UPDATE: Since this was published last Friday, the Rangers took 2 of 3 from the Halos and won the road trip opener from the Chisox behind a complete game shutout from Colby Lewis. Keep grinding, boys.
I think it was Ted Williams who said that "baseball is a grinding war against accumulating failure." Maybe it was somebody else. But it sure sounds like something Teddy Ballgame would say—usually followed by another pearl of nuclear wisdom like "pitchers are a bunch of syphilitic cunts." Everyone knows that Ted was an expert sans pareil on hitting and fishing, but his dedication to discourse unbound by the conventions of taste also made him a master of word economy. In any event, whoever said it was right.
Consider this. 17,545 men have played major league baseball. There are only 141 non-pitcher MLB players in the Hall of Fame.* If you average their careers, you get a guy who hit .303 over 18 seasons. That means he failed to get a base hit in 70% of his official ABs. He had to battle through slumps, umpires, injuries, weather, sportswriters, shitfaced fans, tee-vee foofs, wives, non-wives, defensive larceny, assholes (on his team and others), younger guys after his job, physics, fatigue and doubt—all while using a round stick to hit a 90+ mph pill that moves like a New York taxi darting in and out of traffic. Every one of those 141 plaques is missing a word: grinder. They fought, scratched and clawed their way through that 70% and kept coming at it, harder and harder, day after day until the game finally overtook them, just as it overtook the other 17,382 guys that made the Show. The game overtakes them all; it’s just a question of when. The grinders survive longer.
The same analogy applies to team play writ large. According to Baseball Prospectus, there are currently 16 teams that have an approximate 20% or greater chance of making the postseason (BP still pegs the Rangers to win the AL West; I’ll get to that shortly.) Every one of those clubs will be confronted with some measure of adversity at varying times of the season. The DL will bulge. Bats get cold. Bullpens get tired or shaky. The 1 or 2 will lose the feel of his slider for month. The backup catcher can’t get laid. Whatever. It all shows up in the loss column. Their playoff odds will rise or fall as the season progresses based on their ability to grind through it.
And that’s what the Texas Rangers have been doing for the last three weeks ... grinding. Wednesday’s unfortunate washout against Oakland (with Texas up 7-0 after 4 ½ innings) capped a stretch of 20 games in 20 days for the Rangers—the maximum run allowed under the current CBA and the only one that the team is scheduled to have this season. When it started on April 22nd, Josh Hamilton was already on the DL. They swept the Royals that weekend, then went on a steady diet of shit sandwiches, losing 11 of their next 16 and enduring the following:
- Neftali Feliz went on the DL.
- The bullpen blew three saves and looked absolutely awful in general.
- They lost three times in their opponents’ last at-bat.
- Nelson Cruz went on the DL. Again.
- Matt Harrison = napalm followed by an early shower.
- The offense slowed to around 3 runs per game.
- Ian Kinsler really coming up solid in Hamilton’s absence—hitting a brisk .209/.318/.419 when the Yankees left town last Sunday night. Nails.
- Mike Napoli, hot early then fell off a cliff: .202/.360/.522.
- Julio Borbon ... Christ on a bike, I can’t even go there. I’m having a good day.
No getting around it; they’ve looked ugly. But somehow, the Rangers completed that 20-game death march 8-11 and only 1 ½ games out in the division with the Halos coming in for a weekender tonight. What does that tell you? Grinders. There are several signs that things are looking up for the Rangers, but there’s been an unmistakable whiff of panic in the Metroplex air. Earlier this week, Evan Grant wrote in the DMN that the Rangers were "sinking." A victory washed away by the rain Wednesday afternoon had Jamey Newberg looking darkly at the tea leaves: "in a season where so many things have gone wrong, now this ... [Texas] didn’t lose a game to rain in 2010 ... bad." Yesterday, Lone Star Ball had an item on their fan confidence meter headlined "Have Rangers Fans Stopped Believing?" (The author, Adam Morris, wisely hasn’t.)
The Rangers have some issues to address, sure, but I’m beginning to think that some of these guys have been listening to their constituents too much. What we need right now is patience and order. You can’t expect the fans to come by it on their own.
