Glovework in Texas

Yesterday, Rob Neyer blogged about the Rangers improved pitching. Thanks to improved run prevention, Texas finds themselves in first place in the AL West, playing better than almost anyone could have expected. However, the continuing conclusion that ERA = pitching throws Rob’s analysis off a bit, because the Rangers pitching has actually been worse this year than it was last year.

As a whole, the Rangers pitching staff is averaging 3.4 BB/9, 5.3 K/9, and 1.25 HR/9 for a 5.17 FIP this season. Compare that with 3.9 BB/9, 6.1 K/9, and 1.1 HR/9 for a 4.83 FIP last season. The walks are down a bit, but so are the strikeouts, and the home runs are up, which more than offsets the drop in walk rate. Texas’ pitching staff isn’t doing any better this year than they did last year. They still aren’t very good.

Why is their ERA lower then? Texas got on the defensive bandwagon over the off-season, and their decision to realign the team in order to improve the glovework has made them significantly better. It’s the defense, not the pitching.

It all started with the decision to go with 20-year-old Elvis Andrus at shortstop. The kid is something else, range wise, making a couple of plays the last few nights that were just ridiculous. It’s very easy to see why scouts were so high on his defensive abilities, and through the first five weeks of the season, UZR agrees – his UZR/150 through five weeks is +8.9. Expect that to go up significantly in next week’s update, which will reflect some of the plays he’s made recently.

Adding a really good glove at short allowed the team to move Michael Young to third base, and while the transition hasn’t gone as smoothly as they would have liked, he’s still a significant upgrade over the butchery they got at the position last year from Ramon Vazquez, Chris Davis, Hank Blalock, German Duran, and Travis Metcalf. The Rangers got a -26.7 UZR from their third baseman last year, and even adjusting to a new position, Young is going to give them much better glovework than that.

Having Young at the hot corner also shifted Davis across the infield, where he’s a much better fit defensively. He’s not as good as his early season +24 UZR/150, but he’s a better glove guy than Blalock, and he’ll give them average to above average defense from the first base spot.

By shifting the assets around to make room for Andrus, the Rangers have drastically improved their infield defense at three spots. Not surprisingly, their team-wide UZR has gone from -51.7 in 2008 to +9.5 in 2009. This is expressly manifest in the lower team ERA that Neyer noted yesterday – their 4.72 ERA is 45 points lower than their 5.17 FIP, giving them the fourth largest gap between how well they are preventing runs and how well their pitchers are actually performing.

This isn’t an accident. The Rangers made a conscious decision over the winter to upgrade their defense, and it’s paying dividends early on. They might not win the AL West, but they’re better than most people thought, and they’re headed in the right direction.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


26 Responses to “Glovework in Texas”

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  1. Choo says:

    That play that Elvis made last night was insane. He had no business even getting to that ball, and once he did, he had no business executing a perfect throw. I like his attitude, too. When he was pulled from the game in favor of pinch-hitter Nelson Cruz, Elvis was right there on the top step of the dugout, engaged in the game, urging Cruz to get a hit. A lot of young players would have been brooding in that situation. I’m sure Elvis was disappointed, but he didn’t show it.

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  2. Mike Ketchen says:

    Dave,

    Great stuff as usual, now, play the role of GM on a few things for them and their chances of winning the west.

    First do you call up Smoak and hit him 2nd? He gets on base and every report I read claims he is a wiziard with the glove. ( I think they could easily turn Blalock into something in a trade)

    Second, have you seen Andruws UZR in LF! I know only 7 games but does he not need to play at least 80% of the remaining games? That is a CF playing LF huge.

    Just curious if you would consider any of these things as I feel this would greatly increase there chances of claiming the divison.

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  3. t ball says:

    I might argue that Texas “got on the defensive bandwagon” before this past offseason — it just took a while for it to pay dividends. I don’t think they just decided this winter to move Young; that’s been in the offing for a while. And Davis was pretty obviously only a short term solution at 3B last year, just as Blalock was pretty obviously a short termer at 1B in 2008, his injuries being one reason they had such a grab bag at 3B in the first place.

    The outfield has steadily improved over the last couple of years, and good gloves like Boggs, Borbon, and Golson are in the high minors as well. The team has already announced that Hamilton will move to RF, presumably when Borbon is deemed ready.

    And of course, Daniels and his minions have been acquiring talented up the middle types for some time, and the organization’s depth at catcher, with several good glove types, is well known. In trades, Daniels will ask for a young toolsy type, like Beltre, or Paisano, to fill out the return.

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  4. The A Team says:

    I find it humorous that fangraphs and BP typically run at least nearly identically themed article per day. Interestingly BP’s article has a different value for FIP. Their 2009 value is 4.97. Do they use a different formula? Or did they just take a different time period?

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  5. Jesus says:

    Two other items of note..

    1.) The pitching in Texas is maybe less than a full season away from getting a pretty big boost from Neftali Feliz.

    2.) Casey Kotchman is playing first base in Atlanta.

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    • Jesus says:

      By the way, nice work Dave. I’m sure you could use the good graces after all of us haters pouncing on you over the past week or so.

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  6. Jason says:

    Why are you basing how well a pitcher pitches by their strikeout to walk ratios or K’s per 9 innings? I always thought it was how little runs a pitcher could keep a team from scoring.

