The Very Surprising Texas Rangers

If the postseason started today, the defending champion Boston Red Sox would not be playing. The presumptive American League Central winner Cleveland Indians would not be playing. Instead, the Texas Rangers, projected to lose 90 games before the season began, would be squaring off against the Tampa Bay Rays for a spot in the Division Series if current results were to hold the rest of the way. Now, with 60% of the season left to go, current results are unlikely to hold the rest of the way. But 40% of the season isn’t an insignificant portion of the schedule, perhaps making the Rangers the most surprising team of 2019.

The Twins and Rays might have better cases for being the biggest positive surprises based on their record, but neither team was projected to be bad like the Rangers. The graph below shows every teams’ projected winning percentage before the season started, and their winning percentage through Sunday’s games:

If you notice the trend going up and to the right, you can see that the preseason projections haven’t been too far off from actual performances thus far. The outliers on the negative side are Boston, Cleveland, and Washington, while most of the outliers on the positive come from teams already projected to contend, or to at least come close to .500. Once the projections drop below .500, this season’s results start to align pretty well with a few of the teams managing to be much worse than the projections. Here’s every team in table form:

MLB’s Biggest Surprises
6/9 W% Proj W% Difference
Twins .672 .526 .146
Dodgers .682 .572 .110
Rays .625 .521 .104
Rangers .531 .442 .089
Brewers .576 .498 .078
Astros .672 .603 .069
Diamondbacks .515 .466 .049
Phillies .569 .525 .044
Cubs .578 .535 .043
Braves .554 .514 .040
White Sox .484 .444 .040
Rockies .516 .490 .026
Padres .500 .480 .020
Yankees .625 .609 .016
Pirates .469 .477 -.008
Athletics .500 .518 -.018
Marlins .365 .384 -.019
Mets .492 .516 -.024
Cardinals .492 .521 -.029
Reds .453 .485 -.032
Angels .470 .508 -.038
Tigers .387 .426 -.039
Giants .406 .454 -.048
Mariners .406 .461 -.055
Orioles .308 .376 -.068
Red Sox .515 .590 -.075
Indians .508 .592 -.084
Nationals .462 .557 -.095
Blue Jays .354 .471 -.117
Royals .308 .440 -.132

We are only talking about a five-game difference from what was expected of the Rangers at this point, but we might have forecast much worse than even their projection at the beginning of the year. Texas lost 95 games a season ago and didn’t wow anyone with their offseason. They traded away their best player in Jurickson Profar and watched Adrian Beltre retire. The team sent off two of the four pitchers who had at least 1.0 WAR in 2019, trading Keone Kela during the season and Alex Claudio over the winter. There weren’t any players with major injuries set to return and boost the club. No top prospects were expected to make an impact. The Rangers’ biggest free agent commitment on the position player side was catcher Jeff Mathis. After opening day payrolls of around $160 million in 2016 and 2017, the club was looking at payroll below $120 million to start this year. Texas absolutely earned the 90-loss projection at the beginning of the season.

That’s not to say the club necessarily had a poor offseason. Heading into the 2018 season, the team signed Mike Minor with the idea of converting him back to a starting role, but only paid reliever prices. They also added Matt Moore and Doug Fister. Oft-injured Martin Perez, and the ageless Bartolo Colon were also set to be part of the rotation with Cole Hamels. The team would add Yovoni Gallardo shortly after the season began. The Rangers attempt to piece together a rotation with reclamation projects and a potential bargain free agent went very poorly. Despite those results, the team tried to do it again this season.

Playing the role of Mike Minor this season is Lance Lynn, who was brought in for just $30 million over three years. Playing the roles of injured reclamation projects were Drew Smyly, Shelby Miller, and Edinson Volquez. The reclamation projects have failed miserably, but Lynn is striking out 25% of batters against walking them just 7% of the time. While his ERA is above average given the park and league at 4.39, Lynn’s FIP is 3.17 and his 2.6 WAR ranks sixth among all pitchers this season. With a little better luck on batted balls and sequencing, or maybe just a better defense, he might be receiving a bit more fanfare for being one of the best pitchers in the league so far. A Mike Minor-Lance Lynn 1-2 might not strike fear in the heart of their foes, but so far it is the best top-two in the American League:

Best 1-2 Starting Pitching Combos
Team Pitcher 1 Pitcher 2 Top-Two WAR
Nationals Max Scherzer Stephen Strasburg 6.5
Rangers Lance Lynn Mike Minor 4.9
Astros Justin Verlander Gerrit Cole 4.6
Twins Jake Odorizzi Jose Berrios 4.6
Dodgers Hyun-Jin Ryu Walker Buehler 4.5
Rays Charlie Morton Blake Snell 4.4
Tigers Matthew Boyd Spencer Turnbull 4.3
Cubs Kyle Hendricks Cole Hamels 4.1
Mets Jacob deGrom Noah Syndergaard 4
Diamondbacks Zack Greinke Robbie Ray 3.8
Reds Sonny Gray Luis Castillo 3.5