Look, Ranger fans come in two flavors: the die-hards and the pledges who jumped the bandwagon last year. Patience should come easier to lifelong baseball fans, but remember that the Ranger breed of die-hard has been thoroughly conditioned to expect misery, either in the form of a post-All Star break fade, or more often, by simply getting tire-ironed by the rest of the American League. The pledges are Cowboy fans eager to drink the sand after years of Jerrah abuse, but you have to be careful with them. They’re used to the immediacy of football. One ugly loss to the Skins or Eagles in September is all it takes to spark a run on canned chili and bottled water at every Tom Thumb in Dallas.
So settle down for the long haul and take these lessons to heart.
Grindology Lesson 1—It’s Mid May for Crissakes
If you react to every series like a conference game in November, you’ll stroke out before the All-Star break. Much as it is for the players, metered intensity is the key to survival. Accept the rhythm of the season for what it is—a bloody, plodding slog—and conserve the precious resources of angst and euphoria for critical mass time (although you should reserve the right to explode into homicidal mania the next time Julio Borbon makes the last out of an inning trying to fucking steal third motherfucking base with a guy at the plate hitting over .3fucking50 with runners in scoring position ... cocksucker piss crotch face bunghole shitwad).
Among American team sports, the major league baseball regular season stands alone as the most merciless grind. For one thing, there’s the schedule: 162 games over six months, half on the road, with fewer than a dozen true off days once rescheduled rainouts claim the rest. We’re encouraged not to think of it this way—after all, one doesn’t turn a boys game into a $7 billion industry by likening it to the Battle of the Somme.
Consider the term "pennant race," which according to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary (3rd Ed.), first appeared in a Brooklyn Eagle story on 24 July 1876. On its face, it appears to describe an event that occurs with fanfare and haste between two or more combatants, all taking the offensive to seize something. Is there anything hasty or seizing about a 162-tilt schedule for a game with no clock? If your answer to this question is yes, then you need to get Bob Costas’s dick out of your mouth. Applied to the entirety of the baseball season, "pennant race" is thus a double oxymoron, a paradox or perhaps both. (Surely there’s a tenured professor of lexical semantics or somebody else that doesn’t work for a living who’s spent a lavish federal grant to figure that out.)
To be fair, "pennant race" is used more often in the context of the last two months of the season after all the terminal cases have been transferred to the morphine drip patio. As for today? Well, let’s put it this way. Over in the AL Central, the Kansas City Royals are gamely giving chase to the juggernaut Cleveland Indians, trailing the Warriors of the Cuyahoga by only 3 1/2 games. Plaintiff rests. With roughly 77% of the schedule left to play, you can assume that the season is still in the gestational phase, and it will be for awhile longer in most divisions—including the AL West.
Warning to Ranger fans: if you insist on using 2010 as a yardstick, you need a selective memory. Forget about how the season ended, with Texas coasting to its first division title since the Deca-Durabolin days of the late ‘90s, besting the A’s by 9 and the Halos by 10. That’s not the norm. I still think this is at least a two or three team affair with the Rangers, A’s and Angels where one team will eventually out-grind the others. That kind of a "race" is much closer to the norm.
Since the implementation of the 3-division/wild card format in 1995 (the maiden run in ’94 was scotched by the strike), there have been 96 divisional and 32 wild card races (128 total). A significant majority of these (83, or 65%) have been progressive scrums decided by 6 or fewer games. Only 33 of them (26%) were stampedes of 9+ games. Of those 83 closer races, 62 were decided by 4 games or less, including 43 that were decided by 2 games or less. That’s almost half of the total races decided by 4 or less, and almost 1/3 decided by 2 or less. More importantly, the recent trend is for tighter races: only 6 of the aforementioned 33 stampedes have occurred since 2005.
Grindology Lesson 2—Everybody’s Gotta Grind Sometime
I’ll never forget what Art Howe said in his office one night after his Astros beat the Mets at the Dome. Some radio foof asked him something like: "how do you think your guys played tonight?" Howe looked up and said "well, we won, so I guess we fucked up less than they did."
