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The Rangers and Giants are a mirage

The two teams leading the western divisions aren’t as dominant as they appear.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Texas Rangers Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Everyone is getting into a tizzy over the Texas Rangers. Buster Olney and Tim Kurkjian are calling them the "most talented team in the American League." Jonah Keri is devoting one of his columns to singing their praises. The team is off to a 47 - 26 start, the best record in the AL and behind only the Cubs in all of baseball. Their playoff odds practically guarantee that they’ll still be playing in October, which no projection system predicted this spring. So they’re definitely winning the West and going to the World Series, right?

The Giants are getting a lot of love, too. They have the deeper squad (the more properly built and developed squad), made the smarter free agent decisions, and are blessed with a ton of #EvenYear hoodoo. They’re 5.5 games up on the Dodgers, and few people question who rules the NL West. So they’re gonna face the Cubs in the NLCS and pull off a major upset, right?

Hey, it’s baseball. Even things that should happen rarely do. History told us that the Royals were a mediocre-to-bad team for the last three seasons, and there they were, hoisting the trophy last fall. The Nationals were supposed to barnstorm their way through the National League in 2015, and instead they imploded in violent, spectacular fashion. Teams that should regress one way or another sometimes don’t. Teams go on a spectacularly good or bad run of form and it’s taken as true talent. Stuff happens.

The Rangers and the Giants, however, don’t feel comfortably poised to ride their luck all the way to the Fall Classic. These two squads have been extremely lucky, and extremes usually have a tough time of becoming permanent. Let’s take a look at why the Rangers and the Giants fit that bill.

The thing that most of us do first after looking at wins and losses is run differential. The Rangers and Giants are both pretty solid, carrying +39 and +63 marks, respectively. Their run differentials would make them both seem playoff-worthy. If we look under the hood a little further, though, the picture seems less rosy.

Here’s a quick little table with a few data points that should amply demonstrate how the Rangers and Giants are overperforming like crazy this year.

2016 Team Stats Record BaseRuns Record Third-Order Winning Record One-Run Game Record Cluster Luck Runs
Texas Rangers 47 - 26

38 - 35

37 - 36 17-4 39.4
San Francisco Giants 46 - 27 41 - 32 43 - 30 17 - 8 16.2

Texas should jump out at you. The Rangers are the biggest overperformers in all of baseball by BaseRuns, third-order record, one-run game record, and cluster luck. In other words, once you factor in their run differential, their underlying player stats, their strength of schedule, their propensity for squeaking out close wins, and the fact that they’re scattering tons of opposition hits while clustering their own, the Rangers should be due for a massive fall in the second half of the year. Teams almost never sustain a run of tight victories, nor can they continue to hit jackpot on clustering their hits.

Now, some teams can outperform expectations by one, or sometimes two of these measures. The Cardinals, for example, had phenomenal cluster luck last year, and it got them to 100 wins. The Pirates had the best one-run game record in 2015, and finished with the second-best record in baseball. The Royals speak for themselves. What almost never happens is a team leading all four of these categories throughout the season and still managing to guarantee a postseason berth.

The Giants aren’t far behind the Rangers here, either. They’re second in one-run game record, seventh in cluster luck, seventh in third-order overperformance, and tied for third in BaseRuns overperformance. Meanwhile, their closest rivals, the Dodgers, are underperforming their BaseRuns and third-order records, while posting -2.8 runs of cluster luck and going just 12 - 13 in one-run games. If the Dodgers had gotten a few more breaks and the Giants had held fewer close leads, the NL West race would look a lot different. Similarly, if the Rangers were playing closer to their true talent, they’d be in a dog fight with the Mariners and the Astros for the AL West crown.

Maybe we’re trying to get too big picture, though. After all, Olney and Kurkjian said that the Rangers are the most talented team in baseball, right? Surely they’re noticing the resurgence of Ian Desmond, he of the 132 wRC+ and the more or less seamless transition to the outfield. Surely they’re excited about the fact that old man Adrián Beltré is still putting up a crazy 10.1 DEF at third base. Surely they’re delighted by Colby Lewis’s sparkly 3.21 ERA, and Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman’s game-ending one-two punch.

Olney and Kurkjian are actually missing the forest for the trees. The Rangers are mediocre with the bats, sporting a 94 wRC+ and a .265 True Average. The rotation holds a middling 4.23 Deserved Run Average. Their bullpen’s 4.53 DRA is 28th in baseball. That looks more like a .500 team at best than a presumptive pennant winner to me. Let’s not ignore the fact, too, that the Mariners currently have a 109 wRC+ and a .278 TAv, both marks best in the AL.

What about the relievers getting it done when it matters? Some research has suggested that strong bullpen performance in big moments can make a team outperform their fundamentals. The Rangers ’pen sports only a 1.18 WPA and a 1.78 Clutch score — not horrible, but certainly not anything that would suggest the bullpen is getting lucky in crucial late-inning situations. Indeed, Shawn Tolleson and his 4.96 DRA is seeing more high-leverage innings than anyone but Dyson. Based on that, Jeff Banister doesn’t strike me as any kind of bullpen wizard.

The Giants are slightly more complicated. They boast upper-tier bats with a 104 wRC+ and a .278 TAv. (By contrast, the Dodgers have posted a middling 90 wRC+ and an only slightly better .266 TAv.) The Giants rotation’s 3.99 DRA is similarly solid. Their bullpen, however, is barely better than the Rangers’, thanks to a 4.40 DRA. The bullpen’s 1.38 WPA and 1.03 Clutch scores imply that the relievers aren’t the ones winning the team games. The Giants bullpen’s actual performance should make them start dropping some close games in the future, and the race with the Dodgers will certainly tighten, but they are more likely to stay atop their division than the Rangers are, thanks to their superior lumber. (Plus, if Brandon Belt’s BABIP comes back to earth and Yasmani Grandal’s does the opposite, that superiority could shift.)

What can’t be so easily waved off is the Rangers’ and Giants’ defensive performances. Both teams are elite with the gloves this season, with players like Beltré, Desmond, Brandon Crawford, Matt Duffy, and Buster Posey all putting up great numbers by most metrics. The irony, of course, is that by Park-Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, both the Dodgers and the Mariners are either on par with or better than their division rivals on defense. The Rangers and Giants aren’t gaining too much of a competitive advantage in the only arena where they can properly claim greatness — an arena that can be notoriously unstable in small samples.

All of this may not matter by the end of the season. Both teams have built such sturdy leads in their respective divisions that even if they just played .500 ball for the rest of the year, they’d probably still make the playoffs. Once you’re there, anything can happen.

There’s only so long you can dance along the razor’s edge before you get cut, however. In fact, the Rangers might be ready to taste blood, now that more than half of their rotation is on the DL. (Rangers starters for the next month appear to be Cole Hamels and a pile of string.) The success of both the Rangers and the Giants has looked a lot like smoke and mirrors. Sometimes smoke can carry you all the way to the end of October, but most of the time we just end up seeing its true reflection.

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Evan Davis is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. His work has appeared in Amazin' Avenue and BP Bronx. Follow him on Twitter at @ProfessorDobles.