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Forecasting The 2011 Texas Rangers: The Early Edition

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In honor of the reporting of the pitchers and the catchers, a very early look at how good the 2011 Rangers project to be.

Magic Number: 163

Pitchers and Catchers Report.

It is one of the most magical phrases in sports. It comes on the heels of the tragic demise of the NFL, and conjures images of the impending spring weather and the excitement of a new season.

The 2011 version of Pitchers and Catchers Reporting Wednesday brought with it a level of excitement perhaps never known at this point in the year by Rangers fans. Rarely, if ever, do the Rangers look like such clear favorites to win their division. And never, of course, have they played the season under the title of Defending American League Champions.

So what better time, then, to beginning projecting, predicting, forecasting, guessing, and prognosticating upon the Rangers 2011 season than the day after some pitchers threw some balls at some catchers? With that in mind, here is an early (key word) attempt at predicting what the Rangers will do in 2011 right down to games won with a little bit of objectivity and a little bit of fandom.

I am probably going to need some help with the latter. That is where you, dear reader, will come in.

The objective portion comes by virtue of Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projection system. The below prediction uses ZiPS's projections for the 2011 Rangers for all offensive and defensive rates. Additionally, the cap placed on players' playing time in ZiPS is used, as ZiPS attempts to take risk and potential playing time in to account. If you need some examples of how ZiPS does as a projection system, try here for pitchers and here for hitters as a starting point.

The fan portion comes from how well we know our teams. What is the depth chart? How much playing time will certain players get? Who plays centerfield? Before showing you the final output, I am going position-by-position on the Rangers to discuss what my assumptions are as far as playing time. However, I may not know something you do, so my hope is that you will read and give your own input on who will play where and how often. Let me know and I will keep revising over the course of Spring Training as we have more information.

For now, here is a preliminary forecast for the 2011 Texas Rangers:

IMPORTANT NOTE

First thing is first: a projection is no more than an educated guess. It is meant to be (and usually is) better than staring at a roster and just kind of guessing how well players will do. It is not, of course, set in stone, so do not treat it like it is. Treat it like an estimate. Heed these excellent words from Dave Cameron:

Projections are information about what we think we currently know, while predictions are speculation about things that we probably cannot know.

This may sound like semantics, but there is an important difference here, and it’s often lost in the way projections are discussed. Too often, projections are treated as predictions of the future. You’ll see people say things like "CAIRO thinks the Blue Jays are going to only win 67 games this year," for instance.

But that’s not really true. CAIRO thinks that the Blue Jays are on course to win 67 games, and if they don’t do something about it between now and the end of the season, that is their likely destination. But, like a map, the entire point of a projection is to inform the the user so that he can then alter the course if he so desires.

Also, there will be many players not listed here who contribute to the 2011 Rangers, those players are just hard to predict. The guess here is that all those players will be about replacement level.

CATCHER

ZiPS does not like Yorvit Torrealba to get more than 84 games, so a lot of time has to be given to other catchers. With the Rangers emphasis on catcher defense, it seems unlikely Mike Napoli will get a large chunk of playing time, but he does get seven games behind the plate here. The rest go to Matt Treanor.

FIRST BASE

First base is a difficult situation. It seems as though the Rangers are committed to Mitch Moreland, and that the role for Michael Young is DH. However, it is also difficult to imagine they gave up Frank Francisco and some cash to stash Mike Napoli on the bench until someone is hurt. With that in mind, the projection here is mostly a platoon, though not entirely, with Napoli getting close to a third of the games played at first base, almost entirely against lefties. It may be that Moreland plays every game without struggling, but my best guess is it is likely Mike Napoli gets some time even if Moreland works out. This gives Napoli just under 300 PAs, including his time at catcher and DH.

SECOND BASE

Ian Kinsler is obviously the second baseman, the problem is his health. ZiPS gives him 126 games at catcher. Though it seems Michael Young may well get time backing up Kinsler, here the playing time is given to Andres Blanco. With Young's defensive limitations, the difference is likely not particularly large for the Rangers total wins.

THIRD BASE

Adrian Beltre is an awesome hitter who is usually extremely healthy. The 14 games ZiPS doesn't have him playing are here given to Michael Young.

