How The Rangers Surged To The Top Of The AL West

If anyone saw the Texas Rangers coming then they need to give up their day job and becoming a full-time sports bettor. Because if you saw this unlikeliest of second half surges, you’re alone among baseball prognosticators. The Rangers have surged into first place in the AL West after a four-game sweep of the Houston Astros.

When Texas acquired Cole Hamels from Philadelphia at the July 31 trade deadline it was assumed they were acquiring talent for next season, since Hamels has a long-term contract (unlike the other prize of the trade deadline, Johnny Cueto, who will be a free agent in the offseason). Maybe that was the plan. Or maybe Ranger GM Jon Daniels was one of those who saw the surge coming, because over the last month and a half Texas has taken off.

They were 42-46 at the All-Star break and still 50-52 a couple weeks later at the end of July. Since that point is Texas is 29-15 and has gone from a “dark horse maybe if they get really hot they could squeak into a wild card game” to being in control of the AL West, with a 2 ½ game lead. How has this all happened?

The simplest way of putting it is that the Rangers are doing everything a little bit better—after being 13th in the American League in ERA at the All-Star break, they’ve been 9th in the second half. The offense was 10th in runs scored at the break. In the second half, the Rangers are fifth.

So there’s steady gains both pitching and scoring runs, but if you dig a level deeper, there’s one dramatic move and it’s in the area of on-base percentage. Texas was 8th in the AL in this category prior to the All-Star break, but since then have been the second-best American League team at putting runners aboard.

The individuals making it happen range from Adrian Beltre (.345 OBP in the season’s second half), Rougned Odor (.344) and Prince Fielder (.352). But no one has been more important than Shin-Soo Choo.

Choo is 33-years-old and has quietly spent his career as one of the more productive players in the game. His career numbers show him with a .381 on-base percentage and .452 slugging percentage. But the South Korean is a quiet personality and he’s never played a big role in a playoff series, so any kind of national recognition has escaped him. That might need to change this year.

Since the All-Star break, Choo is hotter than the Texas heat, with .454 OBP and .548 slugging percentage. That’s in addition to pitching improvements where Shawn Tolleson has stabilized the back end of the bullpen, with 19 saves and a 2.17 ERA since the All-Star break.

We also can’t overlook the obvious impact of Hamels. The Rangers have won six straight games that he’s started and while Hamels is “only” 3-1 in those games, he’s given up three runs or fewer in five of the six starts. The most recent, and the biggest, was in Monday’s series opener against Houston when a 5-3 win set the tone.

I watched the last three games of this series and Texas is just playing good all-around baseball in all phases. The double play combination of Odor at second base and Elvis Andrus did great work, including a beautiful turn in a big spot. Starting pitching is strong and Colby Lewis is another veteran who’s gotten on a second half roll.

While I’m not a partisan Rangers fan, I’ve liked this organization since their revival five years ago with Nolan Ryan at GM and Ron Washington managing. Neither are there anymore (Ryan took his team-building talent to Houston where it’s had an immediate impact and Jeff Bannister took over as manager. Even so, I’d like to see this fan base get the World Series title they were oh-so-close to having in 2011. And if nothing else, I’d rather watch the fans of Dallas celebrate in baseball than in the NFL.

But more than that, there’s something positive for the entire game of baseball that can come out of this. It’s become a trend lately for teams to give up at the trade deadline if things aren’t going their way, to just sell off any worthwhile talent for ten cents on the dollar. Texas did the opposite. They didn’t quit. Even if they didn’t see this coming, they still focused on getting better rather than holding a fire sale.

Now they’re in contention and they still have Hamels for next year. A whole lot of fans from teams who were in similar straits at the All-Star break ought to demand an explanation for why their front offices didn’t get in the Hamels sweepstakes.

I don’t know that Texas has the complete bullpen depth necessary to win the World Series, although with the best teams stacked in the National League, getting there again would be manageable and then it’s just about pulling one upset rather than a couple in succession. It’s a tall order. But it’s a fan base and a team that deserves the success they’re enjoying right now.