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Rangers on Wrong Side of Luck?

Are the Rangers headed down an unsustainable path for batted ball outcomes?

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Texas Rangers Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The past 12 games have been an interesting development for the Rangers. A team that was 13-20 and tied for 5th worst record in baseball alongside their most recent opponent, the San Diego Padres. The same Padres who are fielding 4 players on their 25-man roster who have not played above High-A ball prior to this season. This is the point I had finally become concerned, and began visualizing the trade chips the Rangers could receive by the end of July for Darvish, Lucroy, et al.

Of course we know what happened next. A.J. Griffin, aka ‘Ace’ Griffin/A.J. Whiffin’, hurled a complete game shutout allowing only 4 hits. Since then, the Rangers have come back in all 5 games. I can’t help but to hearken back to last season’s mantra, of #NeverEverQuit and all of the come from behind wins. At this point last season the team had a 3-9 record when trailing into the 7th inning. Eerily, this season’s record in those games is 3-10 (All 3 of those wins have come in the past four games).

Presenting the Rangers Hitters

(now featuring less suck)

Most of said wins in both seasons have come in late April/early May. In that time frame the club hit .263 in 2016 (.253 in early/mid April) and this season the club is at .245 way up from a .207 mark in early/mid April. Ranger starting pitching ERA ranks 2nd in the AL and offensively 2nd to last in batting average. Besides the occasional bullpen meltdown, we can safely assume that the offense is to blame for the early season woes. However, before we blame the offense, or a lack of luck, or even acknowledge the bats have finally awoken, let’s take a high level look at what has occurred the past 12 games and season start to date.

The Rangers faced off against Houston, Seattle and San Diego and were 2-4 during the first 6 games of this time frame. Collectively, the Rangers hit .188 featuring a 9.5% walk rate and 28% strikeout rate. The walk rate leaves a bit to be desired but the batting average and strikeout rate are simply unsustainable if you want to win ball games. Joey Gallo ended up striking out 13 times, and for a guy who we still expect to hit dingers and get on base via walk, he didn’t have a single walk. I’m not trying to cherry pick Joey, it’s clear he was in a slump and others contributions were not enough to pick up the slack. The team’s collective BABIP and Hard Hit % were lower than usual, and yet the team struck out plenty and hit a normal amount of home runs. One might consider that would develop a near average BABIP.

In the second set, the Rangers faced off against San Diego and Oakland and were 6-0 in that time frame. The bats seem to have come alive with a team batting average of .295 featuring a 11% walk rate and a 16.4% strikeout rate. The hard hit contact went up to 31. 4% and the BABIP rose to .336 all while lowering their strike outs with a similar amount of dingers. With exception to Rua, it’s hard to point out an individual and declare poor performance as opposed to last time frame which was a showcase of poor performance. The Rangers almost cut down their strikeouts by half, and that ended up being the highlight of the past 6 games.

Plate Discipline

First big difference between the two time frames are strikeouts. We know that O-Swing% correlates with strikeout rates so let’s have a look at that. The team’s rate has dropped by 2%, which is not a lot, but given a high level overview we can see improvements by key players who struggled in the first time frame.

Andrus, Gallo, Napoli, and Deshields have all improved greatly in this area and for the latter 3, higher walk rates. I found it interesting that Lucroy, Gomez, Chirinos, Choo, and especially Odor have offered more at pitches outside the zone but they too have seen improvement in their run production. Most all of them yield satisfactory strikeout rates. Even more befuddling is I can’t yet explain how Andrus continues to be a consistent run producer, or how Odor and Gomez have had recent success with 40%+ O-Swing%.

Shifty Business

Creating runs via getting on-base is a great way to improve offense. Even with hard contact, if a player is hitting it into a shift they might not get on base via batted ball. We know the Astros employ a lot of shifts. And per Hardtimes Baseball’s Bill Petti, we know that shifts affect LHH more than they do RHH and the team’s 4 primary LHH hit .036 points lower that series. Unfortunately, shift split data is not entirely accounted for or accurate for that matter. But...

(Data includes traditional & non-traditional shifts)

According to team splits, Houston actually ranks 22nd in BAA while deploying a shift. If shifts would have impacted the Rangers anywhere it would have been against the past series versus Oakland, who rank 8th with a BAA of .263 the Rangers hitters still hit well that series. But wait, there’s more...

xStats - (I promise this is safe for work)

xStats is still in development and testing, but the statistical geniuses at Rotographs/Fangraphs have created a handful of calculations to project expected stats through regression analysis over a 5 year data set. xBABIP uses Statcast data to attempt to calculate what the expected BABIP would be and favors hitters with higher line drive %, hard hit %, opposite field % and speed. It also takes into consideration shifts and highly degrades projection for ground balls pulled into shift. Which is perfect for what we are trying to find in this case.

Unfortunately the best I could capture was monthly. However it still accurately depicts how lucky or unlucky the Rangers hitters have been. According to xBABIP, DeShields is one of the only regulars who over-performed in the month of April and the rest were incredibly unlucky with batted balls. Only Andrus, Mazara, Odor and Choo are at or around their expected BABIP. Come May, we see a set of data that looks completely different. DeShields continues to over-perform, but he has company alongside Andrus, Lucroy and Maraza. The majority are still struggling with batted balls: Gallo, Chirinos, Odor, Rua and Choo. But now we are starting to see Napoli’s expected BABIP match his actual.

I believe this means that we are finally seeing a regression to mean with batted balls. Batted ball outcomes from April were unsustainable, and xStats shows us how unlucky of a month it was. Luckily, that trend has changed and all of a sudden along with batted ball luck, and better plate discipline, the Rangers find themselves winning games. We the fans can only hope that this trend continues for at least a little bit longer.