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Rangers or Cardinals: Which Team is Better?

As the Rangers lit up Jered Weaver and the Angels last night to extend their lead over their supposed rivals to eight games, Buster Olney asked a legitimate question on Twitter – when was the last time we saw a team that was as good as the Rangers are across the board? Below are the respective ranks in the WAR components (these are all runs above average) for the Rangers in the American League over the first six weeks of the season:

Batting: +46.3 (1st)
Fielding: +16.3 (1st)
Baserunning: -0.2 (7th)
Starting Pitching: +33.5 (3rd)
Bullpen: +15.2 (2nd)

Baseball has had its fair share of dominant teams before, but to be a top three team nearly across the board is pretty remarkable, even in a sample of just a month and a half. Josh Hamilton‘s getting the attention (and deservedly so), but his teammates are pretty good themselves, and there’s a reason why the Rangers are the two time defending AL Champs, and right now, a pretty clear favorite to win the league title once again.

However, there’s an argument to be made that not only are the Rangers not the best team we’ve seen in a while, they might not even be the team playing the best baseball in 2012. Somehow, the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals are flying under the radar despite dominating their league in a very similar fashion.

Here’s that same chart as above, just for St. Louis compared to the rest of the NL this time.

Batting: +54.0 (1st)
Fielding: +6.9 (4th)
Baserunning: +3.0 (3rd)
Starting Pitching: +34.3 (4th)
Bullpen: +4.5 (9th)

The ordinal rankings aren’t quite as impressive, with St. Louis’ bullpen coming in as the least impressive unit of any between the two teams to date. However, ordinal ranking often hides the magnitude of the differences in many cases, as a bunching of teams together can make a minimal difference look bigger than it actually is. So, let’s just put the Cardinals and Rangers side by side:

Batting: +54 to +46, advantage STL
Fielding: +16 to +7, advantage TEX
Baserunning: +3 to 0, advantage STL
Starting Pitching: +34 to +34, tie
Bullpen: +15 to +5, advantage TEX

While Rangers overall batting line is slightly better, they have the advantage of using a designated hitter and playing in one of the best hitter’s parks in all of baseball, so it’s actually the Cardinals offense that has been the game’s best to this point. They have seven position players with at least 95 plate appearances, and the lowest wRC+ any of them has posted is Matt Holliday‘s 118. While much is made of the Rangers depth, the Cardinals line-up is so good that Allan Craig and his career 143 wRC+ is the super-sub, as there just isn’t an open spot on the field to play him every day.

St. Louis’ run total has been driven down by a .208 BABIP with runners in scoring position – the lowest mark in baseball by a pretty good distance – so their offensive prowess hasn’t translated perfectly to runs and wins, but the Cardinals have outhit every other team in baseball this year, even the Rangers. Certainly, they can’t expect guys like Rafael Furcal (.429 wOBA) or Jon Jay (.376 wOBA) to keep this up, but they’ve also spent almost the entire year without Lance Berkman, who just came off the Disabled List yesterday, and his presence should help offset some of the coming regression from guys playing over their heads. And, as noted, Craig and Matt Carpenter give the team two fantastic reserves who allow the team to sustain success even through injuries.

But, we suspected that the Carindals were going to have a good offense heading into the year. What we didn’t suspect is how well their pitching would perform minus #1 starter Chris Carpenter and with pitching coach Dave Duncan on an extended leave of absence. Even with Adam Wainwright‘s results not lining up with his underlying performance (6.16 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 2.96 xFIP), the rotation has been rock solid thanks to the surprising performances of Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook, and Kyle Lohse. Between the three of them, they’ve given up just 31 runs in 129 innings, and while there’s no chance that they can continue to pitch this well, I’m sure most teams in baseball would be thrilled with three back-end starters who combined for a 3.42 xFIP. To put it another way, the 93 xFIP- put up by Lynn/Westbrook/Lohse is better than the mark posted by the entire Rangers rotation.

With Wainwright and Jaime Garcia also taking the hill regularly, and Carpenter potentially due back this summer, the Cardinals rotation is certainly in the discussion for the title of best in baseball. This is not intended as any kind of slight to Texas’ rotation, which is also quite good, but it’s hard to make a claim that the Rangers starting five is significantly better than what St. Louis can run out there, especially if Carpenter gets healthy over the next month or two.

Finally, we come to the bullpen, which is where the Rangers largest advantage lies, at least if you go strictly by 2012 performance. Texas’ bullpen has been absurd, posting a 71 xFIP- as a group. Yes, you read that right, the Rangers bullpen as a whole has essentially performed at a level just slightly better than Roy Halladay‘s career averages. 4.2% BB%, 23.9% K%, 46.0% GB% – these are the totals of the entire bullpen, not just one ridiculous relief ace.

So, yeah, St. Louis can’t keep up here. No team can. But, let’s not sell the Cardinals bullpen short either. Jason Motte is establishing himself as an elite closer, and the combination of Mitchell Boggs, Fernando Salas, and Mark Rzepczynski give the team three quality setup arms to bridge the gap in the seventh and eighth innings. Toss in a surprisingly strong start from 31-year-old Victor Marte, and the Cardinals bullpen can go five deep with effective relief options.

Does the Rangers advantage in the bullpen offset the slight advantage that you’d probably have to give the Cardinals position players*? Maybe, depending on just how far you expect guys like Jay, Craig, Carpenter, Freese, and Furcal to regress. But, we should keep in mind that St. Louis has played at a very similar level to the Rangers thus far without Berkman and Carpenter. Would Texas have looked this good had we taken away two of their best players for most of the season?

The Rangers are a fantastic team, there’s no doubt about that. None of this is meant to take away from how excellent they are. However, when it comes to talk about the best team in baseball, we shouldn’t forget the defending World Champs, who look even better this year than they did in 2011.