Computer-based projection models have a way of polarizing the baseball audience. You're pretty much stuck between those who use them as a tool with some value, and those who think baseball has been played for 130 years and the games happen on the field and computers don't know jack shit. Either way.
Before the season started, neither of the major forecasting systems -- PECOTA and ZiPS -- were very fond of the Rangers. PECOTA had them finishing 83-79, while ZiPS saw Texas closer to a 75-win team. For context, this was after Yu Darvish went down for the year with Tommy John surgery, and before Derek Holland went to the disabled list for what has basically become the year.
At press time, the Rangers are 56-57, a modest 3 games back of the Angels in the loss column for the second wild card spot, and still just 4 back of the Astros in the loss column if we're talking about the division. (Hint: I'm about to talk about the division.)
Heading into Thursday's finale in Minnesota, PECOTA and FanGraphs both had the Rangers finishing the season 25-25, which... since they were 55-57 at the time, would mean they finish the year 80-82, seven games behind the (theoretical 87-win AL West Champion) Astros.
For the Rangers to make it to 88 wins, they would need to finish 32-17 (.653), a possible but highly improbable goal to attain. It's basically playing like the Cardinals for the last third of the baseball season. Under this scenario, we're assuming Derek Holland returns for 7 healthy, effective performances, Cole Hamels pitches like a #1, Martin Perez and Yovani Gallardo perform like mid-rotation horses, and the Fielder/Beltre/Moreland troika do bad things to baseballs between now and 162.
This is not the expectation, of course, and would probably only exist about 10% of the time if you ran a million simulations of Texas's final 49 games. It's also assuming the Astros can't do better than 25-22 (.532) down the stretch, or the Angels better than 27-20 (.574) to make it to 87. As pessimistic as the computers view the Rangers chances, 14 of its last 49 games (about 30%) come against the two teams they're chasing, so they can still control their destiny to an extent.
In the same vein, Texas is in the teeth of a bunch of series' with wild card hopefuls. They play 12 of their next 16 at home against Tampa, Seattle, Toronto and Baltimore, wedged around a 4-game set in Detroit. The Rangers have, for whatever reason, been a very poor team at Globe Life Park this year, with a 23-29 mark and -43 run differential. I'm not going to hang a number on how many games the Rangers need to win at home from now and the end of the regular season, but, with 29 of its final 49 at home, the luck will need to even out eventually.
For reference, even if they play finish 18-11 (.621) at home, Texas will still need to play .700 ball on the road (14-6) to satisfy making it all the way to 88 wins. How the Rangers distribute its wins don't mean as much as getting the wins in the first place, but we shouldn't expect them to maintain their road dominance (33-28, best in the AL) when the real struggle is on their own turf.
If this team finds a way into the playoffs, even if it's as a wild card, it will be because of two reasons and two reasons only:
(1) Winning a lot more than they lose over their last 29 at Globe Life;
(2) 9 or more wins against the Astros and Angels over final 14 matchups;
If this comes off as farfetched, it's because it is. My intent, though, isn't so much to say, Geez these guys have no freaking shot, it's that, it's the middle of August, and we still have something here. All season long I've done a disservice to the story of 2015, because my meta point revolved around how lucky the Rangers have been to get where they are.
Now, 56 wins are in the bank, and if the projections get what they want, the Astros will finish 25-22 and take down the West with 87 wins. Maybe Texas only needs 84 or 85 to get into the play-in game, or maybe they lose 8 of their next 11 and this all becomes moot. Either way, it's the middle of August and we can still say the Rangers are in it.
But who knows? Maybe this really is the year projections failed.