Last Monday, I made (the rather lengthy) point that the second-running Angels, by virtue of their comparatively easy schedule and the Rangers' contender-stacked schedule, would stand a very good chance of "breathing right down the Rangers' necks come the second week of September," if not protecting a slim divisional lead themselves.
A few hours later, I heard the Hardline's Mike Rhyner reference those same scheduling inequities, and then offer this response to everyone who regarded this four-game set against Boston as a "fearsome time" for the Rangers: "Well, you know what? This [had] better be a fearsome time for the Red Sox, too." Sometimes, the simplest and most incisive counterpoints are the easiest to overlook. Zoom in too closely on the perils of the schedule, and the true quality of a Rangers team that may be the most well-rounded -- and, dare I say, dominant -- in franchise history could end up wedged in your blind spot.
And before embarking on this tale of last night's three show-stoppers, here's something else that could conceivably be overlooked: the Rangers appeared quite dominant against a .600-caliber ballclub last night, and accomplished that feat a little more than 24 hours after being ground into a fine powder by the White Sox and eliciting cries of how terrible they looked, how they had botched a golden opportunity by dropping two of three in Chicago, and -- emanating from a few of the more pessimistic types -- how they looked like they were playing with no spirit and/or didn't want to win.
It's easy to fall into the trap of attaching some grand significance or meaning or importance to each individual game (I'm sure I've been guilty of this many times myself, and will probably be guilty of it again), and somebody out there will likely remark later today that last night's tilt signified another turning point for the Rangers, or constituted a huge rebound or another swing in the momentum of the season, or something else along those lines ... but isn't it just as likely (if not likelier) that the violent swing in outcomes from one day to the next was merely a function of the natural ebb and flow of the season, and nothing more and nothing less than that? And with that said, onward!
● That was 6.2 frames of four-hit, two-walk, four-strikeout, and -- most significantly -- no-run baseball from C.J. Wilson last night, which leaves his rate statistics on the month of August (over a 26.1-inning stretch) looking something like this: 8.9 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 0.0 HR/9, .186 BAA ... and a 1.37 ERA. He's pitched with near-uniform quality against a wide spectrum of opponents this month, tossing 6.2 innings against Cleveland at home -- and taking the no-decision in an eventual loss -- before winning back-to-back starts at Oakland and Anaheim, and now we have last night's data point to throw into the mix.
Since people like to argue so often about what, exactly, an 'ace pitcher' is, here's something worth chewing on: from 2010-present, Wilson has posted 9.0 wins above replacement by FanGraphs' measure (ranking 10th in fWAR), and 7.7 wins above replacement by Baseball Reference's measure (ranking 16th in bWAR). As I noted in last week's extended cameo appearance over on ESPN.com, Wilson ranks fifth in fWAR among American League starters this season, and was tied for ninth in the majors before last night's effort (which will surely elevate him even higher in the rankings), thereby leaving him less than half a win behind Cliff Lee's 5.0 fWAR on the season.
When asked to define an 'ace' by Kevin Goldstein, one AL executive responded with this: "In our internal discussions we generally think there are from 10 to 14 of these pitchers at a given time. From a contextual point of view they tend to be 20-25 percent better than league average in some critical statistical categories. We look for 210-plus innings, a K/BB rate of 4:1 and an ERA of 3.00 in the American League. Finally, the ace must sustain this performance over time ... three years seems reasonable to me." By this definition Wilson will come up a bit shy on the strikeout-to-walk ratio and the ERA, but should be in line for at least 210 innings pitched this season, and will have been superb over at least two seasons while being ranking comfortably among the top 10-15 pitchers in the game in total wins above replacement ... so, is that an ace or not?
● There are various and sundry ways that we can attempt to put even more luster on Mike Napoli's .294/.386/.587, 20-homer showing this season (current before last night's game, mind you), but instead of throwing another bucket of "X player ranks Nth out of all players" comparison at you, how about we go in this direction: Mike Piazza, the greatest power-hitting catcher of all time, topped out at one home run every 12.7 at-bats in his best season, and maintained an average of one home run every 16.1 at-bats for his career. After last night's heroic 1-for-4 showing (with his three-run jack effectively killing the Red Sox), Napoli is blasting one home run every 13.0 at-bats this season ... and, for his career, now sits at one home run every 16.1 at-bats.
Now, of course, Napoli has played a little less than 45 percent of his games at catcher this season (though that mark is a little over 75 percent for his entire career), but it's still a remarkable little factoid -- and lest anyone accuse Napoli of gaining some kind of unfair advantage by virtue of his home ballpark, he has posted the exact same wOBA (.416) and wRC+ (163) both at home and on the road this season. Home runs per at-bat? Try 12.4 HR/AB at home against a still-robust 13.5 HR/AB on the road. I know Napoli puts himself in slightly better position for a huge arbitration-procured payday next season with each additional walk and base hit, and may be on the road to something in the vicinity of $9 million next season ... but how on earth can the Rangers let that walk?
● I've been quite emphatic in the past with my concerns about stuffing a player's single-season UZR into his wins above replacement total, and then calling it a day from there; in fact, one of the arguments that tends to arise with the most frequency between saber-inclined fans and the more traditional-leaning fans revolves around allegations that the former group treats WAR as though it were a definitive measure of a player's value. The reality of the matter is that WAR gets you pretty close to where you want to be (far closer than any other all-encompassing value metric, at least), but there are still imperfections, one of which revolves around the fact that, in terms of reliability, about three full seasons of defensive data are equivalent to a single full season of offensive data.
So, obviously, you demand more defensive data to attain a better view of a player's defensive capabilities (or true defensive talent, if you will), which presents another set of issues that run beyond the scope of this piece ... but after being inspired by this absurd game-ending dive-and-throw from Ian Kinsler at the keystone last night, I decided to play around a bit with Kinsler's three-year UZR and DRS (or Defensive Runs Saved) totals, and found that he ranks third in terms of three-year UZR (+23.7 runs above average) and first in terms of three-year DRS (+41 runs) out of 17 qualifying major league second basemen over that period. That, for the lack of a better descriptor, is brilliant.
Ian Kinsler won't be a defender of this caliber at second base forever, and he likely won't be a Ranger forever, either -- but while both conditions do still apply, appreciate what he brings to the table in this facet of the game. It's special, could even be qualified as elite, and has been one of the many essential forces that have converged to drive the Rangers' current pitching renaissance. Now, about that body language ...