I admittedly find it a tad frightening that a professional baseball team is capable of wielding such influence over my day-to-day outlook and kindling introspective moments wherein I contemplate whether this endeavor is really worth it at the end of the day, and whether life might be just a bit less taxing if I became just a bit more emotionally detached from the Texas Rangers.
Easter Sunday shouldn't have been one of those days. But it was.
Gorgeous two-run jacks courtesy of center fielder Josh Hamilton and second baseman Ian Kinsler supplied all of the run support that veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood required en route to what should have been -- but tragically wasn't -- a second consecutive victory; fortunately, the unpleasantness that would transpire in the bottom of the eighth inning couldn't invalidate a performance that ranked among the best the Rangers have ever managed to extract from their renascent 34-year-old workhorse:
[Millwood's final pitching line on Sunday afternoon: 7 IP (112 pitches), 4 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 6 K.]
A little context is required to make complete sense out of the above Pitch f/x-derived graph. First, understand that "movement" is defined as how many inches a given pitch moved based on spin alone; neither trajectory nor arm angle impact this measurement (though environmental factors such as weather and altitude can, and do), and gravity is completely removed from the calculation. Second, realize that a positive integer on the vertical movement side doesn't equate to a pitch literally rising; in the case of one of the 56 four-seam heaters that Millwood hurled on Sunday afternoon, the pitch arrived at home plate approximately 10 inches higher than a "theoretical pitch without spin" would have. Third, this view is from the perspective of the catcher; plus-five inches on the horizontal axis equates to a pitch moving away from a right-handed batter.
The neural network Pitch f/x utilizes in order to identify various pitch types is not foolproof by any stretch of the imagination, but Millwood was very clearly reliant on his three fastball variants, the slider and the curveball -- the final of which was in peak form on Sunday afternoon, displaying its standard two-plane movement but appearing even sharper than usual and generating three swinging strikeouts during the fourth and fifth innings. He routinely worked ahead in the count after the bottom of the second inning, showcasing top-notch command that enabled his relentless assault on a bewildered Tigers lineup and wasn't fully illustrated by his 62.5 percent strike rate.
One anonymous major league executive challenged Millwood -- through ESPN.com's Jayson Stark -- to replicate his stunning Opening Day performance "five days out, 10 days out [and] 15 days out" and reveal whether the Rangers' indisputable No. 1 starter can sustain this clip of excellence. I don't have the answer to that question (and reluctantly acknowledge that Millwood looked quite good through his first two starts of the 2008 season as well), but I can surmise that if what he's doing right now isn't an April mirage, Texas is going to exhibit extreme reluctance to part ways at mid-season with the first starting pitcher to legitimately assert himself as an ace in Arlington since ... well, since Kenny Rogers.
THE BAD, THE WORSE AND THE AWFUL
One of my favorite little tools to play around with in the event of a dramatic come-from-behind win -- and, much more reluctantly, a dramatic late-game collapse -- is Win Probability, a statistic which first garnered the bulk of its attention through the phenomenon that is FanGraphs and has since been embraced by slightly more mainstream entities in the vein of Baseball Reference.
Not surprisingly, Win Probability -- which measures the average team's probability of winning a game at a particular point, taking into account score, inning, number of outs, base situation and pitch -- was not remotely kind to Texas on Sunday afternoon:
Of the many things that have absolutely irked me beyond belief with respect to Texas Rangers baseball over the years, perhaps nothing has infuriated me more than the irresponsible squandering of brilliant starting pitching by horrendous relief work. The velocity was clearly there for southpaw C.J. Wilson from the outset of his disastrous eighth-inning appearance, and it can probably be argued that he deserved a somewhat better fate than what he received (shortstop Elvis Andrus committed a crucial fielding gaffe that should have ensured at least one out), but the fact that he yielded only two legitimately hard-hit balls during the frame does not absolve him from what appeared to be questionable pitch selection and spotty command, and those key deficiencies singlehandedly spoiled what should have been a series-salvaging win.
Fireballing right-hander Warner Madrigal never should have been thrust into such a difficult situation (runners on second and third base with just one out in a knotted 4-4 game, summoned after Wilson had effectively already blown the game), and the fact that manager Ron Washington was forced to lean on a pitcher with less than 150 professional innings to his credit in such a high-leverage situation speaks volumes about the intolerable composition of this bullpen. This relief corps may well comprise talent, but the gap between talent and effectiveness is about as large as the mile of open terrain General Pickett infamously ordered his Confederate troops to cross at the climax of the Battle of Gettsyburg (with disastrous consequences), and right now this bullpen is as ineffective and undependable as any in baseball.
A quibble can perhaps be raised with Washington's decision to withhold closer Frank Francisco from that eighth inning even after it had become abundantly clear that managerial inaction would probably mean there wouldn't be a game to save. This line of thought stems from the Bill James philosophy that teams should employ their best relievers at critical junctures in the seventh and/or eighth innings rather than reserving their services for ninth-inning leads that might never materialize, and while it's certainly possible that Francisco was incapable of tossing multiple innings, one wonders if the outcome of the game might have been altered by utilizing Francisco before Wilson's meltdown could reach completion and dealing with the ninth-inning dilemma later -- not that a ninth-inning loss is any more palatable than an eighth-inning loss, mind you.
Washington emphasized after the nightmarish conclusion that Wilson would not be displaced from a setup role while affirming his trust in both Wilson and Madrigal, but "trust" is admittedly not a word I have used in association with C.J. Wilson for a long, long time, and the palpable unease he imparts to the fan base -- and, presumably, to some front-office executives -- each time he completes his trot from the bullpen to the pitcher's mound will ultimately hasten his departure from Texas if his performance doesn't soon reach the threshold of acceptability.
This team is running out of excuses.
Quick Hits: The Rangers have now dropped eight consecutive games in Detroit, matching their eight-game streak of futility in Boston's Fenway Park; Texas returns to Comerica Park for a three-game series beginning May 19th ... First baseman Chris Davis (1-for-22 this season) is presently combating major timing issues relating to late swings on fastballs, a weak spot which American League pitchers are attacking ... The Rangers' Opening Day 2009 payroll of $68,178,798 deviated minus-0.09 percent from the Opening Day 2008 payroll of $68,239,551.