Last year, on this date, the Houston Astros were in the thick of a majestic run of baseball, one that saw them win 14 of 15, the lone setback a one-run loss to Seattle.
When that 15-game domination ended on May 3, they were 18-7 overall.
It was the best record in the American League, second best in baseball.
On this date a year ago, the Rangers beat Arizona with six late-inning runs, 7-1, but they were in the midst of a stretch in which they lost 10 of 13.
At the end of that skid, on May 3, their record was 8-16.
It was the worst record in the American League, second worst in baseball.
The next day, Texas visited Houston for the first of three. Dallas Keuchel and Scott Feldman started the first two games. They were opposed by Ross Detwiler and Wandy Rodriguez.
The scuffling Rangers came into Minute Maid Park and swept the juggernaut Astros.
Since the start of that series pitting the team with baseball’s second-worst record at the time against the team with baseball’s second-best record, in their house, the span of baseball bookended by those three May 2015 games between the two clubs in Houston and the first two of three between them this week in Arlington — all five of which the Rangers have won — Texas is 89-64.
Houston is 73-79.
Last night’s intense 2-1 Rangers win over the Astros featured a couple bookends of its own, each featuring Jose Altuve.
Cole Hamels’s night started with an Altuve hit-by-pitch. It ended that way, too.
The game itself kicked off with Altuve, and ended that way, too, as he lined out to right field with a man on.
Texas has now defeated Houston nine straight times at home, and is 15-6 against the Astros the last two seasons, starting with that three-game series last May, 250 miles south.
The Rangers, at 9-6, lead the West. Houston, at 5-10, is in last.
We know from a year ago that that’s close to meaningless. Every one of those 15 games matters for Texas and matters for Houston, to be sure, but what they do over their remaining 147 will be what dictates whether one (or both) get to play 162+.
This is about Texas and Houston, and so today I’m not going to open the door behind which the 6-9 Angels are putting up a league-low OPS of .590 and league-low slug of .302 and have been held scoreless in 49 of their last 57 innings, a streak of six games during which five babies were not lit up.
Maybe another time.
Hamels — who is now 7-0 in Arlington and has recorded a career-best 10 straight victories (and 14 straight Rangers starts that the club won, best for a Texas pitcher in 26 years) — pitched himself out of trouble several times Wednesday night, which is what aces do. (Opponents are hitting .143 off Hamels with runners in scoring position this year.) With the bases loaded and nobody out in the top of the second, for instance, he got Marwin Gonzalez to fly to Nomar Mazara in shallow right on a 3-1 pitch, and Carlos Gomez’s overexuberance breaking off of first base led to a 9-2-4-2 double play.
After the game, Jeff Banister told the press, about that huge double play: “More than anything else, our guys showed the presence of mind to stay in control, calm.”
Bryan Holaday and Rougned Odor in particular.
Unlike Gomez on that play, or Root Sports Southwest at whatever point in the game the Astros network thought this was a good idea.
The one time in the game that Hamels was seemingly not in control (aside from his spiked throw past first on Gonzalez’s cue shot down the line in the fifth) was at the outset, when he hit both Altuve and George Springer to start the game.
The last time a pitcher drilled the first two batters of a start was when Phillies righthander Jerome Williams — a month after his brief run as a Ranger — plunked Pittsburgh’s Josh Harrison and Starling Marte.
Hamels was in one dugout that night. Banister was in the other.
That game was played on September 10, 2014.
How long ago was September 10, 2014?
The Rangers, historically decimated by injury, were 36 games out of first in the division.
The Astros were 25.5 games out.
Today, Texas and Houston are among baseball’s best teams, in spite of the win-loss record that one of them sports this morning.
Between September 10, 2014 and today, Texas and Houston have faced off 24 times.
The Rangers have won 18 of those games.
(And won Hamels, who said no to Houston before coming to Texas.)
Tonight the Rangers go for 19 out of 25. Or, since last May 4, 16 out of 22. Or, as far as this series is concerned, three out of three.
Most importantly, the Rangers seek tonight to go one out of one.
Against Keuchel, who in tonight’s series finale bookends a year of baseball between these two teams. On May 4, 2015, Keone Kela recorded his first career win in relief of Detwiler (7-4-1-1-2-7, the lefty’s best effort as a Ranger), saddling Keuchel (who exited with a 1-1 score) with a no-decision as Chad Qualls took the late-inning loss. The Texas runs were driven in by Jake Smolinski and Robinson Chirinos. Neftali Feliz recorded the save.
Today, Smolinski is in Nashville and Chirinos is on the 60-day shelf. Detwiler’s in Cleveland and Qualls is in Colorado and Feliz is in Pittsburgh, a starter and set-up reliever and closer from last year who now all work in middle relief, for new teams.
Lots has changed.
Lots has not.
Tonight: The first of 19 this year against the Astros.
Some feel that total won’t stop at 19.
It’s April 19, and the defending AL West champs (who, though decimated, charged into that perch while the other guys were busy bat-flipping and backing out) have a meaningless two-game edge on tonight’s opponent.
