The Texas Rangers’ Lost Season

Few teams entered the 2014 season with higher hopes than the Texas Rangers did. They’d won 90 or more games in each of the past four seasons, joining Tampa Bay as the only teams to accomplish that feat. The Rangers made the playoffs in 2010, 2011, and 2012, and earned a Game 163 tiebreaker berth in 2013.

They failed to win a championship during that stretch, however, so they opened the vaults this offseason to try to get even better. They signed OBP cyborg Shin-Soo Choo to a seven-year, $130 million megadeal to fill the hole that Josh Hamilton’s exit had created one year prior, then pulled off a blockbuster trade by shipping Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder and $30 million. The Rangers weren’t the only ones who thought these moves would propel them back beyond the A’s in the AL West: In ESPN’s preseason survey, more experts picked Texas than Oakland to win the division, despite the A’s coming off consecutive AL West crowns. I know, because I was one of those experts.

It’s June 11, and the A’s are in first, with the Rangers in fourth and already eight games back. The A’s deserve every bit of credit for their terrific performance this year, nabbing the best record in the AL and the best run differential by far in all of baseball. Conversely, the Rangers deserve pity, because a rash of injuries has obliterated the roster, leaving Texas’s playoff chances hanging by a thread.

The Rangers’ injury woes have been historic, dwarfing the health struggles of even the hardest-hit teams in recent memory. Here’s the entire list of the Rangers’ 2014 disabled-list stints, including how many games each injured player has missed, and what the team’s record has been in those games. Warning: Chart contains graphic violence.

Player Injury DL Timespan Games Missed Record
Mitch Moreland Left ankle (15-day) June 8-TBD 3 0-3
Yu Darvish Stiff neck (15-day) March 21-April 6 5 2-3
Alexi Ogando Elbow inflammation (15-day) June 4-TBD 7 2-5
Donnie Murphy Neck strain (15-day) May 8-23 13 6-7
Adrian Beltre Quad strain (15-day) April 9-25 14 10-4
Prince Fielder Herniated disk (15-day) May 17-TBD 18 8-10
Matt Harrison Back rehab (15-day) March 29-April 27 24 15-9
Matt Harrison Dislocated vertebra (15-day) May 14-TBD 25 11-14
Martin Perez UCL tear (60-day) May 14-TBD 28 13-15
Tanner Scheppers Elbow inflammation (15-day) April 18-June 5 43 20-23
Kevin Kouzmanoff Herniated disk (15-day) April 23-TBD 44 18-26
Pedro Figueroa UCL tear (60-day) April 23-TBD 44 18-26
Joe Saunders Ankle fracture (15-day) April 5-May 20 47 23-24
Jim Adduci Finger fracture (15-day) April 19-TBD 48 21-27
Joseph Ortiz Foot fracture (60-day) Feb. 14-TBD 65 31-34
Derek Holland Knee rehab (60-day) March 3-TBD 65 31-34
Jurickson Profar Shoulder tear (60-day) March 23-TBD 65 31-34
Engel Beltre Tibia fracture (60-day) March 26-TBD 65 31-34
Geovany Soto Torn knee ligament (60-day) March 30-TBD 65 31-34

(Table information courtesy of the Texas Rangers.)

If you don’t feel like counting, the Rangers have already lost 688 days to the DL. Just how gruesome is that number? According to Jeff Zimmerman, who’s sliced and diced injury data for FanGraphs since 2010 (and done lots of other excellent work on a variety of analytical topics), the Padres have been the most oft-injured team over the past four seasons. They were particularly snakebitten in 2012, when numerous pitching injuries resulted in Tommy John surgery and ensuing season-long DL stints. When tallied up, the Padres’ 2010-2013 injuries average out to 1,221 days lost to the DL per season. Prorated over a full season, the Rangers are on pace to lose 1,715 days to the DL this year.

That number is jaw-dropping enough on its own, but it’s actually worse considering the star-caliber players missing some of that time. The Rangers lost three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner Adrian Beltre for two weeks; 21-year-old phenom (and would-be Kinsler replacement) Jurickson Profar might not play a single game this year; and Fielder’s replacement, Mitch Moreland, is awaiting ankle surgery. The cruelest blow was losing Fielder himself. He was baseball’s most durable player when the Rangers acquired him, having played the full 162 games three years in a row, missing just one game over the past five seasons, and never missing more than five in a year since becoming a full-time player in 2006. Now, the Rangers won’t see him again until 2015, meaning most of his $24 million salary this year is down the drain.

