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Rangers success with runners in scoring position

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In 2021, the 102-loss Texas Rangers scored just 625 runs, the third-fewest in the Majors. (It was also the team’s fifth-lowest full-season mark in the decades since the Rangers arrived in Texas in 1972. It wasn’t a great season.)

In 2022, it was somewhat better if still not great, with 707 runs ranking as a middle-of-the-pack 12th for a team that still lost 94 games.

But in 2023? The first-place Rangers have already scored 310 runs. It’s the most in the Majors. It’s the second most through 49 games in team history. They haven’t just gotten better, they are the best, and in a time frame that, if they held it up all year, would be borderline unprecedented in the past few decades of baseball.

In the 30-team era — that’s since 1998, when Arizona and Tampa Bay joined — no club in baseball has gone from bottom three to the top in run scoring within three seasons. The only team even close would be the 2006-08 Cubs, who went from third-worst (2006) to second-best (2008); they also went from 96 losses to 97 wins.

We’re not even a third of the way into the season. We’re not guaranteeing 97 wins. But needless to say, the ascension of the Texas lineup across barely two calendar years is astronomical. How do you manage to pull off that kind of trick?

“They got better hitters.” That’s a simplistic-if-not-inaccurate way to look at it. Of the 19 batters to take 50 plate appearances for the 2021 team, only four (Jonah Heim, Nathaniel Lowe, Leody Taveras and Adolis García) are still on the club. So to the extent that, say, Marcus Semien, Josh Jung, and Ezequiel Duran are better than Brock Holt, Jason Martin and DJ Peters, yes, we would agree. It’s a triumph of scouting, trading, and free agency aggressiveness.

“They kept the right hitters and then helped them get better.” That works too, and it also applies here. Heim (+181 points of OPS from 2021 to 2023), Lowe (+60 points), Taveras (+298 points) and García (+110 points) are all simply better, to the point that all four will merit some All-Star discussion.

But there’s something else happening here, too. It’s not just who they have, or how they’re playing. It’s when they’re doing it.

For a team that’s leading the Majors in runs, there’s a lot that doesn’t jump off the page about the 2023 Texas offense. The Rangers have the ninth-most homers and a league-average strikeout rate to go with a slightly below-average walk rate. Their ground-ball rate is ninth lowest; their hard-hit rate is sixth best; they have the 17th-most stolen bases. If nothing there is poor, neither is any of it spectacular. That is, until you get to The Big Moments.

Highest RISP team OPS since 1901 (excluding 2020 shortened season)

You might have heard of the 1930 Yankees. They had some guys named Ruth and Gehrig hitting in the heart of the order. For Texas this year, that OPS is largely fueled by the best RISP slugging percentage. Yes, baseball in 2023 is different than it was in 1930, but still: They’re outslugging a Ruth/Gehrig team with runners on.

Heim, for example, is hitting .471/.486/.853 with runners in scoring position. Semien has a wild .500/.519/.708 line, which is merely the third-best RISP OPS on his own club, because Corey Seager has posted a .357/.429/.857.

But while it’s fun to say “they’re doing better with runners in scoring position than any club ever,” and it is, it’s true in really any runners-on situation. In 2023, the Rangers are the best hitting team with a runner just on first. They’re the best hitting team with a runner just on second. They’re the best hitting team with a runner just on third, by a lot. They are, of course, the best team with a runner on any base.

Of course, the trick there is that when the bases are empty, the Rangers are ordinary, with the 15th-best batting average and 17th-best OPS. Put another way: With no runners on base, the Rangers perform worse than the Padres, and San Diego currently has scored the sixth-fewest runs in baseball. Given that slightly more than half of Rangers plate appearances come with the bases empty, that’s a pretty stark divergence.

So knowing that, now you want to know what’s next. Is this “good luck”? Or is there evidence of a skill here, a change in approach? The answer is, as usual, a little of each.

It’s good luck. It has to be, to some extent. You don’t get to be the best (to date) hitting team with runners on of all time without some balls bouncing your way, and while we know by now that BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) isn’t all luck, it’s at least some, and wouldn’t you know it, Texas’ .387 BABIP with runners in scoring position is history’s largest number. No team has overperformed its expected Statcast metrics with RISP by as much as Texas has.

Sometimes, you have Semien getting fooled on a total excuse-me swing, apparently getting thrown out at first on a 39.5 mph exit velocity doinker, and having replay turn it into an RBI single.

Sometimes, you have Heim hitting a weak grounder up the middle and having a rookie shortstop throwing it away, yet somehow not getting charged with an error over it.

The point here is not to take credit away from the Rangers, but to show that there hasn’t yet been a team in the history of sports to be 100% successful without some good fortune helping to light the way.

But it’s not all that, is it? Of course not.

It’s a different approach. Sometimes you make your own luck, don’t you? Texas is the second-best team with two outs; it’s the second-best team with two strikes. This success in big spots doesn’t all happen by accident.

For example: Texas is tied with St. Louis for the highest expected batting average (a Statcast number that estimates based on contact quality) with runners in scoring position, and it’s top five in expected slugging, too. Those are metrics that are trying to take the luck out of it all, and there the Rangers are, rating very well.

They strike out a little less, anyway (22% with RISP, 25% with bases empty), though interestingly they’re chasing a little more with RISP. It’s not even really pitch-type related, either; they’re going after fastballs at an identical rate.

Semien spoke earlier this month to the Dallas Morning News about what he’s seen, saying, “A big one I look at is: What are they doing to us with runners in scoring position?’ A lot of at-bats with runners in scoring position, you don’t get as many pitches to hit, so what are they doing? Find something to hit.”

It seems in those big spots, they might not just be trying to “make contact.” They seem to be trying to do damage — or, as Semien said, finding that something to hit. Let’s take batted balls between 10-40 degrees launch angle, which is another way of saying “line drives and low fly balls,” or the mash zone. (99% of homers and 88% of extra-base hits live here. You want to live here.)

% of batted balls that are liners or low flies:

*Defined as between 10 and 40 degrees launch angle

That, right there, is the story. They’re bottom 10 in high-value flies/liners with no one on, and top three in those with runners in scoring position. How do you make your own luck? That’s a great way to do it.

“Top to bottom, our lineup can bang,” catcher Mitch Garver said to MLB.com’s Kennedi Landry back in the season’s Opening Week. “It’s really fun when we tie it all together. …. It’s just a pretty potent lineup.”

He’s right. The Rangers probably won’t end the season having history’s greatest production with runners in scoring position, because to do so would require topping literally Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. At some point, that extra luck is going to turn itself around. But even if it does, all these runs are banked. All these wins don’t come off the board. They can still look forward to having more Seager (and Jacob deGrom!) than they’ve had so far.

If the Rangers aren’t this good, they’re still good. It’s been a long time since you could confidently say that.

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