What’s Amazing About These First-Place Rangers by Jeff Sullivan June 6, 2016 Every so often baseball repeats the same lesson about the irrelevance of momentum. Momentum is our own construct; we believe in it because we believe it can help us see into the future. We are and have always been terrible at seeing into the future. Last Wednesday, the Rangers lost to the Indians in extra innings. They had Thursday off. The Mariners didn’t have Thursday off — rather, they spent it orchestrating one of the very greatest comebacks in big-league history. The two teams were tied for first place, and now they are not, because the Rangers promptly swept the Mariners away, assuming sole possession of first place in the American League West, and in the American League. Here’s one way to tell the tale: For the first time, we now have the Rangers as the AL West favorites. And this is according to math that many people believe undersells the roster. The Astros’ lousy start opened the door, and though they’ve righted themselves, and though the Mariners sprinted out, now the Rangers are in charge. It’s a good position to be in, even if the draft is still in front of us. Yet there’s something I can’t stop thinking about. See, it’s not just that the Rangers are back in first place. They finished in first place literally just last season. Where they are isn’t a complete and utter shock. What I find more astonishing is how they’ve gotten here. First place was the plan, but not like this. There is something I’m almost obligated to point out. The Rangers, to this point, have the AL’s best record. And that’s great! They have the AL’s fourth-best Pythagorean record, which is fine. They have the AL’s tenth-best BaseRuns record, which is not fine, or which would not be fine if it directly made a difference. The indicators, in other words, suggest the Rangers have kind of out-performed themselves, and while that sounds weird, here’s an easy way to visualize it. Tons of people talk about run differential. Why not wOBA differential? Here are both. You’d think that run differential would follow wOBA differential, and it essentially does. That’s a pretty straight-ass line, from which the Rangers are the most removed. They’re eighth in run differential, above the Giants. They’re tied for 18th in wOBA differential, right there with the Rockies. We should all assume that the wOBA differential is the more meaningful stat of the two. When it comes to evaluating past performance, anyway. Every plate appearance matters, for wOBA differential. Keeps the sample size big. But, all right: that looks back, and, looking back, you could argue maybe the Rangers haven’t been as good as their record. Or, maybe they’ve been exactly as good as their record. All that stuff is done for — the books are closed — and now it’s about building off the start and moving forward. Regardless of how you analyze it, the Rangers, these Rangers, are in first place in their division by three games. I said there was something I can’t stop thinking about. It doesn’t have anything to do with BaseRuns. You remember that the 2014 Rangers were devastated by injuries. Last year’s Rangers were also hurt by injuries, but they weren’t nearly so devastated, showing off the organization’s resilience. Look now to 2016. The Rangers are in first place, like they were hoping for, but the course hasn’t gone according to plan. This isn’t how they drew it up, which makes the success all the more remarkable. Last week, I almost wrote about Prince Fielder. Two weeks ago, I made a note to myself that I should probably do that. The subject: he’s sucked. Been really bad! Not his first time, either, but last year was the conspicuous bounceback. The Rangers are in first despite Fielder dragging the team down, but it’s bigger than just him. Fielder was supposed to be the regular DH. He’s been bad. Mitch Moreland was supposed to be the regular first baseman. He’s also been bad. Robinson Chirinos was supposed to be the regular catcher. He’s been hurt and played in five games. Shin-Soo Choo was supposed to be the regular right fielder. He’s been hurt and played in six games. Delino DeShields was supposed to be the regular center fielder. He’s been bad and demoted. Shawn Tolleson was supposed to be the closer. He’s been bad and differently demoted. Keone Kela was supposed to be an important setup guy. He’s been hurt and played in seven games. Every team has to overcome obstacles — I know that. Facing challenges isn’t unique to the Rangers. But I think they’ve been particularly strong in this regard. Think about where they are, and think about those seven players above. All of them were supposed to occupy roles of importance, and here’s the breakdown of the group: +12.6 combined WAR in 2015 +8.6 combined projected WAR in 2016 -2.6 combined WAR in 2016 Those players have been hurt or bad. They were supposed to be critical players, but the Rangers haven’t missed them too much, apparently. The bullpen as a whole has baseball’s third-worst WPA, but the Rangers have the league’s best record. To say nothing of Josh Hamilton, who was supposed to be a regular, but who’s out for the year. And to say nothing of Yu Darvish, who’s just recently back from his rehab. Darvish was always expected to miss a couple months, but I’m not sure the Rangers expected to be in first before Darvish even got himself back in and totally comfortable. Only now do they have the rotation they want. When you sort the Rangers by WAR, you see Colby Lewis and A.J. Griffin tops among pitchers. On the position-player side, Ian Desmond leads the lot. Nomar Mazara is third. Ryan Rua and Jurickson Profar are tied for fifth. Bryan Holaday and Bobby Wilson have somewhat improbably combined to plug the void behind the plate. Maybe a big element here is luck, I don’t know. Maybe it’s more about the culture, or maybe it’s more about knowing how to put certain players in positions to succeed. One notices the Rangers as a team are third in Defensive Runs Saved, and first in UZR. So the defense has worked well, too. So many parts have worked, despite so many critical parts breaking down. The team just hasn’t broken, and for all I know it might be unbreakable. And now look. Darvish is back! Choo isn’t too far off. Chirinos isn’t too far off. Kela could and should return for the stretch run. Jurickson Profar has started to slot in for Fielder, because his bat has been outstanding. Joey Gallo waits in the wings, in case the team grows impatient with Moreland. Sam Dyson has taken over for Tolleson without skipping a beat. And so on. The Rangers have been on track despite being off track. And help is on the way, and already arriving. No one raises a banner for being in first place in a division at the beginning of June, but the Rangers should be awfully proud of this, as they anticipate a fuller-strength roster ahead. The Rangers didn’t think they’d be in first place like this. I don’t know how many teams could post such a record with so many things going wrong, but if that isn’t the sign of a strong, healthy, and resilient organization, I’m not really sure what is.