Fifty-four games into the season, the team is in first place. Countless cans of Tab have been emptied in celebration; countless sighs over bunt attempts and base running errors have been uttered in indignation; countless walks have been issued by Rich Harden; countless boobies have been posted in GDTs in the name of participation. At this made-up milestone of the season, it's a good opportunity to stop, look, listen, and examine what the team came from, and where it might be going.
Beware, extremely long post ahead!
(Note: this game does not include Tommy Hunter's awesomefest today)
To evaluate pitching, I will use data from statcorner and fangraphs, ultimately tRA and FIP. Hitting uses wOBA, and fielding based on UZR and DPS (+/-).
Starting Rotation: tRA 4.44 (6th in AL)
Bullpen: tRA 4.05 (4th in AL)
Hitting: wOBA 0.331 (8th in AL)
I did not put down the exactly numbers here, but we are above average defensively. Overall, we've been above average in pitching and defense, but below average in hitting. However, because of roster changes, past performance in the overall sense is not the best indicator for future performance. In the following sections, I will only look at player that are expected to be on the roster going forward.
K% - Percent of batters faced that resulted in a strikeout (average: SP: 16%, RP: 19%)
BB% - Percentage of batters faced that resulted in a walk (average: SP: 8%, RP: 9.5%)
GB% - Percent of balls put in play that is on the ground (average: 43.2%)
HR/BiA% - Percent of balls in air (fly+line drive+popup) that resulted in a home run (average: SP: 6.5%, RP: 6%)
Whiff% - Percent of pitches thrown resulting in swing and miss by hitter (average: SP: 7.8%, RP: 9.5%)
Strike % - Percent of pitches thrown resulting in a strike (average: 63.5%)
----- Starting Rotation ------
To be an ace, I think you need to two of the following three things well: lots of strikeouts, few walks, and lots of ground balls. Colby Lewis is no ace, but his ace-suit is certainly life-like. He is a flyball pitcher, is currently giving up an average number of home runs. Combine that with very good strikeout numbers and below average walk rate, he looks like a #2-type pitcher. The issue is that when he pitches, he rarely "looks" like a #2. When he is on, it's a pleasure to watch as he pours strikes on the corners, and make hitters look like Teagarden with the slider. During the White Sox game when he was pumping 94 wherever he wanted and a couple of times earlier this year, I watched the hitters and felt sorry for them. These hitters are all professionals, and they've worked their collective rears off for so many years to become the best in the world. Yet here they are, being made to look like fodder in some poorly scripted action movie (all of them) where they get 3 seconds of screentime, throws two punches that miss their target, gets a elbow to the head and a footprint to the midsection, and immediately becomes a part of the carpeting. That's what an ace does: he makes hitters look like props. Unfortunately, Colby also have moments when he can't put hitters away, doesn't throw enough strikes, throws too many pitches, and in general looks like Doug Mathis. No man who fancies himself an ace should ever look like Doug Mathis.
The slider is obviously Colbyashi's out pitch, getting a manly 15.3% swinging strike and a harbinger of death for right-handed hitters. His curveball and changeup are useful; he throws them a combined 14% of the time, generally gets decent results, but occasionally mis-locates and gets hit hard. Now the fastball... he has been anywhere from 86-95 this year with the fastball, averaging about 90.3. This is an important pitch for him. When he locates it and has velocity, he enters ace-Colby mode. Overall, I guess his performance so far is what we were expecting from Rich Harden.
Next up is CJ. CJ's problem is his command. He throws only 60% strikes. CJ's problem has always been his command. He has always thrown about 60% strikes. His strikeout rate is a bit above average; he gets a lot of ground balls and doesn't give up many home runs. Michael Young makes him look bad, but then again, Michael Young makes everybody look bad - he can't really help it. Nevertheless, Cj has been pretty good, and as long as his command doesn't get any worse, should continue to be at least decent. He is on pace for almost 5 wins above replacement, which would be much more valuable than his expected contribution from the bullpen. If you haven't, you should go to Trip's pitch f/x database and look up the movement of CJ's pitches. The man throws three different fastballs, and has all the movement combination covered. Now just throw more strikes, please!
Feldman is okay, he was unlucky; he doesn't strike out many but has been throwing more strikes lately. I hope he continues to be boring and the most under-appreciated Ranger in history; that means he is doing his job. Oh, it looks like his velocity was back up in the last start too.
Rich Harden also got his velocity back, but he still sucks. If he throws more strikes, he would suck less. I'd say more about him, but I am a man of few words. Nevermind he is already getting Godfather Newberg's hate; that stuff is rarer than gold.
Tommy Hunter is starting today. He is not awfully exciting, but he throws strikes, and in this rotation, a guy who can throw strikes consistently is pretty exciting. The only real concern is his fly ball tendencies. Although his AAA numbers this seasons hasn't looked pretty overall, the 45%+ ground ball rate is encouraging. As long as he can hover at least around average ground ball, he should be like Millwood, and that's okay. (News Flash: Tommy Hunter is pretty awesome)
Performance-wise, the rotation hasn't been bad, although the main problem is that they have not been efficient enough to get deeper into games. A fixed Feldman should help; a less wild CJ should help; strike-throwing Hunter should help; Harden will never help; when Holland gets his arm back, he should also help. There is still some depth, but I don't think anyone in that depth (Harrison, Nippert, Moscoso) can be counted on for deep outings.
----- Bullpen -------
We have four awesome pitchers in the bullpen, and that's pretty good. They all throw strikes; they are all good at getting strikeouts; they all can make airplanes out of bamboo sticks; they are all going to be tired. I hope Wash is handing them each a wad of free message coupons every time they come out of the bullpen. Anyway, any bullpen that has four awesome pitchers is awesome.
