It’s hard to imagine that anyone watching the Rangers drop a 4-0 decision to the Orioles last night wouldn’t lay the blame for the loss on two prime offenders:
(1) The Texas offense
(2) The Texas defense
The first was a team-wide affair. The Rangers lineup, enervated by injuries to Ian Kinsler and Nelson Cruz, looked completely demoralized. Vladimir Guerrero’s emergence from his horrendous summer slump was the biggest eye-opener amid Texas’ mainly sluggish at-bats. (Andrés Blanco’s would-be triple in the top of seventh was the only other real bright spot. Maybe a better call on the play by third-base umpire Manny Gonzalez would’ve roused the Texas bats to action. Maybe not.)
The second, though, fell -- literally -- at the feet of right-fielder Brandon Boggs. Boggs’ horrendous misplay of Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts’ two-out fly ball in the bottom of the seventh allowed two runs to score, and prevented starter Colby Lewis from escaping his second jam of the game with only one run allowed.
Boggs’ blunder opens the door for more thinking about the role of luck, in the week-long wake of our look at how box scores and broadcasts can lie to us about pitching performances. That August 12 piece put Cliff Lee’s recent performance against the Yankees under the microscope. As luck would have it, in Lee’s next start, despite dominating the Rays for 7 innings, he allowed four runs to score in the home half of the eighth, leading to a 6-4 loss.
Tuesday, over at FanGraphs, Jack Moore analyzed Lee’s results. As I dig into that analysis, I want to give Moore credit: in analyzing the seven-batter sequence in which the four eighth-inning runs were sandwiched, he explicitly notes,
Naturally, poor luck is involved ... The sequence is clearly a case where the mantra of “process over results” shines through, as any claim that Lee’s 10 strikeout, one walk start was anything short of masterful would be blind to the mitigating factors surrounding his pitching. He couldn’t control Upton’s bloop double, nor Arias’s misplay [of a fielder’s choice], nor, for the most part, the fact that grounders went to the holes instead of at fielders.
Now, based on the comments that followed the article, Moore didn’t get to watch the Rangers-Rays game that he wrote about. That’s not necessarily a big deal, but it does raise an important question: how did Moore judge what happened in that eighth inning? While categorizing B.J. Upton’s double to right as a “line drive,” Moore does allow it was more of a “bloop.” But he doesn’t mention that the only reason the “bloop” wasn’t recorded as an “out” was because Joaquin Arias (and, to a lesser degree, Brandon Boggs) completely misplayed it. Moore also doesn’t note that Jason Bartlett’s single to “shortstop,” which followed Upton’s double, would most probably have been converted to an out if Jorge Cantu had not been playing third.
Well, so? That’s bad luck, right? Why quibble?
The quibble is that although the botched play might’ve been “poor luck” for Lee, it actually reflected poor talent in the field for the Rangers. Arias and Boggs are pretty much known quantities: even in AAA the last couple seasons, they weren’t exactly stand-out talents. Both were known for their defensive prowess in yesteryears, but injuries have taken their toll, and there are now both statistical and sensory reservations about their relative strengths in the field. And Jorge Cantu’s present (and past) play at the hot corner makes Michael Young look like a Gold Glover by comparison.
Even if some of these concerns are knee-jerk responses to nerves emerging from sparse play and stats stemming from small sample sizes, there’s little doubt that Kinsler, Cruz, and even Young present superior alternatives in the defensive aspects of the game relative to the players who are manhandling their usual posts. (FanGraphs’ UZR and +/- and Baseball-Reference’s TotalZone will provide specifics on the numbers, for the statistically curious.)
And this is where things gets tricky, in terms of Tom Tango’s observation that “when you look at the won-lost records of baseball teams, 60% of that is the talent and other vagaries of the participants, and 40 percent of that is luck. Not everything is luck. But not everything is talent either.
It’s not that I don’t stand by the August 12 piece’s conclusions -- namely, that we should appreciate the randomness inherent in a game like the matchup with New York, in which normally talented players like Lee, Cruz, Francisco, Young, Feliz all failed to play up to their expected standards. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be surprised when a team featuring Arias, Boggs, Cantu, and Blanco in regular roles struggles. The team that took the field against the Orioles last night was simply not as talented as the one that racked up an 8-game lead in the AL West. Neither was the squad that player against the Rays.
That’s obvious. But why is it important?
Two reasons. First, the importance of balancing statistics with watching the game, and supporting arguments accordingly, forms a bridge of sorts to a soon-to-come piece on defense-independent pitching statistics (DIPS), batting average on balls in play (BABIP), and the performances of Rangers starters in 2010.
Second, and more immediately relevant: ascribing poor results to “poor luck” may result in the conclusion that, as Jack Moore asserts, “it’s only a matter of time before the results fall in line.” When bad luck is largely to blame, this is largely true. But the Rangers aren’t just dealing with bad luck right now (unless we shift the frame to consider the luck underlying injuries and their timing). Texas is dealing with players in key positions who simply aren’t all that good. And as good as Cliff Lee and Colby Lewis have been by contrast, the Rangers can’t expect them to overcome the sheer lack of goodness of the guys behind them. Even aces get into jams, and rely on a combination of weak contact and good defense to work out of them.
Cliff Lee, in fact, worked into a jam against the Rays even as he coaxed weak contact from Upton and Bartlett and Crawford. While luck might’ve been a part of the equation, it still looked (by numbers and by eye) an awful lot like Cliff Lee pitching the way Cliff Lee’s been pitching. The same held true for Colby Lewis last night.
It’s obvious that Lee and Lewis deserved better in their last couple outings. But it’s just as obvious that the weak-but-run-scoring hits in those two games were botched by fielders with histories of botching balls. And as long as the Rangers are forced to run this group out onto the field, we need to be very conservative about what we expect from Rangers starters. The Texas rotation has benefited richly from the largely solid defense playing behind it for much of this season -- and the “bad luck” that’s plagued Lee and now Lewis isn’t something that’s likely to normalize much until the regulars return.
Put more simply: Buckle up. The next couple weeks are probably going to be a bumpy ride.
(But keep that popcorn handy.)