This past weekend the Rangers clinched the AL West, their first division championship since 1999. Many things have gone well for the Rangers this season, and while a full look back will be worth doing after the playoffs, this post, like Friday’s on the Minnesota Twins, is a forward-looking post about their starting rotation going into the American League playoffs.
The simplistic take on past Rangers teams has been “good hitting, bad pitching.” This has always been at least a bit problematic in the past because the Rangers’ home park has tended to exaggerate both their hitters’ prowess and their pitchers’ futility, at least when looking at raw stats. This season, they’ve hit well, but their pitching has taken a step up. One season’s stats don’t tell the whole story, so while I’ll list each player’s 2010 statistics, I’ll also include numbers from the most recent update of CHONE’s pitcher projections (using CHONE’s context-neutral component nERA and also a FIP I derived from the stat line) to give a sense of each pitcher’s current “true talent.”
1) Cliff Lee, CHONE: 3.29 nERA , 3.16 FIP
2010: 6.6 WAR, 2.66 FIP, 3.28 xFIP, 2.75 tERA, 3.29 ERA
I’d call Lee the other forgotten AL Cy Young candidate, except I just remembered that what a player does in May and June doesn’t count for awards voting. But hasn’t Lee been a lot worse in Texas, anyway? Let’s see, his K/9 rate is slightly higher. His walk rate has doubled all the way up to over one per nine innings, and his HR/FB rate skyrocketed to almost league average. His xFIP in Seattle was 3.21; in Texas, it is 3.35. Whatever might be going on with Lee’s back, it looks to me like he’s basically the same pitcher as he was in Seattle, except he forgot not to let his HR/FB ratio regress to the mean when moving from one of the best pitcher’s parks in the league to one of the most hitter-friendly parks. Since 2008, Cliff Lee been one of the best pitchers in baseball. Of the likely AL playoff starters, only Francisco Liriano and CC Sabathia really match up with Lee.
2) C.J. Wilson, CHONE: 3.13 nERA,* 3.53 FIP*
2010: 4.2 WAR, 3.58 FIP, 4.23 xFIP, 3.78 tERA, 3.15 ERA
I include the asterisks because it looks like CHONE is still projecting him as a reliever. I’m not sure how CHONE or other projection systems handle reliever-starter switches, and obviously it needs to be accounted for. The (very) general rule is to add one to a reliever’s FIP/ERA to see what he would produce as a starter. That is a only a general guideline, though, and Wilson has outperformed all but the loftiest expectations of his transition into a starting role. Wilson walks a lot of batters, and his 4.23 xFIP reflects some good fortune on fly balls (5.1% HR/FB ratio, the league average this season is about twice that). However, Wilson strikes out a lot of hitters and keeps the ball on the ground enough to make it work.
3) Colby Lewis, CHONE: 3.47 nERA , 3.48 FIP
2010: 4.4 WAR, 3.52 FIP, 3.94 xFIP, 3.51 tERA, 3.72 ERA
Lewis has probably been better than Wilson; he has a better FIP, xFIP and tERA. Lewis hasn’t quite had Wilson’s good fortune on fly balls (although Lewis certainly hasn’t been unlucky) , and that’s a bit more of a problem because he’s a flyball pitcher. However, he has a very good walk rate and a higher 2010 K/9 rate than any of the other starters on Texas’ staff.
4) Tommy Hunter, CHONE: 4.83 nERA , 5.07 FIP
2010: 0.7 WAR, 5.02 FIP, 4.75 xFIP, 5.20 tERA, 3.83 ERA
…and then there’s Tommy Hunter. Yes, his ERA is good this season, and yes, xFIP indicates he’s has some bad luck. But he’s basically the Rangers’ version of Nick Blackburn. I guess Hunter strikes out a few more hitters than Blackburn, but he also walks more and gives up more fly balls. Basically, he’s an acceptable back-of-the-rotation starter during the regular season who a team really shouldn’t want to count on during the postseason.
The good news for Rangers fans is that Texas may not have to start Hunter in the Divisional Series, as the team is considering pitching Lee on short rest. As far as I can tell, the Rangers are the only team in the American League with three starters each over 4.0 WAR so far this season. Assuming Lee is healthy (and I doubt the Rangers would consider pitching him on short rest if they didn’t think so), the combination of Lee, Lewis and Wilson may be the best “top three” in the AL playoffs.