One team is leading the division right now, the other manning the basement, and that doesn’t matter at all. The season is 8 percent complete.
Texas may not go 13-6 against Houston this season, like last, but the effort to make the head-to-heads decisive again begins tonight.
Not much else to say.
But if you’re looking for something else to read, give this column a couple minutes.
It’s comical, and it’s typical.
It’s so Houston.
There’s something to putting your head down and running even when you know the ball is leaving the yard (or when it’s not), to handing the ball to the ref after a touchdown, to acting like you’ve been there before.
Easier said than done, I guess, when you haven’t.
Here we go.
Really excellent win last night, with the Rangers offense piling six of their 10 hits up in one inning, picking up their ace after he’d done so for them so many times, Rougie Odor having a day at the plate and in the field, all kinds of outstanding infield defense, and four right-handed relievers shutting down the American League’s presently preeminent offense.
But something else drew me to the keyboard this morning, and it wasn’t Dallas 4, Minnesota 0.
Vincent Velasquez is 23. He’s a kid from Southern California whom the Astros drafted in the second round in 2010, after they’d taken Delino DeShields, Mike Foltynewicz, and Mike Kvasnicka in the first.
Velasquez threw a big league complete game yesterday, his first.
In it he allowed just three hits, all singles.
He walked nobody.
No Padres scored.
Sixteen of them struck out.
No Padre, including their one pinch-hitter, didn’t strike out.
Vincent Velasquez is on the Phillies now.
I bring that up because, otherwise, telling you that the only other pitchers in the last 50 years of his franchise’s history to strike out 16 were Steve Carlton, Curt Schilling, and, five years ago, Cliff Lee might have been unfairly misleading.
The Astros did once have Schilling themselves but they traded him very badly, also to Philadelphia, sending him in 1992 at age 25 to the Phillies for Jason Grimsley.
Grimsley pitched one AAA season for Houston before he was released.
Schilling went on to record 212 of his 216 big league victories after the Astros moved him. Not counting the 11 he won in the post-season.
Back to Velasquez. And yes, there is a Rangers point to all of this.
(It’s not about Dillon Tate, who went 6-4-0-0-0-10 for Hickory last night, in what was his lengthiest outing as a pro.)
The only pitchers younger than Velasquez to ever strike out 14 or more and walk none in a scoreless start: Vida Blue, Dwight Gooden, Kerry Wood, and Jose Fernandez.
The only other active pitcher who’s ever thrown a complete-game shutout with 16 strikeouts and no walks is Max Scherzer (when he no-hit the Mets late last season).
The retired pitchers who did it in the last 100 years: Gooden, Wood, Roger Clemens (two times), and Randy Johnson.
In the last 10 seasons, only four pitchers have gotten an opponent to swing and miss at 20 fastballs in one start: David Price (7/7/10), Matt Harvey (4/3/13), Scherzer (10/3/15), and Velasquez (yesterday).
The righthander threw strike one to 25 of 30 Padres, which helped him complete the game in just 113 pitches, an absurdly economical number given all those punchouts.
The Phillies got Velasquez from the Astros 125 days ago.
Along with four other pitchers: former number one overall pick Mark Appel, big league lefty Brett Oberholtzer, and Class A righthanders Thomas Eshelman and Harold Arauz.
For relief pitcher Ken Giles (and 17-year-old shortstop Jonathan Arauz).
There was a snarkfest on Twitter after Velasquez’s gem on Thursday, with Joe Sheehan of the Sheehan Newsletter noting that Velasquez has more scoreless appearances in 2016 (two) than Giles (one), Baseball America Managing Editor J.J. Cooper insinuating Philadelphia wouldn’t trade Velasquez alone for Giles today, and Phillies beat writer Todd Zolecki offering this:
“Things I never expected: Vince Velasquez would record more outs in the ninth inning through 10 games (three) than Ken Giles (zero).”
You see, Giles has yet to pitch in the ninth inning. Houston has made him Luke Gregerson’s set-up man, for now.
But that’s not the whole story.
In his first Astros appearance, Giles allowed an eighth-inning home run to Didi Gregorius.
Two days later, Giles entered a tie game in the seventh and gave up a three-run homer to Mark Teixeira.
Two days after that, Giles had a clean eighth in Milwaukee.
But four days after that, on Wednesday, Giles entered a 2-2 game against the Royals, issued a two-out walk to Alex Gordon, and then served up a two-run Salvador Perez bomb, taking the loss.
The three homers Giles has allowed in a week and a half with Houston equal the total he surrendered in 113 career appearances for Philadelphia.
Now, make no mistake, Giles is a really good relief pitcher. He’ll be the Astros’ closer soon enough, and a very good one.
But Carson Smith is really good out of the bullpen, too, and five days before Houston gave up Velasquez and four others for Giles, Boston got Smith — and Roenas Elias, a decent enough pre-arbitration pitcher — for mediocre lefthander Wade Miley and a piece.
A few weeks after the Phillies got the Velasquez-led haul for Giles, the Reds accepted Eric Jagielo, Tony Renda, Caleb Cotham, and Rookie Davis for Aroldis Chapman (who, yes, has some baggage).
