Season's First Preview

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 05: Texas Rangers fan Cole Davis, 8, waits in the outfield stands during batting practice before the Texas rangers thake on the Toronto Blue Jays on Opening Day at Rangers Ballpark on April 5, 2010 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

The Rangers start their AL title defense against the team most expect to take their crown. How do the two teams look on Opening Day?

Magic Number: 163

The wait is over. Baseball is here. For the next six months, save for that ridiculously boring day after the All-Star game, America's Pass-time will be going on somewhere every afternoon and evening. Never again (or six months from now, whichever comes first) will you have to sit trying to see if some sport worth watching is on somewhere. There will now always be a sport worth watching. It's here! It's finally here!

There is something different about this year, though. The Texas Rangers are, for the first time ever, of a special clan, a clan that has just two members in any given year. They are Defending League Champions.

Has a ring to it.

Hamiltonring_medium

The start of baseball season is always exciting. It is one of those days, like NFL Sundays or the first weekend of March Madness, or the World Cup, where you get wall-to-wall games, every one of them brimming with excitement and the feeling of old friends coming back home. It so perfectly coincides with the Spring (we here just had our first day in the 60s, in fact), the beginning of warm weather, sun, blooming plants, the outdoors, and the coming days of happiness. Over time, the games will settle in to an every-day event, the meaning of each win and loss will lessen, some fans' excitement will turn in to resolution towards another meaningless season, and baseball will take on more the feeling of a daily soap opera for people who hate soap operas than a special event.

But on opening day, it is all meaningful. It is time for baseball to come back in to our lives and give our nights meaning, and it is time, for the first time ever, for the Rangers to defend a significant title, and perhaps even take the next step.

I do not know how you get pumped, but I know I do it by watching as many motivational speeches in a short period of time as a I can! Get pumped with me, then continue reading after the video.


Hell yeah! Nothing says baseball like freeing Willy! Sorry about the Angels.

Okay, now that you are ready, it is time to come down. A little.

The opening game of the baseball season always has a bit more importance placed on it than 1/162nd of anything should. Because we feel like it sets the tone of the season, because at this point it is 100% of the games played, and because it has been so long since we have seen a game -- win or lose -- it feels like something in a pennant race, not just another game.

Which makes it pretty harsh that the Rangers' first game of their AL title defense comes against none other than the team people expect to take their crown. Texas hosts the Boston Red Sox, who bolstered last year's good-but-injury-riddled team with All Stars, and, on paper, look dominantly like the best team in baseball. A ridiculously tough task to open a season with.

That does not mean the Rangers are not up to it.

A BRIEF EXPLANATION

This will be the first full baseball season for SB Nation Dallas-Ft. Worth, so that means (hopefully) a full season of series previews. Exciting!

If this is not your first rodeo, just scroll past this section. If you happen to be new to these, here is a quick explanation of what you will find in most previews this season. After an introduction to each game, you will find five elements with big, bold titles denoting them.

The first element is a run down of the significant players on each roster based on the stats from FanGraphs.com. This is just a quick introduction to the other guys who you need to know if you do not already.

The next three elements are the Offensive, Defensive, and Fielding comparisons. Under offense, you will also fine the likely line-up for most of the series, and under pitching you will find the probable starters. Each of these three sections will have a discussion of the teams, as well as big, colorful graphs comparing the two teams on paper in a stat from FanGraphs. Note that these stats (in later previews) are not so much the best skill estimate, but rather a quick representation of how the players have been doing in the season so far. I fully intend to include small sample sizes for the hilarity.

If there are stats you are not familiar with, there will be a handy glossary at the bottom of each preview for you.

Finally, there will be a conclusion setting expectations. These will use a series projection tool designed by baseball guru Steve Sommer, using inputs similar to the elements shown in the three sections (some regression and stuff to avoid small sample skewing and things like that), as well as stuff like home field advantage. This is to give you a simple idea of, basically, how often the Rangers would win the series if it was played 10,000 times.

The big, bold headings are so you can cruise to whatever section you want. If you do not feel like reading the whole preview but just want to see how some element compares, or just want to see the starting pitchers or the significant players, or just want to see what the odds of winning the series are, just scroll to what you want. Easy!

Now, on with the content.

