The battle for the AL West

Thearon W. Henderson

The best race for the playoffs isn't in the NL Central or AL East, it's between the Athletics and Rangers in the American League West, just like 2012.

With only 6 weeks or so remaining in the MLB season, the teams in contention have separated themselves from the rest of the pack, with only a few teams stuck squarely in the "maybe" column. Each division produces one playoff team, and in some of the divisions one team has already claimed the top spot, and looks to waltz into the playoffs without too many issues. Despite teams like that such as the Braves and Tigers, most of the divisions remain hotly contested, with no one team clearly separating themselves from the rest of the teams in their respective divisions.

In the American League West, the Texas Rangers and Oakland A's occupy the top two spots, separated by only half a game prior to yesterday's action. These two teams have clearly distinguished themselves from the rest of the division, with the lowly Astros, and disappointing Mariners and Angels lagging behind enough to safely count them out of any probable or possible playoff scenarios. These same two teams battled for the same prize last season, but did so only due to a strong late push from the Athletics, a team that at times during the season seemed likely out of any playoff picture.

With only 36 games remaining, these two clubs will battle it out for what could be only one playoff spot. It's possible that both wild card spots will end up coming out of the American League East, but even if the second place finisher in the AL West claims one of the two wild card spots, no one would deny that winning the division brings with it far greater benefits. Just remember the Rangers from last season who not only lost the AL West crown on the last day of the season, but then got ousted in the wild card game at home against the Orioles.

So, where do these two teams stack up against one another? Does one team have a distinct advantage, or could we, once again, be in for an awesome ride watching the the race in the AL West? To begin, let's look at the teams' remaining schedules. The Rangers remaining schedule has them playing 20 games against teams currently below the .500 mark including 11 inter-divisional games against the Angels and Mariners, as well as 12 games against the three worst teams in the AL, the Astros, White Sox, and Twins. Texas will play 16 games against teams above .500, including three against the Royals, three versus the Pirates, four games against the Rays, and 6 against the A's.

The Athletics schedule looks remarkably similar as far as opponent difficulty is concerned. The A's will play 17 games against teams with winning records including four against the Tigers, three against the Orioles, three against the Rays, and one game against the Cleveland Indians. The A's  face the Astros once more this season for a four game series, and with seven games left against the Twins, six more versus the Angels, and six against the Mariners, the A's will  play a number of games against teams below the .500 mark. In addition to those games, the A's play six games against the Rangers, which become even more crucial given that neither team seems to have any distinct advantage schedule-wise.

Now that we've gotten past difficulty of schedule, what about themselves. Well, from a hitting standpoint, these two teams win in different ways. The Athletics have the 10th best wRC+ in the majors at 101, but their greatest asset seems to be their ability and willingness to take walks in order to score runs. The A's lead the majors in BB% at 9.4%, and remain in the top third of all teams in not striking out, doing so at a rate of 19.2%. The Rangers don't walk nearly at the rate of the A's, but they have a higher overall on base percentage (.323), and strike out less frequently. In fact, as a team, Rangers hitters strike only 17.0% of the time, good for 3rd best in the majors, behind only the KC Royals and San Francisco Giants. Both teams entered Saturday's games with the same ISO, posting a mark of .153, with the Rangers hitting more home runs, but the A's keeping their power stats high by recording more extra-base hits. While the Rangers have put up overall better stolen base numbers than the Athletics, according to UBR, the A's have run the bases far better than the Rangers with the A's posting a positive UBR of 4.2 and the Rangers showing a weakness in their game with a -8.6 UBR (second worst in baseball).

Defensively, both teams have performed well. Using Fangraphs defensive measurement system (UZR based), the Rangers rank 7th in the majors saving almost 20 runs this season with their defense while the A's rank 13th at 7.6. Since defensive metrics vary, it's important to take a look at multiple measures of defense to get a better sense of which team truly is superior in the field. According to Baseball Prospectus' park adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate at which a team turns balls put into play into outs adjusting for differences in parks), the Athletics rank 1st in the majors while the Rangers rank more towards the middle of the pack at 14th in the league. Using hitting and fielding as measurements, the Rangers and A's seem tightly matched, with only base running securely separating the two sides, giving the A's a slight advantage thus far.

On the other side of the ball, the pitching side, the two teams also show little differentiation, which befits two clubs so evenly matched in the win-loss columns as well. The Rangers, as a team, have a 3.80 FIP, the 6th best K%(21.0%) in the league, 19th best BB% (8.0%), 11th best LOB% (75.1%), and 9th best batting average against (.242). The Athletics come in with a team FIP of 3.87, 15th best K% (18.4%), 4th best BB% (6.8%), 10th best LOB% (74.7%), and 5th best batting average against at .238. These are two teams with solid pitching. Both managers can feel secure when turning to their bullpens, with the Rangers ranking third in the majors in bullpen value at 4.9 fWAR and the A's not far behind at 4.6 fWAR. The major difference between the two teams comes from their starting pitching. The group of five or so pitchers that will throw approximately two thirds of the remaining innings of the season remain quite important, and the Rangers have a significant edge.

Texas ranks second the majors behind only Detroit in fWAR for their starting pitchers. This shouldn't be surprising as the Rangers tout two of the best starters in baseball this season in Yu Darvish and Derek Holland. More importantly, the Rangers acquired Matt Garza at the trade deadline, giving them a third high-caliber starting pitcher, who hasn't factored into much of their team pitching statistics thus far this season. The Athletics starting squad has lacked in value this season posting only 7.5 fWAR, good for 20th in the majors this season. In fact, of teams still in contention for the playoffs, only the Diamondbacks and Orioles have had starting staffs produce fewer fWAR at this point in the season other than the A's. A's starters have the lowest walk rate in the majors, but they don't strike hitters out like the Rangers pitchers. The Athletics most valuable starter thus far has been Bartolo Colon, but the team does have 5 starters with at least 100 innings pitched this season while the Rangers have only three.

Overall, these two teams are incredibly similar. Both hit well, defend well, and at the end of the day pitch well. It's no wonder that only half a game separates the two teams. The Athletics ability to use the base paths as an advantage could make the difference, but it seems that the two x-factors both reside on the Rangers' side. The Rangers made two acquisitions, trading for Matt Garza and Alex Rios. Garza constitutes an obvious upgrade over Justin Grimm, and since he has hasn't even reached 110 innings pitched in 2013, his arm shouldn't tire down the stretch. Alex Rios, while not a major value upgrade over Nelson Cruz, provides better defense, base running, and solid hitting. These two players may not end up making the difference in which team wins the AL West, but given the similarities between these divisional opponents, even the slightest advantage could make the difference when the season ends.

Now that the season has essentially become a sprint to the finish, the great battles for which teams make the playoffs and which teams fall short have been magnified. The AL West proved to be the most exciting divisional race last season, and it could very well claim the same title in 2013 given that neither the A's nor the Rangers have done anything to show us that one team legitimately better than the other. For the second season in a row the best race for the playoffs may come out of the AL West, so in the midst of the fun of the NL Central and AL East, remember to follow the Rangers and A's, because the six games these teams have left against each other could very well determine the winner of the division come season's end.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs Baseball Prospectus and Baseball-Reference.

Ben Horrow is a writer at Beyond The Box Score and That Ball's Outta Here. You can follow him on Twitter at @Summerpastime.

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