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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.