KNOW THY ENEMIES

FanGraphs' Top Five Red Sox

POS

NAME

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

WAR

LF

Carl Crawford

663

.307

.356

.495

.378

6.9

POS

NAME

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/FB

FIP

WAR

SP

Jon Lester

208

9.74

3.59

8.9%

3.13

5.6

POS

NAME

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

wOBA

WAR

1B

Adrian Gonzalez

693

.298

.393

.511

.378

5.3

3B

Kevin Youkilis

435

.307

.411

.564

.419

4.2

POS

NAME

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/FB

FIP

WAR

SP

John Lackey

215

6.53

3.01

7.3%

3.85

4.0

 

Obviously, this is not the best Red Sox in 2011 so far, these are 2010 stats to start the year. Also, two of these guys were not even Red Sox last season, as they added Crawford and Gonzalez in the pre-season. On a competing team with Fenway Park to hit in, both could well be MVP candidates in 2011, though A-Gon will have to compete with moving to a more difficult league, as well.

The players are ranked by FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement, which is, essentially, an estimate of all a players' performance (offense and defense) compared against a scrub at his position, and how many more games his team wins by giving him those plate appearances instead of a scrub.

While the Red Sox do add two new players who would have been in their top five last season, though, they also lost two of their top five from last season. Victor Martinez (4.0 WAR) left for the Tigers, and Adrian Beltre (7.1) left for some other team. That said, much of the Red Sox additional talent will not come from their free agents, but rather health. As you can see, Youkilis lost a ton of plate appearances to the Disabled List last season, and so did Dustin Pedroia (3.3). Just getting a healthy year out of them will go a long way to improving their win totals from last season.

No. two on that list is the big problem for the Rangers. Lester was one of the best pitchers in baseball last season, and he is at the age where he is probably just going to get better and better. Starting the season against that kind of force is going to be rough, but at least he cannot pitch every game. John Lackey (starter No. two) was a good starter, but he will be facing Colby Lewis. And if Colby Lewis was on that list, he would be higher than John Lackey (4.4).

OFFENSE

 

Woba_medium
Probable Red Sox Lineup

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. 2B Dustin Pedroia
  3. LF Carl Crawford
  4. 3B Kevin Youkilis
  5. 1B Adrian Gonzalez
  6. DH David Ortiz
  7. RF Mike Cameron
  8. C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
  9. SS Marco Scutaro

That is, um, intimidating.

The offenses here are compared by weighted On Base Average, which is essentially just like OPS in what it is trying to convey, but weighted better and put on a scale similar to OBP. Also, because nothing has, you know, happened yet, these stats are brought about using Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection system.

As you can see, that makes the Red Sox look. . . really good. Scary good. Every hitter looks to be above average but none other than Jarrod Saltalamacchia. You know, the guy knocked in a walk-off RBI on Opening Day for the Rangers to begin their first ever pennant run. There is something poetic about him being the weakest looking hitter in the opposing line-up to begin their first ever pennant defense.

The Red Sox do not completely dwarf the Rangers, with most positions being close, and most Rangers project at least close to average (and better than Salty!), but the big problem will be facing the run of Crawford-Youkilis-Gonzalez-Ortiz, a vicious heart of the order. Few teams have so much to intimidate pitchers with.

There was talk that the Red Sox would not bother platooning J.D. Drew with Mike Cameron, but it now looks as though Cameron will be starting the season, and likely game three against Matt Harrison. Drew (projected .361 wOBA) will likely start games two and three, however. Also, Youkilis batting fifth and Gonzalez batting fourth seems the most common. You would think a team as forward thinking as the Red Sox, by the way, would not be having Jacoby Ellsbury leading off just because of speed, but oh well.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have announced their Opening Day roster. Fortunately, Mike Napoli will start the year against Lester, instead of Mitch Moreland. Napoli should never, ever sit against a lefty. That graph above, however, reflects Moreland as he should be playing the next two games.

PITCHING

Pitching_medium
 

Probable Starters

  1. LHP Jon Lester vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
  2. RHP John Lackey vs. RHP Colby Lewis
  3. RHP Clay Buchholz vs. LHP Matt Harrison

In two pitching parks, these guys will all probably be underrated in 2011, but all project to be really good. FIP is Fielding Independent Pitching, which is basically using the three outcomes that are totally on the pitchers' shoulders (walk, strikeout, home run) to estimate what his ERA should be with normal luck and defense. As with the wOBA graph, this is ZiPS's projection for the players. Since it is like ERA, lower is obviously better.

Lester, again, looks like one of the best pitchers in baseball. He mixes his pitches more than the average pitcher, getting a lot out of a relatively-powerful curve, and keeps right handers honest by pairing his mid-90s fastball with a ridiculous cutter.