Davis might be pretty good. He’s in AA right now. He’s 10 months younger than Velasquez.
And because I haven’t referenced it in a few weeks, now’s probably a decent enough time to toss in that, five months before Houston loaded up for Giles, Texas traded Tomas Telis and Cody Ege for Sam Dyson — whose devastating sinking fastball is paired with what sure appears to be an even better changeup than he wielded last summer.
Even if Giles turns out to be a lockdown closer, it’s just a huge amount to give up for 60 or 70 innings a year. Same with Boston sending Manuel Margot, Javier Guerra, Carlos Asuaje, and Logan Allen to San Diego for Craig Kimbrel. Borderline insane.
But I’d rather focus on the Astros making a trade that could haunt them, like releasing J.D. Martinez in 2014, and like sending Josh Hader and Brett Phillips to the Brewers as part of a package for Mike Fiers and Carlos Gomez, after those two were reportedly earmarked for the Astros’ Hamels trade before Hamels said: “Umm, no.”
In February, Texas gave up $8 million and a first-round pick to make Ian Desmond an outfielder for one season.
The defense, while not without a couple whoops moments, has also provided instances when he’s looked like this team’s best outfielder.
The bat? Whether you lean scouting (approach at the plate) or stats (.116/.174/.116), it’s been disturbingly ugly.
The $8 million, even if Desmond were this player all season (he won’t be), isn’t meaningless, but it’s not Lance Berkman money and it’s definitely not six years of surrendered control over, potentially, a budding frontline starting pitcher.
And the Rangers can take the money that would have been slotted for the 19th pick and put it towards a Latin American player instead.
Ask Phillies officials (or really smart fans) whether they’d choose Velasquez, Appel, Oberholtzer, Eshelman, and Arauz today over Jerad Eickhoff (who’s also gotten off to a very good start), Jake Thompson, Jorge Alfaro, Nick Williams, Alec Asher, and Matt Harrison’s contract, if they had to take just one, and the answer might take some time.
But consider that the other part of those two deals was Giles vs. Jake Diekman — and while Giles has more value, it may not be that big a gap — and a 17-year-old infielder who has yet to play in a full-season minor league vs. Cole Hamels.
Is the package Houston gave up for Giles a bigger gut punch than what it cost Texas to sign Desmond?
I sure think so.
Giles will be fine, and I think Desmond will be, too.
But until then, and even afterwards, I’m super-happy Houston traded Velasquez and a bunch more for a relief pitcher, and that Velasquez is out of the West, and I hope to have a really happy report to write about a Giles-Desmond matchup next week when the Astros come in for three.
Maybe even in Tuesday’s series opener, when the super-impressive Vincent Velasquez makes his next start for a team that’s not the Houston Astros.
It was Sunday, November 18, 2012, and to distract myself from the signing of non-roster lefthander Scott Olsen and the imminent addition of Leury Garcia and Joe Ortiz to the 40-man roster, I started to work on something for my son’s room.
Adrian Beltre had been a Texas Ranger, at that point, for a year and 10 months.
He’d been my #favorite Texas Ranger, ever, for about a year and five months.
The defense. The toughness. The big bat. The season he’d just had that was good for third (behind Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout) in the AL MVP vote.
He was 33 when I started the painting, and playing like he was 25 (when he was runner-up for NL MVP, to Barry Bonds).
Now he’s 37, and playing like he’s 26.
He was 33, two years into a Rangers contract that was reportedly offered after Cliff Lee told Texas no, the Angels told Beltre no, and Beltre told the A’s no.
Lee is evidently done.
He was basically done nearly two years ago.
Lee is done, the painting is done (big props to Nick Pants and the good folks at Idea Planet for the work on the crowd), but Adrian Beltre, emphatically, is not.
He was huge again last night, homering and doubling and driving in five and making plays that few other third basemen make (and that Beltre himself wasn’t making as cleanly last summer) and raising his early slash line to .314/.368/.629, with more walks (three) than strikeouts (two) in 38 plate appearances.
Whether it’s true or not, it feels like his defense has already saved as many 2016 runs as he’s driven in (eight).
He’s in a contract year, as a camp happily slow on controversy reminded us for much of March. There used to be a narrative, before Beltre arrived in Texas, that he saved his best for contract years, but that’s not really true.
He doesn’t want to leave.
Texas doesn’t want him to leave.
But a meeting of the minds on the appropriate contract to replace this one is apparently a little sticky, because there’s not really a great contractual comp for a 37-year-old this productive.
David Ortiz signed a two-year, $26 million deal at the same age. David Ortiz doesn’t play defense.
Adrian Beltre doesn’t just play defense. He’s a wizard. He’s an artist.
He’s a damn treasure (hat tip, Tepid).
Nomar Mazara is the youngest player in the big leagues today. He was the youngest player on the AAA Round Rock roster (and the second-youngest player in all of Class AAA). He’d be the youngest player for AA Frisco.
Beltre was 21 months younger than Mazara when he made it to the big leagues.
