A Crack in the Facade?

You are probably sick of hearing about the Best Team in Baseball, the Texas Rangers. Everyone knows they are the best team. According to Baseball Prospectus, they have a 100% chance of making the post season. They have the best record and the best run differential in baseball by more than 20 runs. They are very good and very tough to beat. Why even play the remaining 120 games?

Yet beaten they have been. Beaten more than they have been the beator, if I could make up words AND mangle the rules of passive voice. The Rangers own a 26-17 record overall but are just 15-15 over their last 30 games. 9-11 over their last 20 and 4-6 across the last ten games they played. They are losing games! How can this be?!

It is inevitable that any team — even baseball’s best — loses games. But when a team loses (or wins), sometimes holes emerge. Patterns that speak to a greater weakness waiting to be exposed. The Rangers might just have such a weakness. Despite their prodigious power, the free swinging ways of the Rangers might come back to haunt them.

Much is already being made today about Josh Hamilton’s free swinging ways. Mark Simon posted the below to twitter while Fangraphs wrote a longer piece on Hamilton’s willingness to swing at pitches off the plate.

Josh Hamilton is playing a very different game than most. His swing is one of the sweetest in baseball, producing such effortless and abundant power that he is able to dismiss our normative views of what constitutes a “good” or “bad” pitch.

Big league pitchers are putting this approach to the test by throwing the Rangers slugger fewer and fewer pitches in the zone. Over the last two weeks, less than 30% of pitches thrown to Hamilton classify as inside the zone as measured by Fangraphs. Just 35.5% for the season, the lowest such rate in baseball. And still he rakes.

There is a feeling among some baseball watchers (myself included) that the ability to draw walks is integral to success at the big league level. Obviously walks are important but…they are not the be all and end all. Without the ability to, you know, hit; there isn’t much call for patient hitters.

The Rangers rank 24th in baseball in walk rate. They also rate first in weighted on base average. Because they can hit and hit for power. They are the sixth most free swinging team in baseball this year, ranking near the bottom in contract rate (meaning less contact) and near the top in outside the zone swings (meaning more swings at pitches outside the zone.) This propensity to swing first and ask questions later could open a window to success against the Rangers: letting them get themselves out.

Easier said that done, of course. If baseball was so simple as “don’t throw strikes to good hitters” than nobody would ever score. Mistakes happen. A team like the Rangers is so talented offensively (and play in such an offensively charged ballpark) that little mistakes turn into big mistakes. Pitches don’t have to be awful to end up in the seats when guys like Nelson Cruz, Mitch Moreland, and of course Josh Hamilton are swinging away.

It isn’t much to go on but it is something. At the risk of engaging in silly cliche, a good pitching team can best this lineup, as Felix Hernandez did just last night. Not many pitchers are Felix Hernandez. Even if they are, there is just as much chance that this approach simply won’t work.

As previously mentioned, Josh Hamilton sees fewer strikes than just about anybody in baseball. In the aforementioned two week period (over which 70% of pitches thrown to Hamilton were balls), he hit eight home runs. Eight. Maybe throwing junk outside the zone isn’t the best plan of attack?

This Rangers team is one of the best pitching clubs in baseball, thanks to one of the best defenses in baseball. They have power for days and a deep bullpen. Yet they still lose 40% of their games. They are not perfect nor are they bulletproof. If a soft underbelly exists, the Rangers free swinging ways might just be it. For the next 120 games, consider that a very big ‘if’.