Lackey was probably overpaid, but he is still very good. Last season he appeared to abandon his long-time fastball for something that moves more like a cutter with the same velocity, but still showed his signature curve, which he brings out nearly a quarter of the time.

Buchholz is quickly headed towards being one of the best pitchers in baseball, as well. He might be a treat for a team that likes fastballs as much as the Rangers, though, as he leans on it a lot, but it does have plenty of juice (about 94 MPH). He mostly mixes the rest of his pitches with equal parts slider and change, just like a pitcher who you draft in a video game who has a really boring repertoire. You would never use Clay Buchholz if he was a video game character. In real life, you wish your team had him.

It is not often you have to face three pitchers who look this good in a series, but the Rangers are not sending out chopped liver, either, though. Cliff Lee gave Texas fans something out of a pitcher they have rarely, if ever, seen; a guy who was one of the absolute very best two or three in the game. Because of that, Wilson and Lewis ended up being shucked aside a bit, just for not being quite that good. However, both were No. 1 caliber starting pitchers in 2010, and that needs to be remembered when people wonder about how will pitch for the Rangers without Lee. Both project to, again, be very good. Especially Lewis, who looks to give the Rangers the better starter in game two.

If you read this quickly enough, you probably saw Alexi Ogando probable to start game three, as that was what MLB.com had at the time, but now everyone says Matt Harrison so you see Matt Harrison.

DEFENSE

Defense_medium

So if the Red Sox have the edge in pitching and defense, the Rangers have to get the edge in something, right? Yes, my friend, and that thing is called defense.

The graph above uses the career performances of each starter in two defensive measures, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, from FanGraphs to try and estimate how many runs each player saves over 150 games played in the field (over an average guy at the position). For now, you see career data.

And you see the Rangers looking really good, with the better fielder at half the positions, usually by a lot, and left field being the only position where Texas is not at least close. These are two teams that emphasize defense, but right now the Rangers look like they are doing the better job. That is no insult to the Red Sox, who will probably be one of the best fielding teams in baseball, but if they are better than Texas it will be a mild upset. If you consider how much Ian Kinsler has improved in recent years, it would look even better.

The difference here comes out to a little more than half a run saved in a series by the Rangers over the Red Sox, which is a much more significant total than it sounds. More than the comparison against Boston, though, just look at how good those red and blue bars look. Balls hit in play should not be a terrifying thing in 2011 with so many quick feet and sure gloves across the roster.

Feels good, man.

EXPECTATIONS

So, as mentioned, this preview shall feature some projections of wins to give you an idea of what to expect in the series. The Red Sox probably have the better starter in two-out-of-three games, and not a serious disadvantage in the other. They have the better offense (likely, at least), and a capable defense. Only a homer would think the Rangers are the better team, so only a homer would think the Rangers have a good chance in this series, right?

  Rangerswins_medium

Do not forget homefield advantage! Homefield (which is probably thanks to umpires), does make a difference and it does give the Rangers a reasonable shot in the series. In fact, on paper, the Rangers' first series of the season looks like a tossup, with Texas winning the series almost exactly 50% of the time in the log5 projections. The most likely result looks to be the Red Sox taking two out of three, at around 38%, but the Rangers actually come out as more likely to sweep.

Total score looks like around 15-14 Red Sox. Any fewer Rangers runs scored or allowed might be cause for disappointment, but not panic. It is only three games. Many more will be played. The Rangers have better than a one-in-ten shot of starting the year 0-3, but starting the year 0-3 would not do too much to their really, really, really good chances of winning the division again.

They also have better than a one-in-ten shot to start the year 3-0 with wins over a team that looks dominant. This is absolutely not to say this is all from home field advantage, it should also be noted that the Rangers do look really good on paper. They look good enough to go toe-to-toe in a short series with most likely the best team in baseball. That does not mean you should go out expecting another pennant, but you should absolutely be thinking about it as something completely possible. There is absolutely no reason the Rangers cannot compete this season, not Cliff Lee and not the stacked roster of the Red Sox. It can very well be Time again.

Note: Michael Young will apparently be hitting fifth, but that graph has him hitting sixth and Cruz hitting fifth. Which makes more sense. No, it does not make sense.

BASEBALL!!!

In loving memory of Joshua "Ballgame" Lewin.

Broadcaster

Glossary: DRS FIP UZR wOBA WAR

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