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Unlikely Contributors: How the Rangers have built one of baseball’s hottest lineups

Credit is due to the new hitting coach.

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Houston Astros v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

One of the biggest losses of the Texas Rangers offseason was the departure of their hitting coach Anthony Iapoce, who left to join the Chicago Cubs. Filling a void left by one of the more respected assistants in the game, the Rangers handed over the duties to former Dodgers assistant hitting coach Luis Ortiz. Ortiz already had a connection with then new manager Chris Woodward, who served along side him in Los Angeles.

One of the biggest responsibilities Ortiz has is working with Joey Gallo. While still serviceable, the powerful outfielder was coming off a down year in which he more issues with pulling and hitting the ball in the air to his standards. He also saw a marginal decrease in walk-rate (14.1 to 12.8 percent), but when you make contact as little as Gallo, the margin for error in other outcomes becomes less forgiving. His 110 wRC+ would work, but there was still room for improvement offensively.

Bringing back an old connection would be a good start for Gallo, as Ortiz served as a former minor league coach of his (and many other Rangers hitters), there was already a somewhat established idea of what worked and what didn’t. That rebuilt connection would lead to some early work in the offseason, as described in a piece from Jamie Newberg at The Athletic ($).

Gallo’s rookie season amounted to just over two months after he signed at age 18 as a supplemental first-round draft pick. But the few sessions he had with Ortiz that summer left an imprint. “Luis taught me back then to find a rhythm with my swing and my timing, and to let the ball get deeper so I can use the whole field better,” Gallo says. “That’s something we’re working on now as well.”

The work that Gallo and Ortiz have put in has shown in Gallo’s stats early on this season. He is ranked seventh among American League hitters in wRC+, 11th in on-base percentage, fifth in slugging percentage, and third in isolated average. His strikeout and swinging-strike rate are at career lows, while his walk-rate his skyrocketed. He’s pulling the ball more often again and hitting in the air even more often.

Gallo’s adjustments were recently pointed out in another piece over at The Athletic, this time by Eno Sarris. He cleverly drew attention to he swinging less often and at better pitches, all brought up in a conversation he had with Gallo.

“As soon as Luis Ortiz got hired, we talked on the phone on the next day,” Gallo told me last week. “He said ‘You could be such a great player, you’re already a great player but you could be even better, you have to be more stubborn in the zone. You have a great eye, but you have to trust it and use it to your advantage.’”

Ortiz isn’t just having an effect on Gallo. The Rangers are loaded with improved hitters, some whom were with the organization before this season, some brought in from somewhere else. Ronald Guzman, Elvis Andrus, Hunter Pence, Danny Santana, Logan Forsythe, and Shin-Soo Choo have all made strides in some form. Some through plate discipline, a lot through hitting the ball harder.

Put this all together and you get a surprisingly productive lineup. For a team that ranked 22nd in wRC+ and was projected to be mediocre offensively, a current 11th place stand in wRC+, even further supported by a sixth place cumulative xwOBA ranking, their start is rather satisfying.

Among 278 hitters with at least 100 plate appearances in 2018 and 50 plate appearances in 2019, the Rangers fill out four spots in the top 30 biggest increases in hard-hit rate (Pence, Forsythe, Gallo, Andrus). No other team has more than two.

Biggest Increases in Hard-Hit%

Rank Name Increase in HH%
Rank Name Increase in HH%
1 Carlos Santana 21.7%
2 Gary Sanchez 21.4%
3 Jorge Alfaro 19.7%
4 Kevan Smith 18.5%
5 Justin Smoak 18.0%
6 Carlos Correa 16.9%
7 Hunter Pence 16.6%
8 George Springer 16.6%
9 Cody Bellinger 14.8%
10 Yasmani Grandal 14.8%
11 Jonathan Schoop 14.2%
12 Josh Phegley 14.1%
13 Tommy La Stella 14.0%
14 Nelson Cruz 13.8%
15 Logan Forsythe 13.6%
16 Joey Gallo 13.2%
17 Brandon Lowe 13.1%
18 Enrique Hernandez 12.8%
19 Ryan McMahon 12.7%
20 Jordy Mercer 12.6%
21 Hanley Ramirez 12.5%
22 Josh Donaldson 12.4%
23 Ben Gamel 12.4%
24 Elvis Andrus 12.2%
25 Brian McCann 11.9%
26 Renato Nunez 11.6%
27 Tony Wolters 11.6%
28 Franmil Reyes 11.5%
29 Kolten Wong 11.4%
30 Willson Contreras 11.1%
Minimum 100 PA in 2018, 50 PA in 2019 FanGraphs

