I've done my fair share of lamenting recently about how this season, on the whole, just doesn't feel like it has been as fun as last year's regular season ... but it's awfully damn fun right now, as Texas has emerged from that nasty BOS/DET/NYY stretch and claimed seven of its last nine games (including five of its last six) while surging to a new high-water mark and the best record in the American League. And I guess the thing that kind of makes it all stand out and visually pop a bit more than it might otherwise is that they're doing it with style.
Matt Harrison gave the Rangers a bona fide gem last night (8.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 5 K), a start during which Harrison flirted with baseball history for 6.2 innings before finally being dinged for a hit (which immediately followed his fateful decision to shake batterymate Luis Hernandez off twice), and I don't want to overlook or downplay the enormity of his effort, because it was a hell of a lot of fun to watch him ply his craft out there on the bump last night. Said Harrison afterwards:
"I felt really good. I didn't have as much on my fastball tonight as last game, but I was definitely keeping the ball down and moving the ball in and out and hitting my spots, and throwing my off-speed for strikes. I figured I'd work with that and keep them off-balance and before I knew it we were in the seventh inning and I hadn't given up a hit yet. A lot of that credit goes to Luis behind the plate. His game-calling was unbelievable and my defense behind me and that play Murphy made in the seventh right before I gave up the hit, I thought it was meant to be. But that's what I get for thinking, I guess."
I think every guy in that Texas dugout recognizes and appreciates just how huge Harrison was on the night, but perhaps the biggest corollary to his start was the future-oriented impact -- that is, we're in late August, steamrolling towards October, and Harrison is spinning some of his best baseball of the season right now. We're getting closer to that point in the timeline where, ideally, your best players are humming along at maximum efficiency going into the post-season, and while we're still a little more than a month away from the start of the playoff circus, I'm thrilled by what Harrison is doing right now, and the hope that it engenders as far as how he might be performing down the line.
The other big story on the night, though, was once again Adrian Beltre, who became just the second player in baseball history to muster both a three-homer effort and a cycle within the same week (joining Joe DiMaggio in that most exclusive and arbitrary of clubs), and who is now 12-for-18 with three doubles, a triple, and a homer over his last four games, all of which has elevated his triple-slash line from .302/.340/.478 back to .316/.352/.528 ... in a span of four games. Beltre (4.5 fWAR) has now overtaken both Elvis Andrus (4.1 fWAR) and Josh Hamilton (4.0 fWAR) for the team lead in wins above replacement, and, by virtue of his performance this year, has now rallied to the fringes of the AL MVP race, where he should manage to pick up his fair share of top-10 and perhaps even top-five votes.
One of the big concerns that was bandied about at the time of the Beltre signing was a concern that is frequently tied to large-money contracts -- that is, the concern about the back end of the deal, when Beltre would be playing out his mid-to-late-30s seasons, facing a potentially steep decline (though certainly not as steep as what we've seen with Michael Young this year), and providing diminishing and/or negative value in relation to his steadily escalating salaries. The concern there, I think, is that with all of that fully in mind, you either wanted to see Beltre hold up better than expected over the entire life of the deal, or provide some huge surplus value at the front end of the contract to counteract the loss of value at the back end of the contract.
And, yeah, we're only on year two of the deal, and things could still turn sour as he moves further along the aging curve ... but, to this point, Beltre has churned out 10-plus wins above replacement over the first couple of years of this deal, and is well-positioned to collect his third consecutive five-plus-win season in 2012. And given the magnitude of his early-contract performance, Beltre is now in a position where he needs to average only 2.75 wins above replacement per year over the final four years of his deal -- assuming the sixth-year vesting option kicks in -- for Texas to "break even" on this deal. If he performs at a level above and beyond that mark, it's all icing on the cake.
The more recent annals of baseball history are littered with contracts where the signing team in question ended up ten, twenty, third, fifty million dollars in the hole in terms of value generated by the player in relation to his salary. The Beltre contract is looking more and more like one that will finish in the black than in the red, though, and that's something that we, as value-conscious fans, should be really excited about. We've all seen enough bad contracts where the Rangers captured only a fraction of the value they expected to receive to last us several lifetimes. It's about time that the tables were turned.