How the Rangers Have Gained on the Astros

In a very short while, the Rangers and the Astros will kick off a crucial four-game series, with the AL West up for grabs. There will be three more meetings between the teams after this series is complete, so any mistakes can be made up for, but this race is coming down to the wire. It’s currently the closest race of the divisions, and while the Rangers are already close at 1.5 games back, they were literally inches away from an even smaller deficit before the Astros rallied past the Angels on Sunday. The Astros know they can lose their position. The Rangers know it’s theirs for the taking.

In a lot of ways, this isn’t what people expected. Even just several weeks ago, by which point we’d come to believe in the Astros, the Rangers didn’t look like a threat. After the games on July 31, the Astros were up two games on the Angels, and seven games on the Rangers. The Rangers’ odds of winning the division were a hair below 2%. Now they’re a little above 22%, gaining about a game on the Astros a week. Since the beginning of August, the Rangers have gone 25-15, second-best in the AL. Since the same point, the Astros have gone 19-20, sandwiched between the Yankees and the Rays. What’s happened to cause the Astros to lose much of their advantage?

In the interest of honesty, I should say that, on July 31, the Rangers gained another game on the Astros. So if I had my way, I’d pull data going back to July 31, but it’s much easier on FanGraphs to just isolate August and September, and one day won’t make much of a difference. Just a little thing to keep in mind going forward. Where might we see the greatest recent differences between the teams? I prepared the following table, of team August/September WAR.

August + September WAR
Team Position Players Starters Relievers Total
Astros 5.6 4.5 1.5 11.6
Rangers 4.4 2.9 1.9 9.2

See, that’s weird. We’re looking at numbers from a span of time where the second team gained 5.5 games on the first team. However, by these numbers, the first team has had slightly superior position players. It’s had slightly superior starting pitchers. And the bullpens have been very similar, leading to a total WAR difference of more than two wins in the opposite direction from what one would expect. Based on the standings, you’d say the Rangers have out-played the Astros. Based on these numbers, you’d say the Astros have out-played the Rangers.

Some of you might not love WAR, though. Especially over a month and a half. And that’s not an unreasonable position. So here’s some more basic stuff.

August + September OPS

Astros: .732
Rangers: .732

August + September OPS allowed

Astros: .655
Rangers: .707

Offensively speaking, the two teams have been roughly equivalent. On the run-prevention side, the Astros look much stronger. Maybe we didn’t even need to get this complicated. Since the start of August, the Rangers have a run differential of +14. The Astros have a run differential of +29. And, hey, here’s an easy chance to take things back one extra day. Since July 31, the run differentials are +17 and +27, respectively. The Rangers have gained 6.5 games.

The explanation can be found here:

August + September Clutch
Team Position Players Starters Relievers Total
Astros -2.8 -0.3 -2.2 -5.3
Rangers 0.7 0.8 1.8 3.2

This is the FanGraphs Library Clutch page. It is, basically, a measure of timing. A team with a positive Clutch score has had good timing. A team with a negative Clutch score has had bad timing. Teams with good timing tend to over-achieve, and the opposite is obviously also true. Over August and September, the Astros rank 9th in baseball in WAR, and the Rangers rank 14th. However, the Rangers rank 4th in baseball in Clutch, and the Astros rank 29th. Some people say that timing is everything. Timing isn’t everything, but it’s a huge, huge factor, and it’s a factor that’s more or less unpredictable from the outside. Because the Rangers have recently had much better timing than the Astros — Sunday in Anaheim aside — they’ve more than made up for the fact that the Astros have quite probably played better. The Rangers have put more of their hits together. They’ve prevented the opposition from doing the same. There’s been a big difference in high-leverage situations.

This gets right to what Dave wrote about earlier. From the analyst perspective, the Astros have out-played the Rangers, even despite losing ground. There’s never been any good evidence shown that Clutch is a real team skill. Rather, what seems to be the case is that some teams get clutch performance and some teams don’t, and there’s no real rhyme or reason for that, and it can make a big difference even if it didn’t come out of anything. Based on the research, the last six weeks of clutch performance are meaningless. In that, there’s no reason to think it’ll keep up. The effect is already behind us.

But that’s either the neat thing, or the infuriating thing. Based on some of the numbers, you’d assume that, by now, the Astros would have buried the Rangers. They had a big lead six weeks ago, and they’ve been the better team since. But by the only numbers that actually count, the Rangers have overcome that, and as a consequence we have this hugely important four-game series about to start, that could make or break the whole race. And while there’s still great reason to figure the Astros are better than the Rangers, that hardly matters now. All that matters are the games ahead, and the Rangers could play better in them. Or, they could play worse, and still end up with more wins. Randomness has been partially responsible for this position, but it doesn’t just even out overnight. In the version of baseball that’s played on the field, the Rangers are two wins away from taking first place. So what if they’re the inferior team?

This is baseball. Over just Sunday afternoon, the Astros were greatly fortunate. Over the past six weeks, the Rangers have been greatly fortunate. We want to have some idea of what to expect, but we never want to be able to actually predict the results. The game is right there in that sweet spot. Always has been, and always will be.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

Better to be lucky then good?

Mike Matheny
8 years ago
Reply to  SgtSchmidt11

It’s even better to be both.