Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What Happened to Boston?

Before the season, there was one team in the American League that many pundits were picking to go to the World Series. Good starting pitching, a devastating lineup mixing speed and power from top to bottom, and the confidence that they could get back on top of the baseball world. Now, ten games into the season, there indeed is a team that fulfills those expectations: good starting pitching (a 2.62 ERA through the first ten games), a powerful offense (their 60 runs scored ranks second in the majors), and a  9-1 record, including  taking two out  of three at  Baltimore and sweeping  the Red Sox.
Terry Francona must feel like he's back with the
Phillies in 1998, with his Sox off to a 2-8 start
Wait...sweeping the Red Sox? Wasn't that team supposed to be the Red Sox? Unfortunately for Bostonians, the power club that they were predicted to have has fallen through the floor, stumbling to a 2-8 start. The problems start in the lineup--only two regulars are hitting over .300--and continue with the rotation, where three of the starters have ERAs over 7.20 after two starts. No, this team we're talking about lies a few hundred miles south and a few thousand miles west, in the city of Arlington, Texas. The Rangers have been on fire, but will it continue? Have the BoSox seen their glory (they did win titles in '04 and '07) and now are too old to compete? Are the Rangers the new power squad in the majors? We'll take a peek after the break.

Every Monday here at SportStatistics, we've been talking about the top of the lineup and how important it is to team success. The guys who get the most plate appearances should, in essence, be your most reliable offensive players--even if they lack the pop of the guys hitting in the cleanup slot. When the Red Sox won their titles, they had a quintessential leadoff man--in one case, Johnny Damon. In 2004, the year the Sox broke the curse and won their first World Series title since my grandparents had been alive, Damon hit .304/.380/.477, which is an awesome sparkplug to have at the top of one's lineup. He drew more walks (76) than strikeouts (68), and added 20 home runs to go along with 94 RBIs. Now, seven years later, the Red Sox are sorely lacking production from the top of that lineup. Manager Terry Francona had Jacoby Ellsbury, the 27-year-old centerfielder, batting in the leadoff spot to start off the season. Unfortunately, Ellsbury only hit .167/.259/.333 with 7 strikeouts in the first six games, all Red Sox losses. This is quite a departure from how he'd done in his career--in 1256 career plate apperances batting leadoff, he's got a .277/.329/.378 line. That's not exactly 2004 Damon numbers, but it's servicable, especially with Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez batting behind him. Carl Crawford has led off the last four games, hitting just .150/.150/.200 in his first 20 plate apperances this year, though he does have 1610 career ABs in the leadoff spot.

Kinsler is a true five-tool player for Texas:
speed, power, contact, fielding, throwing
Meanwhile, down in Texas, the Rangers have found themselves a hot-swinging second baseman who could be the best leadoff man in the country if he puts it all together. Ian Kinsler, at 28 years old in the prime of his career (think Chase Utley four years ago with more speed), has what it takes to lead the Rangers all the way to the World Series. In 2008, the former 17th-round draft pick hit .319/.375/.517 with 18 homers and 71 RBIs, not too far removed from his career numbers in the one-spot: .283/.351/.496 in 1142 career leadoff ABs. Since then, a few injuries have caused a few setbacks, but the power is still there in early 2011: Kinsler's batting .250/.372/.639, helped out by hitting four home runs in his first 10 games, while also drawing six walks. If Texas wants to win a World Series without the services of one Cliff Lee, they need to have a few special offensive seasons, and Kinsler is the biggest key, potentially, to any team in the league. The Phillies have shown they can get through a down year by one of their sluggers, the Giants have a few solid starters to lean on, but the Rangers really rely on Kinsler getting on base and making things happen in that lineup. Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus are both struggling, one (Beltre) a slowly aging vet coming off a career year while the other (Andrus) is an uber-talented young shortstop--and yet both of them are batting under .200 with over 30 plate apperances each. The only Rangers starter hitting over .300 is Josh Hamilton at .316--compare that to a team like the Phillies, who still have seven starters hitting above the .300 mark. 

So it still sounds like the Rangers, while a talented team, shouldn't exactly be 9-1. That is, until you see what their starting rotation has done. So far, those five pitchers (C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Matt Harrison, Alex Ogando, and Derek Holland) have combined to go 8-1 with a 2.26 ERA and a fantastic 0.99 WHIP. The K/BB ratio is solid at 2.88, and the starters have done a fairly good job with walks--no starter has more than two in any given start (and, other than Wilson's season-opening 5.2 IP, they've all gone a full six or more), though no starter has made it through a start without walking somebody. Still, the WHIP is fantastic, and if they can keep pitching like they have been, then there's no reason they can't keep up a similar (if not quite a .900 clip) level of success. What's scary for American League opponents is the age of that rotation: Lewis is the elder statesman at 31, Holland (2-0, 2.25 ERA) is just 24, and Harrison (2-0, 1.29 ERA) is 25. Is this the next great rotation in the American League? Well, maybe not, the Oakland Athletics (4-2, 2.12 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) might have something to say about that, but the A's certainly don't have the offensive potential that the Rangers have in that lineup. If Andrus and Beltre start hitting, it won't matter if the pitching regresses a little bit, that Texas team is dangerous. Right now, I'd say they're my favorites to make it to the Series, even though there's quite a lot of baseball left to be played.

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