The Texas Rangers have started the 2012 season on fire, winning 8 of their first 10 games. This is good enough for the best record in the American League, and the 2nd-best record in all of MLB, trailing only the 9-1 mark set by the Los Angeles Dodgers. Conversely, the remainder of the AL West has started sluggishly, giving the Rangers a 2.5 game lead over the Seattle Mariners, and a 4.5 game lead over the hurting Los Angeles Angels.
Despite mounting up so many quality wins in the first 10 games of the 2012 season, it’s not yet time to punch the Rangers ticket for a return trip to the playoffs, much less a third straight World Series appearance. There are still cautionary flags to be thrown, lest the early season excitement lead to increased expectations, and then future disappointment. This is not intended to merely be a wet blanket article, but instead a reality check that the MLB season is the longest of them all, and no division titles or championships are won in April.
Caution flag #1: The opponents
The Rangers strongest component at this point in the season has been pitching. The team is allowing an AL best 2.4 runs per game. The starters have gone 6-0, and are throwing 6.1 innings per start. As exceptional as the pitching staff has been, it should be noted that these results came against the Chicago White Sox, Seattle Mariners, and Minnesota Twins. These three teams ranked 11th, 14th, and 13th in the AL in runs scored in 2011, and none of them made any significant offensive upgrades in the offseason. While the Rangers only allowed 2.4 runs per game, in 2011 these offenses only averaged 3.76 runs per game (the league average was 4.46 runs per game).
Caution flag #2: The workloads
As I mentioned above, the Rangers starters have done an excellent job of working deep into games. This has made the job of the bullpen easier, and the ‘pen has responded with a 2.38 ERA. Anchoring the bullpen has been Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando, who have dominated hitters and posted 1.29 and 1.42 ERAs, respectively. The issue is that the bullpen has pitched a total of 26.2 innings, and Adams and Ogando have pitched an even half of those innings. If Joe Nathan is included as the third member of the back end of the bullpen, the trio has combined to pitch 19.1 of the bullpen innings, or 73%. This type of workload may be sustainable for Ogando (who was stretched out as a starter in 2011), but certainly not for Adams or Nathan. Adams is on pace to pitch 113 innings. His career high in one season is 73 IP. Likewise, Nathan, only two years removed from Tommy John surgery, is on pace to pitch 97 innings, while his career high as a reliever is 72 IP.
Caution flag #3: The peripherals
The Rangers are continually finding ways to win, which is perhaps a trademark of a great team. Yet, they are not doing some of the things that help build consistent winners. Timeliness and clutch performance can come and go based on hot streaks and cold streaks. The fundamentals, the little things, however, will remain in place during those down times. Examples abound of some of the areas where the Rangers are lacking. The Rangers have only drawn 18 walks in their first 10 games, tied for last in the AL. Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, and David Murphy are still in search of their first base on balls (though Murphy does have 2 HBP). On the flip side, while the early starts for Yu Darvish, Neftali Feliz, and Matt Harrison have been electrifying, there is still much room for improvement for sustained success. Darvish is walking 6.4 batters per 9 innings, Feliz is only striking out 5.3 per 9, and Harrison has an even worse K rate of 4.5 per 9 innings.
The Rangers are without a doubt one of the best teams in the American League, and it would not be difficult to make the argument they are the best team in the American League. This web space is merely being used to suggest that it is premature to suggest a .800 winning percentage is sustainable. The other lesson here is that just like it is ill-advised to begin planning the World Series parade route in Dallas this fall, so will it be short-sighted to predict doom for this team when they hit their first losing streak of the year. Ten games is far too small a sample size to determine anything of significance, and everything will average out over the remaining 152. At the end of it all, this Rangers team will still be very, very good, but my money is saying they will have found new ways to win compared to how they have thus far in April.