pitches out of the zone. Especially when that player, as recently as last season, put up an on-base percentage of .335 and hasn't had a walk rate of less than 12.1% since prior to the 2011 season. His walk rate this season? 5.6%.

Diving into the plate discipline numbers, Napoli is swinging at pitches outside of the zone at the highest rate of his career at 29.1%. On those pitches, he's making the least contact since his rookie season with a contact rate on pitches out of the zone of 45.7%. Combined with the highest swing percentage of his career of 44.8%, Mike Napoli seems totally lost at the plate.

Is it the hip finally giving out? A severe slump to start the season? Or are we looking at a player that realizes he needs to decide to swing earlier, and is thus guessing? It's probably still too early to say for certain, but the numbers are at least troubling.

Should Napoli continue to struggle, it won't surprise me to see Ryan Rua take over the bulk of the playing time at first base. He's another player fans love to hate, and he hasn't been very good in 43 plate appearances this season, but at a certain point, Jeff Banister simply can't keep rolling out the same hitters in the fourth and fifth spots of the lineup with the hope that things will just fix themselves.

Of course, much of this can be negated if Adrian Beltre can come back healthy and productive. That likely gives Texas the flexibility to slide Joey Gallo over to first base and/or left field while occasionally playing third when Beltre needs a DH day or a day off.

At the very least, the offense needs to be better than it has been. The pitching likely is what it is. The talent level on that end is, quite simply, limited. However, the plate discipline simply has to improve, otherwise the Texas Rangers will spend the later months of the summer trying to flip their assets for younger prospects.

 

Rangers Pitching - April Report

Personally, I'm blaming the offense (and some other things) for where the Rangers are right now.  But as I spend most of my analysis time looking at pitching, here are a few things I've looked at:

This is a composite view of each Texas starter's ERA, FIP, and xFIP.  Everyone should be well familiar with Earned Run Average, but I usually get questions about what FIP and xFIP mean.  Fielding Independent Pitching is an ERA-equivalent statistic based on Home Runs, Walks, Hit-by-pitches, and Strikeouts.  It gives a view of a pitcher's run-prevention ability that removes the activity of the defense, and to a small extent certain park factors.  eXpected-FIP further replaces the Home Run part of the formula with a league-average based constant, which effectively removes bad luck and park factors from the Home Runs Allowed statistic.  FIP typically appears a bit worse than ERA, frequently by a half-run or a run per nine innings.  The very best pitchers every year will turn in a season in which ERA, FIP, and xFIP are all similar.  The sirens get turned on when a pitcher's ERA differs from his FIP and xFIP by larger margins than one run per nine, or when either xFIP or FIP are wildly out of line with one or both of the other two stats.

In other words, Darvish's column is not only good, it's exactly what one would expect given everything else we've ever seen from Darvish.  He's having a good year, and would probably be even better if he weren't having to deal with a squeezed strike zone consistently.

Nick Martinez looks great, but he's done this trick before.  Martinez has never shown the ability to maintain a FIP and xFIP this low, so we should expect at least a regression back to four and a half or five and a half runs per nine.  If he keeps this up, or something close to it....well, hot damn.

A.J. Griffin was doing exactly what he used to do, and is expected to do, before he got hurt.  Here's hoping he can come back up and do it some more.

(NOTE: After the 4/30 game, Perez moved behind Hamels.  That will be shown in the next chart.)

Cole Hamels hasn't looked very good this year.  There were signs last year this was coming, as was noted a couple of times here during last season.  He didn't look too hot in Spring Training, to the extent that even a couple of the Texas beat writers asked him about plans to fix his problems.  Hamels is a smart and experienced pitcher, who has frequently out-performed his peripherals...but he has a higher hurdle to clear this year than last.  You will notice Cole's FIP and xFIP are almost identical, and they're both saying he should be allowing 5 runs per 9 innings.  Some of that 3.03 ERA is the Rangers' defense...but I would expect things to trend poorly for Hamels until he goes on the DL.

