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What went right/wrong for the Texas Rangers in 2016?

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Everything/until the playoffs.

Division Series - Toronto Blue Jays v Texas Rangers - Game Two
CURSE YOUR BLOOD MAGICKS
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The 2016 Texas Rangers were arguably the luckiest team to ever lose multiple star players to injury.

Make no bones about it, Texas had a good team last year. Annoyingly, they’ll roll out a good looking squad this year too. Last year, however, they were the AL West champions with a 95-67 record, best in the American League, and a **gnashes teeth** Pythagorean Expected Win-Loss of 82-80. They had a +6 run differential. A lot went right in 2016 for Texas, even as it all seemed like it should have gone wrong.

What Went Right?

As stated above, the Rangers’ record doesn’t match up, sensically, with their run differential. Texas was 36-11 in one-run games. If that seems good, that’s because it is. Historically so, in fact. Since 1901, the beginning of the World Series era, no team has ever had as high a winning percentage in one-run games as the 2016 Rangers. Rad. What diabolical means did they use to achieve this witchcraft? A few standouts and a bunch of happenstance.

  • Adrian Beltre, the 37 year old future Hall of Famer, was by leaps and bounds the best player on the Rangers last year. There are few players I adore more in the league than Beltre, so it is especially crushing to watch him excel for a direct rival, but at some point you just have to marvel. Pumping in a 130 wRC+ and 32 home runs, with a .300/.358/.521 line, Beltre held down the middle of the order for Texas. He added exceptional defense at third base at a position populated by younger names like Machado, Seager, and Donaldson. Beltre was a 6-WAR player, and a leader both on and off the field.
  • Beyond Beltre’s stardom, the position players were unremarkable when they were able to stay on the field at all. Only six players on the roster played in over 100 games. What Texas was able to generate was passable play. Ian Desmond’s conversion to the outfield was successful, as he put together a fine season that earned him a lovely five year, $70 million deal in Colorado next year. Otherwise, simply approaching competency was the secret for the Texas, as only one position player who saw the field in over 50 games generated a negative WAR (we’ll get to that.)
  • Midseason deals payed off big-time for the Rangers. Signing Carlos Gomez after his release in mid-August granted Texas a month and a half of solid outfield play. Acquiring catcher Jonathan Lucroy from the Brewers by dealing from their deep farm system gave Texas an elite catcher in the second half. Lucroy went on to post a 131 wRC+ as a Ranger, which would have been the second-best of any catcher in baseball over a full season, trailing only the impossible Gary Sanchez of the Yankees.
  • The unremarkable highs of the hitters, outside of Beltre, might lead you to believe that the pitching staff carried the day for Texas. Not so much. Cole Hamels threw 200 innings and had an FIP of 3.98, which are both good things, and he was just that: good. a 3 WAR pitcher in 200 innings would be a godsend for the Mariners, but if you consider Hamels was essentially a slightly better Hisashi Iwakuma for double the cost ($22 million vs $11 million), it’s a tempered joy.
  • Yu Darvish was brilliant when on the field. an 11.84 K/9 and a 2.78 BB/9 represented the ace’s best numbers of his career. In his 17 starts, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball, and would have likely competed for the Cy Young with a full season of work.
  • The bullpen was solid. You don’t lock down close game after close game without good relievers, and, again, where they lacked stars, Texas succeeded with depth and competency. Sam Dyson, Matt Bush, Tony Barnette, Jake Diekman, and Alex Claudio all threw over 50 innings of relief for Texas. When you have five healthy relievers that all post FIPs of 3.62 or lower, that’s good. That four of them had that manifest into ERA’s under 2.80 is even better, and indicative of the Rangers’ fortune.

What Went Wrong?

Not much, as you might imagine. In terms of results-based analysis, it would be hard to poke a hole in the Rangers’ season. Injuries, it seems, were their biggest foible, as well as one shaky reliever.

  • Prince Fielder’s putrid first half, and subsequent retirement due to back trouble is the biggest loss. While losing the 2016 version of Fielder actually helped Texas in the second half, having a $24 million man completely crater two years after you acquire him, and still having four years of his contract remaining is no bueno. Fielder had a wRC+ of 65, couldn’t play in the field and was relegated to DH, and had a pitiful .212/.292/.334 line.
  • Darvish’s brilliance when healthy made his absence all the more glaring. Starting only 17 games, Texas was forced to make do with a variety of unimpressive backups, whose numbers only worsened with increased Arlington exposure.
  • Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, and approximately half the position players on the roster spent time on the DL. That Texas was able to generate a division winner out of the parade of hospital visits they experienced was a frustrating endorsement of the depth of their farm system.
  • Speaking of that hyped farm system, one-time super prospect Joey Gallo continued to struggle, and couldn’t find a role on the 2016 MLB roster.
  • Speaking of pastoral lifestyles, 39 year-old Carlos Beltran cost Texas a few prospects, including Top-100 pitching prospect Dillon tate. Beltran might as well have been put out to pasture as a Ranger, however, as his 103 wRC+ and evaporating defensive range failed to move the needle as a DH replacement for Fielder and Choo.
  • Jose Bautista and the Toronto Blue Jays exacted a bit of revenge for this...
Getty

...with a three-game playoff sweep that culminated in this.

Texas’ story should have been inverted. A team full of talent that couldn’t stay healthy and trundled their way to a mediocre finish is what the story meant to be. And yet, by hook or by crook, they were in a position to win it all in 2016. The injuries might not prove as deadly, but the run differential seems likely to come back to bite them if they continue their dance with the devil in 2017. Either way, they are the Rangers. They’ll be a pain.