The Rangers, the 1st place Rangers, have bullied lesser teams. This is what a good team does. It shows no mercy when it encounters wimps. Over the past 11 games, the Rangers have compiled an 8-3 record while playing against teams with anemic offenses that are particularly poor at hitting HRs (Mariners, White Sox, Athletics). The pitching staff didn't give in upon hearing the cries of "uncle" from the batters box, enforcing near abstinence from HRs upon these slap hitters (0.46 HR/9 compiled by Rangers pitching staff is lower than the composite HR/9 of 0.71 for these teams).
But, the 2008 Rangers beat up on slap hitters in May as well. Lots of columnists seem to not realize that part of the 2009 pitching staff success has come from pitching against weaklings, just like 2008. The beatings in 2008 turned out to be akin to a slightly larger kid picking on small kids. Later that summer, the real big boys came to town, prompting the Rangers to hire a new pitching coach soon thereafter. I can't tell if I should be convinced that this year is different.
What is different? We know the answer. The starting rotation is carrying the load this year. This May the SP has gone 6 innings and 2 outs on average, soaking up 71.7% of the innings with an ERA of 2.94. Last year the starters went 5 innings and 1 out against the wimps (59.8% of innings with a 4.74 ERA). All hail Nolan! All hail Maddux! All hail McCarthy's healer!
Getting back to the opening point, the offenses the Rangers have faced in May are ranked in the lower half of the entire majors in home runs and two are ranked among the lowest 10 teams. They also take very few walks; all are among the lowest 10 in this category.
I think there is reason to believe 2009 will not look like 2008. The starters actually kept these walk-averse teams to a lower walk rate than might be expected (Rangers SP has 2.43 BB/9 compared to 3.19 BB/9 from composite of White Sox, Athletics, and Seattle). Last year, Rangers SP did better against limp bats than the rest of the league (4.55 FIP during the hot stretch, 5.02 FIP the entire year). This year is quite a bit better (3.82 FIP), but not nearly as good as their 2.94 ERA suggests. The main reason is that this staff has a lower K/9, 4.22 in 2009 compared to 5.25 in 2008. The 2009 SP K/9 is less than expected against these teams, which have a composite K/9 of 6.75. It seems the improved defense is helping a great deal. So, going forward, what is more reliable? Ground balls and fly balls to fielders or K's? Rhetorical questions, of course, and the reason I still have some skepticism. The other trouble is that the starters cannot blink. They cannot show any fear of the strike zone. I'm just not convinced they won't blink.
What might the Rangers' pitching statistics look like when they face potent offenses? The first week of June will tell us. The Rangers play the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Dodgers the first 13 games of June. I'll use FIP to estimate the performance. If the composite HR/9 (1.17) of those four teams is used with the actual BB/9 (2.39) and K/9 (4.59) during this nice run, the Rangers FIP is 4.828. As expected, much higher than during this run (3.89), but still much below the 5.7 R/9 the offense produces. Historically (last year and the first month of this season), BB/9 and K/9 have on occasion been 4.0 and 5.5, respectively. So, HR/9 of 1.17, BB/9 of 4.0, and K/9 of 4.59 produces a FIP of 5.36 and with the same numbers but K/9 of 5.5 results in a FIP of 5.16. So, to summarize, these scenarios provide FIP estimates of 4.83, 5.16, and 5.36.
I didn't do the scenario of the best of both worlds, which is a higher K-rate and maintaining the low BB-rate. I just can't imagine that happening, and I would bet the current K-rate and BB-rate is about as good as the Rangers can sustain.
If the pitcher's don't blink and continue to rely on defense, a FIP of 5.0 seems a reasonable expectation, and with the improved defense, an ERA less than that also seems reasonable, say 4.7-4.9. That is quite a bit less than the Rangers' R/9 of 5.7 and produces a pythagorean record of 7-6. The rosy glasses scenario would be an 8-5 or 9-4 record.
The best case scenario looks like a continuation of their winning percentage in May plus keeping the walk rate low even when the big boys come to town. This would result in a mid-June record of something like 29-13. A .500 record the rest of May and reversion to a higher walk rate in early June would result in a record of something like 23-19.