The Texas Rangers head into this week’s series against the new-and-improved Toronto Blue Jays with not only hopes to keep their current place in this season’s postseason race, but to possibly gain home-field advantage for that one-game playoff. Heck, the Rangers can even aim higher as they are now only 3.5 games back (heading into Tuesday) of the AL West leader Houston Astros. Not many would have predicted the Rangers would be in this position after staff ace Yu Darvish was announced to undergo Tommy John surgery in March, or after a 7-14 April put them seven back in the division. The combined record in May and June of 33-24 may have raised some hopes but then they lost seven of eight going into the All-Star game. The swoon put them at 42-46 and six back in the division. Most had written off the Rangers headed into the trade deadline and figured, if anything, the Rangers would be a seller. General Manager Jon Daniels had other ideas. Trading part of the future and part of his payroll, Daniels brought in Cole Hamels in what seems to be a win-win trade for Texas and the Philadelphia Phillies. Even with the bold move to bring in a new ace, the trade seemed more of a move for next year. Hamels is not a rent-a-player and pairing him with Darvish seems to be a move towards making the playoffs in 2016. Right now, the Rangers are in position to make the playoffs in 2015. The turnaround in the second half can be explained by several factors.
The success of the offense this season was going to be predicated on several players bouncing back from a disappointing 2014. For Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland, that meant coming back from injury. Fielder missed the entire 2014 season after being traded in a blockbuster deal with the Detroit Tigers. Fielder should be given a lion’s share of the credit for keeping this year’s Rangers afloat in the first half of the season. His return from injury went better than even the best prognosticators could have guessed. He hit .339/.403/.521 before the All-Star break. His 14 first-half homers earned an appearance in this year’s Homerun Derby. Mitch Moreland missed the majority of the 2014 season after being pegged as Fielder’s replacement at first base. His first half (.286/.333/532) was almost as good as Fielder’s and was also deserving of an All-Star berth.
Both Fielder and Moreland have cooled off in the second half (PF: .270/.338/.381, MM: .291/.345/.408) but a big reason for the Rangers’ turnaround is that they have had an actual supporting cast in the second half. Shin-Soo Choo was another player looking for a turnaround from 2014 who was another disappointing newcomer. Choo started the season much like last year with a .221/.305/.384 triple slash and being practically useless against left-handed pitching. Choo is still struggling against lefties but his overall numbers have been much better in the second half (.306/.439/.541). Choo has become the everyday #2 hitter in manager Jeff Bannister’s lineup in August. Choo is not the only player who has made a big leap since the All-Star break. The middle-infield duo of Rougned Odor and Elvis Andrus have both seen huge jumps in their hitting numbers (RO 1st half: .241/.321/.382 to 2nd half: .321/.343/.567, EA 1st half: .242/.301/.323 to 2nd half: .291/.307/.410). After winning the Silver Slugger award last season, Adrian Beltre came crashing down to earth in the first half this season (.255/.290/.396) with only seven homeruns. His second half has inched closer to his amazing numbers last year and is another big reason for the Rangers improved play.
Yu Darvish wasn’t the only projected starter to begin the season on the disabled list as Derek Holland joined him, leaving the Rangers with only three-fifths of their Opening Day rotation. The first half saw them pitch a below average 4.21 ERA but still better than what many had worried. In the second half they have actually increased their ERA to 4.75 but in August that number is way down to 3.63. It would be easy to align the decrease in ERA with Cole Hamels making his first start as a Ranger on August 1st but that hasn’t been the case. Hamels has allowed 14 earned runs in his 26.2 innings pitched (4.73 ERA) for the Rangers but each start has been better than the previous. That has been the norm for the rotation in August, a rotation which is starting to look playoff-caliber. Derek Holland made his return to the team August 19th and threw a quality start (6.1, 2 ER) and came away with a W. Eight of the last ten starts have been quality and that is with rookie Chi Chi Gonzalez making a spot start.
Avoiding the losing streak
If you follow me on Twitter, you will know I stress avoiding losing streaks as a key to having a great season. Since the All-Star break, the Rangers have only lost three in a row on two occasions, but most importantly – they haven’t lost four in a row at any point. It’s not as if they have had an easy schedule either, 21 of their last 31 games have been against teams above .500 including series against the Angels, Yankees, and Astros. The avoidance of losing streaks have helped the Rangers go from six games below .500 and nine games out of first place to currently being five games above and only three and a half games away from the division lead.
The upcoming schedule does start to get tougher and will prove if the Rangers have what it takes to be playing in October. After three games against the Blue Jays, the wildcard-seeking Orioles come to town. Texas will then head out to the west coast for a ten game trip. The Rangers have been road-warriors this year, going 36-29 while only 28-30 at home. 17 of the last 23 are in Arlington so an improved home record will have to be another key factor in the Rangers surprising turnaround.
1* Batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage
2* Awarded to the best hitter at each position in each league
3* 6+ IP with 3 or less earned runs