As a team, the Rangers have gone from ninth to first in hard-hit rate. They’ve gone from 23rd to 27th in soft-hit rate. Their increase in xwOBA has only been topped by two teams (Twins and Braves).

Team xwOBA Differentials between 2018 and 2019

Team 2018 xwOBA 2019 xwOBA Difference
Team 2018 xwOBA 2019 xwOBA Difference
MIN 0.308 0.346 0.038
ATL 0.310 0.340 0.030
TEX 0.312 0.339 0.027
CHC 0.319 0.346 0.027
NYM 0.302 0.328 0.026
PHI 0.304 0.329 0.025
TB 0.313 0.336 0.023
HOU 0.317 0.337 0.020
CWS 0.300 0.319 0.019
NYY 0.333 0.351 0.018
LAD 0.328 0.342 0.014
STL 0.324 0.337 0.013
DET 0.304 0.317 0.013
SD 0.291 0.303 0.012
LAA 0.319 0.329 0.010
MIL 0.317 0.321 0.004
KC 0.314 0.315 0.001
SF 0.293 0.294 0.001
SEA 0.324 0.323 -0.001
ARI 0.310 0.308 -0.002
WSH 0.326 0.323 -0.003
BAL 0.300 0.295 -0.005
MIA 0.296 0.291 -0.005
OAK 0.332 0.325 -0.007
BOS 0.344 0.336 -0.008
PIT 0.315 0.301 -0.014
COL 0.310 0.295 -0.015
CIN 0.313 0.290 -0.023
TOR 0.327 0.300 -0.027
CLE 0.333 0.301 -0.032
Baseball Savant

Again, the improvements have mostly come from the bats of seven player (Pence, Gallo, Guzman, Forsythe, Choo, Santana, Andrus). All together, they make up 432 of the 803 (53.8 percent) batted balls from their team. Almost all of them are hitting the ball harder than any point in their respective careers. Pence, who looked on the verge of retirement, now owns an elite exit velocity. Santana, a journeyman player, has a .373 xwOBA. Andrus is now hitting for a career high in average exit velocity. Choo has somehow gotten better and Guzman crushed the ball in the nine games he played in. And starting subject of this piece, Gallo, has an average exit velocity north of 96 miles per hour.

The Rangers have good hitters popping up out of nowhere

Player Batted Balls Career wOBA 2018 wOBA 2019 wOBA Career xwOBA 2018 xwOBA 2019 xwOBA 2018 EV 2019 EV
Player Batted Balls Career wOBA 2018 wOBA 2019 wOBA Career xwOBA 2018 xwOBA 2019 xwOBA 2018 EV 2019 EV
Ronald Guzman 16 0.316 0.312 0.373 0.299 0.291 0.423 86.6 90.6
Logan Forsythe 61 0.323 0.274 0.372 0.327 0.277 0.360 87.3 87.9
Joey Gallo 60 0.353 0.343 0.439 0.372 0.369 0.463 93.9 96.8
Hunter Pence 49 0.318 0.255 0.371 0.330 0.267 0.380 88.0 92.1
Elvis Andrus 102 0.325 0.296 0.396 0.310 0.286 0.363 87.2 89.6
Danny Santana 52 0.262 0.259 0.388 0.274 0.326 0.373 84.8 88.9
Shin Soo-Choo 92 0.355 0.356 0.415 0.367 0.361 0.384 89.0 92.0
ALL 432 0.323 0.296 0.388 0.327 0.291 0.380 87.3 90.6
ALL = median values Baseball Savant

It remains to be seen what all these unforeseen changes does for the Rangers long-terms. For now, it looks like the new hitting coach Luis Ortiz has had a major impact. His name should be catching the attention of many, along with this lineup of surprising contributors.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.