He’s nearly old enough now to be Mazara’s father, and the two of them are wielding big bats and flashing big leather together for a team that’s bounced back from a clunky start.
Though their careers overlapped for 12 years, Beltre never played with Nomar Garciaparra (both played for the Dodgers and Red Sox but never together). He’s playing with Nomar Mazara — who, similar to Pudge, may end up being the better Nomar when it’s all said and done — and though their careers won’t coincide for a dozen years, they will both play for several seasons.
And that needs to be in the same uniform.
Scott Boras likes when there are not any good comps. That’s a center-cut fastball, a 3-1 cookie right in his wheelhouse.
But there’s got to be a number that makes reasonable sense.
And a duration.
A level of shared risk that can vest in the player’s favor.
Adrian Beltre may be the best bet in baseball, given any set of physical challenges, to make a contract option vest.
He can’t go anywhere.
And, unlike a painting that took more than three years and 464 Adrian Beltre games as a Texas Ranger to finish, he absolutely isn’t done.
This all happened in the space of about 23 hours, beginning late Saturday afternoon in Des Moines, Iowa.
Round Rock right fielder Nomar Mazara singled to center in the top of the first inning.
Mazara singled to right in the top of the third inning.
Mazara homered in the top of the fifth inning.
He didn’t appear in the ninth.
Mazara presumably went to sleep (though it would be understandable if he didn’t).
He then boarded a plane in Des Moines on Sunday morning with his buddy Brett, because Rangers Director of Travel Josh Shelton told them where to be, and when.
They flew west, about 1,425 miles.
They got off the plane and into a car and found their way to a ballpark that holds about four times as many people as Principal Park, home of the Iowa Cubs.
Rangers right fielder Nomar Mazara singled to center in the top of the first inning.
Mazara singled to right in the top of the third inning.
Mazara homered in the top of the fifth inning.
He didn’t appear in the ninth.
All I changed in the last four sentences was replacing “Round Rock” with “Rangers.” That simple.
Which is basically what Mazara’s big league debut felt like: A change in the name on the front of the jersey, but otherwise pretty much no difference.
It’s just baseball.
Nomar Mazara is pretty good at baseball.
I’m looking forward to tonight’s game in Seattle.
But not as much I am to the career that launched yesterday, starting with a 1,425-mile trip and peaking at 443.5 feet to right center, at 105.4 miles per hour.
In my annual ranking of the Top 72 Prospects in the Rangers system, I had outfielder Nomar Mazara number one overall and catcher-first baseman Brett Nicholas rounding out the list at number 72.
They’re likely on a plane together this morning, destined for Anaheim.
In my rankings chapter in the Bound Edition, I concluded Mazara’s write-up this way: “Mazara is the Rangers’ next right fielder. Not sure how soon — but he’s the next man up.”
I finished Nicholas’s with this: “[H]e turned 27 in July . . . and it’s hard to imagine he’ll see Arlington at this point unless it’s an emergency situation that the front office hadn’t anticipated and otherwise prepared for.”
And here we are. Shin-Soo Choo (right calf strain) and Robinson Chirinos (right forearm fracture) are headed to the disabled list today, and Mazara and Chirinos are headed to the big leagues.
In Mazara’s case, it’s an expedited (and much-anticipated) debut brought about by the Choo injury, much as Joey Gallo’s arrival came earlier than expected last summer, when Adrian Beltre was sidelined.
As for Nicholas — who was drafted out of the University of Missouri three picks after Detroit selected TCU’s Bryan Holaday in 2010’s sixth round — it’s a qualified emergency, though it would be unfair to suggest the organization wasn’t prepared at catcher. The Rangers stockpiled plenty of experienced depth behind the plate this winter; the problem is that not only is Chirinos now sidelined — so are Chris Gimenez (leg infection) and Michael McKenry (abdominal strain). Round Rock has started its season with Nicholas and Pat Cantwell (who didn’t get a non-roster invite to camp this spring) at catcher, and the more experienced (and more offensively oriented) Nicholas is the one who gets the call, even as the Rangers will undoubtedly resume conversations they had with other teams a couple weeks ago when they ultimately acquired Holaday from the Tigers.
Because Nicholas is not on the 40-man roster, someone will be removed before today’s game. A pitcher like Anthony Ranaudo or Alex Claudio could be on the bubble, though the prognosis on Chirinos could make him a 60-day disabled list candidate, which would take him off the 40 and make room for Nicholas.
We should expect Mazara’s stay to last as long as Choo’s absence — though the same was anticipated last summer when Gallo replaced Beltre, and Gallo remained with the big club for about a week after Beltre’s reinstatement. Mazara certainly has the ability to extend his stay, though once Choo is healthy it would mean Mazara sharing time with either Ian Desmond or Delino DeShields in left field (assuming all outfielders are active at that point), and there’s a whole lot that would need to happen between now and then to even begin to speculate on that.
Not worth it. It will be enough to watch Nomar Mazara face big league pitching for a couple weeks, if not more (he’ll turn 21 on the day Choo will be eligible for reactivation), and get a glimpse of a big part of this team’s future.
