With 111 games down, 51 to go and a mere three-day weekend removed from the regular season's two-thirds mark, the Rangers now embark upon a stretch where 11 of their next 15 games are played against teams with .550-plus winning percentages -- and the other four are to be played in Baltimore, site of the suddenly red-hot Orioles. Yeah, if you considered that nine-game road trip to be boring, you're about to be in for a real treat:
● It's funny what can transpire in a week. After Rich Harden logged seven frames of one-run baseball the week before last in Anaheim, at least one team beat writer mentioned something to the effect of Harden's return from the disabled list potentially being commensurate to a late-July trade for a decent starting pitcher -- this in spite of the fact that it was a single improved start on top of a disaster-filled season, and not even a particularly great start at that, considering that he only notched three strikeouts and allowed a heavy ratio of hard-hit balls. I love optimism as much as the next guy, but we were going to require a larger sample of innings before we could remotely begin to buy into Harden being "fixed," as it were.
And surprise, surprise, he's not. He's still broken. Any modicum of confidence the organization might have gained from his Anaheim-located start has been shattered. If, for whatever reason, the Rangers aren't yet inclined to dump him, then one could argue that there's some degree of sense to flip-flopping him and Scott Feldman around -- at least until Derek Holland's ready -- and seeing if he can possibly translate into a passable long-relief man down the stretch (as previously suggested here). Feldman hasn't been all that great this year, but he has been better this year at controlling the things within his purview than Harden (as captured by fielding-independent ERA), and the one argument still working in Harden's favor, the "upside" argument, really has very little substance left to it. After all, how much value can you really attach to upside if you're still basically guaranteed to get sub-replacement level performance two-thirds of the time?
● Lest anyone recklessly proclaim that the Rangers' No. 5 rotation spot is of little concern anymore because of their high post-season odds, let's keep in mind that Texas definitely still has something very significant left to play for: home-field advantage. If the regular season ended today, the Rangers would lock down the No. 2 seed in the American League ... but only barely, as only one game separates them in the standings from prospective No. 3 seed Chicago. Protecting that lead would at least ensure home-field advantage for Texas through the ALDS and, in the event of an upset by the AL Central champions over the AL East champions, through the ALCS as well.
But aside from the opportunity for one extra home game, what is home-field advantage really worth in a quantitative sense? Repeated studies on the subject indicate that home-field advantage in any given game furnishes an approximate four percent boost to the home team's chances of winning that game; furthermore, the home team has proven better than the road team at pretty much everything during the course of baseball history, including hitters' walk/homer/BABIP rates. Obviously, the greatest advantage would manifest in Game 5 of the ALDS, but getting the chance to strike early and snag a quick 2-0 series lead behind the one-two punch of Cliff Lee/Colby Lewis ... well, that's awfully damn tantalizing, and incentive enough to refrain from coasting in September if the Rangers' division lead balloons to 10-plus games.
● Noted Scout.com's Jason Cole on Twitter yesterday: "Things seem to be evening out for Darren Oliver. His command has been not-so-good the last few weeks. Lots of balls left over the plate." I don't have much in the way of insight to corroborate that remark because, well, it certainly seems true, but in the process of scanning his 2010 game logs, I found something vaguely more interesting: both his workload and average leverage index (pLI) have noticeably fallen as the season has progressed, with his pre-May 27th pLI weighing in at a hefty 1.72 -- comparatively high for a non-closer -- and his post-May 27th pLI shrinking to 0.97, or basically average. Interesting dichotomy.
Now, granted, Alexi Ogando has picked up some of the high-leverage slack, but this seems to suggest that the Rangers do, at some level, recognize that they pushed Oliver a bit too hard during the season's early going, and have been lifting their foot off the gas pedal over the last several months in the hope of precluding an early burnout. And considering that he's the Rangers' only reliable left-handed reliever, well, there's a lot of sense in doing that ... unless the damage has already been done. I don't think that's the case here, per se, but behind Neftali Feliz, there's nobody more deserving of close observation in the Rangers' bullpen than Oliver.