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August 25, 2006

Fighting History

Over the next 33 games, the Texas Rangers must gain seven games on Oakland and 1.5 on Los Angeles to create a tie for the division title. The odds of doing so are exceedingly slim. Yes, the peripherals suggest Texas is better than its 66-63 record, and Oakland is winning despite a kittycat-tame offense. Maybe Texas “deserves” better, but advancing that argument involves the consumption of some awfully sour grapes.

To have any hope of winning the West the Rangers must play much, much better than they have thus far, plus Oakland and Anaheim must backslide. Does their history provide any guidance as to the likeliness of these events ? Have the Rangers ever finished the season on a tear that belied their previous 120+ games?

To answer this question, I used Baseball-Reference.com to find the Rangers winning percentage during the last 33 games of every season (except strike-shortened 1981 and 1994). I then compared them to the winning percentages during the rest of the season (the first 111 to 129 games depending on season).

During their last 33 games, the Rangers have rarely over- or under-performed relative to their existing record. Only six times in 32 years has their final-33 winning percentage strayed from their existing percentage by more than .100. Usually, they maintain the status quo.

Top Three Improvements Over Final 33 Games

Year   First Games   Final 33 Games   Win % Difference
1978   65-64 .504      22-11 .633          +.163
1979   62-67 .481      21-12 .636          +.155
1977   72-57 .558      22-11 .667          +.109

Bottom Three Improvements Over Final 33 Games

Year   First Games   Final 33 Games   Win % Difference
1972    48-73 .397      6-27 .182          -.215
2003    60-69 .465     11-22 .333          -.132
1988    59-69 .461     11-22 .333          -.128

The 1978 season is a fine analog for the present situation. After August 28, 1978, the top three teams in the AL West ranked as follows:

KAN  70-59  ----
CAL  70-62  -1.5
TEX  65-64  -5.0

Ah yes, a Ranger team hovering around .500 with two teams to catch in just over a month. Texas would win 22 of its final 33 games to finish 87-75. Unfortunately, Kansas City also finished the season 22-11, and Texas didn’t gain a single game on the division winner. In fact, Texas was never closer than five games from first. The Rangers floundered to 72-73 before winning fifteen of their last seventeen.

The 1979 Rangers gained four games on the division leader during the final 33 games, but they were nine games out at the time, and the strong finish only served to push them just over .500. The 1977 edition was the best in Ranger history until 1999. Its 22-11 finish resulted in four games lost in the standings to the Royals, which ended a white-hot 27-8.

The gloomy conclusions to this exercise: 1) After 129 games, we have a pretty firm idea of the quality of a team. Logically and empirically, Texas is most likely to continue playing at or near its current pace. 2) Winning isn’t enough. Texas needs an Athletic catastrophe that will haunt its fans for years to come.

The faint silver lining is that, based on history, the Rangers’ chances of collapsing are small. They have never ended a season below .500 when they had a winning record with 33 games to play, and they have never lost more than 18 of their last 33 in such a situation.

As to their playoff hopes this season, frankly, I think the Rangers are meat on a stick, batter-dipped, deep-fried, chewed up, swallowed, and slowly digesting inside the stomach of a twelve-year-old at Tropicana Field. But that doesn’t mean I won’t watch, and hope.

Posted by Lucas at August 25, 2006 03:01 PM