The Rangers have beat the Astros before. Here's evidence of the team celebrating such a win in September 2015, before Prince Fielder retired. Jim Cowsert/Newscom

How Are the Texas Rangers in Playoff Contention?

A little luck and some smart in-season pickups for the roster.

Back in April, no one gave the Texas Rangers much of a chance of making the playoffs this year. I wrote that a lot would have to break right for the team to even finish in third place. My bold prediction was a 76-win season.

Well, after last night’s victory over the Astros — and with 19 games left to play — the Rangers have already tallied 76 wins. They sit in second place, only a half-game out of first. Beating Houston tonight puts them atop the American League West standings. Take a gander at this line graph, which represents a season-long view of the playoff odds for each team in that division, according to FanGraphs:

FanGraphs AL West playoff odds 2015

 

The Rangers are the blue line. You’ll see that as of today, they’re given a 65.5-percent change of playing in the postseason, up from barely more than Zero-percent in April. That’s due not just to where they sit relative to Houston, but also because as of today they have a one-game lead over Minnesota for the second AL wild-card slot.

What’s truly remarkable is that the Rangers have unexpectedly climbed the standings even though they have — by far — lost to injury the most games out of the highest-quality players on their roster. More than 1,400 games worth of playing time, according to a site that tracks the impact of injuries. To appreciate this fact in visual form, see how much of an outlier the circle representing Texas is on this chart:

Texas Rangers 2015 season injury tracking

Wow — the Rangers really must have been playing way better this season than was expected, right? Actually, no. They’ve been outscored by their opponents — a relatively rare feat for a playoff team and usually indicative of losing record. In fact, if the normal pattern held, Texas should be in fourth place in the division. See here, where “DIFF” represents “run differential,” the difference between how many runs a team has scored and how many runs they’ve allowed their opponents to score:

AL-West-standing-9-15-15-with-run-differential
And if you want to get fancier about it, advanced statistical analysis generates stats called second-order and third-order wins — which separate from actual outcomes the distinct elements of offense and defense that contribute to a team’s wins and losses. By those calculations, the Rangers should be about 19 games behind the Astros in the standings. Like so, via Baseball Prospectus:

Texas Rangers AL West third-order wins 2015

 

But games are not played on spreadsheets. Thanks in part to the general mediocrity and parity in the American League this season — no AL teams are mathematically eliminated from playoff contention yet, while six teams in the National League already have been — and in part to the pick-up of pitcher Cole Hamels at the trade deadline, the Rangers have more than earned their shot and control their own postseason fate.

As Jonah Keri explained it on Grantland yesterday:

Credit Jon Daniels, Thad Levine, and the rest of the Rangers’ front office for building contingency plans. The January trade for Yovani Gallardo gave the team a new de facto no. 1 starter in Darvish’s absence, and Gallardo has come through, firing a team-high 169.1 innings and posting a career-best full-season ERA.9 Several kids pressed into action have soaked up quality innings, too. Nick Martinez and Chi Chi Gonzalez have combined to make 31 starts, both with park-adjusted ERAs that rate as slightly better than league average. And while we’re loath to make much of wins as a stat, journeyman Colby Lewis leading the staff with 15 of them — he’s posting park-adjusted numbers near league average and nearly threw a perfect game on Saturday — has been a huge, unexpected bonus.

Now, given time to heal, plus a major upgrade via trade, the Rangers suddenly own one of the most talented rotations in the league.

So let’s throw out all the charts and graphs and admire the simple beauty of Prince Fielder launching one:

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