A MYTH NO MORE?

BY: Richard W. Humphrey

Matt Harrison pitched eight sparkling innings Friday night as the Rangers won their sixth game of the year, 4-1 over Minnesota. The team’s 6-2 record is not only the best in the American League West; it is the best in the American League! Harrison’s outing was the longest so far this season for any Ranger starter, and he became the first Ranger to win two games. His ERA dropped to an eye popping 0.64!

The headline for the game story in the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram is “Strong Defense Backs Harrison in Texas Rangers’ Victory”. Bryan Dolgin’s game story at ESPN Dallas has a section titled “Sweet D”. The theme of T. R. Sullivan’s game story at TexasRangers.com is the quality defense that was played Friday night in support of Harrison’s effort. His first quote is from manager Ron Washington, “They know how to play defense. They take pride in it.” Sullivan particularly cited two diving catches by Nelson Cruz and David Murphy, two key double plays, and notable plays from middle infielders Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus.

Spectacular defensive plays have been a trademark of the Rangers since Washington took over as manager. Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler are one of the best double play combinations in baseball. Both have superior throwing arms and tremendous range. Outfielders are seemingly fearless when it comes to diving for balls and running into outfield walls. (In Josh Hamilton’s case, Ranger fans wish he would have more fear of outfield walls.) Washington has always received credit for the Rangers “playing hard” for him, and these spectacular plays are the best advertisement for that claim.

Unfortunately, the idea that the Rangers have been a good defensive team has been a myth as high error totals and poor fielding percentages have also been a trademark of Washington’s teams. The Rangers have never finished higher than 12th in the A. L. in fielding percentage in Washington’s five years as manager, and has always exceeded the bench mark error total of 100 for a season. While his Ranger teams make spectacular plays, they have also messed up routine plays. There are simply too many easy ground balls that don’t get caught and especially too many careless throws. These plays give opponents extra base runners, extend innings causing pitchers to throw more pitches, and even affect pitch selection when pitchers try too hard to make a great pitch to strike batters out.

This team may be different. It’s only eight games – 5% of the season – but so far Texas has played six error free games and the team has made just three errors total. The culprits are Murphy, Kinsler and Derek Holland. Only five major league teams have made fewer. The Rangers’ fielding percentage ranks eighth among all 30 major league teams and third in the A. L. The current pace would produce an error total in the low 60′s a material improvement over the other five editions of the Texas Rangers under Washington.

Spectacular plays are crowd pleasing. Friday night in Minnesota in less than ideal weather conditions, spectacular plays obviously played a major part in the Rangers’ sixth win of 2012. However, a consistently good defense does wonders for a team’s results. Making the routine plays may not get air time on ESPN’s SportsCenter, but it goes a long way toward winning games. Last night Harrison induced 18 ground balls, and he has induced 31 ground balls in his two starts combined. A defense that consistently makes the routine play goes a long way to support a pitcher like Harrison, and vice versa. The positive effect on a pitcher is obvious; but on the other side of the coin, a pitcher that works fast and gets the ball put in play quickly, usually has better defense played. Fielders are more alert. These matters are hard to measure, but there is undoubtedly a correlation to all the ground balls that Harrison induces, and the number of quality fielding plays made in his starts.

Again, it’s only eight games, so it may be way premature to proclaim this a solid defense that not only makes spectacular plays, as Washington’s teams have always done, but a defense that makes the routine plays too. However, it is a very good sign for this team going forward. It is my belief that last year’s Rangers would have won at least four or five more games if their error total had been reduced by 25 or 30 over the course of the season. That would have put the win total over 100! This team is at least showing the promise of being such a defensive team – one that makes fewer than the benchmark 100 total for a season. The myth that the Rangers are a good defensive team may be a myth no more.

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