No matter what you think of Ron Washington - whether you like the fact that he is a "players coach" or you hate the fact that his mangagerial style is more bodily than cerebral - you would have to agree that the decline in team fundamentals that has occured under his watch has been both suprising and distrurbing. There were really only 2 known quantities about him upon becoming skipper: he was a players coach and he was a defensive stalwart. While you could argue that last year, his repoire with the players allowed them to be suprisingly competitive for 3 months or so after a dismal April, what is also clear is that the Rangers have become a defensive laughing-stock since his hire, and worse in his second year.
These facts alone may very well have got him fired in the off-season, and assurely will if they recur next season, as he has been unable to translate his personal philosophy into team-wide discipline. So, if one holds that the one thing the Rangers control has to vastly improve next season - defense and game fundamentals vs health - I thought I would review some stats from last season and reflect on the likelihood of that happening in various areas.
So let's review the various and embarrasing stats marking the Rangers' defensive ineptitude:
Unearned runs: 107 League ave: 55
Errors: 132 League ave: 95
Def. Effic: .666 League ave: .689
Fldg%: .978 League ave: .984
Pitchers fldg%: .927 League ave: .952
Error Totals by Position:
Since spring training camp opened, it is clear that the Rangers are being (re)schooled in defensive/game fundamentals. I can't say for sure if this is different from Wash's first 2 camps, but it feels different. The have been working on baserunning, pitcher fundamentals (pop ups, fielding), run downs, and running live batting practices. All of these areas need a great deal of improvement, so we will see if the reeducation program works, and wonder why it hasn't been done or been taken seriously before. Hopefully, both the players and coaches were sufficiently embarrassed last year so that we will see, at the very least, a league average defense this year, which will allow us to be competetive for the division.
Injuries certainly played a part in the team's meltdown last year as rookies were called upon sooner than expected and asked to do more than than should have while vets played out of position. Having said that, they were all professionals, paid and trained, but played like amateurs.
Taking a look at the stats, 2 positions whose defensive profile should improve greatly are 1b and 3b now that those roles will be filled by above average defensive players, Chris Davis and Michael Young, respectively. Young's arm will and sound fundamentals will play better there and his decreased range at short will be negated with the move.
The outfield, average to above average last year, should be above average this year. Hambone should be improved in center with an added year at TBPIA, and even better if he moves to right. Adam Jones might be an upgrade in center if he can still bring above average defense to the position. Cruz will be in Left or Right full time in theory, though he never played LF last year so it might be a concern. I think he is athletic enough to do it. Byrd was stellar in Left with Murphy above average and Murphy was stellar in Right with Byrd slightly worse than average. Both Murphy and Byrd were above average in center, with Byrd getting much more time there. Boggs played all spots average to above average. So, in general the outfield remains the most stable component of the team defense even moreso now that we won't see Bradley gimping around out there nor Catt. The potential of Jones roaming around out there with some above average defense would also be a plus, coupled with the upgrade in Right with Hambone, but we will have to see how he looks in the next month.
The defensive position of highest concern is catcher. Laird had an off year in general while Salty has yet to show that he can develop a league average position profile, even if his bat comes around. Max and Tea put in some time there as well, throwing 2 rookies into the mix. The aggregate #s are unimpressive if not disturbing for what is said to be a position of strength at all levels. With 21 errors, 13 passed balls, and 114 SB against, in addition to perceived problems with Salty's game calling, it isn't all that clear that Salty and 1 or 2 rookies will be able to improve on those #s, even though game management/position defense are said to be Teagarden's stregnth. I would have to predict that this position will be no better if not worse than last year, unless Salty has made great strides in the off-season and in winterball, which I doubt.
The shortstop position is a little uncertain at this juncture of the preseason. Vizquel should start the season, and now that he is fully recovered from his knee injury last year, he should provide above average defense at the position. The basic question that simply cannot be answered right now is what kind of defense will Andrus provide when he is called up. Will he be a jittery rookie or a cold-blooded playmaker? Arguably his will provide plus range and quickness, but the main concern is whether or not he can consistently make the routine plays and consistently avoid trying to force spectacular ones. I think the position will be average at worst and that is about what it was last year due too Young's diminished range and inability to make any many plays out of his zone. The one thing that can be said for him though is he was fundamentally sound.
The other position that is a concern is 2b. Kinsler has great range but makes many careless errors/mistakes at the position. Only a rededication to position fundamentals and increase concentration can make him a better player so it is really uncertain whether he improves or not. WE can only hope that he takes as much pride in his defense as his hitting.
In general, game fundamentals were a glaring weakness on this team last year for both position players and pitchers, and this must improve if the team is to compete for the division this year. The Pitchers were the worst fielding bunch in the majors; they were pitiful. The position players were guilty as well, making mmany base-running errors, straight errors, missing cut-off guys, not taking extra bases, etc. These aspects of teh game can only be worked on in spring training and by rededicating themsleves to working on areas of weakness throughout the season. The Rangers need to develop a team culture whereby each player and coach believe it is unacceptable to make bonehead mistakes and get on each other if these problems recur.
If there any series last year in which the Rangers' bad news bears approach to game fundamentals was on stark display, it was the Minnesota series right after the all-star break. At that time there was a lot of buzz about how the rangers were in the wildcard hunt and all of that. They went to MN and got dominated by a team who was so superior to them in team fundamentals, that is made TX look like an undiciplined college team. The difference was palpable as they got all the key hits, key outs, threw the right pitches, picked us off the basepaths, induced us to swing badly- they were the superior team. It was good to see actually as it should have erased any hopes that TX was _really_ a playoff caliber team, as MN set into stark relief what a playoff team would look like.
It is that kind of culture that the Rangers need to develop and don't yet have to move to the next level. It isnt really all about pitching. With league average pitching and superior game fundamentals, this team could be competitive any year with the hitting we have. I think it will be another year before we see that kind of club emerge, and if it doesn't, Wash will be out.