Martin Perez was looking pretty OK until last night.  The bad news is that he's trended negative the entire first month so far.  It's only one month, and Perez seems healthy...so for now I'm going to say that Pitching Coach Doug Brocail, along with Lucroy and Chirinos, are going to have to help Perez find a new approach.  Martin Perez hasn't had command of his changeup ever since returning from Tommy John Surgery.  That means what he have is what we're going to keep getting until someone can find a new key for him.

In my opinion, Andrew Cashner needs another month of rehab starts, working with coaches and trainers.  He shouldn't be the fifth starter for the Texas Rangers right now.  He has got by so far on luck.  Let's see if today's start shows us something new, or if he winds up the disabled list to facilitate some more rehab in the next week or so.

For reference, here's the current Rangers composite look mixed in with Houston:

TXHouspcomp050117.jpg

Keuchel has been the recipient of some luck (clearly not from defense, as no-one else is getting that benefit), but that shouldn't take away from the fact that he's pitching really well right now.  A matchup between him and Darvish would come down to how the strike zone is called, and the offense...which gives the advantage to Keuchel.

McCullers' xFIP would seem to indicate he's been making better pitches than the results indicate.  A 4.34 ERA paired with a 3.47 FIP says the same.  But with Nick Martinez pitching the way he has, you could make the case that the top four pitchers are all quite good.

One thing you can take away from Houston's stats is that defense may be letting the side down, compared to Texas.  With so many FIPs and xFIPs being in agreement, but with elevated ERAs, Texas may have a lot of hits against Houston that wouldn't score against other teams.  Like McCullers, Morton is sporting an ERA a run higher than his FIP, again indicating runs being scored that shouldn't have.

Musgrove, Hamels, Griffin, and Perez are all hanging out in the same neighborhood, again putting it to the offense to sort out the difference.  And again, that's an advantage to Houston right now.  And then you have the outliers: Cashner and Fiers.  Cashner is averaging only three runs allowed per nine innings, despite his FIP and xFIP saying he should be giving up two or more MORE runs per nine.  Fiers, I don't know for sure what's going on.  His ERA compared to his xFIP is in line with the other Houston trends, but that FIP is way out of whack.  That usually means he's giving up a lot of walks and home runs, and guess what?  HE IS!

Now on to Texas' relievers:

OK, putting Dyson on there isn't really fair.

LeClerc has been slightly better against Righties than Lefties, but still better than anyone else in the bullpen against everybody.  He has also, for the record, performed that same with runners on base as with the bases empty, and in high-leverage situations.  Jose should be your most-high-leverage reliever, whether you need him in the sixth inning or the ninth.

Keone Kela has been a bit better verses Lefties than Righties.  While you would prefer a slightly lower xFIP (this goes for all of the rest of the relievers, too), it's important to note that in most bullpens other than this one, that works out to about three or four runs allowed per month.  Claudio and Bush have turned in similar performances to Kela, although it's probably worth noting that, in the small early-season sample size, Bush has been much better against Lefties than Righties.

Alvarez hasn't really been used enough to even out some glaring discrepancies in this stats.  His splits are mixed all over the place.  It's wild enough that I can't really make a predictive statement.  I hope the Rangers have better numbers available to make the best call, although I haven't seen any *consistent* evidence they're doing such a thing.

Barnette's numbers look about right.  When he's good, he's quite good.  When he's bad, he's quite bad.  He's had four bad outings by xFIP, three bad outings by FIP, only two of which are the same as the bad xFIP outings, and only two bad outings by ERA.  Which happened to be a good outing by xFIP, but bad by FIP, which means Home Runs.  And it was!  It was his only home run allowed this year.  Me personally, I would keep throwing him out there.  There's no correlation with number of batters faced with him, he seems to be a better long-man option right now.

That's probably how Jeffress needs to be used, as well.  I was vocal until recently that Jeffress needed the chance to close, but he's not proven out in high leverage situations.  In fact, he's the one Rangers reliever who has done markedly better in LOW leverage situations, with no runners on base.  Jeremy probably needs to be the primary long man, along with Barnette, for middle inning relief.  Save LeClerc, Bush, Claudio, and Kela for the higher-leverage spots.  Use them for fewer batters than you are now, keep them available night-after-night.

