Remember that time when the one thing we all wanted, the one thing that would have been more than enough to whet our collective baseball appetite, was the AL West title? There was a time not all that long ago when the Rangers' fandom would have been largely satisfied with just the chance to sit at the October table with the other heavyweights of the league. Now, we could be as few as 60 hours away from the Rangers outright clinching the division title, and the general feeling seems to be that a first-round exit would constitute an unmitigated failure, and anything less than winning it all just isn't enough.
I'm not telling you all anything you don't already know or that I haven't talked about at one time or another in the past, but, hopefully, the day never arrives where we treat admission to the post-season table as a formality and take everything leading up to that for granted, because as I've also talked before, there will come a day when the Rangers -- and their fan base -- won't be as ridiculously fortunate as they are right now:
● When you don't get to write with the frequency that you used to, things accumulate on your mental notepad. Lots of things. Things that stick in the recesses of your brain and gnaw away at your synapses because you can't find the time necessary to properly deal with them. One of those things has been -- or, perhaps more accurately, had been -- the recent praise being hurled in Derek Holland's direction by Geovany Soto and by the media, who commended Holland because he was continuing to "mature" and because he was showing discernible improvement in his understanding of how to pitch and so on and so forth. And none of that is really too surprising in a vacuum, either -- your teammates, your coaches, the media, the fans, etc. are going to say good things about you when you perform at a high level over a given period of time. It's just how it is.
The thing that bothered me about those comments as they began to drift into public view, though, was that we've seen Holland do this before, and we've heard the eager "Holland's maturing!" proclamations before. We've seen him perform at a high (or even very high) level against opposing hitters over spans of four, five, six starts, but that didn't mean there was predictive value in it or that it necessarily augured well for his future performance. Last September, Holland rattled off four starts of sub-2.00 ERA baseball with 28 strikeouts against just nine walks and three home runs over 27.2 innings, but that fleeting window of dominance didn't signal a monster incoming post-season -- he threw up a Game 4 gem in the World Series, but also slogged through three other mediocre-to-awful post-season starts, and, well, this year has been rather disappointing.
And a little while before that, in August 2011, everyone collectively tripped over themselves in their rush to exclaim how great this new-look, more mature version of Holland was, with those superlatives naturally flowing forth immediately after he went 8.2 innings in a winning road effort against the Angels. Five days later, a hosting White Sox club drove him to the showers after just 3.1 innings, and thereafter he caught some late August/early September fire before his assortment of post-season struggles. To some extent, this feels like a case of history repeating itself -- five days ago, Holland was the toast of the town, the left-hander who was finally getting his act together after a relatively disappointing season, the maturing southpaw who was making a serious play for a higher post-season rotation slot. Today, he's reeling from another of his very Derek Holland-esque setbacks.
He's going to do this. He's going to look brilliant and dialed-in and, well, ace-like at times, if only because a pitcher blessed with his physical gifts and his performance ceiling from one start to the next can't help but to look brilliant at times. I do, however, think that we've just about reached the point where we should stop trying to extrapolate greater meaning from his performances when it very well may not be there to be extrapolated in the first place. Yeah, he can look good (or even great) for a while, but it doesn't mean he's "turning the corner" or "maturing" or some such. It doesn't mean the baseline is changing. It doesn't mean he's any less of a risk to disappoint the hell out of you in his next start, either, and it's probably about time that we accepted that and stop trying to build a cheery, hopeful narrative around his every success.
