By every measure, the Texas Rangers are terrible. They're 62-93, 33.5 games out in the AL West, and have a -137 run differential, the worst in the majors. For those reasons and more, the events of the past week are utterly confusing.
Two weeks ago, everything was normal. The Angels came to Arlington for a three-game set, did their thing, and swept Texas by scores of 9-3, 8-1, and 7-3. For those scoring at home, that's an average six-run margin of victory. Then the unthinkable happened. The Braves, a team at that point very much still in the playoff hunt, lost a pair of one-run decisions in Texas before being blown out 10-3 on getaway day last Sunday.
Having effectively dashed one team's postseason hopes (perhaps the extra effort was some lingering resentment over the traumatic events of 2011?), the Rangers then turned their attention to the floundering Oakland Athletics. Yep, you guessed it: another sweep, this time by scores of 6-3, 6-1, and 7-2. Over at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan characterized that result as the most unlikely series of the entire season to date.
But wait, there's more! This weekend, the Rangers visited the Angels – yeah, the same team that has 50% more wins than Texas – and took 2 of 3, even racking up 12 runs on Friday night. That makes eight wins in nine games against three substantially better teams. Let's take a look at how such an aberration happened.
- Texas opened the series against Atlanta with Derek Holland on the mound. Holland, who only made his 2014 debut on September 2nd due to knee surgery, has been excellent in his four starts to date, and threw seven innings of one-run ball against the Braves. Let's chalk that one up to a guy being fresh at the end of a long season where most players are just trying to make it to the finish line.
- Here's where the luck starts to come into play. Julio Teheran had faced the minimum into the sixth inning, allowing only a walk erased on a double play. Luis Sardinas singled, but still Teheran got two outs. Then a brutal error by Justin Upton opened the door:
A double by Rougned Odor, who only has a .132 ISO, gave the Rangers the three runs they needed. To top it off, the Rangers starter that day, Lisaverto Bonilla, was making his first major league start. You can't make this stuff up, folks!
- This one wasn't close. The Braves, disheartened by consecutive one-run losses, imploded in the fifth and trailed 10-0 after the sixth. The 35-year-old Colby Lewis, who had allowed at least three runs in each of his last six starts and would go on to give up eight in his next, scattered seven hits over as many innings, allowing only a solo homer to Ryan Doumit, a backup catcher and outfielder hitting .199 on the season. Even the things that didn't go the Rangers' way were improbable.
- Once again, the Rangers took advantage of another team's mistakes. Scott Kazmir kept up his terrible second half by allowing six runs (four earned) in only 4.1 innings, and even two caught stealings couldn't keep Texas down. Nick Tepesch, who has a 4.90 FIP to date, beat his peripherals by walking two, striking out one, and allowing a homer...the only earned run of the day. That's a 5.96 FIP and 1.50 ERA.
- This one wins for most bizarre ending. Through eight innings, Jeff Samardzija had only allowed four hits, and the A's were leading on the strength of a Sam Fuld RBI single. For the ninth, Bob Melvin brought in closer Sean Doolittle, he of the 1.68 FIP and 12.91 K/9. Leonys Martin popped out to start the inning, and then all hell broke loose. Three hits, two walks, and a J.P. Arencibia homer later, Doolittle gave way to Jesse Chavez, who allowed two singles while getting one out. The third pitcher of the inning, Fernando Abad, promptly hit the aforementioned Martin before giving up the second infield single of the inning to Elvis Andrus. The A's went down quietly in the bottom of the ninth, and that was that. The Rangers' win expectancy went from 15% at the start of the inning to 99% at the end.
- By this point, the A's were flabbergasted. From the get-go, this was the Rangers' game, as a passed ball in the first inning put the cherry on top of four runs. Their win expectancy never dipped below 48% and was 82% by the end of the first inning.
- Once again, the Rangers got the jump on a far superior team. This time Hector Santiago was the victim, going 1+ innings and allowing seven runs (three after being pulled) and never giving his team a chance. The Angels' peak win expectancy was 50%, before the game started. By the end of the second, it was 96% Rangers, surprising when you realize Santiago had allowed 3 or fewer earned runs in 10 of his last 11 starts. More notably, Mike Trout was 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.
- Finally, a return to normalcy. Jered Weaver went 7+ strong innings on 102 pitches while his teammates smashed three home runs. Trout hit one of those home runs en route to going 2 for 3 with a walk and 2 RBI. Not even a bullpen meltdown could ruin the Angels' day.
- Trout continued to solidify his grasp on the MVP with another great catch to open the ballgame, one-upping Alex Gordon's play. The rest of the team didn't deliver, though, with Huston Street giving up a go-ahead homer in the top of the ninth and the lineup only mustering four hits off Nick Tepesch. The Rangers, incredibly, eked out another one-run win.
(Note: the Rangers defeated the Astros, 4-3, last night. This makes them 9-1 over their last 10 games, tops in the majors.)
For a team that's so far out of contention that Billy Beane's "50 feet of crap" line applies, the last two weeks have provided excitement in an otherwise forgettable season. Things like Jeff Sullivan's article (cited earlier; it also pointed out that the Braves series was the third-most-unlikely of the season), former BtBS writer Matt Hunter's excellent SaberSim, and others allow us to put some numbers on just how unlikely a feat the Rangers pulled. That's where sabermetrics is at its finest, really: enriching our understanding and deepening our passion for the national game.
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Steven Silverman is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score and a student at Carnegie Mellon University. He also writes for Batting Leadoff. You can follow him on Twitter at @Silver_Stats or email him at Steven@SilverStats.com.