This is not a lengthy treatise on the virtues -- or lack thereof -- of Kevin Millwood, the budget-constrained machinations of Jon Daniels or even the top-flight talent that is Rich Harden ... but it just might get you to stop and think for a minute, nevertheless.
It was in September 2006 that former Baseball Prospectus managing partner Nate Silver first articulated the concept of "secret sauce," an amalgam of characteristics of good baseball teams which most strongly correlate with post-season success and all, not surprisingly, relate to run prevention: a power pitching staff (as measured by strikeout rate), a quality closer and a strong team defense.
Naturally, these same characteristics are all prime contributing factors to good teams being good in the first place; strikeouts, for example, are a key component in the fielding-independent ERA metrics which share such strong correlations with overall run prevention. Strikeouts are heavily regarded as one of the single biggest indicators -- if not the biggest -- of future success for a pitcher. Miss bats, and you're going to get your shot in the majors. Collect enough pitchers who miss bats, and you just might have something special on your hands.
For all of the confidence-infusing storylines which trailed Kevin Millwood during his four-year tenure in Texas (chiefly, the weight loss-intended kickboxing regimen and the Nolan Ryan-instilled conditioning program), the fact of the matter is that he was paid like a No. 1 starter and instead delivered exactly league-average performance over the life of his deal (100 ERA+), consuming approximately 190 innings per season but watching his peripherals erode in the process ... and yes, that includes his strikeout rate, which withered away to a career-worst mark of 14.5 percent.
And yet in spite of his peripheral struggles, Millwood, by virtue of his sub-4.00 ERA, became the media-anointed poster child for the purported success of the "pitch-to-contact" movement that was so readily espoused by the organization and vertically integrated throughout the system -- all the while ignoring that such a philosophy (a) isn't nearly as effective during the post-season, where you're generally pitted against elite-level competition, and (b) is heavily reliant on the continued maintenance of a very good defense, as well as (c) that Millwood was the beneficiary of inordinately good fortune on several fronts, both defense-wise and timing-wise (strand rate).
Meanwhile, the Rangers' team pitching strikeout rate landed with a thud in the league's bottom-five pile for a third consecutive season. Millwood certainly wasn't -- and still isn't -- a valueless entity, but it also seems apparent that he was no longer a good fit for a team that desperately needed to find some way to pair its younger and more strikeout-inclined talent with a major strikeout-boosting weapon in the vein of Javier Vazquez, Ben Sheets ... or Rich Harden, whose nigh-unsurpassed ability to miss bats has springboarded him into baseball's elite pitching fraternity alongside Tim Lincecum, Zach Greinke, Jon Lester and Justin Verlander.
From the first moment that the Millwood-for-Ray "salary dump" entered the public's consciousness, it was patently clear that the trade was a gateway move towards something much bigger -- something designed to elevate the team's 2010 ceiling and give the Rangers the chance to legitimately compete that they probably wouldn't have had otherwise. The injury risk with Harden might be anything but immaterial (the safe over/under for innings pitched by Harden is probably around 140), but the greatest and most inexcusable risk of all would have entailed the Rangers throwing up their hands, exclaiming "Oh well!" and watching helplessly as financial inflexibility wrecked their 2010 campaign.
In a certain sense, this also seems to signal a much-needed shift towards the right on the contact-strikeouts continuum, and the Rangers' seeming persistence in pursuing left-handed relief options suggests that another rightwards shift could be coming if/when C.J. Wilson gets his long-awaited second crack at the starting rotation.
Harden-Feldman-Holland-Hunter-Wilson is a potent, albeit high-variance array of talent, featuring elements of velocity, craftiness and unpredictability and the always-welcome left-handedness, and divesting no additional pitchers leaves a very respectable McCarthy-Nippert-Feliz trio waiting in the wings for depth purposes, conceivably positioning the Rangers to further enhance their run prevention even if the defense regresses to some extent.
That's the sort of pitching staff that can inflict serious damage before, during and after Game 162.