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The ALDS Preview

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The Rangers go to the playoffs for the first time in 11 years, and despite the much better record from their opponents, they may have a very good shot at getting their first playoff series victory ever.

Magic Number: 11

Attn: Elvis Andrus, Andres Blanco, Julio Borbon, Jorge Cantu, Nelson Cruz, Neftali Feliz, Josh Hamilton, Tommy Hunter, Ian Kinsler, Colby Lewis, Mitch Moreland, David Murphy, Darren O'Day, Alexi Ogando, Matt Treanor, C.J. Wilson and, most importantly, Michael Young. Wednesday is the first day of the rest of your life.

It's time. It's been 11 years since we last had a chance to watch the Rangers play games after most of the league was done. On Wednesday afternoon (or morning if you live much west of DFW), the Rangers will be playing an actual playoff game. That means I am at this moment writing about the most important Rangers playoff game I have ever written about on the Internet. It's a strange feeling of exciting and nerve wracking.

For a fan base that rarely gets to experience these moments, summing in to words how important it is to us and how it feels is difficult. Fitting those words in to this series preview and including the amateur analysis is impossible. Instead, the commenters of the internet will tell that story in their own words.

To begin the playoffs, the Rangers play a team they were often compared to not long ago. The Rays were a hard-luck franchise with financial issues who had put together a strong front office and a highly touted farm system. That worked out for them, and they have managed to win two divisions and at least one American League pennant in the last three years. The Rangers' excellent farm system has now paid off with what represents most of this team's first division title, and they'll have to go through the Rays first to duplicate their breakout success in 2008.

Anyway, if you're sitting there thinking the Rangers' destiny is to lose to the champions of the vastly superior AL East, and if you're sitting there glum about getting to the playoffs only to likely get knocked right out. . . you might want to keep reading.

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FanGraphs Top Five Rays In 2010

  1. Evan Longoria, 3B: 661 PA, .294/.372/.507, 13/11 DRS/UZR, .376 wOBA, 6.8 WAR
  2. Carl Crawford, LF: 663 PA, .307/.356/.495, 13/15.8 DRS/UZR, .378 wOBA, 6.7 WAR
  3. David Price, SP: 207.2 IP, 8.11 K/9, 3.41 BB/9, 2.72 ERA, 3.32 tERA, 3.42 FIP, 4.5 WAR
  4. B.J. Upton, CF: 610 PA, .237/.322/.424, -9/-0.3, .337 wOBA, 3.2 WAR
  5. Ben Zobrist, 2B: 655 PA, .238/.346/.353, 18/8.6 DRS/UZR, .323 wOBA, 3.0 WAR

The players are ranked here by the FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement, which attempts to estimate how many more games a team has won by giving innings to the player in question instead of a typical scrub, such as a AAA call-up or the 25th man on most rosters. If you come across a stat you're not familiar with, there's a glossary at the bottom of this preview.

While they have had some good seasons, the Rays' real strength is a lot of depth. Did you know rookie catcher John Jaso almost makes this list?

Evan Longoria is a big key to this series. He's missed the last several games with a quad injury, but has moved from questionable to probable. He's likely to play, but if he misses or hi significantly less than 100%, that's huge. As Rangers fans, we know from the last month how much missing your best player, especially when he's an MVP-caliber force, can hurt.

Carl Crawford has been just about as good as Longoria in a huge contract year. Would anyone else like him in Arlington next season?

David Price I'll talk about a bit more later, and he's been far and away their best pitcher this season, but he hasn't belonged in the conversation as the best in the AL this year. He's been very good and will probably be great, but he wouldn't even necessarily be the second best pitcher on the Rangers this year. Of course, he's a lefty and we'll be seeing him twice. . .

B.J. Upton continues to fall short of expectations, but he's still a good player. Zobrist, meanwhile, has fallen short of last year but he, too, had another good year. He seems to have the ability to play good defense wherever the hell they put him and it kind of annoys me.

