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Ruminations on the Rangers

So, yeah, this series in Detroit sucked.  11 straight loses in Detroit, 0-6 against the Tigers this year, and some wind is out of the sails on the heels of a 7 game losing streak.

At the same time...I don't know that this series says all that much.  Yeah, they were all relatively close games that the Rangers could have won, but when you get back-to-back walk-off wins against a solid closer like Brandon Morrow to turn losses into wins, you aren't really in a position to curse the baseball gods for bad luck.

And I know Ron Washington has been getting killed in the comments for a few decisions in today's game, but...I don't know.  I can't say I'd necessarily have done what Washington did this afternoon, but I don't see anything that is so glaringly wrong that he needs to be ripped for it.

Leaving Millwood in to face Miguel Cabrera in a tie game with two outs in the 8th?  Tough call there.  I wasn't watching the game, so it is hard for me to say if Millwood was obviously laboring or struggling.  Darren O'Day has been solid against righthanders, so there's a case for bringing him into the game.  At the same time, O'Day is a relatively low-K groundball guy who would be put in a situation where a single gives the Tigers the lead.  He's not the ideal option there...but then, your ideal option in that situation would be a hard-throwing righty reliever who could come in and challenge Cabrera and try to get a strikeout.  And the Rangers don't have that, which makes this, to me, an example of why Jon Daniels and the front office deserves some criticism for putting together a flawed bullpen versus Washington blowing it by not bringing in O'Day.

There was also questioning of why Elvis Andrus or David Murphy didn't steal in the top of the 9th.  Andrus, I was surprised didn't run...the Rangers clearly thought they could take advantage of Dane Sardinha behind the plate, and Andrus is a good base-stealer.  Murphy, on the other hand, isn't a great base-stealer, and by sending him, you are running the risk of having him thrown out for the second out of the inning, and eliminating the possibility of a fly ball by Michael Young scoring the tying run.

I think as much as anything, the Rangers didn't try to steal in the 9th because they were playing for the win, not the tie.  The Rangers have struggled to score runs all series, and with Jason Jennings and Derek Holland unavailable today, Washington basically had a two man bullpen (in terms of guys he is going to trust in a tight situation) to work with.  I may be over-analyzing it, but I think that the feeling was that if the Rangers were going to win, they needed to try to win the game in the 9th, not tie it and then limp along into extra innings hoping that they could keep the Tigers bats quiet and eke another run out later.

Finally, there was the decision not to hit Josh Hamilton for Elvis Andrus.  A couple of things there...first, Hamilton hasn't played in several days, and I have to think that Washington was reluctant to throw him out there in his first action in several days to face a hard-throwing reliever in a situation where a home run is only going to tie the game anyway.  Second, I have to wonder if there aren't some concerns that Hamilton's groin may force him to the d.l., and the team wants the flexibility to back-date Hamilton's d.l. stint to last Sunday.  Playing him today would cost them four days.  (It was just pointed out to me that Hamilton pinch hit yesterday.  So ignore this whole paragraph).

In any case, I've got mixed feelings about this.  Despite the fact that the game day threads and post-game threads seemed to indicate a high level of hostility towards Brandon McCarthy's pitching, Taylor Teagarden's defense, and the decision to leave Kevin Millwood in the game, the Rangers run-prevention the past three games was pretty good.  They are continuing to get okay pitching and to play great defense.

No, the problem with the Rangers the past three games is that they scored a total of 6 runs in the series.  You aren't going to win games scoring 2 runs per game.  And with the season almost a quarter over, things that could be dismissed as sample-size fluctations a few weeks ago start becoming more troubling.

You aren't, for example, going to have a very good offense with both your DH and your first baseman posting a sub-.300 OBP.  And Chris Davis and Hank Blalock are both well below that mark, with Davis coming into today's game with a .269 OBP and Blalock posting a .271 OBP.  And Blalock, of course, is also hitting cleanup, meaning that you've got a guy right smack in the middle of the lineup who is making an out almost 75% of the time.

I've been preaching patience with Davis, and I still think he's going to come around, but he and Blalock are hurting the lineup right now, and...well, I can't believe I'm about to say this, but I have to wonder if we don't need to see more Andruw Jones at the DH spot, particularly at the expense of Blalock.  Chris Davis is part of this team's future, and so I'm willing to ride out his struggles if it is going to make him a better player long-term and not impede his development.  But Blalock isn't going to be here beyond this year, and if he isn't going to post a .300 OBP, I don't know that he has a track record that suggests that he's going to rebound sufficiently to make him that much better than the other options you have.

Really, looking up and down the lineup, the offense overall hasn't been all that inspiring.  Ian Kinsler and Michael Young have carried the offense for the first quarter of the season...otherwise, you've got guys who have been okay in relation to expectations but not overwhelming offensive players (Nelson Cruz and Elvis Andrus, for example), or guys who have been disappointments at the plate (Davis, Blalock, the catchers, and even Josh Hamilton).

The Detroit series, though, I think highlights what is potentially the Achilles heel for this team going forward...its inability to get on base.  And along with that, what seems to be an organizational refusal to try to work the count and make pitchers throw a lot of pitches.  If you sort A.L. hitters by average number of pitches per plate appearance, the bottom 10 includes Hank Blalock and Marlon Byrd, and the bottom 15 includes Michael Young and Elvis Andrus.  That goes a long why towards explaining why the team is near the bottom of the league in OBP.

What is ironic about this is that Ron Washington has preached a philosophy of working the count and making guys throw a lot of pitches.  The Rangers were near the top of the league in walks last year, in no small part because of Milton Bradley and his patient approach, something the team is lacking this year.  Part of the reason I'm so reluctant to talk about trading Justin Smoak is that, while he doesn't look like a potential 40-50 HR per year guy, he does seem like a Milton Bradley-type offensive player, a patient hitter who is going to hit for average and some power and draw a ton of walks.  That's the type of hitter this lineup -- laden with high power, middling to low-OBP guys -- is in dire need of.

On the plus side, you could say that this is actually a good thing...Blalock, Davis, Hamilton, et al are going to eventually get it going, and the fact that the Rangers are in first place despite the offensive issues is an indication that they are good bets to continue to play well as the offense performs better.  If you want to look at it as half glass empty, you could say that it isn't realistic for the run prevention to continue at this level, and once the team starts allowing more runs, the offense isn't going to be able to carry it, and the club will come crashing back to earth.

I tend more towards the former point of view...I think this is a team that has been playing well, but not over its head and not at a level where you expect an inevitable regression.  I think that this is a team that can be playing meaningful games in September.  But at the same time, I think this is a team that has some issues with its offensive identity, and needs to get a handle on what its philosophy with the bats is going to be going forward.