Earlier today, Adam Morris linked to a story from Anthony Andro on where the 2011 Rangers rank in team history, and I felt it prompted a few notes on how good the Rangers are outside of just wins and losses right now.
Obviously, 72-52 is really good. It's the first time the Rangers have been 20 over .500 since 1999, when they won 95 games. Digging deeper, though, they look even better than that.
Texas has scored 123 more runs than they have allowed, which is the fourth best run differential in Baseball, and closer to first (56 behind the Yankees) than it is to fifth (67 ahead of the Braves). That's already 13 runs better than the 1977 Rangers for the second best mark in franchise history, and just six away from the best 162 game run differential the Rangers have ever put up (1996). It is mid-August. 2010, by the way, ranks fourth currently.
That run differential translates to an expected record of .600, or a 97 (and two-tenths of a) win pace. That should give you a sense of how well the Rangers have been playing: their actual performance has been more like the best team in franchise history.
Baseball Prospectus is willing to go a little farther than just runs scored and allowed, though. They look at how well teams hit and allow hits to better estimate how much teams should be scoring and allowing, and then turn that in to a win estimation which they call Second Order Record. For good measure, they then adjust for strength of schedule and create Third Order Record. You can find that here. It is, essentially, an estimation of how many games a team would be winning with neutral luck on hit chaining and a balanced schedule. In any case, that lengthy explanation leads to this point: the Rangers' Third Order Record is an awesome .613, or slightly better than a 99 win pace; which, obviously, by far, would be the best in franchise history. For comparison, the Red Sox currently sit as the best team in the league by this measure with a .626 winning percentage, which comes out to less than two wins better over 162 than what the Rangers have done.
In short, Baseball Prospectus's Adjusted Standings are saying this: the Rangers' true performance through the first 124 games of baseball has not even been a couple of wins worse than the best teams in the American League. Take that as food for thought, and remember that, going forward, the Rangers have a very realistic shot of being better having added two of the best relievers in baseball to their previously-weak bullpen, and (hopefully) getting good health out of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and Adrian Beltre.
In another kind-of-similar method of measuring actual performance underneath actual record, FanGraphs' team Wins Above Replacement numbers have the Rangers, as a team, third with 43.1 wins more than an entirely replacement-level roster would have put forth so far, a little under five wins behind Boston.
You cannot necessarily say that Texas is a big step behind the best teams in baseball. They are twice as far ahead of their closest competition in the division as the team with the best record is ahead of them. Going .500 from here on out would still give them more wins than 2010, and there is strong evidence they might make a run at the best record the franchise has ever seen (.600 ball would nearly get there). Texas is a really good team and there is no reason to write them off in October.
As far as how they compare to the rest of the franchise, that is a different question. While this is only the 11th best offense in terms of runs per game Texas has fielded, every team ahead of them played in a league where runs were easier to come by. For example, in 1999, the offense scored 0.65 more runs per game than average, while in 2011 the Rangers are scoring 0.79 runs per game more. That's right, the 2011 Texas Rangers are farther ahead of the average AL offense so far than that 1999 juggernaut.
On the flip side, this team is the 7th best the Rangers have ever fielded at preventing runs (1981 being the best), but while all those ahead of them played in similar or weaker run environments, none of them pitched in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. So, it stands to reason -- which was already evidenced by the run differential -- that this is close to the, if not the very, best the Rangers have ever put forth both in terms of scoring and preventing scores. That is a pretty simple and easy way to make the case for their being the best the franchise has seen.
Importantly, we have 38 more games to get an idea of how good this team is, so we shouldn't be jumping to conclusions yet. 1995's record will be hard to top, but while this team is probably better than their record, 1995 was probably not quite as good (though their bullpen probably meant they were better than RS/RA suggested). 1996 was a really good team, but 2011 appears just a tad better so far, and has the opportunity to do more in October.
Then 2010, of course, was not as dominant in the regular season, but was built for success in the post season in a way that took them to heights that will be hard to top. Andro argues 2010 will always be the best Rangers team ever until someone wins the World Series, but that is a really questionable way to define the best. The best team could have a down series somewhere in October and fall short of a title and still be better than the 2010 team was. How well built last year's squad was for the post season, and how they dominated tremendous competition for 11 games before hitting a Giant wall should absolutely be considered on top of the regular season credentials, but if this year's squad continues to play this well, or better, without winning a championship they should still be in consideration for the best team in franchise history.
Or, we could all just enjoy the winning and great baseball and think about this stuff later.
"Teenagers with attitude."