    The Ranger’s pitching is definately better than last year. The starting pitchers are going deeper into games and (even though they don’t have huge strikeout numbers) the pitchers aren’t letting hitters square up on a vast majority of pitches, getting easy groundouts and popups…LET’S LOOK AT THE FACTS…

    Last year the Rangers had the worst ERA in the MLB with a 5.37 ERA. This year Ranger’s have a 4.61 ERA- ranked 18th in the MLB. And since April 14th, Rangers are ranked 11th in the MLB with a 4.21 ERA.

    So when you say “the Rangers pitching has actually been worse this year than it was last year”… that comment is completely and utterly incorrect.

    But yes… Ranger’s defense has improved.

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  7. Azzers says:

    Honestly, I love stats as much as the next guy. But stats are the WORST way to judge anyone on the Texas Rangers. Much like the Colorado Rockies, to even be comparable you need to remove points from the ERA and HR for the ballpark and remove home runs from the hitters.

    The comparability to last year is valid since no bias is really present in strikeouts or walks. Still, if you watch the games in Arlington you’d know that walks contribute have a tendency to cause the out of control inning, whereas strikeouts generally just get you an out. To put another way, walks contribute to more ERA than strikeouts tend to prevent.

    Texas pitchers will NEVER have the best ERA or the lowest HR’s in the league even if they are hands down the best staff. Why? The ball park would never let them have the lowest ERA or HR stats unless they were fielding a complete All-Star team at all times. It’s like lauding the A’s and the Mariner’s pitchers… are they good? Yes. Might their ballpark be effecting their stats? Absolutely.

    If the Rangers are doing it with ground balls and defense now, that IS good pitching. Only the most dominant and seasoned strike out pitchers can generally come to Arlington and not get shelled trying to pitch for strike outs. And the Rangers staff has to play half their games in that environment.

    Part of the reason many Rangers prospects seem to “flame out” is the fact that they are young dominant pitchers with great talent but because they lack experience they have a tendency to make mistakes at the big league level and lose all confidence.

    I’m not saying number crunching isn’t neat, but in statistics you always have to weigh the bias in the sample. I’m not suggesting that the Rangers are even the best staff or even in the top 5 in the majors. But to call them “not good” is a bit like telling a sprinter to run his 100m into 50 mph headwind and then saying he’s a poor runner when his time isn’t that great. Ballparks are a major source of statistical bias and this critique casually ignores it. More to the point, those statistics with the highest amount of bias are the ones you put the most weight on.

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    • Rob in CT says:

      Park adjustments. Oy.

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    • Teej says:

      If the Rangers are doing it with ground balls and defense now, that IS good pitching.

      Rangers pitchers’ GB%:

      2008: 43.2 %
      2009: 41.5 %

      Rangers pitchers’ FB%:
      2008: 36.2%
      2009: 39.1%

      Rangers pitchers’ HR/9:
      2008: 1.10
      2009: 1.21

      Along with striking out fewer and walking more, Texas pitchers are getting fewer ground balls and more flyballs. Predictably, they’re also giving up more homers than they did last year, when they played in the same ballpark.

      If the pitching staff has improved, it hasn’t been evident in the stats that actually measure what a pitcher is responsible for (not ERA). The pitchers have performed worse than they did last year, but they’re getting bailed out by a much-improved defense. This is also evident in the staff’s .277 BABIP against, which is the lowest in the AL.

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  8. MCR says:

    Except that many stats are park-adjusted. So, um, thanks for playing, I guess.

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  9. Trenchtown says:

    Yep, Andrus killed the M’s this series with the glove, almost as much as Morrow did with the up and out fastball

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  10. Ryan M says:

    Will the Rangers be hurt any by putting Hamilton back in CF?

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  11. JoeRanger says:

    Hmmmm…

    I assume this post is based upon the full season so far. But a quick look at stats for May show the Rangers are third in ERA – 3.33, and tied for fourth in total HR allowed with 10 so far. Whereas the Yanks have allowed 21 so far.

    The Rangers got off to a typical start, but since have changed course. One thing that is different this year is starting pitchers are lasting longer. Plus the emphasis is not only longer innings, but ground ball, not just strike outs. This makes sense with Elvis in the building.

    I’m not sure how they rate for FIP in may. They’re low in SO for sure. But as cited above, they’re also low for HRA. I’m curious how they stack up with GB% in tRA in comparison to other teams.

    Great site.

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    • twinsfan says:

      Did you happen to peek at their BABIP this month? It’s in the .240’s, lowest in the league by 20 points.

      Have they really changed course or is there a bit of luck involved?

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  12. Steve says:

    I’m not sure what an FIP is, but it’s an example of a useless stat. It doesn’t make much sense and certainly doesn’t effect anything directly. If a pitcher saws off almost every batter he faces and gets weak dribbler after week dribbler to an infielder for an easy out. Using the theory from this ridiculous article, that would decrease the pitcher’s strikeout rate, therefore making him a bad pitcher. If you watched the game instead of just crunching the numbers, you would notice that the Rangers pitchers are indeed much better this year. You should at least have half a brain and believe in the power of money. The #1 and #2 pitchers are in contract years, and use all the FIP’s you want to, buddy. There’s much more statistical proof of guys performing better when money’s on the line. But don’t write about things you know nothing about. You obviously never watch Ranger games, so don’t comment on them. You just sound dumb.

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    • twinsfan says:

      If a pitcher “saws off almost every batter” and gets weak dribblers that would mean they’re a.) not walking anybody and b.) not allowing any homeruns, outcomes which FIP likes very much.

      Or is this another attempt at satire?

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