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January 18, 2006

The Year That Wasn’t: “Winning? the West In ‘94

The Texas Rangers exuded optimism heading into 1994. In the previous year, they finished second behind the White Sox with a record of 86-76. They played meaningful ball late into the season, trailing Chicago by only 2.5 games on September 13. (Yours truly attended an August 28th 13-3 mauling of Baltimore featuring three homers by Juan Gonzalez.)

The Rangers featured a powerful offense including Ivan Rodriguez, Will Clark (who replaced the acrimoniously departed Rafael Palmeiro), Dean Palmer, Juan Gonzalez, and Jose Canseco, none of whom was over 30. Though Nolan Ryan had finally retired, the rotation included Kevin Brown, Kenny Rogers, and Roger Pavlik, and Tom Henke had saved forty games with a 2.91 ERA the previous year.

After 22 years of playing in what was, quite literally, a glorified minor-league park, Texas moved into The Ballpark In Arlington, courtesy mostly of the city’s taxpayers. Along with some competitive baseball, The Ballpark would do much to dispel the notion of Texas as a baseball backwater.

Finally, Major League Baseball decided to emulate the NFL by splitting each league into three divisions and adding a “wild card,” a bonus playoff spot to the best team that did not win a division. MLB placed Texas in the new and smaller West with California, Oakland and Seattle. Texas had bested them in 1993, so 1994 represented as good a chance as ever for the Rangers to make their first postseason appearance:

1993 Truncated AL West Standings
Texas 86-76
Seattle 82-80
California 71-91
Oakland 68-94

THE SEASON

Texas began 1994 with five road games. They won two and never allowed fewer than five runs. In Game 2 against the Yankees, Texas allowed eighteen. None among relievers Steve Dreyer, Darren Oliver, Matt Whiteside and Jay Howell pitched effectively, and closer Tom Henke mopped up the ninth.

The Ballpark opened for business on a rainy April 11th afternoon. Texas lost to Milwaukee 4-3 as Jaime Navarro defeated Kenny Rogers. Will Clark homered but the team managed only nine baserunners and never led. Texas finished the inaugural homestand 2-4, then consecutive losses in Toronto dropped them to 4-9, last in the division and worst in the American League. They had allowed 6.8 runs per game.

Standings After April 20
Team W L GB
Oakland 7-7 ---
California 7-8 0.5
Seattle 5-8 1.5
Texas 4-9 2.5

Texas meandered below .500 for two months. After a ten-inning loss against Boston on May 28, they held a record of 20-26, scoring 5.4 runs per game and allowing a dire 6.3. Though better than only three other teams in the league, Texas miraculously hovered only one game out of first behind the 23-27 Angels. Seattle sat one-half game below Texas while Oakland had lost 28 of 34 to fall to 13-35.

Standings After May 28
Team W L GB Since 4/20
California 23-27 --- 16-19
Texas 20-26 1.0 16-17
Seattle 20-27 1.5 15-19
Oakland 13-35 9.0 6-28

The standings on that date set the tone for the season. No Western team would ever spend a day more than two games above .500. Texas, California and Oakland each briefly visited that exalted position. Each of Texas’s division rivals would fall to at least twenty games below .500 at some point during the season.

Texas heated up. They won the last two of a four-game series versus Boston, then took two of three in Milwaukee and swept Boston by scores of 13-2, 10-4 and 10-7. Two wins in three against New York and two more against Kansas City propelled the Rangers to a mark of 30-28 as of June 10th. Texas held a lead of six or more games over its hapless division mates.

Standings After June 10
Team W L GB Since 5/28
Texas 30-28 --- 10-2
Seattle 24-34 6.0 4-7
California 25-36 6.5 2-9
Oakland 18-41 12.5 5-6

Had the Rangers really asserted themselves during this 10-2 run and played the quality ball of which they seemed capable before the season? Well, not so much. Texas continued to allow runs with abandon, an even six per game. The turnaround manifested itself in the form of 7.3 runs scored per game and four one-run wins.

The Rangers proceeded to commence its annual midseason swoon a month early. The Rangers completed their homestand by losing eight of nine including four straight to the wretched Athletics, 21-43 entering the series. After losing two of three on the road to both California and Chicago, Texas held a record of 33-40. Perversely, they retained the division lead. Outside the West, only Toronto’s record of 31-41 trailed Texas:

Standings After June 26
Team W L GB Since 6/10
Texas 33-40 --- 3-12
California 33-43 1.5 8-7
Seattle 31-43 2.5 7-9
Oakland 29-45 4.5 11-4

Texas righted the ship somewhat by taking series from Minnesota, Detroit and Cleveland, then endured six consecutive sets of win-one lose-one. After July 20, they stood at 46-48, safely in first:

Standings After July 20
Team W L GB Since 6/26
Texas 46-48 --- 13-8
California 42-54 5.0 9-11
Oakland 41-53 5.0 12-8
Seattle 38-54 7.0 7-11

The Rangers could not distance themselves from their weak competition. They lost four straight in Toronto to fall to 46-52, and their lead slid back to two games over a rejuvenated Oakland squad that had won nineteen of thirty after sweeping Texas back in June. The Rangers captured two of three against Minnesota and then split a four-game series against California to finish July with their two-game lead intact. A series victory against ’93 champ Chicago “vaulted” the Rangers to 52-56 and lengthened the lead to 4.5 games over an Oakland team afflicted with a six-game losing streak.