● The Rangers' offense managed to inflict some serious -- and ultimately lethal -- late-game damage upon the Athletics' bullpen, but it accomplished little over the first 6.2 innings of the game, as scoring opportunities came and went like this week's top 40 fad artist of the moment and went largely uncapitalized upon. It just so happens that a few things about those various and sundry offensive events also stuck in my head, and since this is just as much a head-clearing post as it is anything else, well, here you go:
(1) After the Adrian Beltre double -- and subsequent pickoff -- with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning, Nelson Cruz rapped a double of his own, and I saw some comments to the general effect of "that double would have scored Cruz! The game should be tied right now!" It's fine and good to experience a few pangs of frustration as a fan over such a sequence, but you can't lock yourself into a mindset where you believe the outcomes are predetermined, because that's not how baseball (or, for that matter, life) works. The Beltre pickoff shifted the space-time continuum; you cannot simply assume that Cruz sees the same pitch(es) and/or produces the same batted-ball outcome regardless of whether or not Beltre is still residing on second base.
(2) The Rangers, as a whole, were mired in an 0-for-24 slump with runners in scoring position before Mitch Moreland finally delivered a run-scoring single in the second inning. The Rangers, as a whole, also entered the night hitting .274/.355/.434 (102 wRC+) with runners in scoring position on the season, which ranks a solid but unspectacular No. 9 overall in baseball this year. Things like team-encompassing slumps with runners on base make for a terrible sort of baseball, and they're just endlessly frustrating, but you don't look at a slump like that and expect that sort of ineptitude to persist through the next 10 at-bats, or next five at-bats, or even the next at-bat. You expect regression towards the mean, and just because you don't get it over a given sample doesn't mean the team is broken ... it means random variation is a cruel, fickle beast.
(3) And playing directly off that last string of thoughts, you don't look at the Rangers' offense as the club prepares for its post-season run -- for however long it may last -- and expect it to flounder because something like the team's performance with RISP hasn't been going so hot of late. For all of the grousing that this offense has generated at various points in time over the last six months (and, in particular, over the weekend in Seattle), this really is a pretty good offense, an offense with enough talent and results to hold up its end of a championship run. On the flip side, though, slumps happen, variation can screw you over, and if the timing is bad enough, it can kill that World Series dream. And I still haven't decided how this fan base is going to react if this probable 95-96 win season comes and goes without a championship ... again.
● Roy Oswalt neatly bridged last night's game from Derek Holland to Robbie Ross (who did not have one of his better games, but was ultimately bailed out by Adrian Beltre, as was everyone else who didn't hold up their end of the bargain), who was followed by the capable troika of Uehara/Adams/Nathan. Since the year 2000, the Rangers have won about 25-26 percent of those games where their starting pitcher on a given night lasted three or fewer innings. Three-quarters of the time, they fail. Last night, though, they got the perfect storm of six innings of effective relief pitching and some of that dramatic late-game offense that just seems to happen at the Ballpark, and pulled out a game where their starting pitcher was outdueled, where they probably should have lost. It wasn't pretty, but it was kind of fun. I think.
● Adrian Beltre furthered the legend of his 2012 season last night by swatting a game-tying, two-out, two run blast in the seventh inning, and then hammering home the final nail in Oakland's coffin for the night with a game-winning single, all of which triggered some instantaneous buzz about the clutchness of his performance this year. I was a bit hesitant to buy into that argument without seeing the numbers for myself (particularly since Beltre, by win probability standards, has actually been the least clutch player in baseball over the last five seasons), but, sure enough, here are where Beltre's 2012 leverage splits stand:
Low Leverage: 303 PA, 17 HR, 0.29 BB/K, .310/.337/.572, 137 wRC+
Medium Leverage: 270 PA, 16 HR, 0.49 BB/K, .316/.359/.553, 137 wRC+
High Leverage: 44 PA, 2 HR, 1.29 BB/K, .361/.432/.528, 145 wRC+
He's been murdering everyone regardless of leverage state, but, on the whole, he's been a little better in situations with leverage overload this season than those without, and while there likely isn't any predictive value in that (sensing a theme in this post yet?), that's still a really cool little wrinkle in this monster season for the historically unclutch player who we're all hoping can keep doing what he's been doing for just a little while longer this year.
[Five points to everyone who correctly identified/recognized the origin of the post title.]