The Texas Rangers are en route to what would be their second consecutive division crown and fourth 90-plus-win season since 2010. But something is quite peculiar about this club: They shouldn’t be winning this much.
The Rangers are the cardiac kids of baseball, a helter-skelter snare trap with more than half of its wins manufactured in come-from-behind fashion. No other franchise has more. All too often it seems as though a 2016 Texas Rangers baseball game doesn’t actually begin until the seventh inning.
Take this week, for example: Texas rallied to win three consecutive games after trailing in the eighth inning or later, making it just the second such occurrence in franchise history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Nail-biting finishes have become the norm for Jeff Banister’s club, which is 26-8 in one-run games (.765); a winning percentage no other team in baseball can sniff, and one that’s on pace to be the highest since the Brooklyn Bridegrooms went 14-4 in 1890.
All that holding true, the Rangers also rank third in their own division and 16th overall in run differential. As it currently stands, the average run differential among the other five division-leading teams is plus-109.2. Texas? Plus-5, more than 100 runs lower.
According to BaseRuns, which appraises a team’s overall quality by taking into account every play without considering the sequence in which the events occurred, the Rangers have won 10 more games than expected, more than any other team in baseball. In fact, the metric estimates that the Rangers should be a middle-of-the-pack team this year, not a division leader with the fourth best odds in the American League to win the World Series, according to Baseball Prospectus.
The team’s pitching isn’t particularly dominant: The Rangers rank in the bottom nine of the league in traditional stats like ERA, as well as more advanced metrics like wins above replacement and expected fielding independent pitching. Texas ranks outside the top 10 in team hitting fWAR, walk rate and wRC+, which adjusts a hitter’s ability to create runs for league and park effects. Only one of the Rangers’ hitters, Carlos Beltran, averages better than .300 at the plate — and he’s been with the team for less than two weeks.
What could possibly account for the team overperforming this late in the year?
As a team, Texas has the second highest batting average in the league this season in high-leverage situations, moments where a swing can literally decide outcome of the game. They also score 0.55 and 0.58 runs on average in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively.
Is any of this sustainable? It’s highly unlikely.
The so-called clutch gene will eventually leave the team’s dugout, and success in one-run games is hardly something worth banking on: Teams that squeak by generally don’t make it to the postseason. And if they do, their chances at a championship are slim.
Since 2005, 165 teams have had a regular season run differential lower than plus-20, which is where the Rangers are projected to end up at season’e end. Five of those teams (3 percent) made the playoffs. Of the 20 teams with the highest winning percentages in one-run games over the past two decades, 16 qualified for the postseason but just three — the 1995 Indians, 1999 Yankees and 2005 White Sox — appeared in the World Series. Two of those teams, Chicago and New York, did manage to win it all.
So while there is hope for the Rangers, who have a bolstered batting order and an improved pitching staff, history suggests they should just be happy to make the postseason.