Have Rangers Gained Upper Hand over Astros in Battle for AL West?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 15, 2015

Prince Fielder (centro), de los Rangers de Texas, es felicitado por sus compañeros Mitch Moreland (izquierda) y el dominicano Adrián Beltré, luego de conectar un jonrón de dos carreras frente a los Astros de Houston, el lunes 14 de septiembre de 2015 (AP Foto/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Associated Press

If you can remember as far back as early August, then you can remember a time when the American League West race was between the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Angels and nobody else.

Now, here we are to ask with total seriousness if the Texas Rangers have become the team to beat. Because baseball is weird like that.

But also because the Rangers have put themselves in this position, of course. They've been sneaking up on the Astros for the last few weeks, and are now literally (read: figuratively) breathing down their necks after a dramatic 5-3 win over the Astros at Globe Life Park in Arlington on Monday night.

The game was a tight affair right up until there was one out in the bottom of the eighth, when veteran slugger Prince Fielder came to the plate and did this with one aboard:

"I knew I hit it good, but here you never know. The wind plays tricks on you sometimes," Fielder said of his homer, via Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I knew I had hit it hard enough, but the way he was going back on it, I didn't know if he was going to rob it or not."

As for the impact of Fielder's clutch dinger, it resulted in a win that pulled the Rangers within a half-game of the Astros for first place in the AL West. If Texas can win at least two of the three games left in the series, it will hold the upper hand.

But oh, doesn't it feel like it already does?

A bit, yeah. The Rangers entered August a full seven games behind the Astros. They've since won 26 of 41 while Houston has dropped 19 of 40. Along the way, Texas has made it four straight wins over the Astros in head-to-head meetings, with six more still to go.

What we appear to be looking at, therefore, is one ship sinking while another miraculously rises from the depths. But since things aren't always as they appear, we should discuss this further.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

There are tangible reasons why the Rangers' ship has risen. They've been getting some good pitching, particularly over the last calendar month. Their schedule has also provided a few favors, as they've caught teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Detroit Tigers, Baltimore Orioles and, yes, arguably the Astros at the right times.

But if we're going to assume the Rangers now have the upper hand in the AL West race, we have to assume they are where they are because they've outplayed the Astros and are a sure thing to continue doing so.

And the thing is, this is actually hard to do.

On this front, the credit goes to Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs for digging up pretty much all the relevant data. Though the Rangers have won more games than the Astros since Aug. 1, there's not much else that says they've been the better team. Houston's hitters have been about as productive as Texas' hitters, while its pitchers have actually been better. 

Or, we could just look at run differentials:

  • Rangers since Aug. 1: +16
  • Astros since Aug. 1: +27

So, the Rangers haven't caught up to the Astros because they've been a juggernaut while the Astros have crumbled. The real reason, as Sullivan explains, is because the Rangers have been more clutch:

Over August and September...the Rangers rank fourth in baseball in Clutch, and the Astros rank 29th. Some people say that timing is everything. Timing isn't everything, but it's a huge, huge factor, and it's a factor that's more or less unpredictable from the outside. Because the Rangers have recently had much better timing than the Astros—Sunday in Anaheim aside—they've more than made up for the fact that the Astros have quite probably played better.

Mind you, noting that this has been the case isn't to completely discredit what the Rangers have done. Clutch isn't a bad thing. It's a good thing! Exhibit A: Look at all the wins it's meant for the Rangers.

Of course, clutch does tend to be contagious...Until, all of a sudden, it isn't anymore.
Of course, clutch does tend to be contagious...Until, all of a sudden, it isn't anymore.Jeffrey McWhorter/Associated Press

Rather, the problem with clutch is that it's elusive. You can't rely on it. Not for too long anyway, lest you risk watching your situation make like a house of cards on the San Andreas fault.

With this being the case, Texas continuing to build on its momentum and winning the AL West over Houston would have to be decided by one of two things: Either the Rangers will continue to ride their destructive wave of clutch, or they'll ease back their reliance on it and find other ways to win games.

We've said all there is to say about Door No. 1. As for Door No. 2, well, there's some optimism there. Provided you're a Rangers fan, of course.

As mentioned above, one of the tangible reasons for the Rangers' hot play is how well their pitching has performed. And when you look at their rotation of Cole Hamels, Derek Holland, Yovani Gallardo and Colby Lewis, that makes sense. These guys have been good pitchers before, and they're good pitchers now. As for Texas' bullpen, adding Jake Diekman to a back-end core that already included Shawn Tolleson and Keone Kela has worked wonders.

Relative to their pitching, however, the Rangers' offense has lagged behind. It's been just OK since Aug. 1 and notably features a shortage of hot hitters over the last calendar month:

Top Rangers Hitters Over Last 30 Days (Min. 50 PA)
Shin-Soo Choo28126168
Rougned Odor2390126
Adrian Beltre28119102
Elvis Andrus2810798
Mitch Moreland227784
Will Venable205480
Delino Deshields Jr.2410868
Prince Fielder2611362
Bobby Wilson175129

Since a wRC+ of 100 denotes league-average hitting, the Rangers have enjoyed only two easily above-average hitters and one slightly above-average hitter over the last month. If they're going to start relying less on clutch-ness and more on their own dominance, this is what will have to change.

And this, fortunately, is where there's hope.

The guys who are holding the Rangers down aren't slouches. Adrian Beltre is better than that. Ditto Mitch Moreland. And certainly ditto Fielder. If these guys start living up to their track records—Monday's dinger would be a nice place to start for Fielder—the Rangers will have more offense to go with their pitching. Then, they could truly take off and run riot over their remaining 19 games.

For now, though, it's hard to say the Rangers have the upper hand in the AL West as much as it feels like they do. The Astros know their instate rivals are there, but Houston's not about to look at Texas as the superior team. Nor should it. The Astros still have the lead, and it would be bigger if not for the Rangers' darned clutch-ness.

Which is to say that the AL West race is hardly a foregone conclusion. Instead, it's become what we desire all playoff races to be this time of year: a darn good one.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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