And that brings us to Sam Dyson, because I'm not going to analyze one appearance by Anthony Bass, even if it was bad.

There is no current evidence that Sam Dyson should be on the big league roster, let alone being used in high leverage situations.  There is no glimmer of hope in his advanced stats or splits.

Walking Away

“Baseball is like a poker game. Nobody wants to quit when he's losing;

nobody wants you to quit when you're ahead.”

Jackie Robinson


 

Addiction is one of those things in life that no one can fully understand.  Some people experience it, others feel true empathy for those who are stuck deep in its grasp, and yet others have no time or patience to consider the addictions of others.  Yet, in some manner, addiction affects every one of us throughout the course of our lives.

For an addict, everyday life comes with so many more challenges than most of us can even begin to imagine.  Being a productive human, keeping steady employment, or even getting out of bed can rapidly become an impossible burden; physical pain and mental anguish combine to overpower even the smallest of tasks.  

Addiction is the oddest of all faults in that it is not limited to any one specific thing.  Everyone is susceptible to the disease which knows no limits, whether the constant lurking monster comes in the form of drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, adrenaline, or a myriad of other things, the weakness of the human life form can be tested by how one comes out on the other side of addiction.

Josh Hamilton’s addiction is one of the most publicized in the history of sports.  Baseball fans know his story in depth, from his first time using after being injured as a prospect in the Tampa farm system, to his most recent relapse that led to his public shaming and release from the Angels franchise.  We all know of his struggles.  We all know that the addiction monster reared his ugly head on a number of occasions, and, unfortunately, we also fear that it may appear once again.

In the minds of those who have never personally experienced addiction, the solution just seems so simple; walk away.  Be intentional, and just walk away.

Walk away from the temptation, walk away from the drugs and alcohol, walk away from those characters who provide the vice. Embrace the money, push out the addiction. Enjoy the blessed life of an athlete, avoid the life of a junkie. Surround yourself with family and loved ones, ignore those who present temptation.  

If only it were that easy.  

The odd thing about addicts is that the addiction never goes away. The war is never over, and while the battle may not even be daily, it is often still lurking somewhere in the depths.  People can fight off these personal demons, function on a daily basis, present themselves in the workplace, as parents, as spouses, as all of the things that are expected of them, yet the struggle is never fully gone.

Addicts often find another vice to replace their addiction, opting for the lesser of two evils to help in their recovery process.  Drug addicts reduce themselves to smokers, alcoholics require copious amounts of caffeine, gamblers find some form of competition. While so many people work to defeat their personal addiction, the addictive personality never changes.  

This is something that happened directly in front of our eyes and we never stopped to realize it.  

As Josh Hamilton worked so hard to defeat his years of drug abuse and his dependency on alcohol, his addictions changed, and his addictive personality became attached to a number of new vices.  

As Josh no longer depended on cocaine, he became attached to the adrenaline rush provided by the roar of the crowd.  

As Josh no longer actively sought after his next drink of alcohol, he thrived on the crack of the bat, the feeling of the cool grass under his cleats, and the next big moment that could lead to his next drink of celebration ginger ale.

As Josh no longer confided in dealers and tattoo artists, he leaned heavily on his teammates, coaches, and the advice of his then wife, Katie.

As this happened, we witnessed not the defeat of an addiction, but the evolution of one.  In working diligently to move past a life of drugs and alcohol, Josh Hamilton found himself in the grips of an addiction to the baseball lifestyle.  He thrived off of the crowd.  He desired the love of fans more than anything else in the world.  He saw his new found fame as his means of survival, and we all bought in, fueling his fire.  

And it was a beautiful thing.  

I have spent so much of my life on a baseball field.  My spare time and hobbies rely on a baseball field.  My career path has once again found me on a baseball field for countless hours every single week.  Yet, when I look back at my fondest memories provided by this game, so many of them are directly related to the performances of Josh Hamilton.  His four homer game in Baltimore, his performance in the home run derby, his constant flow of strange stories and heroic moments, his clutch moment in the World Series; all of which are impossible to remember without revisiting that euphoric feeling that only this game can provide.