As for Nicholas, a left-handed hitter with Mitch Moreland’s build and a little pop in the bat, Texas won’t run a straight platoon while he’s up. Chances are he’ll catch once a week, at least at the outset. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him debut when A.J. Griffin takes the ball next on Wednesday — it’s a day game after a night game, Texas is facing a righthander (Seattle’s Taijuan Walker), and it would give Nicholas several days to get acclimated, perhaps by Griffin’s side in the dugout.
There will be talk show segments right away focused on Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy and San Diego’s Derek Norris, both of whom were rumored to have been the subject of Texas trade discussions before the club acquired Holaday.
But imagine you’re Brewers GM David Stearns or Padres GM A.J. Preller.
Your window realistically doesn’t open wide for another year or two.
Your previous proposals for Lucroy or Norris reportedly involved names like Gallo, Profar, Brinson, Tate, Gonzalez, Kela, and Faulkner.
Are you going to back off now that Texas has lost its frontline catcher for more than a third of a season in which it expects to win?
Of course not.
Texas isn’t going to trade players in that tier for two seasons of Lucroy or three of Norris.
And Milwaukee and San Diego, most likely, aren’t going to ask for less.
(If something else is involved? Buster Olney [ESPN] tweeted this morning that Texas and San Diego had talks this winter involving Norris and righthander Andrew Cashner on one side and Profar on the other, but “concerns about Cashner’s arm scuttled that.”)
(Still don’t see it.)
Here’s the thing. Last summer, faced with an even greater “emergency” at catcher when Chirinos and Carlos Corporan were both sidelined, Jon Daniels summoned Gimenez from AAA and claimed Bobby Wilson on waivers from Tampa Bay (his fifth organization). The two journeymen more than held their own as they shared duties during a 21-12 run in August and early September.
That’s not to say that you get comfortable with a Holaday-Nicholas tandem and unplug your phone. The Rangers will be proactive in looking for opportunities to improve, if for no other reason than to make sure they’re further protected in Round Rock in case of yet another catcher injury.
But they’re not going to trade a core major league piece or a package of frontline prospects for Lucroy or Norris. At least I don’t think so. A trade with Detroit to get Wilson back, for instance, would make more sense, as he’s familiar with the Rangers’ pitching staff and wouldn’t cost nearly as much to acquire.
In the meantime, by all accounts it appears that prospects number 1 and number 72, at least in my own estimation, are en route to to the start of their big league careers, and while the circumstances necessitating it are unwelcome, if you take a step back it’s a pretty exciting thing for a future star and a minor league grinder to get their shot, and their own opportunities to help the franchise that found them win baseball games at the highest level.
I want A.J. Griffin to keep doing that. Change speeds, change eye levels, stay around the plate — but all around the plate, serve up lots of bad contact, take care of two-thirds of the game, especially on a night when the bullpen needs a breather. You could do a whole lot worse at the number five rotation slot, and if things hold up until Yu Darvish returns, Griffin could make one heck of a long reliever as he posts up towards a workload he hasn’t logged since 2013.
I want Griffin to keep doing that because I want the 28-year-old to succeed, far more than I might have otherwise, because I know how much I’m craving (and driven by) the thought of getting back on the diamond or tennis court on my stupid little level.
I hope you heard Griffin on either the TV or radio postgame show last night. You could hear the emotion that had built up over the course of the journey back. Very cool.
Griffin, who held Rangers-killers Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and C.J. Cron to a single and a walk in seven trips, had last won a big league game (or a game at any level) on September 12, 2013. In recording the victory last night, he became the first pitcher to start at least 15 big league games, then not appear in the majors for at least the next two full seasons, and then win one of his team’s first five games in his first season back on the mound since California starter Rudy May did so in the first week of the 1969 season.
May had a lifetime record of 4-0 in Arlington, a mark from which Cole Hamels (6-0 in Arlington, trailing only Barry Zito [winner of his first eight] and Darvish ) cannot distance further tonight since he’s pitching in Anaheim, and the more interesting footnote to tonight’s game is that it pits Hamels against Angels ace Garrett Richards, the same matchup as Game 162 six months ago, when Hamels went the distance, three-hitting Los Angeles in a 9-2 victory in which Richards and the first three of five Angels relievers surrendered Rangers runs.
I want to remind everyone, and not for the last time, that Hamels wanted to be in Texas so much that he said no in July to Houston, which had said no in September 2014 to Jeff Banister, and I wonder whether the consequence of the latter showed up anywhere on Cole and Heidi’s list of 50 factors, which reminds me that in January 2011 the Angels said no to Adrian Beltre (surely among the 50 Hamels factors), after which Texas and Beltre said yes to each other, days after which Los Angeles, still seeking a right-handed bat, traded Mike Napoli and Frosty Rivera to Toronto for Vernon Wells, days after which the Blue Jays traded Napoli (whom the Angels would never discuss with Texas) to the Rangers for Frankie Francisco, and right there’s a whole lot of very important Rangers history, part of which I hope will repeat itself soon, namely, the Rangers and their third baseman exchanging yes’s again.
