Please check out the Hippeaux's weekly posts at SNY affiliate, It's About The Money.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

"Narrative Likability Factor" & The Texas Rangers

If it hasn't been apparent in my treatments of the Twins and the Yankees, let me be clear, Narrative Likability Factor does not portend to statistical objectivity.  If you've been following this blog throughout the season, than you're probably already aware, I'm not impartial at all when it comes to the 2010 Rangers. I've never been a Texas fan before, and I may never be again, but this particular combination of players, coaches, and front office administrators won me over instantaneously, and they will hold my rooting interest for as long as they can stay alive this October.  This is my attempt to convince you that you, too, should throw in your lot with the most soulful team in baseball:

  • Performance Impairing Drugs:  Just weeks before the season began, the Rangers had to deal with reports that their manager, Ron Washington, had tested positive for cocaine the previous year.  Washington volunteered to resign, but Jon Daniels, Nolan Ryan, and the rest of the Ranger brass stood behind their skipper and appeared thoroughly nonplussed when asked to comment on the reports.  The underlying message was clear: so long as it didn't affect his ability to do his job, what Ron Washington does on his own time is his business.  This team has improved its record every year since Washington took the reigns and are now headed for their first postseason appearance in over a decade.
  • The Painted Man:  Washington is, of course, not the only Ranger to have a very public struggle with drug abuse.  Josh Hamilton nearly lost his career to his addiction.  The '99 #1 pick washed out of professional baseball from 2003 until 2006.  He struggled to make his way back, his every supposed relapse the subject of national speculation, and, with a body ravaged by years of systematic poisoning, he's struggled to stay on the field.  When healthy, however, he has proven himself to be among the superlative talents in the game.  And for somebody with such gifts to have been humbled as Hamilton has, makes him all that much easier to root for.  The Hamilton story may be somewhat old news now, as the climax may still be his performance at the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium, but we can be certain that will change if he can lead the Rangers to their first ever World Series.
  • They Could Really Use Those Postseason Gates:  The Rangers entered into this season on the verge of bankruptcy and, after a prolonged court battle, were finally put up for auction just over a month ago.  The good news has been that Nolan Ryan, the team president since 2008 and now minority owner, has been a consistent presence throughout, but it seems safe to say that the Rangers would be the first MLB franchise to go bust and life a trophy in the same season.
  • Big Daddy:  Vladimir Guerrero is one of the five best players of his generation and is almost certainly headed for the Hall of Fame.  But like recent Hall of Fame inductee, Andre Dawson, Vlad has spent much of his thirties hampered by knee and back injuries which likely result from years of playing on the rockhard Astroturf in Montreal.  Vladdy was the driving force in the Angels lineup from '04-'07, winning an MVP, leading his team to the playoffs three times, and hitting .327 with an average of 33 HR and 119 RBI every season.  But, in '08 and '09, his production fell off slightly as he was limited by injuries and often forced into the DH role.  The Angels allowed Vlad to walk away this past offseason, to their divisional rival no less, for less money than they gave Hideki Matsui, about half the money they gave Bobby Abreu, and less than a third of what they're paying Torii Hunter.  Guerrero responded by once again hitting like an MVP candidate, with a .301 average, 28 HR, and 111 RBI.  He's headed to the playoffs, his former team is staying home.
  • AAAA: Nelson Cruz was traded three times before his 25th birthday.  When he still hadn't become a major-league regular at age 28, many scouts believed he was one of those "AAAA players," able to dominate throughout the minors, but unable to hack it in the Show.  Over the last two seasons, however, Cruz has turned into one of the most awesome power-hitters in the American League.  He has struggled to remain healthy, but when he's in the Rangers lineup he's been good for a .544 SLG, while also hitting at a solid clip (.282) and stealing bases (36 in 44 attempts).
  • The Maddux-Ryan Effect: For most of the last decade, Rangers Ballpark in Arlington has been considered one of the most homer-friendly environs in the major leagues and, as a result, the Rangers have struggled to attract free agent pitchers and have consistently compiled some of the worst team ERAs in professional baseball history.  That is, until recently.  Since Nolan Ryan joined the front office and Mike Maddux became the Rangers pitching coach, the Rangers have, like the Rockies before them, refused to see their ballpark as a crutch.  Much has been made of the Ryan's very public statements about starting pitcher endurance, but that has been only one minor aspect of the Texas pitching revolution.  Yes, this season the Rangers have three pitchers with 190+ innings for the first time since 1998.  They are also throwing more strikes and inducing more groundballs, thus leading to more quality innings.  The biggest piece of the Maddux-Ryan plan, however, may be conditioning pitchers who are without ego.  The new Ranger Ace, Cliff Lee, is one of the most unflappable, workaday superstars in the game, in part because the game humbled him in spectacular fashion back in 2007, when, after averaging 15 wins and 200 innings for three straight seasons, he found himself mired in such a slump that the Indians optioned him back to the minor leagues and then left him off their postseason roster.  Colby Lewis is a former first-round pick who struggled so mightily in the majors that he spent the last two years pitching in the Japan League.  These are pitchers who've faced adversity before, and they don't flinch when a flyball that would be caught just about anywhere else lands in the sixteenth row of the Arlington bleachers.
  • They're Due:  There are thirty MLB franchises.  Only three of them have never been to the World Series, and of those three - Seattle, Texas, & Washington - the Rangers are the oldest, having joined the league in 1961.  Worse yet, the Rangers are the only MLB franchise that has never even advanced as far as their League Championship Series.  They were eliminated in the ALDS in all three postseason appearances ('96, '98, '99).  Sure, teams like the Cubs and Indians have waited longer than the Rangers for a championship, but at least they've got a few dingy old depression-era banners to hang in their rafters.  Texas got nothing.  Nada.  So they're due.  
Foremost because of that final point, the Rangers are loaded with underdog credentials.  They have the lowest payroll of any of the AL playoff teams and the only NL contender that's beneath them is the Padres.  They will probably have the weakest record of any of the AL playoff teams and they're coming out of arguably the weakest division, so they have been largely an afterthought in most of the mainstream media discussions of potential ALCS matchups.  Washington is the only one of the playoff-bound managers in the AL who has no previous postseason experience (Bud Black is the only such manager in the NL).  With the exception of Lee (and Rich Harden, in the unlikely event he makes the roster), the Rangers don't have a single starting pitcher who's experienced the postseason, and Darren Oliver is the only such player in their bullpen.  All this, combined with nagging injuries, especially to Hamilton, Cruz, and Ian Kinsler, could combine to make the Texas squad a bit tight and easy pickings for one of the AL East juggernauts (probably the Rays).  Or, they could be a team of destiny and the first first-time champions since the Angels in 2002.  

Narrative Likability: A+   

No comments: