In a sense, the pitching market is still at a standstill. Masahiro Tanaka has little reason to sign before his deadline, and other pitchers have little reason to sign before Tanaka does, so for about another week and a half, we could be dealing with a whole lot of nothing. And it’s not just free-agent pitchers. There could be renewed runs at David Price and Jeff Samardzija, but only after Tanaka goes. And free-agent position players might wait for financial clarity as well. The short-term result of all this is that we’re not seeing changes in the 2014 projected standings, because teams aren’t making moves. But something did happen to shake things up right before the weekend.
That something is that Derek Holland hurt himself on his own staircase. It sounds too absurd to take real seriously, but the fact of the matter is that Holland needed knee surgery and he’s projected to be out until midseason. To hear Holland talk, he’s determined to beat those projections back to the field, but medical timetables aren’t made up out of thin air. Holland is going to be out for a significant amount of time. Holland is good, and his replacement will be worse. The Rangers are in a fragile position, and this is a bigger deal than it might seem like.
Holland, last year, was an excellent pitcher who made every start. To the Rangers, he was worth something between four and five wins. Before he got hurt, it would’ve been wise to project him to be worth something between three and four wins. I know this bypasses the details and gets right to the heart of it, but all the details are unnecessary. There would’ve been no reason to think Holland was due to get way better or way worse. There would’ve been good reason to assume a bit of regression, in performance and playing time. I don’t need to explain these things to you — around these parts, this is the fundamental approach.
Now, figure Holland’s out for half the year. That’s something in the neighborhood of 90-100 innings, innings that could now go to guys like Nick Tepesch, Colby Lewis, and Michael Kirkman. That’s not a disaster, but it is a downgrade, because it basically has to be. Those arms aren’t thought to be replacement-level, but it’s easy to envision a loss of about a win or so. That’s on mathematical average, and in reality the season plays out just once, but decisions have to be made based on mathematical averages. Everything — everything — is about the odds.
The Rangers play in a competitive division, and both the Angels and the A’s project to be strong teams in the season to come. The Mariners project to be worse, but they should be at least okay, and they’re probably not done upgrading. Additionally, the American League has its various Wild Card contenders behind the Red Sox and Tigers. It’s going to be difficult to sneak into the postseason, but the Rangers clearly have a quality team.
The new Wild Card rules have existed for two seasons. On average, the Wild Card teams have won 90.5 games, so let’s just knock that down to 90. Let’s set 90 wins as the goal. The Rangers project to be good, and while there’s little sense in identifying a specific number, let’s say the Rangers project for something in the high 80s. Now let’s dock them a win, on account of the Holland injury. Let’s not worry about any issues Holland might have trying to return to full strength and effectiveness. Let’s look at a graph, charting approximate 90+ win odds against a team’s true-talent level.
You’ll recognize this as the win-curve line of thought. The probabilities are approximate, and they ignore the realities of a team’s specific competition, but any given truth will seldom stray far from this. And what’s most important here isn’t the curve itself. Rather, it’s the slope of the curve as the true-talent win total increases.
When you have a really good team, adding a win or losing a win doesn’t change very much about the outlook. If you subtract a win from a team with a true-talent 100-62 record, its odds of winning at least 90 games drop just 1.8 percentage points. When you have a bad team or even a mediocre team, the same idea applies in reverse. Things get volatile when you’re dealing with a team that looks better than .500, but isn’t amazing. A team like the 2014 Texas Rangers.
Between the mid-80s and the mid-90s, a win is worth about 5-6 percentage points. So if you figure the Holland injury costs the Rangers a win on average, that drops their chances of winning at least 90 games by about 5-6 percentage points. And if you’re a bigger Holland fan than that, it doesn’t take much more to get into the double digits. By now this should probably be a familiar argument, because we spend a lot of time talking about the win curve and playoff probabilities, but the Rangers have been hurt because Holland has been hurt. They’re facing lower odds of winning the AL West, and they’re facing lower odds of winning one of the AL Wild Cards. It’s obviously not crippling, but if the offseason is about shifting or fortifying the odds as much as possible, you can think of this as effectively taking a lot of the punch out of the Shin-Soo Choo acquisition. Choo moved the needle forward, by some percentage points. Holland falling on the stairs has moved that needle back, not all of the way, but a significant chunk of the way.
Another way to look at this: while Masahiro Tanaka could be anywhere from great to lousy to hurt, an ordinary projection calls him good, and shy of elite. In other words, an ordinary projection values Tanaka right around the same level where it values Derek Holland. If signing Tanaka would be a splash for the Rangers, this is sort of a half-splash in the opposite direction. Instead of signing Tanaka and leaving fewer innings for the depth guys, the Rangers now have to give more innings to the depth guys, and you never want to have to lean on those.
Which means there ought to be a greater sense of urgency for the Rangers to add, to at least try to offset this to some extent. Jon Daniels has said the Rangers are comfortable with their internal options, but there was also word over the weekend the team is making progress toward signing Jerome Williams. Williams, since returning, has been good for just a 115 FIP- as a starter, but he’s also posted a 101 xFIP-, so it’s not a leap to suggest he could be of some use. What he isn’t is Derek Holland, but he could at least help the Rangers avoid giving too many innings to a mess.
But Holland’s quality is probably irreplaceable, if the Rangers are indeed around their budget limits. Very simply, losing Holland for a few months is bad for the Rangers. Very critically, they’re in a volatile spot, so the injury hurts them particularly hard. The American League just got that much more wide open.
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