Offense

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Rays Probable Lineup

  1. C John Jaso
  2. 2B Ben Zobrist
  3. LF Carl Crawford
  4. 3B Evan Longoria
  5. 1B Carlos Pena
  6. DH Willy Aybar
  7. RF Matt Joyce
  8. CF B.J. Upton
  9. SS Jason Bartlett

The above chart compares the likely lineup for each team in weighted On Base Average. Look at it essentially the way you would OPS, but with improved weights, base stealing added and scaled to look like OBP. Using that, after park adjustment, the Rays' offense performed just under an expected 10 runs better than the Rangers this season, but the Rangers missed significant time from Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton. Though the Rays also missed some time from Pena, the amount of time the Rangers lost likely brings 0.06 (neutralized) runs per game difference between the two down to almost nothing, if not giving the Rangers the advantage.

That is to say: The two offenses are very close. If everyone plays.

Who's going to play is a question, though. For starters, there's the matter of injured David Murphy for the Rangers. He may play, he may not. For this, I'm assuming he won't. That makes the Rangers outfield better defensively but the loss of offense going from Murphy to Borbon outweighs the defensive gain in all likelihood.

For the Rays, there's Longoria, who's questionable for the series. I have to assume he's going to play, so he's up there, but of all the iffy players, he has by far the most impact.

Then there's also platoons. For the Rays, I'm guessing on Willy Aybar DHing most of the series, as he's spent much of the season filling that role against lefties (who the Rays will face at least three times), but then there's discussion on Rays blogs he may not even make the postseason roster. Against righties, the DH has typically been Dan Johnson, who's put up a respectable .340 wOBA this season, and against lefties it could actually end up being Rocco Baldelli (.242). Of course, then if Longoria doesn't play, the Rays usually stick Johnson at third and Brad Hawpe (.332) usually fills in at DH against righties.

For the Rangers, the primary platoon comes from likely playing Jorge Cantu at first over Mitch Moreland, which is a step down both defensively and offensively (.303). Fortunately, the Rangers will likely only face a lefty starter twice at most in this series. Unfortunately, that lefty is very good (but probably overrated). The graph above doesn't include platoons, only the likely starters for most of the games, but the simulation in the end will include some platoons (i.e. 2/5 Cantu, 3/5 Moreland, etc.). Also, if Murphy's out, then I'll be willing to bet the Rangers will put Hamilton in center, Cruz in left and start Jeff Francouer in right.

The Rays offense goes with discipline and speed. They led the majors with a 10.7% walk rate, and also led stolen bases by 12; they also led in the FanGraphs "speed" rating. They don't hit the ball particularly hard, but well enough, and they get on by taking free passes and collecting a lot of extra bases. They are, as well, prone to the strikeout with the highest rate of Ks in the American League. Pitchers like Tommy Hunter and Cliff Lee who like to pound the strike zone might just be what the doctor ordered.

Pitching

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Probable Starters

  1. LHP David Price vs. LHP Cliff Lee
  2. RHP James Shields vs. LHP C.J. Wilson
  3. RHP Matt Garza vs. RHP Colby Lewis
  4. RHP Wade Davis vs. RHP Tommy Hunter
  5. LHP David Price vs. LHP Cliff Lee

Look at that chart and smile. It compares every probable starter in the series (and the bullpens) in Fielding Independent Pitching, which essentially isolates a pitchers' repeatable skills to figure out what their ERA would be without the influence of luck and defense. And, as you can see, the Rangers starter in four out of five games has had the better season in FIP. Even Wade Davis hasn't had a much better season than Tommy Hunter. Jeff Niemann, for his part, has been slightly better than Davis (4.65). Further, this isn't park adjusted, so Rangers Ballpark in Arlington is bringing those red bars up a little more than they would be otherwise. Did you ever think you'd see a postseason series where the Rangers' starting pitching was such a clear advantage in their favor?!

David Price represents the best of the Rays and will soon represent one of the best of his era. If there are under-27 players to bet on making Cooperstown, David Price has to be near the top of your list. And yet, he's gotten really overrated this season. He's had a good year, to be sure, but he's getting talk as maybe the best AL pitcher in 2010 when, by FIP, he's pretty comparable to Wilson and Lewis and way behind Cliff Lee. That doesn't mean he isn't a legit Top of the Rotation Pitcher, it means he's not (yet) the best pitcher in baseball. Price primarily lives with a mid-90s fastball he throws more than half the time, and his primary accompanying pitch is a high-70s curve he brings about once or twice every 10 pitches. He also helps his fastball by mixing in a low-90s two-seamer, a high-80s slider with ridiculous break and a mid-80s change (which FanGraphs considers his most lethal pitch this year) as he sees fit.