I want that.
It has to make sense for both sides. Texas isn’t going to get a one-year commitment. Beltre isn’t going to get three guaranteed years at the rate of a similarly productive player ten years younger. There’s room between those two points for minds to meet.
I want that.
I want to point out — back to Hamels briefly — that the veteran beast told the Dallas Morning News this week: “The scouting here is much more reliant on analytics than I had [with the Phillies]. So much of what I did before was based on experience. . . . I’ve been able to get stuff from the analytics [here] that allows me to get something about [opponents’] approaches and get a better feel for their strengths and weaknesses.”
I want to say how happy I am that Cole Hamels is happy to be a Texas Ranger.
I want to believe that last night’s win in Anaheim signals an awakening on some level of this team’s bats, because through this 2-3 start the starting pitching has been really solid, coming three Derek Holland outs short of five quality starts out of five in the first roll through the rotation. The defense has been excellent, too.
I want Rougned Odor, who blew last night’s game open with his two-run bomb in the third, to rifle a handful of singles or gapped extra-base hits before he homers again. He’s been swinging out of his shoes a little over this first week, and he’s better than that.
While Odor is a completely different type of player from Delino DeShields, and the long ball is certainly part of Odor’s game, last night’s shot made me think of when DeShields blasted his first big league home run last August 14 with a shot straight down the left field line off Rays reliever Steve Geltz. I worried then about it taking DeShields out of his approach. He proceeded to hit .182 with one extra-base hit over his next 48 plate appearances.
I want to believe that DeShields is the player whose presence in the Rangers lineup translated to a 72-49 record in 2015 (and in whose absence Texas went 16-25).
A team that won at a .595 clip all season last year (the Rangers’ percentage when DeShields played) would have posted a 96-66 record over a full 162, which would have been best in the American League.
A team with a .390 winning percentage (63-99, which would have been the Deshields-less record, extrapolated) would have been the AL’s worst.
In WAR ranking last year, DeShields (1.1) trailed teammates Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo, Mitch Moreland, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder, Odor, and Robinson Chirinos, and was tied with Leonys Martin. Basically, among position players, DeShields ranked last among Texas regulars.
And yet, there are those remarkably disparate winning percentages.
Does that make any sense, that a player statistically worth roughly one more team win over a full season than a “replacement player” would be the difference, by himself, between a team playing at a league-best clip and one playing at a league-worst?
Of course not.
But there are elements to DeShields’s game that clearly change the complexion of the attack, that make the whole machine seem to hum a lot better. (Statcast points out that DeShields reached a run velo of 21 miles per hour 132 different times last year, while only seven other big leaguers managed to reach that mark even 50 times.)
Still, there were three or four things DeShields did in last night’s game, on both offense and defense, that made me hope there’s another level he just hasn’t yet found.
Maybe he’s a nine-hole hitter, ideally. Maybe he’s a left fielder. Or a fourth outfielder who plays a lot.
Or, as is sometimes the case — remember that this club has two very promising outfielders getting close to the big leagues, and a third that they’re locked into for lots of money over lots of years — maybe DeShields will ultimately be more valuable to the organization as a trade asset.
But that ignores those win percentage numbers, and also sells short the idea that a 23-year-old with just two seasons of experience above Class A one and just one above Class AA might have another gear or two that he can reach, perhaps less physically than in his decision-making on the field.
I want to be patient.
But a year from now, if it’s a day on which he’s in the lineup, I want DeShields hitting ninth. I think that the 2017 leadoff hitter isn’t in the organization right now — or that he’s playing shortstop in Round Rock (though I do understand the reasoning behind having center fielder James Jones in that slot in the Express’s first two games).
Both of which were wins.
Same as Frisco.
Same as High Desert.
Same as Hickory.
The Rangers’ farm system is 8-0 to start the season. Which doesn’t matter.
But still, it’s cool to see the organization’s affiliates — which are generally among the youngest in their respective leagues — playing well, led by lots of kids who will eventually help Texas win, whether in Rangers uniforms or as parts of Rangers trades.
On that subject, and without straying too far from the point above, no, I don’t know where Profar fits. I want to put off for now how that works in Texas defensively, because I don’t know.
Other than it won’t be in Odor’s place.
Same goes for second basemen Travis Demeritte (High A High Desert: four home runs in two games) and Andy Ibanez (Low A Hickory: 6 for 9 plus a walk, with a home run and a triple mixed in). All that will work itself out over the next few years.
I don’t know where Joey Gallo fits, either, but he’s seen 43 pitches in seven plate appearances in Round Rock’s first two games, and I’m not sure I could be any more fired up about that.
Frisco closer Matt Bush, on back-to-back nights? That’s not an accident.
A week ago, Baseball Prospectus solicited predictions from 38 of its writers for the 2016 season, and in the AL West only two teams drew first-place votes. Houston got the nod 30 times, while Texas garnered eight votes.
And yet, zero BP writers had the Astros winning the World Series.
While five said Texas. (No other American League club got more than two votes.)
