Print those playoff tickets already, will ya?

If you’re an optimistic Rangers fan, stop reading right now (this means you, Jamey Newberg).

Okay, now that they’ve stopped reading, here’s what I have to say:  The Rangers are not as good as you think they are.  I’ve been listening to a lot of sports talk radio lately, and hearing folks jumping on the bandwagon.  Every so often they’ll have the pessimists (like me) call, and say that they don’t believe because of the team’s history of collapsing.  In the last few days they were even asking if people were ready to start pressing the panic button.  Of course, you beat the Yankees last night (and lead in the 8th inning as I write tonight) and everything’s all right with the world again.  Short term memories for a lot of people.  Either that, or they’re the kind of people who say they don’t believe in global warming because there was a bit of snow where they live.

Now, my reason for not believing is not because of the Rangers’ history of discovering that their pitchers were just having a career year (hello Mr Feldman!).  I disbelieve because of the way the current season has gone.  The folks jumping in to root for the Rangers (although welcome) are only doing so because they see the Rangers climbing into a double digit lead (“biggest in baseball” as we are reminded ad nauseum, as though the poor performances of the rest of the division are something to be proud of).  But people haven’t noticed one thing:  the Rangers are not building this lead.  It’s actually the Angels who are doing it (and the A’s, I guess, although I really don’t care about them).

Now, what do I mean by that?  Take a look at the Rangers record.  Remember way back when, in June to be precise, they had an 11 game win streak (against those NL powerhouses of Milwaukee, Florida, Houston and Pittsburgh)?  What do you think they’ve done since then?  They’ve gone 21-19.  That’s right, in a month and a half they’re barely above .500.  Why has their lead gone up since then?  Because the Angels have been even worse – 17-23, to drop four games in that time.  Take out that 11 game streak, or even just make it a more normal 6-5 instead of 11-0, and the Rangers are stumbling in first by only 3 or 4 games.

Here’s a chart of the way the teams in the AL West have gone this season (I made this over the weekend, so it’s a couple of games out of date):

Games above 500

You can visually see the 11 game win streak, and how the Rangers have been losing just as much as winning since then.

So, ask yourself this question (the big question for Rangers fans):  Are the Rangers capable of winning the division?  Can they really hang on?  Which is more likely, that the Rangers can step it up a notch, or that the Angels will suddenly find themselves?  If you believe that the Angels are more talented than their record (and you might not since their loss of guys like Vlad from the last few years of dominance), you might expect them to be able to swing back into winning ways more easily than the Rangers.

One way of looking at things is to look at the last few years, with another chart:

Win Pct by Month

This would be the winning percentage of the Angels and Rangers this year (dark colors) and the last three years (07-09) combined (light colors).  Interesting the way they track each other this year – as the Rangers went up, so did the Angels, as the Rangers went down, so did the Angels.

[Minor interruption:  Feliz just blew the save.  He pitched two innings last night, and I said to myself there’s no way he’s available tonight.  Guess Ron Washington knows more than I do.]

The Rangers have followed the same pattern all four years, starting slow (despite everyone saying how good Washington is at having people prepared), getting good for a while (this is where people usually start jumping on the bandwagon), then fading down the stretch.  The Angels have been similar, although they tend to peak a little later, and all-in-all are better on average every month in the past three years.

So looking at this, what is the outlook for the Rangers this year?  As the old saying goes, if the Rangers only go .500 the rest of the way, the Angels would have to go about 33-14, close enough to .700 ball.  That puts the Rangers in a pretty good position.  Can you see the Angels playing .700 the rest of the way?  Look at the last three years, the Angels haven’t even managed to go .600 in August and September.  My guess is they will right their ship a little, and they will go .600, while the Rangers continue to stumble along at .500.  If that happens, the Rangers will end up with about a five game lead at the end, which is a good enough cushion – although if it comes down to that final week against the Angels and they’re at five or closer, the Rangers might just be in position for an epic collapse.

[And there goes the loss, dammit.]

Now when we get to the playoffs, it’s a different matter.  Everyone knows (don’t they?) that the playoffs are a crapshoot.  You roll the dice and hope for the best.  In our case, we hope for Cliff Lee to be just about perfect, because the cast of thousands behind him might not be enough.  Which of the guys in the rotation do you bet on in the playoffs?

Colby?  He’s having a really good year, and he might be good enough.  Not really tested in the big pressure cooker of the playoffs though.  I think I would trust him though.

CJ?  Do you know that with the next out he gets, he will have matched the combined total of his previous two highest innings pitched seasons?  Yeah, he’s at 141 innings, next best for his career is 73.  If that doesn’t worry you, nothing will.  Way back in April I was doubting that he could last a full season as a starter (and then I cringed as Washington sent him out time and time again to throw 100 pitches in six innings).  I’m amazed that he’s gone as far as he has, every outing I expect his arm to fall off.

Tommy Hunter?  Love the guy.  I think he’ll be a great pitcher in a few years.  Now though, going into the playoffs?  Maybe he can do it, maybe he hasn’t learned how to lose yet.  We can hope.

So you’ve got two likely’s in Lee and Lewis, and two maybes in CJ and Hunter.  A lot of teams have ridden two horses all the way through the playoffs, so there’s no reason the Rangers can’t.

Assuming they can hit, that is, and that’s not a good assumption right now.  They are sorely missing Kinsler, who every time he is out injured is supposed to be back in just a few days, and ends up being gone for a few months.  The guys they’re putting on second just aren’t doing the job.  Cristian Guzman was a panic trade, because the Kinsler injury happened a few days before the deadline, and they thought they needed to do something.  He hasn’t shown anything with the bat or in the field since he came over.  Seriously, I think Blanco would be a better option, at least he gives something when he’s fielding.  And I never thought I’d say that Blanco would be a better option than anyone.  In fact, it doesn’t really matter which one you choose, Guzman, Blanco or Arias (if he ever comes back from his conveniently timed injury), they’re all much of a muchness.

Looking at the other trades, Cantu and Molina haven’t shown much either yet.  Of course, they weren’t expected to, based on their career numbers.  I think all of the trades (Lee excepted) were just done to make the team look like it was doing something.  They weren’t really upgrades, were they?  Unless you say upgrades over Chris Davis, which pretty much anything would be.  Point is, the way things were going, there wasn’t much the Rangers could do to mess up the season.  They’re very likely to make the playoffs, and most of those guys will have little to do in October other than ride the bench.  I guess the good part is that most of them won’t be around in the next few years, when things might really get interesting around here.  The bad part is that Cliff Lee won’t be around either.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again:  I write these posts in my head every day.  Just wish I could get round to writing them on the computer.  I have the greatest respect for Jamey and the prodigious output he has had over the last decade.

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