The Rangers are sliding again. Perhaps you’ve noticed. The last time they won was September 8, and even that was just their second win in seven games. Since then they have zero wins in seven games, losing on Monday to the Rays, who are direct wild-card competition. To make matters worse, the Rangers haven’t even had a single lead in this seven-game cold streak. Or maybe that doesn’t make matters worse. Maybe it’d be worse to have blown leads. Maybe the sequences don’t matter, provided the end result is still a loss. Who cares how you get there? Losing is losing, and mid-September is the wrong time to be losing.
Used to be, the Rangers felt like postseason shoo-ins. Now they’re clinging to a half-game lead for a wild-card slot, their division hopes entirely dashed. There are four teams on the Rangers’ heels, the Indians tied in the win column. Our playoff odds report puts the Rangers’ chances of getting beyond the regular season at 47%. It is now, basically, a coin flip, where it used to be a flip of a very biased coin. Though hope is far from lost, the Rangers need to get to work, because now they can’t back into the playoffs — they’ve already done the backing up. The Rangers need to score and not let the other guys score.
For purposes of this post, I want to try something. It’s pretty easy to understand a seven-game losing streak, and it’s pretty easy to understand a narrow lead in the standings. But I want to look at the Rangers’ losing streak in another way. A way that might help capture how this week has felt. I want to look at the Rangers’ playoff odds as win expectancies, and convert the streak to a made-up partial inning. This is just for fun, but it’s almost always just for fun. We’ll begin when the Rangers won on September 8, to improve to 81-61. Though they’d already started losing, that’s still their most recent victory. If this isn’t clear yet, hopefully it becomes clear in short order. It’s a weird thing to describe and an easier thing to just show.
Win expectancies are approximations, and for simplicity’s sake, we’re dealing with general playoff odds, combining division chances and wild-card chances. Obviously, those are very different things, but, put a sock in it.
- Rangers win, 4-3
- Playoff odds/win expectancy around 92%
I told you we’re converting to a made-up partial inning. We’re joining in progress, and here, the Rangers are winning a home game 3-0 in the top of the ninth, with none out and a runner on second. Maybe it was a leadoff double. Maybe it was a leadoff single and stolen base. I don’t know, but this is how we’re starting. Ignore player identities and various other details. This game, at this point, isn’t an automatic win, but it’s a game you feel comfortable about, if you’re rooting for Texas. That runner on second doesn’t matter. It’s just a matter of getting outs, and batters are always making outs.
- Rangers lose, 1-0
- Playoff odds/win expectancy around 89%
Not much has changed in our made-up partial inning, as it’s still 3-0 in the ninth with none out and a runner on second. But now there’s a new batter at the plate, and the pitcher on the mound has fallen behind in the count. The batter hasn’t reached, and he could still make an out, but now the odds are turning in his favor, because the pitcher needs to think about throwing a strike.
- Rangers lose, 5-4
- Playoff odds/win expectancy around 86%
And now the batter’s been walked. The pitcher couldn’t come back from falling behind in the count, and the tying run is coming to the plate, with none out and runners on first and second. You still figure the other team won’t hit a home run, and the odds are still lopsided, but this is when one begins to feel real nervousness. Fans are always hasty in feeling their nervousness.
- Rangers lose, 7-5
- Playoff odds/win expectancy around 79%
Once again, not much has changed, but once again, the pitcher has fallen behind in the count to the third batter of the inning. Now there’s a real threat of a homer, and a greater threat of a hit. Simply, there’s a greater threat of the batter not making an out, and the pitcher hasn’t looked sharp.
- Rangers lose, 9-8
- Playoff odds/win expectancy around 72%
Danger zone. After falling behind, the pitcher came over the plate and the batter ripped a run-scoring single. Now there are runners on first and second, and none out, and the score is 3-1. The run you care about still isn’t in scoring position, but he’s drawing uncomfortably close.
- Rangers lose, 1-0
- Playoff odds/win expectancy around 62%
Pickoff throws are usually unsuccessful, but pickoff throws, at least, are also usually caught. This one wasn’t. Now the runners have moved up to second and third on the error, meaning the tying run has advanced to scoring position, and there still aren’t any batters out. At this point, emotionally, it’s hard to believe the win expectancy is still strong in the Rangers’ favor.
- Rangers lose, 5-1
- Playoff odds/win expectancy around 57%
A weird play, but still a bad play. The batter smashed a low liner to third, and the third baseman couldn’t catch it cleanly. The upside is that the runner on second didn’t advance. The downside is that the batter reached, and the runner on third scored. So the score’s now 3-2, and still there aren’t any out, and there are runners on first and second again. This feels like it’s spiraling out of control.
- Rangers lose, 6-2
- Playoff odds/win expectancy around 47%
The pitcher had been paying attention to the runners on first. The pitcher forgot about the runner on second, allowing him to get a big lead, and that runner just aggressively and successfully stole third base. The Rangers are still ahead 3-2, but now there are men on the corners with nobody out, and for the first time the odds swing against the Rangers and in favor of the opponent. It’s a rare situation in which the winning team is the mathematical underdog. There’s no more coasting to this win. There’s no more letting the opponent get itself out. Now the Rangers need to make big pitches, and odds are they’ll shortly need to take great at-bats.
That is, basically, where the Rangers stand. It feels like a ninth-inning meltdown, and though the Rangers are still clinging to a tiny lead, it feels like they’re behind. The others are making up ground in a hurry, and as much as one knows objectively not to believe in the significance of momentum, momentum shapes emotions and emotions shape perceptions. The Rangers effectively have a 50-50 chance of emerging triumphant, but it used to be a lot higher, and now even if they win, it will not have been comfortable.
I’ll say this for the Rangers — seven straight losses are seven straight losses, but four have been by a run and one has been by two. They’ve been games against Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Tampa Bay, playoff-caliber teams, all. Also, the Rangers’ recent history is of some interest. In June, they had a 2-9 slump, which was followed by a 9-2 run. After going 3-12 for a stretch in July, they subsequently went 19-4. Now they’ve lost 12 of 14 in September, and the situation feels dire, but they’ve bounced back before and it wasn’t even all that long ago. Momentum is a talking point. Actual decisions pay it little mind.
The Rangers are in an anxious situation. It’s all still perfectly salvageable, even if they’ve allowed Oakland to run away. This has been the rough equivalent of a ninth-inning meltdown in progress. With a little clutch performance, the game can still be saved. With a mistake here and there, it’ll slip out of the Rangers’ hands. Either way, people are going to be talking about this one. This is one that lodges itself in the memory.
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