Part of the reason that Wash is using the big 4 so much is his lack of trust for anybody else. For a while, Chris Ray (whom I hate) had the trust (rather unjustifiably). Ray has sexy stuff in the form of a 94+ mph fastball, but the hitters don't seem all that impressed since he is striking out at a far below average rate. He also doesn't have command, and is a fly ball pitcher to boot - remember those three ace criteria? He is like the anti-ace, which means he sucks, at least right now. See, Wash doesn't know this. I was watching the Minnesota game where CJ got into trouble, and Wash forged ahead and brought the worst pitcher in the bullpen into the absolutely the most important game situation. Next thing I knew, my table became my window, and I was tableless. I don't like to be tableless. For that reason, I hoped Strop would stay up so Wash doesn't get the option to misuse Ray. This obviously did not happen. (Note: the tRA for Ray is misleading, because he has only given up like 9% line drives, and that's not sustainable)
Dustin Nippert and Matt Harrison... both has control problems, but both are versatile. Harrison doubles as the LOOGY, and Nippert can be used as the power righty in a pinch. Both are long men, both can spot start if needed. These people are important to have in the pen, as long as they are kept to the correct roles. As for Harrison, I think the bullpen role is good for him since it lets him focus on his fastball and maybe one breaking pitch. His biggest problems as a starter were bad fastball command and lack of a reliable breaking pitch. Maybe the bullpen stint can narrow his focus a little bit.
K% - Percent of plate appearance that resulted in a strikeout (average: 20.5%)
BB% - Percent of plate appearance that resulted in a walk (average: 0%)
HR/BiA% - Percent of balls in air (fly+line drive+popup) that resulted in a home run (average: 6.5%)
LD% - Percent of ball in play that is a line drive (average: 18.9%)
O-Swing% - Percent of pitches outside the strike zone swung at (average: 27.9)
Contact% - Percent of swings that resulted in contact with the ball (average: 81.1)
I would like to talk about Justin Smoak first, because:
Jason Heyward: 15.4% BB, 24.0% SO, 40.2% pitch swung at, 81.8% contact rate, 14.2% LD, 22.2% HR/FB
Justin Smoak: 15.4% BB, 20.8% SO, 40.9% pitch swung at, 83.3% contact rate, 24.0% LD, 15.0% HR/FB
I rest my case.
Now I would like to talk about Elvis. Elvis is awesome.
Nelson Cruz is so awesome that despite missing like 20 games now, he is still the the 2nd most valuable (cumulatively) hitter on the team and the most valuable position player overall. The most valuable hitter has been Michael Young. Again, MY has been a lot better than expectation offensively, and a lot worse than expectation defensively. His BABIP is high, but it's always high since he is a line drive hitter. This year, he is not hitting line drives yet, so either he will do more of that, or his average will come down.
Josh Hamilton is confusing - after a brief foray into the Kingdom of Patience, he has returned to his free-swinging ways - only this time, he is getting good results. Dude is turning into Alfonso Soriano. The power is back, the walks are gone, the contact rates are down, but line drive rate is quite good!
The other half of the undead duo is equally confusing. Sometimes, I get into a bad habit of over-analyzing while watching the game, and some player's game are prone to this: if MY doesn't swing at the outside sliders, he tend to have good at bats, same thing with Hamilton and anything outside. Vlad does not tolerate such nonsense. You don't need to think when he bats; if fact, you shouldn't even try. Sure, there is the urge sometimes to yell at the computer/TV when he swings at pitches in the other batter's box, but it really doesn't matter. He is different from other players; he is a freakshow (I am sure a exceedingly amiable one), and freakshows are mountains of fun.
(A brief interlude: Tommy Hunter is pretty awesome)
Kinsler is probably still hurting a bit, he has looked bad recently, but has had a good approach overall. The power is not there, nobody knows when it might come back. Give him some days for rest, and we should be happy if he is able to get on base consistently.
CF is still a problem, even though Borbon looked better lately. If you haven't noticed, his BABIP is up to about .300 now, even though he is only still hitting under 13% line drives. You can considered him to be regressed (pun intended) now, and he is still terrible. Really, he needs to walk and have a high batting average to be valuable. He doesn't walk, and certainly needs to hit more than 13% line drives to have a chance at a high average. His approach is terrible, having swung at over 40% of pitches outside the strike zone. Ugh, I am tired of talking about him.
I don't want to talk about the catchers either now, blame Borbon.
Overall, this lineup looks good when Cruz returns. There are a lot of question marks, but most of those have been positive so far. The on-base ability of the lineup is surprisingly good, with four regulars sporting 10% walk rate or better. There is also plenty of power, plenty of potential, and plenty of possible problems. Still, it's the most talented offense in the AL West, and that's probably enough.
Last year was the year of defense; this year, the interested has waned somewhat. Partly, it is because that there really is nothing new to talk about. Cruz, Elvis, and Kinsler are good, Young is terrible, Borbon is above average, and Hamilton/Murphy around average. What else is there to say? We are an above average defensive team overall, and you knew that already.
To conclude, I think all four sectors of the team will be at least average going forward. The rotation needs to consume more innings to save the pretty darn good bullpen so they can stay pretty darn good. The defense is solidly above average, and the lineup should be decent too, if certain roster moves are made... There is also a good amount of pitching depth, which is always comforting. Other than the bullpen, there is nothing that is really terrific about this team, but in the AL West, being above average should be enough. If I so dare to be optimistic, the Rangers is definitely the most talented team in the division, and if they can avoid significant injuries or too much stupidity, they are the favorites to win this division.