Sitting and watching the Rays/Rangers game this afternoon (spoiler alert – the Rays completed a three game sweep of the AL West leading Rangers), Dewayne Staats and Kevin Kennedy had an extended discussion of the Rangers poor defense. Today’s defense did include Vladimir Guerrero in the OF, Andres Blanco at SS (and Ian Kinsler still on the DL), so though it was admittedly not Ron Washington’s strongest alignment, it made me wonder – given the Rangers are a near lock for the postseason, will defense be the Rangers Achilles Heel come October?.
To start with the traditional measures, the Rangers currently rank 13th out of 14 AL teams in fielding percentage (better than only the lowly Royals). As we have learned, however, fielding percentage rarely tells the whole story.
Looking at Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), we learn that the Rangers are 3rd (The Rays have a large lead, which makes some intuitive sense given the ground that BJ Upton and Carl Crawford cover in the OF, plus Longoria at 3B, and then there is basically a 3 way dead heat for 2nd amongst the Athletics, the Rangers and the Twins).
Clearly, there is a disconnect. Breaking things down by position may help. There seems little doubt that the Rangers OF is a plus defensively. Nelson Cruz has the 2nd best UZR rating among Right Fielders (behind only Ichiro), and and arm that rates only behind the real cannons in the AL: Jose Bautista, Nick Markakis, Shin-soo Choo and Michael Cuddyer. Julio Borbon’s 8.5 URZ is best among AL Center Fielders. Josh Hamilton’s 4.6 UZR is 4th in the AL, but is arm is easily the best in the league at that position.
Turning the the infield, up the middle the Rangers haven’t been as strong as expected. Elvis Andrus appears to be having a bit of a down year defensively – his .975 fielding percentage is middle of the pack, and while has better range than many SS, he is clearly not in the class of Alexei Ramirez (or Alex Gonzalez, but Gonzalez was shipped to Atlanta) – at least not this year. Ian Kinsler has missed most of the season, but in 2009 posted much improved defense, his 10.1 UZR good for 3rd in the AL.
At the corners, however, the Rangers have struggled. Over the past three seasons, Michael Young has continued production at the plate, but has posted defensive numbers that place him among the worst third basemen in the league. Chris Davis is still young and posted middling numbers at 1B – but Davis doesn’t figure largely in Texas’ postseason plans. Before his trade from the NL, Jorge Cantu had posted a -0.3 UZR at 1B, placing him in the “slightly below average” category. Regardless of whom Washington runs out there in October, he is likely to be a weak spot.
Given the metrics available to us beyond fielding percentage, then we may conclude that the Rangers are strong in the Outfield and average to above average up the middle, while weak at the infield corner positions.
Of course, pitching and defense work hand in hand. The Rangers playoff pitching rotation starts with Cliff Lee, with Colby Lewis and CJ Wilson right behind (in some order). Given Lee’s performance in last year’s postseason, I don’t know that the Rangers need a 4th starter, but if they did it would likely come down to Tommy Hunter versus Rich Harden (if Harden gets healthy), with Scott Feldman as the long man.
All three of their main starters are above average strikeout pitchers, and Lee and Lewis are inducing far more fly balls that most starters (though Wilson’s splits are more traditional).
The Rangers have one of the league’s best outfields, plus a pitching staff that misses a lot of bats and prefers the flyball to the groundball. Texas struggles at the corners, but beyond those weak spots, if Ron Washington plays Hamilton/Borbon/Cruz from left to right and Andrus and Kinsler up the middle, they’re strongly above average. The Rangers may not win the World Series, but the composition of their pitching staff and defense make me think that defense won’t be the reason they come up short (if they don’t).