SHORTSTOP

ZiPS actually likes Elvis Andrus to play just shy of 162 games. However, for this, all players are capped at 150 games played. That may or may not be a mistake. The rest of the time is given to Andres Blanco, as Michael Young playing shortstop would be a terrifying thing which the Rangers are hopefully shying away from.

LEFT FIELD

If Julio Borbon hits the way ZiPS thinks he can (.307 wOBA), he likely gets all the playing time in center, which means Josh Hamilton gets plenty of time in left field. Hamilton is not a good bet to stay healthy, of course, so David Murphy is getting 46 games in left here.

CENTER FIELD

As mentioned above, ZiPS is high on Julio Borbon's ability to at least deserve a regular playing job. He does not project as anything special, but not a glaring problem, either. He also projects to stay healthy, and what few games he misses are filled here by Josh Hamilton.

RIGHT FIELD

Same thing as left field. Nelson Cruz is obviously the starter, with David Murphy getting plenty of time while Cruz is out.

DESIGNATED HITTER

This is where things get very questionable. This off season, Michael Young has seemingly been upset about a loss of playing time, which makes one wonder if the Rangers have designs on giving Mike Napoli more time here. However, it is hard to imagine Young not getting as many plate appearances as he can healthily handle with Ron Washington in charge, and the assumption here is that Young is the regular DH. What time is lost to Young playing other positions is filled by a very dangerous Napoli/David Murphy platoon, using both hitters' platoon splits.

STARTING PITCHING

Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson are obviously in the rotation. If Brandon Webb pitches like ZiPS expects, he's probably getting as many innings as he can handle. The ERAs of Derek Holland (4.54), Scott Feldman (4.67), and Tommy Hunter (4.74) are all fairly close. The Rangers' wariness of Holland suggests he is certainly probably behind Hunter going in to Spring Training on the depth chart, and is perhaps also behind Feldman. However, with Webb only projected at 94 innings pitched, there is room for all of them. There is also room for a few starts from Matt Harrison, who fills out the remaining starting pitcher innings here, with a few also given to Michael Kirkman and Tanner Scheppers.

RELIEF PITCHING

A big question is what the depth chart of the relief pitching will be, in terms of who will get the most leverage. The assumed list here, going from most to least leverage, among the significant relievers is this:

  1. Neftali Feliz
  2. Darren Oliver
  3. Arthur Rhodes
  4. Alexi Ogando
  5. Darren O'Day

Ogando and O'Day both project to be deserving of a higher spot on the chart, but Ogando's rookie season featured probably less leverage than he should have been given, while Rhodes and Oliver have strong veteran appeal.

Pedro Strop, Michael Kirkman, Tanner Scheppers, Mark Lowe and Zach Phillips get roughly equal time to fill out the remaining innings pitched.

BATTING ORDER

Does not make a huge difference, but this is what is being used for the forecast:

  1. Elvis Andrus
  2. Michael Young
  3. Josh Hamilton
  4. Adrian Beltre
  5. Nelson Cruz
  6. Ian Kinsler
  7. Mitch Moreland
  8. Yorvit Torrealba
  9. Julio Borbon

DEFENSE

For defense, a simple combination of a player's past three seasons of Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs saved is plugged in, with some regression for players who missed significant time.

PROJECTION

Using the excellent spreadsheet provided by Royal's Review here, the above playing time and ZiPS's projected performances (with batting lines converted to weighted On Base Average) are plugged in, and you get a nifty little wins projection. In case you scrolled past all the sausage making just to see the final product, it is in big, bold font.

2011 Texas Rangers Projected Record: 90-72

(Actually 89.44771275 wins, rounded.)

Or, exactly a repeat of the record from last season. If anything, however, this projection is likely a bit pessimistic. If you did just scroll down to this point, then you missed how playing time was allotted to reach this number, but it does make a difference.