The Rangers’ rotation isn’t good because after those two pitchers, Ariel Jurado and Adrian Sampson have been just decent in 11 combined starts, while Smyly, Volquez, and Miller have made 19 combined starts and put up a FIP and ERA of around eight. The team ends up about average in the rotation, average in the bullpen, slightly above average on offense and below average on defense. The result is a roster that should be right around .500, which they are, but being around .500 is the surprise for Texas. While Minor and Lynn have done well in the rotation, position players stepping up has also helped. Compare pro-rated projections for Rangers’ position players and what they’ve done thus far:

Rangers Projections and Results
Name Proj PA Actual PA Proj WAR Actual WAR Difference
Joey Gallo 238 214 1.3 3.3 2.0
Elvis Andrus 249 242 0.7 1.5 0.8
Hunter Pence 108 193 0.0 1.2 1.2
Shin-Soo Choo 246 261 0.4 1.1 0.7
Logan Forsythe 44 182 0.1 1.1 1.0
Asdrubal Cabrera 243 223 0.8 1 0.2
Danny Santana 0 151 0.0 0.6 0.6
Willie Calhoun 47 24 0.0 0.4 0.4
Delino DeShields 194 138 0.3 0.4 0.1
Nomar Mazara 241 252 0.6 0.2 -0.4
Ronald Guzman 221 131 0.2 0 -0.2
Patrick Wisdom 25 28 0.0 -0.3 -0.3
Rougned Odor 252 204 0.8 -0.6 -1.4
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 75 121 0.0 -0.8 -0.8
Jeff Mathis 152 109 0.6 -0.8 -1.4
TOTAL 2334 2473 5.8 8.3 2.5

Joey Gallo looking more like a star has helped a bunch, but the Rangers took fliers on a whole host of players. It hasn’t worked out with most of their starting pitchers, but the team spent $3.5 million for Asdrubal Cabrera and brought in Hunter Pence and Logan Forsythe to see if they had anything to offer. The Rangers put themselves in a position to try out a bunch of players because they tanked a lot more quietly than other teams have the last few seasons. Right now, those moves have paid off, but they need to get Gallo back and they have to figure out the rest of their rotation if they are actually going to pull off the surprise of the season.

The projections say the Rangers are still a team in the bottom third of baseball when it comes to talent. Only Gallo is projected to be above average on the position player side, with Minor and Lynn on the pitching side. A return to form from Jose Leclerc would help some, but it is hard to see this Rangers team having much lasting power. The last 60% of the season isn’t likely to be as enjoyable as the first 40% for Texas, but it is still a pretty remarkable run.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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4 years ago

Not sure how Lance Lynn is at 2.6 fWar, while Verlander is at 2.3, given results to date. I think the fWar formula needs a bit of tweaking …

4 years ago
Reply to  cnewty

Because fWAR us based on FIP, not RA/9 – so Lynn should be blamed for the Rangers’ below average defense.

Also, fWAR now takes into account framing, so if Lynn is pitching to bad framing catchers, he should get a boost for that (I have no idea how the Rangers rate at that)

4 years ago
Reply to  Phil

I meant to say Lynn should NOT be blamed for the Rangers’ below average defense.

4 years ago
Reply to  Phil

Yeah. but even going by that
A: 14GS 93.2IP K/9 10.57 BB/9 1.83 HR/9 1.35
B: 13GS 80,0IP K/9 09.56 BB/9 2.59 HR/9 0.79

A looks like a better (if slightly unluckier) pitcher.

4 years ago
Reply to  tung_twista

I agree with you TT, not really sure how fWAR is putting Lynn ahead here.

While Lynn has the better HR/9 by about .6, his K/9 and BB/9 are a combined 2-2.5 points worse, with 13 fewer innings under his belt to boot.

The only other potential numerical factors I could find were that Verlander’s LOB% is pretty high at 89.9% (18% higher than Lynn’s), in addition to Verlander’s BABIP being a full .173 lower.

Still, I feel that given the X/9 numbers and innings Verlander should have the higher fWAR total.

4 years ago
Reply to  tung_twista

Yeah, looks like it’s the homeruns. Basically double.

And yeah, don’t forget park factors. The Rangers’ stadium is rough for FIP whereas Minute Maid is slightly pitcher-friendly.

So while I don’t think fWAR is “wrong”… obviously I’d pick Verlander the rest of the way. That’s where xFIP comes in.