Series Preview: Cubs vs. Rangers, July 15-17

Oliver Sacks, in the opening of his seminal book  The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, writes “I am equally drawn to the scientific and the romantic.” The famed neurologist and naturalist might as well have been penning a mantra for every Baseball Prospectus reader and writer who revels (or obsesses) in the minutiae of the game’s numbers, but gets goosebumps at a well-produced montage of their favorite team’s walk-off hits or postseason highlights.

For the purposes of this series preview, though, Sacks’s line perfectly encapsulates the 2016 Texas Rangers, who arrive on the North Side Friday afternoon to open up a three game series with the Cubs, and launch the unofficial second half of the season. Romanticism tells us they are the best team in the American League, a fun and feisty mix of veterans and up-and-coming youngsters who have put together the league’s best record. Science, however, has us analyzing this team in wonder, asking “How the hell are they doing it?”

The Rangers lost 9 out of 12 games heading into the break, allowing the Houston Astros to pick up four games and close to within 5.5 in the AL West. Despite possessing the AL’s best record, the Rangers own just the seventh best run differential (+16) and a third-order winning percentage more than 125 percentage points below their actual winning percentage (.473). A team ravaged by injuries, the Rangers have already had nine pitchers make at least three starts. They are also the beneficiaries of some luck, as among AL teams, Rangers pitchers own the third-lowest BABIP (.291) and their hitters have the fifth-highest BABIP (.305). We know they are one of the AL’s best defensive teams, but how else are they doing it?

Amazingly, the Rangers have scored the third most runs in the AL, despite ranking somewhere between 7 and 13 in most offensive categories. Just two every day players have  a .280 TAv or higher (Adrian Beltre and Ian Desmond). By comparison, the Boston Red Sox, who lead the AL in runs scored, have six players at or above that mark. Prince Fielder is a shell of his former self. Beltre and Elvis Andrus are about league average hitters. Shin-Soo Choo has been limited to 139 plate appearances. Desmond has carried the offense (see What to Watch for).

The team is scoring runs, but they’re not doing it with power (seventh in home runs and slugging percentage, tenth in ISO, and eleventh in doubles). However, the Rangers are also not doing it with patience, ranking third to last in on-base percentage and swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone at the third highest rate in the league. One thing they are doing reasonably well is stealing bases, ranking fifth in the AL.

The Rangers pitching has not been any prettier. Their starting pitcher’s own the AL’s third best ERA, but the worst walk rate and strikeout rate, and the fourth worst FIP. Perhaps, not coincidentally then, they have the third lowest BABIP. Cole Hamels, their staff ace, has not been as good as some surface numbers suggest (see below), Colby Lewis is on the 60-day DL, and Yu Darvish has been an infrequent contributor (see below). The Cubs avoid AJ Griffin, Lewis, and Derek Holland (who is just coming off the DL), three of their four best starters by  DRA. Rangers relievers, meanwhile, have the AL’s worst strikeout rate and FIP, and third worst stranded rate.

Yet, as we sit here on the precipice of the season’s second half, the AL’s path to the World Series goes through Arlington. At the moment, the Rangers are trying to hold on until their rotation is fully intact. Until then, they remain greater than the sum of their parts, defying science, and embodying the romantic notion of “just finding a way to win games.” While both the Cubs and Rangers are struggling, it is a battle of two first place teams, which means as a baseball writer, I’m contractually obligated to mention it could be a possible World Series preview. Let’s see how they matchup below.

Probable Pitchers

Friday: Kyle Hendricks vs. Martin Perez

Hendricks gets the ball to start the second half, and while he’s struggled to get past the sixth inning recently, since May 28, he possesses a 1.89 ERA and 1.01 WHIP. During that stretch, Hendricks has reduced his fourseam fastball usage from 60 percent to 45 percent, while increasing his change-up use from 18 percent to 27 percent, so it will be interesting to see if he continues that trend against the Rangers, a good fastball hitting team.

Martin Perez joins Cole Hamels as one of the only two Rangers starters to make all of his starts this season. Despite making 18 starts, Perez’s averaging fewer than six innings per start, and owns a 5.15 DRA (4.87 FIP), 1.42 WHIP. and a strikeout rate (11.3 percent) nearly identical to his walk rate (10 percent). And it’s been even uglier recently. In seven starts since June 1, the left-hander owns a 5.01 ERA and 1.57 WHIP, and batter’s are hitting .307/.355/.472.