Standings After August 4
Team W L GB Since 7/20
Texas 52-56 --- 6-8
Oakland 47-60 4.5 6-7
Seattle 43-62 7.5 5-8
California 44-65 8.5 2-11

In a unfortunate display of politeness, the Rangers returned Oakland’s favor by losing their next six games. Texas lost three in Oakland followed by three home losses against Seattle. After August 10, Texas had a woeful record of 52-62 and a thin one-half-game lead over Oakland. Texas had Thursday the 11th off, while Oakland hosted Seattle. Seattle won 8-1, and Texas retained the division lead despite a worse record than the last-place teams in the East and Central. Under the two-division system, Texas would have finished in fourth place, 15.5 games behind Chicago.

Then, baseball stopped.

Final Standings
Team W L GB Since 8/04
Texas 52-62 --- 0-6
Oakland 51-63 1.0 4-2
Seattle 49-63 2.0 6-1
California 47-68 5.5 3-3

MLB played 1994 without an expired collective bargaining agreement and negotiations went nowhere. Players Association head Donald Fehr rejected the owners’ salary cap proposal in June. In July, the owners declined to make a scheduled pension/benefit payment to the Association, and another attempt to remove baseball’s antitrust exemption in the U.S. Congress failed to move out of committee. The players struck on August 12th. Further attempts at reconciliation failed, and on September 14 Interim Commissioner For Life Bud Selig cancelled the remainder of the season including the World Series.

Though baseball fans certainly wanted an immediate resolution to the strike, Texas fans faced an unusual conflict. The Rangers led the division and had a reasonable chance to win, but they were a bad team with a Pythagorean record of 50-64. As the standings stood on August 11th, they would have faced a 70-43 Yankee team (managed by Buck Showalter) in the divisional round. Ranger fans desperately wanted October baseball for the first time in franchise history, but did they want it that badly? Imagine last fall having writers and radio personalities discussing San Diego’s threat to join the infamous ’94 Rangers as a division winner with a losing record.

Texas finished first in 1994, but I doubt that many fans acknowledge it. I certainly don’t. Winning a real title in 1996 erased the tainted memories of ’94.

THE TEAM

How did a team with such promise end up ten games below .500?

On the pitching side, that 18-6 Yankee loss in Game 2 boded ill. The glaring weakness of the ’93 squad was a thin pitching staff, especially a paper-thin bullpen, and Texas hadn’t done much to bolster it. 1993 late-season acquisition Chris Carpenter (in return for Rob Nen) offered little help down the stretch and would pitch no better in 1994. Texas had signed Jay Howell, who had pitched very well as a 37-year-old Brave, but as a 38-year-old Ranger he broke down. 40-year-old free-agent Rick Honeycutt had the worst year of his career.

The rotation would fare no better. Rogers pitched well, but the mercurial Brown’s ERA leapt to 4.82 after previous years of 3.79 and 4.16. The rest consisted of struggling prospects (Hector Fajardo, Roger Pavlik, Rick Helling, Brian Bohanon, Steve Dreyer) and end-of-the-road vets Bruce Hurst and Tim Leary. The youngsters combined to start forty games with an ERA of 6.82 and a WHIP of 1.57. The two oldsters started eleven games and had an ERA of 7.48, and neither pitched in the Majors again.

The Rangers allowed an MLB-worst 6.11 runs per game in a park that actually favored pitchers in its inaugural year; the Rangers and their opponents averaged 10.9 runs per game in The Ballpark and 12.2 on the road. The ’94 staff was probably the third or fourth worst in Ranger history depending on the metrics. They had an ERA+ of 86 and an RA+ of 84, and they allowed eight or more runs in 31 games. Thirteen of the 22 pitchers on the staff had a negative Value Over Replacement Player per Baseball Prospectus.

Conversely, the offense mostly did its part although it declined from 1993. The ’94 team finished with an OBP+ and SLG+ of 103. By my standards, they had the 11th-best OPS+ in the 34-year Ranger history and were ninth-best in scoring runs. The previous year’s club ranked eighth and second, respectively. Will Clark didn’t entirely replace Palmeiro’s power but had a .431 on-base percentage. (Clark, by the way, was criminally underrepresented in the Hall Of Fame voting.) In addition to his stellar defense, Pudge Rodriguez provided his first potent offensive year. 25-year-old rookie Thurman Clyde Greer III batted .314/.410/.487 in eighty games. Jose Canseco, fresh off arm surgery, batted .282/.386/.552 and paced the team with 31 homers (and never set foot in the outfield). Texas received some bench OBP from Oddibe McDowell, Chris James and Esteban Beltre. James even slugged .534.

On the downside, Dean Palmer took a giant step backward after establishing himself as an offensive force in 1993. Palmer hit nineteen homers in an abbreviated schedule but managed only a .302 OBP and a 98 OPS+. Juan Gonzalez one-upped Palmer by losing 27 homers and .160 of slugging. Contrary to its perception as a tiny park, the Ballpark has deeper dimensions than its predecessor everywhere but right field, and Gonzalez didn’t appreciate his new surroundings. David Hulse spent much of the season leading off and batted a paltry .255/.305/.316. Manuel Lee was Manuel Lee.

Fortunately, 1994 would represent the low point of the 1990s for Texas and their fans. Their record of ten games below .500 in 1994 would be their worst of the decade (except for a few days in 1997), and over the next five years they had four winning seasons and three division titles. Real ones.

Posted by Lucas at January 18, 2006 09:07 AM