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How good are the Texas Rangers?

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What matters more: 95 wins or a bad run differential?

MLB: ALDS-Texas Rangers at Toronto Blue Jays Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who appreciated (A) Jose Bautista’s bat flip in the 2015 ALDS and (B) Rougned Odor’s punch to Bautista’s face during the 2016 regular season was probably pretty disappointed when this budding rivalry flamed out in a three-game sweep last October. The Toronto Blue Jays easily defeated the Texas Rangers, knocking the American League team with the best record out of the postseason almost before it began. But to some, at least, this wasn’t terribly surprising.

The 2016 Texas Rangers won 95 games (and their division) easily, but there was always evidence that this team was a paper tiger. According to Baseball-Reference’s Pythagorean win expectancy, Texas had the run differential of a mere 82-win team. Given the vast disparity between a 95-win total and an 82-win probability, it’s worth asking just how good the Rangers actually were, and if we should expect success or failure in 2017.

Before going any further, it’s important to note that the Rangers also outperformed their differential in 2015 as well. Texas won 88 games, but had an expected win/loss record of 83-79, essentially the same as the 2016 team. It may be meaningless that a team outperformed its run differential by at least five games in two consecutive years, but it’s also at least worth knowing.

The simplest and most obvious explanation of this wild disparity between actual wins and losses and pythagorean projections (particularly in 2016) comes down to close games. As Garry Fraley of the Dallas News wrote, the team’s 36-11 record in one-run games was nothing short of historic. This was hardly an invisible trend, as writers like BtBS’s Evan Davis noted the team’s incredible luck well before the season ended. Close wins are nice, but consistently winning in such situations is usually untenable.

It would be borderline miraculous if the Rangers won close games at anything approaching this rate in 2017, and in all likelihood they will regress back to the mean. This is probably why projections aren’t terribly high on them: FanGraphs projects a record of 83-79 — much closer to their 2016 Pythagorean record — and a three-way tie for second place in the AL West. The safest bet for a team’s future record is looking at past results, and many of these results do not see a bright future for the 2017 Rangers.

At the same time, though, there’s at least some evidence that outperforming a run differential isn’t a complete fluke. The New York Yankees, for example, have posted winning seasons in each of the last four years despite having a negative run differential in three of those seasons. This statistic suggests that these Yankees teams were worse than they looked on paper (quite possible), but it’s also worth pointing out that perhaps manager Joe Girardi deserves some credit for milking the maximum amount of wins out of a subpar roster.

Rob Arthur and Rian Watt wrote an article for FiveThirtyEight that cast Girardi as one of the best bullpen managers of the last 16 years. While they concluded that bullpen management has a negligible effect on total wins, they also suggested that it could have some impact as well. Measuring a manager’s impact on a full season is an incredibly difficult proposition, but the hypothesis that a good manager can help a team over-perform is at least tenable (especially in specific cases).

Can manager Jeff Bannister do the same with the 2017 Texas Rangers? Can this team outperform its run differential, or perhaps even be a good team from all discernible angles? This remains to be seen, even if another 95-win season seems unlikely at the moment. In any case, 95 wins is impressive, even if the accompanying win differential wasn’t. Maybe the Rangers really were as good as their record suggested, and maybe they were as bad as their differential. In 2017, we should come closer to fully understanding.