That’s pretty telling.
That group of writers, collectively, must believe there are some intangibles at work for the Rangers that don’t favor the Astros. Maybe it has something to do with Banister, or Beltre, or Hamels.
BP’s predictions don’t matter, of course, and to a great extent neither does the fact that both Texas and Houston sport losing records at the moment, which is not to diminish the importance of every game, which is the same for Game 1 as it is for Game 11 or Game 111.
And as it was for Game 5, when a pitcher who hadn’t stepped on a big league mound in more than two and a half years took the ball and ended up meeting his new set of teammates at the center of the diamond for game-ending daps, having preserved a lead he inherited from the start, saving his bullpen in large part, and helping the Rangers draw closer to a season-opening .500 mark they plan to trample past very soon, on the way to something that won’t end with Game 162.
In 2010, the Rangers opened the season at home. They beat Toronto on Opening Day, though it took a ninth-inning comeback culminating in a Jarrod Saltalamacchia walkoff single — his only hit as a Ranger that year — to do it.
They dropped the other two games in the series, with the bullpen taking both losses — the finale in particularly brutal fashion, as closer Frankie Francisco came on to protect a lead in the ninth before allowing the Jays to hit for the cycle in the inning and bat around.
The Rangers pen allowed eight runs in that series.
And if it weren’t for an improbable comeback in one of the games, they’d have been swept in their own house.
All that might seem vaguely familiar.
Texas went to its first World Series that year.
Last year, the Rangers didn’t win consecutive games until May.
In fact, they had 72 different three-game stretches in 2015 in which they lost more than they won.
One of those was the opening three, against what would turn out to be the league’s worst team. Texas beat Oakland once, and lost the other two games — both of which were blowout shutouts.
The Rangers won the division.
We have 98.1 percent of the season to go.
Let’s go, Derek.
You guys take care of some business, and we’ll see you back here in a week.
That’s the Rangers’ last two Opening Days.
Aside from the fact that Texas managed a mere single in last year’s opener and again yesterday (and that Leonys Martin went hitless in both games), Oakland 8, Texas 0 and Texas 3, Seattle 2 really weren’t all that alike, and not only in the result.
Sonny Gray issued one walk (and that wasn’t until the eighth inning). Felix Hernandez walked five.
Yovani Gallardo was taken deep in the first inning and never found a rhythm. Cole Hamels was taken deep in the first (and again in the second) and locked in after that, masterfully (allowing just two more hits, both Chris Iannetta ground ball singles, and not yielding a single flyout).
Rougned Odor, a year ago, saw three pitches in three plate appearances. Odor, yesterday, saw 15 pitches in four trips. Only two Rangers saw more.
And that, Monday, was a big deal.
When Odor stepped in to lead off the fifth, King Felix was nursing a 2-0 lead and was dealing. Only three balls had left the infield at that point, and he seemed to have all his pitches working. He was missing the zone regularly, but that’s always been a big part of his game, against Texas as much as anyone — he went 5-0, 1.83 against the Rangers last season, and my memory of those games is full of breaking balls and changeups diving beneath the zone, and chased.
The book on Odor, of course, is that he’s as restless a hitter as there is in this lineup, which is the smell of fear to an artist like Hernandez. Odor was 2 for 17 (.118) off the Seattle ace coming into the game — seven strikeouts, no walks — and didn’t draw a single base on balls in spring training last month . . . in 43 plate appearances.
As a rookie in 2014, Odor didn’t draw a walk in his first 67 trips to the plate. Last year, he walked just seven times in his first 119 trips, most of which preceded (and helped to trigger) his early-May demotion to AAA. He’s never had a season, in the minors or the bigs, in which he drew more than 33 unintentional walks.
The Seattle game plan for going after Odor, especially with King Felix on the mound, was predictable.
And yet, in Odor’s first at-bat, in the bottom of the second with Texas already down, 2-0, he watched three pitches sail by (strike, ball, ball) before grounding out to second base.
With the same score on the board when Odor next came up, leading off the bottom of the fifth inning with Hernandez at an economical 53 pitches, he watched a first-pitch curveball settle in up and away.
He let the next pitch go by, another curve, this one in on the hands.
Odor then took a fastball inside, for ball three.
At 3-0, he took a fastball at the knees. Strike one.
Then another fastball in, and Odor took his base.
In nine pitches over his first two trips to the plate, Odor swung the bat one time. I don’t think Elias is going to take the time to check whether he’d ever managed to do that before in what is now an 912-plate-appearance career in the big leagues (including playoffs), along with another 1,560 trips in the minors, but I’ve got a hunch that it was a first.
And it triggered the crooked number on the board that proved decisive on Monday.
Odor took off running on the first pitch to Elvis Andrus — another part of the young second baseman’s game he intends to turn the dial up on this year — and stole second. He reached third when Corey Seager fumbled Andrus’s soft grounder toward the hole. He held up on Robinson Chirinos’s safety squeeze, determining the bunt had too much on it as it bounced toward the mound. He saw Delino DeShields work his own walk to load the bases, and trotted home when Shin-Soo Choo’s five-pitch trip resulted in ball four.
