At the start of this afternoon's action, the Rangers' chances of winning the AL West stand at 78.9 percent (per Baseball Prospectus) and 68.0 percent (per CoolStandings.com), and for scheduling/talent/standings reasons, the greatest likelihood is still that the Rangers claim the division title ... but there's a glass-half-empty way of looking at those odds, and it's that the Rangers are now projected to be cast into a one-game playoff 20-30 percent of the time. Weird stuff happens in small samples, and, yeah I still think the Rangers are going to win the AL West, but I won't begrudge some justified nervousness on your part about where things stand as of right now:
● Forty-something days ago, Scott Feldman was coming off a sub-2.00 ERA month of July, a Rangers Player of the Month award, a torrent of media praise about how he was pitching like an ace and had emerged as a "steadying force" and -- in Ron Washington's view -- the team's "security blanket." Today, Feldman is coming off one of his shortest major league starts (2.2 innings), has posted a 6.99 ERA over his last seven starts, and the fan base (and media) at large are ready to move onto Martin Perez, with Ron Washington carefully deferring the question of whether Perez will replace Feldman this coming week by stating that he hadn't discussed/decided what the Rangers would do as of yet.
Part of the problem that the Rangers face is that they can't manipulate their off day tomorrow as a means of shielding their No. 5 starter from Oakland -- they could use the off day to buy everyone in the rotation at least five days of rest, or they could use the off day to keep Matt Harrison on his regular four days of rest and start him again on Friday, but either way, the No. 5 starter is going to pitch in two of the Rangers' upcoming seven games against the A's, and that's why you have to look very carefully at all of the variables and make an objective decision on who's going to give you the best chance to win between Perez/Feldman, rather than automatically siding with experience and against the rookie. My own inclination is to roll with Perez, but I'll be very curious to see which way Texas ends up going with this.
● For what this is worth, Feldman is still flailing around in a really odd sabermetric quagmire -- over that seven-start period where he's posted a 6.99 ERA, he's also delivered/allowed 7.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, and 1.0 HR/9, thereby sustaining his season-long trend of allowing far more runs than what the defense-independent variables suggest should be the case. Of the 132 major league pitchers who have amassed at least 100 innings this season, the 1.47 R/9 disparity between Feldman's FIP (3.85) and ERA (5.32) ranks as the second-highest mark -- and, unfortunately, that has a lot to do with Feldman coaxing cruddy results with runners on base (220 PA, .286/.332/.480) and even cruddier results with runners in scoring position (131 PA, .293/.336/.529).
This may very well go down as Feldman's best major league season from a peripheral standpoint, but he's trapped in baserunner strand rate hell right now, and, more and more, you wonder if the Rangers will have any sort of interest in bringing back Feldman in 2013 at his option price or a discounted rate on the basis of those good defense-independent numbers, or if they're going to be happy to see him walk at the end of this season.
● Mike Napoli went 2-for-3 with a monster home run and two walks (one intentional, one unintentional) in his grand return to the lineup last night, and despite still being physically nicked and dinged up, he'll reportedly split playing time evenly with Geovany Soto down the stretch, with Soto now being designated as Yu Darvish's personal catcher in light of the recent success that Darvish has enjoyed with Soto as his batterymate. There are two things that spring to mind here, the first being that Napoli began tearing the cover off the ball after he ended up missing two-thirds of June 2011 with an oblique strain ... I strongly doubt there was a 1:1 correlation between him getting that extended break and engaging beast mode after he returned, but you'd at least like to think that this latest one-month layoff recharged Napoli's battery a bit after a pretty rough season.
The other thing that comes to mind here is that I believe this is the first instance of Ron Washington outright appointing a personal catcher to a starting pitcher since the C.J. Wilson/Matt Treanor pairing in 2010. I have no idea whether we should expect the Darvish/Soto status quo to continue to yield such positive results, and I'm certainly hesitant to tie a meaningful correlation between Soto beginning to catch Darvish and Darvish going into hyperdrive, but I have uncovered a couple of data points which strike me as interesting:
Darvish, 4/9-8/6: 440 takes on pitches in strike zone, 75.9% called strikes
Darvish, 8/12-present: 118 takes on pitches in strike zone, 85.9% called strikes
Darvish, 4/9-8/6: 194 takes on pitches in lower third of strike zone, 60.8% CS
Darvish, 8/12-present: 43 takes on pitches in lower third of strike zone, 74.4% CS
I wouldn't try and glean anything definitive from these numbers, and these differing results aren't necessarily a product of superior pitch-framing by Soto compared to Napoli/Torrealba ... but, for whatever it's worth, Darvish is getting a materially higher called-strike rate on pitches that do fall within the boundaries of the strike zone than he ever got with Napoli/Torrealba, and maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't dismiss that out of hand.