For example, there is the DH situation. As has been discussed already, a platoon of Napoli and Murphy is likely more productive at DH than Young alone. With all the time Murphy would likely get in the outfield, Young would still get over 200 PAs -- more if he played second base -- and a Young/Napoli platoon is still more productive than one or the other alone, even if Young is not hitting his platoon strength. Just giving most DH time to Napoli and some more time to Murphy is slightly more than a two win upgrade (up to 92-70, like Nolan Ryan predicted for 2010). Another win is projected on top of that comes from going to a Moreland/Young platoon at first base, assuming Young is no better than average there.

Of course, maybe the Rangers fall apart and lose more games if Young leads from the bench more often, and the internal scouting may have a very good reason for wanting to give Moreland first base full time. Three wins in a projection is not a whole lot to clamor over, but it does suggest there may be a better way to do things than going with Michael Young as the full-time DH.

It also suggests there is some upside from 90-72, and beyond just how playing time is allotted, there are a few other big reasons. A big one is baserunning. Baseball Prospectus had the 2010 Rangers as being worth roughly a win above an average team on the basepaths, but baserunning did not factor in to this forecast. And this team does not have Vladimir Guerrero's mystifying basepath adventures. Baserunning is not usually a huge factor, but it's something the Rangers are more likely to be good at than anything.

Additionally, the simple defensive inputs here are likely a tad too conservative for young players like Borbon and Andrus, who have great defensive reputations that don't quite jive with their small sample size performances. A rough estimation based on perceived defensive value (about five runs for above average, ten runs for good, fifteen runs for very good, etc.) brings the projection to around 91-92 wins.

Tom Tango's assessment of ZiPS found it to be perhaps the best projection system at forecasting players with limited reliability, or players who have not had a long, normal career. The Rangers have plenty of guys like that, with C.J. Wilson's late conversion to starter, Josh Hamilton's long time gone and huge down year in 2009, and Colby Lewis' time in Japan, among others. But while ZiPS may be relatively good at projecting those players, one still has to question if it quite accurately grabs how good they can be or how much playing time they can contribute.

Then there is the schedule. This is not a simulation of the season, just a WAR talent estimate. But the Rangers do not likely play an average schedule, thanks to a division where the A's or Angels are likely to be the second best team, when they would struggle to look like the fourth best in other divisions.

So, in short, the estimate put forth here is "only" 90 wins, but that is not to say it is a strong suggestion anyone expecting improvement over 2010 is crazy, or that CAIRO's 93 win projection is weirdly optimistic. This is an estimate of what kind of talent the Rangers have on their roster right now, with good reasons to believe it is just a bit more pessimistic than reality. Fans' expectations of the Rangers in 2011 should probably hover around being one of the best non-Red Sox teams in baseball and perhaps the most likely team in baseball to see post season play.

Which goes to say the estimation here is that 2011, like 2010 before it, is likely one of the best Rangers teams ever assembled, and quite believably a better team than the one that came before. It may not be as well built for the post season without Cliff Lee, but Lee's contributions had very little to do with the 90 games the Rangers won in 2010. The team that won those games is mostly intact, with the addition of a star third baseman and a little more seasoning. Improvement over a 90-win season makes sense, and there is nothing here to suggest otherwise.

In other words, there is a reason to be excited as the pitchers throw baseballs to catchers months before actual games are even played.

If you have any input, arguments, or evidence about playing time and the depth charts, please leave it in the comments. What we come up with as a community can help us make adjustments.

Top 20 Projected Rangers By WAR

Adrian Beltre

5.3

Josh Hamilton

4.4

Nelson Cruz

3.9

Ian Kinsler

3.5

Colby Lewis

3.2

C.J. Wilson

2.3

Mike Napoli

2.0

Elvis Andrus

1.9

Brandon Webb

1.7

David Murphy

1.7

Neftali Feliz

1.6

Yorvit Torrealba

1.5

Mitch Moreland

1.2

Darren O’Day

1.1

Julio Borbon

1.0

Alexi Ogando

0.9

Darren Oliver

0.9

Derek Holland

0.7

Scott Feldman

0.6

Michael Young

0.4

 

Projections, if not obvious, come from the same spreadsheet used for the rest of this. Leverage not included for relievers (it takes Feliz to 2.5, for example). Michael Young's offensive contribution is about as good as ever, he just takes a big hit in WAR for DH's very high replacement level.

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