Playing Time, Perceptions of a Pennant Race, and the 2012 Texas Rangers

SEATTLE - APRIL 30: Manager Ron Washington #38 of the Texas Rangers is ejected from the game by home plate umpire Jim Wolf against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on April 30, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. The Rangers defeated the Mariners 2-0 in twelve innings. Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

The way the regulars have been utilized is something I've been thinking about lately, and a quote from Ron Washington yesterday prompted me to finally do a post about this:

Washington called this Rangers' season the toughest of the last three because of the offensive funk that hit in July and because of the injuries that have riddled the pitching staff. Said Washington: "If everyone played to their potential this year, we'd just be waiting for the season to end. But every year is different, and we have to battle for it."


Read more here: http://sportsblogs.star-telegram.com/foul_territory/2012/09/tuesdays-pregame-rangers-notes.html#storylink=cpy

This dovetails with some comments I've seen previously from Washington, that seemed to suggest he's looking to get more out of his key guys because there's more pressure this season with a closer race than years past.

That's not necessarily borne out, though, when we compare this season's performance and lead with previous seasons.

The Rangers are 80-55 this season, and are 4 games up on second place Oakland. The Rangers' lead in the A.L. West has not been less than 3 games since April 15, 2012, when they were 2.5 games up after winning at Minnesota. The lead has been as little as 3 games only six times since April 15. They have been in sole possession of first place since their 4th game of the year on April 9, when they beat Seattle 11-5 and moved into first place by a half-game. They are at 80-55.

Compare that to 2011. The Rangers were 3 up on April 12, 2011, then lost to Detroit to go to just 2 games up. They didn't get to 3 games up against until July 16. They didn't move into sole possession of first place for good until July 6. From August 2 through August 7 -- a stretch of 6 games -- the Rangers were exactly one game up in the West. The lead finally got up to 7 games on August 17, but dropped all the way to 1.5 games after a loss to Oakland on September 10. The team's record after 135 games was 76-59.

Now, 2010 was different. In 2010, the Rangers took the lead for good on June 8, and from June 20 on never had a lead of less than 3.5 games. From July 25 on, the lead never dropped below 7 games. But even then, the Rangers weren't winning as much as they are now -- they were at 75-60 after 135 games, five games worse than this year's team.

But for whatever reason, despite a comfortable lead for most of the year, Rangers fans -- and seemingly, the Rangers organization -- feels like they are in a dogfight, seemingly moreso than even last season, when the Rangers really were in a close race for most of the summer.

And that seems to be playing out in how Ron Washington is utilizing his regulars this year. While the pitching staff has been riddled with injuries this season, the starting lineup has been largely immune to problems, with Mitch Moreland and Mike Napoli being the only regular position players who have spent time on the d.l. The combination of good health and what seems to be a greater sense of urgency, however, has the Rangers' position players logging a lot more playing time than usual.

Nelson Cruz has played in 133 of the team's 135 games, and has started 129 of them. He's already set career highs for games played and plate appearances in a season. Elvis Andrus has appeared in 131 games. Adrian Beltre, despite injuring his leg in Detroit in April and having to miss a few games, has still appeared in 131. Michael Young missed three games because of the birth of his son, and has still made 129 appearances. Josh Hamilton, who missed time because of ailments, has appeared in 127 games, and is a week away from matching his second-highest totals in games played and plate appearances. Even David Murphy has 121 games played and 420 plate appearances.

Only 65 major leaguers have played in at least 127 games this season. 6 of those 65 are Rangers, and no other team has as many as four players who have played in at least 127 games. Which has to make you at least a little concerned about how much gas these guys will have left in the tank come October.

Now, you can argue that part of the reason that guys were playing so much is that the bench has been so poor, they've had to play a lot. The four man bench the team started the season with consisted of Alberto Gonzalez, Brandon Snyder, Yorvit Torrealba, and Craig Gentry. Of that group, only Gentry is someone who you'd seem to trust with significant playing time.

However, Leonys Martin and Mike Olt have also spent time on the bench, with Olt's promotion seemingly intended specifically with the idea that he'd get semi-regular playing time and provide the team with a spark, on the heels of their awful July "funk," as Washington termed it. Neither Martin nor Olt, however, have gotten much playing time, nor have they done anything during their opportunities to show that they warranted significantly more playing time.

On the other hand, Craig Gentry was playing great ball for much of the season. He started 51 of the team's first 100 games, dating through July 29, and had a .331/.398/.425 line through that date. Since July 29, however, Gentry's playing time has been sporadic. He started only one game between July 30 and August 16, then started three games in a row, didn't start for five straight days, started four straight games from August 24 to August 27, and then hasn't started since. After starting 51 of 100 games through almost the end of July, Gentry has started 8 of 35 since then.

Moreover, during that stretch, Gentry's numbers have been awful...since that July 29 start, he's posted a .138/.219/.138 line. Of course, that's over 34 plate appearances -- just over a week's worth of plate appearances if you're getting regular playing time, but in this case, spread over more than a month. Its hard to argue that those 34 plate appearances makes Gentry unworthy of more playing time than he's gotten of late.

One of the complaints that fans have leveled at Ron Washington in years past is that he sits guys too often, that he gives too many days off. That's a complaint I've disagreed with, as I've felt that it is important to give players regular rest, particularly given the Texas heat and how many of the Rangers' position players are injury-prone. I've argued Wash is in the best place to judge when someone needs a day off.

And he may be right here. It may be that the guys who are ridden the hardest are holding up, and will be fine come October. It may be that I'm worrying about this for nothing.

But part of me is concerned that what we're seeing is an overreaction. An overreaction to the perceived threat of the Angels and their offseason additions, and overreaction to the pending departure of Josh Hamilton which is fueling a belief that the Rangers must win now, an overreaction to the idea out there that nothing short of the World Series will suffice this year.

And I am just a bit concerned that the reluctance to utilize the bench more could cost the Rangers come October.

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