Neil Weinberg is the Founder of New English D and a writer at Beyond The Box Score. Follow him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.
The Pirates are the story of the year. That’s not really much of a question. Sometime very soon they’re going to win game number 82 and lock up their first winning season since 1992, but while they exorcise their demons, baseball’s fiercest race is playing out in the heart of Texas and on the California coast.
Entering Friday’s action, Texas was 80-59 and Oakland was 80-60. Both teams are likely heading to the postseason thanks to two Wild Cards to fall back on, but as the Rangers learned last season, the value of winning the division is high when the loser is forced into a “win or go home” coin flip game.
Last year, the A’s slayed the Rangers on the final afternoon of the season after trailing by more than 10 games earlier in the summer. This year, they’ve run much closer to even and are essentially tied entering the season’s final three weeks. It would be wrong to suggest these clubs are identical, but there are some frightening similarities. Entering Friday, the Rangers had scored 628 runs and allowed 547. So had the A’s.
The A’s have used their bats a bit more, turning in a team wRC+ of 104 to the Rangers 98, meaning that the A’s are 4% better than league average controlling for park effects and the Rangers are 2% worse. The spread is up for debate, but the advanced defensive stats all give the Rangers a sizable edge.
The Rangers pitchers have the edge when you control for park effects (leading in ERA- 86 to 93 and FIP- 90 to 101), but on the surface their 3.66 ERA looks awfully similar to the A’s 3.61. The Rangers lead in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) 3.80 to 3.92 and can claim a better staff and defense while the A’s lead the hit parade.
But when you place them into their respective ballparks, the runs scored and runs allowed are dead even. The wins and losses are essentially even. After more than 85% of the 2013 season, the Rangers and A’s have played to a draw.
The paths to this clash have been quite different. The A’s continue to work their best version of Moneyball by gathering players other teams undervalue like Jed Lowrie, Josh Donaldson, and Coco Crisp who have accumulated 12.9 wins above replacement (WAR) in 2013. They make effective use of platoons and have eight players on their roster with over 100 plate appearances who have been above average at the plate.
They’ve gotten strong seasons from four relievers without household names – Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, Dan Otero, and Grant Balfour.
And in typical A’s fashion, they’re doing it with a payroll a touch north of $60 million. The Tigers pay that much for Verlander, Cabrera, and Fielder.
The Rangers spent about twice that this year to match the A’s despite watching Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli walk last winter. Adrian Beltre (5.1 WAR) is having a down-ballot MVP type season even while Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus play below their recent career norms. Craig Gentry (2.2 WAR) continues to provide a lot of under-the-radar value while guys like Nelson Cruz (now suspended) and Mitch Moreland have chipped in in different ways over the course of the season. This isn’t the powerhouse Rangers offense that lost two straight World Series in 2010 and 2011.
This year they’ve been led by their pitching staff – as wounded as it may be – thanks to excellent seasons from Derek Holland (4.4 WAR) and Yu Darvish (4.3 WAR) and a mishmash of starts from Martin Perez, Nick Tepesch, Alexi Ogando, Matt Garza, Justin Grimm, and company.
The bullpen has been excellent as well, led by Joe Nathan, Neal Cotts, Robbie Ross, Jason Frasor, and Tanner Scheppers. Only one of those is a name you’re sure to recognize but there’s a decent case to be made that the Rangers bullpen is one of the best in the game, coming in 3rd in park adjusted ERA and FIP. Considering the number of innings they’ve thrown as well, they’re ahead of every other team in bullpen WAR.
It’s an exciting race that promises to go down to the very end with a three game set looming in Arlington next weekend. The A’s, no doubt, have the easier remaining schedule as the Rangers have seven left against the Pirates and Rays and the best team the A’s will face is the Angels.
The odds probably favor the club from the Bay Area, as seen in the projections available thanks to a recent partnership between FanGraphs and Cool Standings that puts the split around 60/40. The strength of schedule matters as the clock winds down, but there’s no reason to think it won’t be a nail biter.
In a season in which many expected to see the Angels fight off the Rangers, it’s the Rangers and A’s going down to the wire. Since the start of 2012, the A’s are 174-128. The Rangers are 173-128. Only the Braves and Reds have more wins in that span. There’s a rivalry brewing between two equals who have taken two different paths to the same destination.
The Rangers are the retooling juggernaut and the A’s are the underfunded, underappreciated perfect cocktail of castoffs. In a season in which only one of the ten playoff spots remains in question, baseball fans are not without races to follow with bated breath. September 29th is only weeks away and the AL West promises to captivate you with every pitch.