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Improving run prevention -- a modest proposal

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The Rangers pitching isn't as bad as it looks.

Make no mistake, it isn't real good...but the pitching, itself, isn't historically godawful.

If we look at The Hardball Times' team page stats, there are three areas where the Rangers are an outlier that really jump out at me.

First is the spread between team ERA and team FIP (or Fielding Independent Pitching, which is a calculation of runs scored based on a pitcher's peripherals, which should eliminate the impact of the team's defense).  The team ERA of 5.41 is 55 points higher than the team FIP of 4.86.  That spread is huge...the Yankees, with a spread of 28 points, is the second highest in the A.L.  The Blue Jays and Rays -- two of the best defensive teams in the A.L. -- have FIPs that exceed their team ERA by 41 and 30 points, respectively.

So Texas is a huge outlier in that regard.  Based on the peripherals -- what is normally considered to be under a pitcher's control -- with an average defense and average luck, the Rangers pitchers would have allowed 86 fewer runs this year than they have actually allowed.  And had that been the case, the Rangers would have a positive run differential this year, and people would be talking about how the Ranger pitching staff has turned a corner.

The second outlier that jumps out at me is the team's Defensive Efficiency Rating...that's the percentage of balls in play a team converts into outs.  The average in the A.L. this year is 69.2%.  Tampa is the best in the A.L., at 71.1%.  The Mariners are the second-worst, at 68.3%.

The worst, by far, are the Rangers, at 67.3%.  That goes a long way towards explaining why the Ranger team ERA is so much worse than their FIP.

The third outlier is one I didn't expect...and that's LOB percentage.  The average A.L. team strands 71% of the runners it allows on base.  Only three A.L. teams were worse than 70%.  Detroit and Kansas City each stranded just 69% of base runners.

And the Rangers?  They only stranded 66%. 

An explanation for this?  I don't have one.  Maybe the pitching staff is mentally weak, and can't hold up to the pressure of pitching with runners on base.  Maybe they have a tendency to let things snowball.  Or maybe it is just one of those fluky things that happens, which I tend to believe.  I don't think there is some special skill involved in stranding runners.

That helps explain why, based on not just peripherals but the actual hits that were allowed, as well, BP says the Rangers gave up 35 more runs than would be expected.

So, things aren't quite so bleak as may first appear.  But the Rangers need to improve their run prevention.  And expecting them to do so by going out and getting a C.C. Sabathia or a Ben Sheets isn't realistic.

And, really, I don't know that it is necessary.  Improving the defense -- particularly the infield defense -- would go a long way towards solving this problem.

Look at John Dewan's +/- system, Michael Young hasn't been as bad at shortstop this year as he had historically -- he's at a -6 plays on the year.  Ramon Vazquez has been at -1 at shortstop.  That's -7 for the Ranger shortstops, defensively.

At third base, Vazquez has been -10 for the year.  Hank Blalock has been even at the season.  Chris Davis is at -8 on the year.  German Duran is -7.  Travis Metcalf is at -6.

So the Ranger third basemen are at -31 plays for the season...a remarkably bad performance.  Combined with the shortstop performance, the Rangers left side defense made 38 fewer plays than average.  If we assume that every such play would have been a single, using the linear weights mechanism Tom Tango put together, the left side of the defense cost the Rangers 26.6 runs on the year.  Taking into account some plays not made by the third basemen went for extra bases, you are probably taking about the defense from those two positions costing the Rangers about 30 runs.

So...how do you solve the problem?  Number one, you don't bring either Chris Davis or Hank Blalock back to play third base.  Neither of them is likely to be even an average third baseman next year.

Instead, put Michael Young at third base.  We've talked about this ad nauseum, but he's simply not a good defensive shortstop, and even in what has been a "good" year for him, he's simply moved into the negative single digits from the negative double digits.  He has the arm to play third base, and his lack of range should be less of an issue there.  I have to think that, if you slide him over to third base, he's going to be at least an average defensive third baseman.

And who to play short?  Not Elvis Andrus.  I want to see him get a full year in AAA, and maybe two, to let him work on his offensive game and his defensive consistency.  He turned 20 less than a month ago...there's no need to rush him to the majors right now, or even by the start of 2010, when he'll be just 21.

Instead, the Rangers should talk to Doug Melvin about J.J. Hardy.  The Brewers are apparently ready to deal Hardy to make room for Alcides Escobar.  They need catching help.  They need to replace Ben Sheets and C.C. Sabathia.  The Rangers have catching and young starting pitching they could deal.

Would, say, the Brewers choice of a catcher, Eric Hurley, and someone like Kennil Gomez or Omar Poveda be enough for Hardy?  If so, isn't that a move the Rangers should make?

Hardy in 2008, by Dewan's system, is the top defensive shortstop in baseball, at +21.  If you put Young at even in +/- at third base, and Hardy at, say, +15 (assuming he regresses some next year), you are at +15 plays defensively from the left side of year infield, or about 10-11 runs saved above average. 

That's a 40 run swing, defensively, from the Rangers' left side infield defense in 2008.  That's the equivalent of two starting pitchers logging 200 innings with an ERA .9 runs lower than whomever they are replacing.  That is a huge difference, in terms of the defense.

If Ian Kinsler can bounce back from a poor 2008 defensively, and perform like he did in 2007 (when he was a +7), then you've got an infield defense that, suddenly, is a strength, rather than a weakness, and is probably worth a total upgrade of 50 runs defensively.  And, since Hardy can hit, you are doing it without sacrificing offense.

If you could swing a deal to land Hardy, then I think you can bring back either Milton Bradley or Blalock to DH, roll with Josh Hamilton in center until Julio Borbon is ready and the Murphy/Byrd/Cruz combo in the outfield corners.  You've got one area where you are probably weak defensively -- centerfield -- but overall, you've got a strong defensive team. 

So that's my solution.  Move the Face to third base, get J.J. Hardy, let Blalock or Bradley DH and not set foot on the field, and pave the way for columnists to marvel about how much better the pitching is in 2009.