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And those are just the hitters. Yu Darvish, one of the five best pitchers on the planet, mercifully missed just a few games to start the season, but no. 2 starter Derek Holland has yet to pitch this year after knee surgery. Matt Harrison, who made just two starts last season before succumbing to injuries, made four this year before facing spinal surgery. Alexi Ogando hit the DL last week with elbow inflammation. Even fill-in and complementary arms like Joe Saunders, Tanner Scheppers, and Pedro Figueroa have missed significant chunks of time. Meanwhile, poor Martin Perez was a victim of the Grantland curse, going from site cover boy to Tommy John victim.

The injuries to Fielder, Profar, and other position players amount to unforeseen flukes that have piled up all at once. The pitching injuries are actually more frustrating in a way — even if they’re all too typical in this Tommy John–infested season. The Rangers give an extraordinary amount of thought to pitching health, and pitching outcomes in general. Four years ago, I wrote a feature on the organization’s approach to pitching, interviewing just about everyone imaginable: pitching coach Mike Maddux, general manager Jon Daniels, team president Nolan Ryan, strength and conditioning coach Jose Vazquez, a passel of pitchers, an independent conditioning guru, and several others.

The Rangers had spent years struggling to keep their pitchers healthy, have their pitchers go deep into games, and prevent their pitchers from wilting under the oppressive Texas summer heat. So they started implementing a bunch of new policies. They encouraged their pitchers to start long-tossing, a departure from many teams’ practice of restricting throws to about 120 feet. They changed their training methods, encouraging pitchers to run series of short sprints — instead of the traditional distance running — since throwing each pitch is, after all, a short and violent act, not a prolonged movement. All told, they tried to improve on baseball’s mantra of strict pitch-count limits, figuring that where teams were once too cavalier in letting pitchers throw until their arms fall off, the pendulum had swung too far the other way, to a one-size-fits-all brand of excessive caution.

Some of the protagonists from four years ago, including Ryan and Vazquez, are no longer with the organization, but the Rangers continue to search for new ways to solve their pitching riddle. A few MLB organizations have implemented a tandem-starter system in the minors, in an effort to save wear and tear on prospects’ arms. I asked Daniels if he’d considered a similar approach at the major league level, given the Rangers’ limited starting pitching options after Darvish until Holland completes his rehab and returns. The Rangers GM said he wasn’t prepared to go that far, but did say the organization has considered less radical approaches, including grooming its relievers to pitch more like their predecessors did 40 years ago: coming in more often for multiple innings at a time, rather than hewing to the single-inning (or even single-batter) approach that’s become far more prevalent in today’s game.

In the meantime, it’s gotten ugly in Arlington. The Rangers have lost four in a row and eight of their past 11, and in Monday’s 17-7 drubbing against Cleveland, they gave up the second-most runs a team has surrendered this season. The Rangers are 29th in the majors in ERA, and the figures don’t improve much after adjusting for Arlington’s hitter-friendly confines or considering advanced, pitching-independent metrics.

The season is long from over, of course, but aside from Holland, the Rangers don’t have any major contributors due back from injury any time soon. They also lack the George Springer/Gregory Polanco type of elite prospect who would be most likely to emerge from the minors and energize the team. Add in fierce competition from the loaded A’s and improved Angels and Mariners, plus even much better play from the recently awful Astros, and the Rangers look more like a team facing long playoff odds than like a preseason front-runner.

Bobby Valentine got tons of blame for the Red Sox’s failings in 2012, but injuries to Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz, John Lackey, and others played the biggest role in that team’s demise; sure enough, when those players returned to health in 2013, Boston won the World Series. The 2013 Blue Jays saw their lineup and pitching staff ripped apart by injuries; now healthy, they’ve seized control of the 2014 AL East. The Rangers are nearing the point when this will officially be a lost season; maybe if they return to health in 2015, they’ll become the next great comeback story.

Filed Under: MLB, Texas Rangers, MLB Injuries, MLB Stats, Baseball, Tommy John surgery, Prince Fielder, Jurickson Profar, Derek Holland, Oakland Athletics, AL West, Curses, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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