While Perez is among the worst starting pitchers statistically in the AL, the Cubs should be wary of a few things. First, Perez’s go-to pitch (sinker, 46 percent of all pitches) is his most effective, with opposing teams slugging .336. Second, Perez has actually been effective against left-handed batters, holding them to .167/.283/.256. And when he goes to the sinker against lefties (50 percent of the times), they’re slugging .204.

Saturday: Jason Hammel vs. Yu Darvish 

Hammel finished the half with a decent start against the Atlanta Braves, which came on the heels of one of the worst starts of his career against the New York Mets, by GameScore (5!). In his past seven starts Hammel possesses a 1.09 WHIP, but surrendered 11 home runs. So while the Rangers, among AL teams, rank eighth in home runs and seventh in home runs to fly ball ratio, a team with Beltre, Desmond, Rougned Odor, Nomar Mazara, and even Prince Fielder could provide Hammel with some headaches on Saturday.

Darvish will be making his first start since June 8, and just his fourth of this season. When he has been on the mound, Darvish has decreased his fourseam fastball usage from 40 percent in 2014 to 29 percent this season, despite adding nearly three miles per hour to his fastball (93 to 96). With two strikes, though, Darvish has increased fourseam use from 26 percent to 35 percent. Overall, Darvish has more than doubled his sinker usage from 13 percent to 29 percent, making it a pitch he goes to with the same frequency as his fourseamer.

Sunday: Cole Hamels vs. John Lackey

Lackey, in his final four starts before the break, allowed 19 earned runs on 37 base runners. In his starts against the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, he mixed up his secondary pitches, throwing eight sliders against the Reds before throwing a season-high 49 at the Pirates. After tossing at least 15 curves in six of seven starts, Lackey threw just three at Pittsburgh. Lackey might continue tinkering this weekend, as his main pitch, his fourseam fastball, has been hit especially hard by right-handed batters this season (.551 slugging percentage).

You might remember Cole Hamels from last season’s no-hitter on a beautiful Friday afternoon at Wrigley. In 2016, Hamels is an All-Star, due largely to his 9-2 record and 3.21 ERA. Outside of those surface numbers, though, Hamels is having perhaps the worst season of his career. He’s posting career-worst numbers in WHIP, FIP, DRA, and walk rate, and has allowed 17 home runs. Hamels hasn’t lost velocity and batters are hitting his fourseam fastball at traditional rates, but his change and cutter (a combined usage of 42 percent) have not been effective.

What to Watch for:

The Resurgent Ian Desmond. To me, that sounds like the title of a BBC show (I picture John Cleese as a recent widower, moving in to his daughter’s basement and realizing life still has alot in store, thanks to his zany grandchildren and a saucy, flirty next door neighbor).

Desmond is the Rangers team leader in runs, hits, doubles, extra base hits, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, TAv, and bWARP. After a two-season stretch in which he hit a combined .244/.302/.407 with a 29 percent strikeout rate, he’s posting career bests in nearly every offensive category. Desmond enters the second half on an a tear, hitting .356/.416/.584 since June 1.

Notable for all three Cubs starters this weekend is that a season after Desmond posted a .653 OPS against right-handed pitchers, he’s raking in 2016. Against right-handers, he’s hitting .295/.356/.496 with 30 of his 39 extra base hits. This improvement against righties seems largely attributable to his performance against fourseam fastballs. In 2015, 34 percent of all pitches Desmond saw were fourseamers from right-handers, and he slugged just .323 against those pitches. This season, however, he’s seeing it 28 percent of all pitches, and slugging .521. The Cubs can take some solace in that Desmond and his 434 BABIP against the pitch (80 points above his career average) might be due for some regression.

Broadcast Info, Game Times

All times are Central Standard Time

To paraphrase Abe Simpson, this is a series that you can set your watch to, with the first pitch of all three games scheduled for 1:20. Friday’s opener can be seen on CSN, while Saturday’s and Sunday’s contests will be on ABC 7. And remember, just because you can day drink in the sun, doesn’t mean you should, especially with cheap beer. Enjoy the games!

Lead photo courtesy Gary A. Vasquez—USA Today Sports. 

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