Are the Texas Rangers good enough defensively?

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.

Team G GS Inn PO A E Fielding %
Twins 1493 1071 9570 3190 1227 48 0.989
Yankees 1504 1071 9501 3167 1125 53 0.988
Blue Jays 1463 1071 9510 3170 1251 59 0.987
Rays 1578 1071 9636 3212 1137 61 0.986
White Sox 1441 1071 9540 3180 1236 67 0.985
Athletics 1482 1062 9405 3135 1247 74 0.983
Red Sox 1561 1080 9726 3242 1190 77 0.983
Angels 1476 1080 9531 3177 1127 78 0.982
Tigers 1545 1071 9474 3158 1226 80 0.982
Mariners 1407 1080 9612 3204 1222 81 0.982
Indians 1482 1071 9408 3136 1382 83 0.982
Orioles 1527 1080 9549 3183 1201 82 0.982
Rangers 1522 1062 9573 3191 1104 81 0.982
Royals 1456 1071 9456 3152 1185 85 0.981

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).

Team Inn Plays RZR OOZ RngR ErrR UZR
Rays 9636 1348 0.841 365 44.1 1.1 43.7
Athletics 9405 1390 0.855 315 23.5 3.1 27.8
Rangers 9573 1371 0.827 328 29.9 -6.9 25.3
Twins 9570 1478 0.859 286 9.5 16.3 24.3
Mariners 9612 1551 0.848 348 18.7 -4.5 10.8
Tigers 9474 1427 0.824 338 11.1 -1.8 8.5
Red Sox 9726 1433 0.825 315 9.9 -3.3 5.1
Yankees 9501 1369 0.83 311 -11.8 14.3 1.1
Blue Jays 9510 1334 0.825 341 -11.1 4 0.7
White Sox 9540 1376 0.809 340 -13.1 -2 -16.7
Angels 9531 1396 0.823 332 -16.6 -5.9 -24.6
Royals 9456 1481 0.816 281 -18.2 -4.8 -32.6
Indians 9408 1472 0.816 365 -35.6 -3.4 -37.6
Orioles 9549 1507 0.809 314 -40.5 -6.1 -40.2

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.

Pitcher K/9 FB% GB%
Cliff Lee 7.83 41.90% 39.70%
Colby Lewis 9.10 44.70% 37.80%
CJ Wilson 6.99 34.00% 50.00%
League Average 5.21 36% 45%

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).

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About Bill Porter

Bill is an aspiring sportswriter (attorney by day) born in Washington DC, raised in New York, and currently living in San Francisco with his wife Kirsten and two spazzy labs, Fletch and Bear. Follow me on Twitter at @wfporter1972
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