A year ago, the Rangers and Tigers, then reigning ALCS participants, were something of a study in contrasts. The Tigers were front-loaded with superstar talent, but carried a lot of dead weight at other positions, while the Rangers’ only superstar was the fading Josh Hamilton, but their depth on offense and defense made them competitive night in and night out. Texas won more games, but lost its division and the Wild Card play-in game, while Detroit took the back door into the playoffs will 88 wins.
Fangraphs tells us that Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Austin Jackson were each worth at least 5 WAR in 2012, while Prince Fielder added 4.9 and Max Scherzer added another 4.5. On the other end, regulars Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, Don Kelly, and Ramon Santiago all provided sub-replacement value, and the bullpen was a tightrope act with Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit struggling much of the year. In contrast, no Ranger other than Adrian Beltre was worth as many as 5 WAR, but every regular outside the rotting corpse of Michael Young provided positive value. The stars carried the day, as Detroit reached the World Series, only to lose to what was probably a lesser San Francisco team, much like Texas had done two years earlier.
After an active winter for both clubs, most of the detritus is gone. Both Youngs are playing for the Phillies, Boesch is in New York, and Hamilton is in Orange County, swinging and missing at pitches in LA. But both teams are playing well, coming into this weekend’s head-to-head series with a combined record of 48-30. As the Tigers have plugged holes and the Rangers have rebranded themselves without Hamilton, they’ve started to look more like each other. Let’s take a look at them, position-by-position.
We start at third because both teams keep their best all-around player there. Cabrera is simply a beast at the plate, hitting .376/.447/.606 over the first quarter of this season after winning the triple crown last year with his worst wOBA (.417) since 2009. Even with a frying pan for a glove, he’s been among the most valuable players in baseball practically every year of his career, topping 5 WAR seven times in the last eight years. Beltre has quietly built a Hall of Fame resume, excelling with the stick (134 or better wOBA the last three years) and the glove (since 2004, no player in baseball has more fielding runs above average than Beltre’s 109).
With the marquee matchup out of the way, we’ll dispense with the most lopsided one. Fielder just keeps raking, heading toward a seventh straight season of 30 or more homers, while Mitch Moreland is hoping to top 20 homers (and one WAR) for the first time in 2013.
The Rangers get most of Moreland’s slack back here, as Ian Kinsler is solid at the plate, in the field, and on the basepaths, while Omar Infante is a below-average hitter whose glove keeps him in the lineup.
Here’s another spot where both teams have a solid player. Texas’s Elvis Andrus has topped two WAR every year of his career without ever being a league-average hitter, as his plate discipline (walks in 8.2% of career PAs), speed (133 steals in 4+ seasons), and defense (he’s averaged over 8 FRAA throughout his career) make him quite valuable. Meanwhile, Johnny “sic” Peralta provides similar value with more power (20 homers four times), similar patience, no speed, and defense that’s occasionally graded as phenomenal and occasionally terrible.
Edge: Rangers, barely
Another interesting one. Alex Avila was one of the game’s best catchers in 2011, but took a step back last year and has been miserable at the plate (.185/.264/.315) in ’13. Meanwhile, AJ Pierzynski was one of the league’s best catchers, at least offensively, in 2012, but has reverted in ’13 to the average player he’s been most of his career. The Edge here is more a tribute to Pierzynski’s backup, Geovany Soto, and his superiority to Brayan Pena of Detroit.
Edge: Rangers, barely
Ok, it may seem ridiculous to bunch all three outfield spots into one, but one of the main reasons these teams strike me as similar is that so much of their value comes from their infields. The Rangers’ outfield is typically manned by David Murphy, Craig Gentry, and Nelson Cruz, with Leonys Martin filling in the gaps. Each is capable of hitting at The Ballpark, and Gentry can catch the ball, but none is a player of Beltre’s, or even Andrus’s caliber. Detroit runs out Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson, and Torii Hunter, with Matt Tuiasasopo in reserve. Jackson is probably the best player of the eight in this paragraph, but his 20% strikeout rate in 2013 would actually be the best of his big league career. Hunter seemed to revive his career at the plate and in the field in 2012, and is hitting over .300 again in ’13, but he’ll be 38 this summer and his plate discipline and isolated power seem to be moving in the wrong direction.
I’ll set the top guys apart from the rest, because even though both teams have deep rotations, they sport probably the two best pitchers in the American League. Since Yu Darvish entered the league last year, only Verlander (8.9) and Felix Hernandez (8.1) have been worth more than his 6.8 fWAR. Darvish’s Rangers won the opener of this series against Verlander’s Tigers, and Yu’s league-leading 12.6 K/9 suggest that he may be poised to assume Verlander’s throne.
Rest of Rotation
Texas might have contended in this category had they not lost Matt Harrison for the season. Derek Holland (2.93 ERA, 2.35 FIP) has been great this year, and Alexi Ogando (3.08 ERA) shows promise, but perhaps the greatest strength of this team is in its pitching depth, with Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm acquitting themselves well for rookies forced into action in the AL’s most extreme launching pad. Detroit has the edge in the 2, 3, and 4 spots, with Anibal Sanchez pitching better than Verlander so far in practically every facet of the game (2.05 ERA, 1.45 FIP), Max Scherzer striking out almost six for every walk, and Doug Fister having given up just one homer and eight walks in eight starts. Drew Smyly may be a better option than Rick Porcello in the number five spot, but he’s pitched exclusively in relief so far.
Detroit’s bullpen has been surprisingly solid this year. Smyly hasn’t allowed a homer in 24 2/3 innings pitched, and Al Alburquerque is striking out almost half the batters he faces. The shaky Jose Valverde is back in the closer’s role, and depth may be a question, but as a unit, they’ve struck out over 10 batters per nine, leading all big league bullpens, while the Rangers are next-to-last in the AL in that metric. While the Rangers’ pen has been a strength in years past, and is still anchored by the steady Joe Nathan, it’s relying on names like Robbie Ross and Tanner Scheppers to get leads to Nathan this year.
Add it all up and you’ve got two very similar teams. Detroit still has more stars, of course, but with Darvish and Beltre not far behind Verlander and Cabrera, the Rangers should be well-represented in Queens this July too. And while Texas has players like Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt providing depth, Detroit has capable players like Infante and Tuiasasopo filling roles played by sub-replacement-level guys last year.
With all due respect to Cleveland and the teams at the top of the AL East, Texas and Detroit are probably the two best teams in the AL this year. And neither will be a pushover when October comes.