We became just as much addicted to Josh Hamilton as he had ever been addicted to anything in his life.  

And, doing the worst thing an addict can try to do, we ran into there severe complications of trying to give him up cold turkey.  Like most addicts, we looked for anything other than ourselves to blame.  We blamed the drug itself (Hamilton).  We blamed our dealer (Wash). We blamed the cartel (Katie). We blamed the failed war on drugs (the MLB).  We felt hurt and looked for excuses, without ever taking a moment to reflect on ourselves.

Now that we have had time to recover, it has become glaringly obvious that the actions that led to Hamilton departing Texas for an LAA uniform were exactly what all of us needed.  As fans, we needed to come back to earth and be real, remembering that these players are human beings.  As for Josh Hamilton, he needed to test himself as a human, and find out just how much he had truly grown.  

In the end, we all ended up disappointing ourselves.  

There is no rational way to hold a grudge against Josh Hamilton for leaving town. Were his press conference quotes a bit idiotic?  Yes, without a doubt. However, no rational person can fault another human being for taking the security that $125 million will provide for themselves, their children, and for countless future generations.  Likewise, no rational Rangers fan can say that they wish Texas had been on the hook for the contract that the Angels offered to Hamilton.

Yet, rational thought has been at a premium when discussing Josh and the emotions we have all felt since his departure.  

We were all addicts.

When the club announced this offseason that Texas was inking Hamilton to a minor league deal in an attempt to convert him to a first baseman and give him another shot at writing the perfect ending to the greatest story of redemption, so many of us got that itch again.  We wanted to feel that joy that only Joshua Holt Hamilton can provide on the field.  

We wanted to hear that thunderous crack of the bat that only he could provide.  We wanted to see that childish grin.  We wanted to hear the score from “The Natural” playing as he loped around the bases, cherishing the clamor of the crowd on a hot Texas night while fireworks rained down behind him.  

We had a relapse.  

In reality, there is nothing that Josh Hamilton can offer a Major League team at this point.  We all knew it.  Deep down, Josh Hamilton knows it.  His body has taken on too much mileage, taking beatings on and off of the baseball field. But we are addicts, and as is always the case, addicts do not think sensibly.

As it comes time for Josh Hamilton to officially step away from the game of baseball, we must all come clean of our addictions; Hamilton of playing the game at a high level, and us of Josh Hamilton.

This is when things get tricky.

Addicts often find another vice to replace their addiction.

Fortunately, for Rangers fans, that next addiction is readily available in the form of the sound a ball makes coming off of Joey Gallo’s bat, the intensity Rougned Odor puts into every play, and the sweet swing of Nomar Mazara.  If you combine the best points of all three, we can find the parts that made Josh Hamilton.

For Hamilton, however, things may be more challenging.

Addiction never goes away.

As much as I wanted Josh to return to baseball, as much as I wanted to see him walk away on top of the game, as much as I hoped that his legacy would conclude with a World Series ring, none of those things amount to the sincere hope that he remains clean.  

As Josh moves on with his life, as he functions in circles that are outside of a clubhouse or physical rehab facility, as he finds friends that are not teammates, as he continues the struggle that is being a divorced parent, I hope that life continues to lead him down a path of sobriety.  

As fans, we owe him our support.  For years, Josh Hamilton gave us everything he had. The reactions of so many Texas Rangers fans upon the announcement that Hamilton had been released from his minor league contract was beyond repulsive.  So many people wished him ill, referred to his drug use, his divorce, and any other negative they could think of, as if Hamilton had hurt them personally.  I simply cannot understand this.  The man gave the Rangers the greatest moments in franchise history; relish in them.

I find it strangely relieving that Josh Hamilton’s career is coming to an end due to the failings of his body rather than a relapse.

Thank you for creating the greatest baseball moments I have ever experienced, Josh.  Now stay clean and live that good life, find peace, stay sober, and discover a new addiction that only brings joy for the future.  

Sometimes the greatest stories come when the happy ending is not the one we all expected.