At that point, Hernandez had thrown 19 pitches in the inning. And 14 of them were balls.
Not all that infrequently, he can still make that work, as hitters turn pitches hurtling out of the zone into swinging strikes. But not on Monday. At least not in the fifth inning.
Rougned Odor got that going.
The headlines this morning will be about Prince Fielder’s ducksnort to short left that accounted for the Rangers’ entire hits column, and about Hamels, who was dominant after allowing two early runs (completely reminiscent of his previous start at Globe Life Park, the Game 162 gem in which he was down 2-0 four batters into the game before shutting the Angels down the rest of the way), and about Jake Diekman and Shawn Tolleson, two quietly brilliant Jon Daniels acquisitions who threw a commanding inning each to seal the win.
And properly so.
But there’s another guy who deserves some major props for what he did to change that game. He didn’t get the hit, he didn’t drive in a run, and the run he scored was at the same leisurely trot from third that teammates were taking at the same time from second and from first and from the plate.
Rougned Odor was solid, and at times sensational, on defense yesterday, but we’ve seen that before.
It was his patience at the plate that set up a momentum change, and a scoreboard flip, in Texas 3, Seattle 2, and perhaps more importantly, if it signals a change in Odor’s game as a whole, then those “Breakout Candidates” and “MVP Ballot” articles we’ve seen his name in nationally in the last few days may turn out to have some legs.
Coming into Monday, Seattle had won nine straight Opening Day games, one short of tying a 120-year-old record.
King Felix had been 6-0, with a Live Ball Era-best 1.49 ERA, in eight career Opening Day starts.
He’d won five straight against the Rangers, as mentioned above.
Cole Hamels (who, let’s not forget, said no to Houston) had never won on Opening Day, and in fact had started each of the last five seasons with an 0-1 record.
Texas hadn’t won a game in which it collected one hit since July 27, 1993, a game in which Rafael Palmeiro’s seventh-inning solo shot off Kevin Appier led to a 1-0 victory over the Royals and a year in which “Whoomp! (There It Is)” made Tag Team a quintessential one-hit wonder.
No team (since 1900, at least) had ever won a season opener with one hit or fewer, or been held to one hit or fewer on consecutive Opening Days.
Most trends are bound to turn around at some point. Texas 3, Seattle 2 was one of the strangest Opening Days ever, if not one of the strangest games, and not just because the Rangers won on a single base hit or because Texas outfielders were about as involved in the action as the new netting over the dugouts or because, in my own case, for the first time since this ballpark opened 22 years ago, the year after “Whoomp! (There It Is)” was released, I wasn’t there to take it in.
We’ve seen Rougned Odor make an impact in the big leagues with his power and with his glove and with his recognition that a catcher’s return toss deflecting off a hitter’s bat may just be a live ball.
I can’t remember a game Odor helped win with his patience at the plate.
If what we saw yesterday was a maturing approach out of the 22-year-old, and not a rarity along the lines of winning a baseball game on the strength of one base hit, well then, you know, party on, party people, let me hear some noise.
Is it lazy or inspired when Dale Hansen airs his “Thank God for Kids” segment each holiday season, with the exact same grainy video clips, every single year?
Dale’s really good at that sort of thing, and could absolutely update the visuals, but he doesn’t, and instead we see the same standard-def images of short shorts and zipper cuts annually on that next-to-last Sunday night on the calendar, every year since 1983.
It’s with equal parts laziness and inspiration — by which I mean it’s just about all laziness — that I reissue this from April 1, 2011, the first morning of Rangers baseball that counted following the club’s first World Series, heading into what would be another World Series season, and once again wish you a Happy New Year in 2016.
I made a few changes to update things (very un-Hansen-like of me), included in which was a single sentence kindly sparing everyone from having to instead endure a free-form essay on youth baseball this morning. I know some of you think there’s never an acceptable time for that — but even I agree that today’s not the day.
It’s your favorite author’s brand new book, just out of your mailbox and out of the corrugated box and out of the shrink-wrap.
It’s the last day of school, May 25, 1983, and Return of the Jedi opens as soon as the bell rings.
It’s anniversary reservations at that restaurant.
It’s a new season of Better Call Saul, a new Radiohead CD, a cold beverage and some Chuy’s fresca by the pool with a bunch of friends.
It’s an 11-year-old at the plate, down in the count 1-2, seeing the pitch come out of the righty’s low slot, middle-out, ripe for a walkoff three-run triple (and a win in relief), and coming out of his load with intent.
It’s the end of the previews, and lights dim even further.
It’s Chuck Morgan’s voice and Eric Nadel’s voice and those smells.
It’s a beltline of unfurled bunting, one of the two times each season — if things go right — that it’s broken out.
“You look forward to it, like a birthday party when you’re a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen.”
Joe DiMaggio once said that about this day.
The Magic Number is 163. It’s a beautiful number.
There are no more sleeps to count off, only the aggravating crawl of the clock. Fight through it.
Here’s to the awesomeness of a division-title-defending Page One.