James Shields is an interesting case in pitcher evaluation. He gets a ton of strikeouts (8.28 per nine) and gives up almost no walks (2.26 per nine), but he gives up a ton of home runs. How much of that home run rate is bad luck and how much is just being prone to the home run I don't really have a guess, but that home run issue might be why the Rays aren't having him start in Arlington. Shields doesn't lead on any one pitch, instead going with a range of choices and speeds. He doesn't throw any one pitch more than a third of the time and throws almost all of them almost 10% of the time at least. His fastballs primarily sit in the low 90s and his change-up comes in around eight MPH behind it. He also brings a curve and a slider to the party when necessary. His entire game is built around throwing strikes, and, coupled with his home run issues, he may just be a match up dream for an aggressive Rangers lineup.

Matt Garza's FIP and tERA both pretty much agree with his xFIP this season, and his xFIP is right in line with his career. In other words, Garza is pretty much what his peripherals suggest, most likely. And that is pretty much a mediocre starter. He's had some slightly better years in the past, but, for the most part, his good ERAs are a product of a good defense and a somewhat helpful ballpark. He's not bad, but he represents a starter the Texas Rangers should beat. He's a pure seven-out-of-10-times-you-know-it's-coming low-90s fastball guy, and couples it with a few mid-80s sliders, the occasional curve and the even more occasional change. And he manages to avoid too many walks with that approach, but he also doesn't get a whole lot of strikeouts.

Wade Davis is a good young pitcher who shows great promise for the future, but right now he's not a good pitcher. If the Rangers are up going into game four, a rookie at home will be standing in their way of making the second round. Davis actually has a very similar approach (at least by Pitchf/x) to Garza, but with a touch less velocity, fewer strikeouts and more walks.

The Rangers for their part will be going Cliff Lee, C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis in the first three games. Three pitchers who have had very-good-to-great seasons, and that three-man front is their best weapon in October. As for game four, Ron Washington has most recently said it will go to Tommy Hunter, and I'm going to take him at his word. I've already expressed some disapproval of this move. I think Lee on short rest and an extra start by Wilson is better for the Rangers' chances of winning than letting Hunter start a playoff game, even if it would put Lee on short rest. We're just going to have to hope this is either gamesmanship by the Rangers or the Tommy Hunter move pays off. Either way, I don't think it's a killer.

Both teams have a good bullpen and, after park adjustment, are a virtual deadlock for who's better. Texas will likely be missing Frank Francisco, however, which probably shifts things for the Rays a bit. Like the Rangers, they go deep in the pen, but it's their top three who really shut things down. Rafael Soriano, Grant Balfour and longtime Ranger Joaquin Benoit have all been among the best relievers in baseball in 2010, and Randy Choate represents a very formidable lefty specialist. Whichever team manages to get a lead by the seventh inning likely holds a dominant advantage in this series. There will likely be very few late-inning rallies, on either side.

Fielding

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This here graph compares each of the expected regulars this series in two FanGraphs defensive measures: Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. Both are on a "runs saved above average" basis and, for this, are prorated to a per 150 games started rate.

As you can see, it suggests defense is where the Rays shine, though they don't dominate the Rangers across the board. The big standouts are Ben Zobrist at second and Carl Crawford in left, and no Rangers have really had seasons to compare with what they've put up between the two stats. Keep in mind, though, that beyond being mostly experimental, defensive metrics require a hefty sample size (more than a single season) to get a real glimpse of talent. This is merely a look at how the individuals are estimated to have played so far in the season.

While the Rays do have the edge, though, it's not by a whole heck of a lot. Both teams field the ball well, and if you split the difference between those two measures, with these two lineups, the Rays don't even save a full run extra over the Rangers in a five game sample. Defense can play a difference in the series, and the Rays do have the edge, but this isn't an area of dominance for either side that's particularly likely to shape the events of the next few days.

