Nobody expected the Texas Rangers to be dominating the AL West this year, the way they have so far. Yeah, we all know about their explosive offense and their bevy of top prospects, but we also know that their pitching still sucks, and most of those prospects are at least a year away. 2010 was supposed to be the coming out party in Arlington, not 2009.
So how are the Rangers doing it? Well, the offense is just as explosive as ever, especially now that Josh Hamilton is back from the DL, but the pitching staff, which was last in the Majors last season with a horrid 5.37 ERA, is an at-least respectable 6th in the AL this year, at 4.54.
But pitching is not really the story here. If anything, the pitching is actually slightly worse this year. Staff ace Kevin Millwood’s hot start is a mirage of luck with BABIP, and this year’s team FIP of 5.03 is actually *worse* than last season’s 4.83.
The real story is that the Texas Rangers went from dead last in the entire Major Leagues in defensive efficiency to 5th overall this year and 2nd in the American league behind only the Blue Jays.
Betting big on 20-year old Elvis Andrus, who has been a revelation at shortstop and no slouch with the bat either, has allowed the Rangers to shift range-challenged Michael Young over to third base, which had been a defensive black hole for the Rangers last season, which in turn allowed them to shift Chris Davis over to first base, where he is actually a plus defender.
Combined with the luxury of having natural shortstop Ian Kinsler play second base, and some dude named Omar Vizquel on the bench ready to fill in, the Rangers have gone from one of the worst defensive infields in the majors to probably the best, and in the process have gone from a last place finish in the AL West to first place in the division so far this year.
Does this story strike you as familiar in any way? It should, because another team who brought in a new shortstop and then strategically shifted around a few other players, going from last to first in defensive efficiency, was the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays, who rode their dramatic turnaround from doormats to dominance all the way to a World Series appearance.
And the Rangers aren’t the only team attempting to follow in the footsteps of the Rays this year. The Detroit Tigers *also* brought in a new shortstop (Adam Everett) and shifted a bunch of other players around to less challenging positions, leapfrogging from 11th in the AL in defensive efficiency last season to 3rd this year, and similarly going from the celler to the penthouse in the AL Central.
All of which suggests that we may still be dramatically underestimating the importance of defense to a team’s success. Especially infield defense. I remember Rob Neyer pondering the value of defense at one point in the late 90s and estimating that defense was probably 10 percent of preventing runs, with pitching accounting for the other 90 percent, but recently I’ve started thinking more along lines of defense being about one third of winning ballgames, with offense and pitching being the other 2/3.
That number may be too high, and I’m not sure we’ll ever have a way to know for sure, but if fixing a few things on defense (and especially infield defense) can take these teams from the bottom to the top, then maybe teams are really still undervaluing its importance.