Expectations

Okay, so now we have a preview of each individual element of the two teams. With that done, the next step is to get a rough preview of what we can expect. Super cool baseball writer Steve Sommer has granted me access to his simulation design that puts a team's defense, offense and pitching (and home field advantage) into a series prediction.

If you've read all this way, you probably know what's coming. The hitting and fielding are close, the homefield advantage is only one extra game, and the pitching matchups heavily favor the Rangers. With a little typical regression and park adjustments applied to the same elements above, a best of five series will usually come out like this:

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Yes, you are looking at that correctly. The simulation (which includes expected platoons) has the Rangers as favored in the series. That's what pitching matchups will do for you. They come out winning just under 56% of the time, which is right in the middle of a coin toss and about as favored as teams usually come out. Going a third straight postseason appearance without so much as a win looks like a slim chance, occurring just under 2.5% of the time, and losing in five occurs just under one-third of the time.

The runs scored is actually pretty close, with the Rangers expected to score around 3.94 runs per game and the Rays looking at expecting to score about 3.85. In a neutral setting, the Rangers' (those expected to play) average performance would be expected to win game one over 56% of the time. Going on the road makes it closer to a toss-up, but Lee vs. Price still should favor Texas. Game two rather handily favors the Rays, and they could be expected to win close to 60% of the time, but that's completely regressing the home run rates of Wilson (lucky) and Shields (unlucky); the more you buy in to their HR/FB rates being the real deal, the less that game favors Tampa. Game three the Rangers should probably expect to win close to 57% of the time at home, and while game four would slightly favor the Rays in a neutral setting, it should favor Texas slightly at home. So through the first four games, the Rangers look like the better team in at least three of them, with another being perhaps closer than it looks. And game five, of course, is set to be a repeat of game one.

Now, here are a couple quick bullet points as far as how some of the questions from the lineups affect the projection.

  • Going with David Murphy in every game and keeping Borbon on the bench makes the Rangers a tad better, jumping them up to 57% to win the series. In the low run environment of the playoffs, Julio Borbon's upgrade for the defense is meaningful, and may well make up most of the offensive loss from Murphy's injury. That said, while Murphy may make a small improvement in odds if everyone plays, he also affects the Rangers' depth.
  • The simulation actually drops the Rangers to about 55% if Cliff Lee starts on short rest and gets a regression typical of pitchers on short rest over the last four years (12%). The reason appears to be the regression of C.J. Wilson's home run rates. The gain of Lee in game four doesn't make up for the loss of him in game five. If Wilson's home run rate is more skill than Luck and Lee can be better than 88% on short rest, it begins to favor starting him on short rest, but, for right now, I appear to have stumbled across an argument in favor of starting Tommy Hunter. Maybe the Rangers know what they're doing. I still can't be comfortable with it, but I'm a bit less upset.
  • Evan Longoria missing is suggested to be huge. To the tune of jumping the Rangers up to 61% to win the series. Longoria is likely to play it seems, though. He may be rusty, but then the same thing could be said about Josh Hamilton.

Admittedly, everything that isn't "on paper," seems to favor the Rays. Big game experience and better ability to stay healthy and doing more of "the little things" and stuff like that. Maybe the Rays will run roughshod through the Rangers in three. But that doesn't appear likely. I might call this closer to a toss up than 56% Rangers, but I probably wouldn't go as far as calling the Rays the favorable team in this series. Tampa was certainly better over 162 games, but a five-game series is difference. Hopefully in that five-game series, the Rangers have the roster they rarely had together at once in those 162 games, and they have to give fewer innings to the back of their rotation.

Obviously, anything can happen. I should have to tell you the tired "that's why they play the game" stuff. This is absolutely not supposed to be telling you to go ahead and get ready for the ALCS. However, if you come away from this thinking the Rangers have more than just a shot in hell, and in fact may win three of these next five games more often than they lose them, that's the point.

Not that I really expect anyone to be confident. I sure as hell won't be.

There's a really good chance something will happen that has never happened in Rangers history by next week. Even if that's merely winning a couple playoff games.

As always, and for the most important time in a decade, go Rangers!

Glossary: WAR, DRS, UZR, wOBA, FIP, tERA

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.