Reduced to its minima, baseball is an exercise in fuckup abatement. You go 2-4 at the plate, then hey! Only two fuckups! You win a 5-4 game, your pitching staff had a good night because they only had four fuckups. You accumulate victories by minimizing your club’s failures across the board while taking advantage of your opponents’ mistakes (and whatever luck happens your way). Head-to-head competition with your chief rivals—the Rangers’ series vs. the Oaklands and Halos this week, for example—gives you the opportunity to hasten their climb up the Suck Index in the bargain. That’s what the standings are—the Suck Index printed in reverse so that the teams with the lowest cumulative fuckup totals appear at the top.
Granted, there are nights when you go out there and shred an opponents starter and rake his bullpen for a 10-spot, leaving the clubbie scrambling to find his manager’s emergency Winstons. (Earl Weaver kept his in a special pocket sewn on the inside of his jersey.) There are also nights when you win 3-1 or 2-0 behind nails pitching and leather, but it feels like a beating because the other poor bastards never had a chance. But more often than not, winning in baseball means surviving.
Understand this: the margins of success in this game are shit ticket thin. The best teams expect to go through periods when they flat out suck. Again, making the postseason means grinding it out. Some have to grind early, others late. Some have to grind at both ends of the season. You can find examples of this in any given season, but consider these pennant winners from just the last three years:
- Finished April at 11-12 in 3rd place.
- At the end of May, Texas was 26-24, in 2nd place ½ game back.
- A scorching June (21-6) put them 4 ½ games up at the end of the month.
- They limped into the ASB, going 3-8 to start July, but recovered to go 9-3 after the break. The Angels collapsed right about that time and the A’s couldn’t ever get close enough to mount a serious threat.
- (That said, it might have been interesting if LA or Oakland had caught fire since the Rangers only played .500 ball (29-29) in August and September.)
- On June 1, San Fran was in 4th place, 3 ½ games out (27-24).
- Between June 23rd and July 4th, the Giants lost 10 of 12 and found themselves entrenched in last place, 7 ½ games out.
- Between July 5th and August 3rd, they went 21-5 to roar back within 1 game of the first-place Padres.
- They didn’t reclaim first place until September 10th, and it see-sawed back and forth until the last week of the season. Got the lead back for good on the 26th of September and won the NL West by 2 games.
- In mid-May, Philly was a .500 team (16-16).
- After starting June on a 4-game win streak, the Phillies went 7-15 for the rest of the month.
- A 20-7 July saved them. Philly ended up winning the NL East by 6 games over Atlanta and 7 over Florida.
- The Yankees won 103 games in 2009, but they sure as hell didn’t look like a century team almost halfway through the season.
- On June 23rd, New York was grinding away at 38-32, a full 5 games behind the Red Sox.
- The Yanks caught fire and went 65-27 (.707) the rest of the way, winning the AL East by 8 over the BoSox.
- Started well but suffered a losing June (12-14) and fell out of first place by July 24th when they were 54-48.
- Ground their way through August, but were still 3 ½ behind the Mets on September 10th.
- The Mets collapsed, going 7-10 the rest of the way, but it might not have mattered if they hadn’t. Philly surged to the finish by winning 13 of its last 16 games to take the division by 3.
Grindology Lesson 3—Give the Bilge Pump Time to Work
To a certain extent, might already be sorting themselves out. The starting pitching remains an overall plus-plus. Based on his last three starts, Colby Lewis is back on track. C.J. Wilson looks very, very good—he’s cut his BB/9 almost in half from last year. Alexi Ogando ... well, I wish I could say that I saw this coming. Nolan has apparently been working with him on how to control that damn blister. (I wonder how Alexi’s translator handles this: "Hang your hand in this bucket of pickle brine, then take a scalpel....") Derek "Dutch Oven" Holland is still a work in progress, but at least that progress is 3-1 and not walking the ballpark. Matt Harrison has terrific stuff, but between the ears remains a question mark. After two abysmal starts, he was on his way to a great start against the A’s when Mother Nature struck on Wednesday.
Offensively, help is on the way in the form of Josh Hamilton, who will be ready for a rehab assignment (ahead of schedule) next week. He changes the entire complexion of the lineup. As for Michael Young, let’s just say we ought to be glad that he wasn’t dealt. At the same time, if getting fired from third base fired him up enough to hit .350, then I say let him start at second for a couple of weeks then fire him again. Mitch Moreland has been awesome. Wash was going to sit him all year against tough lefties to give Young and Napoli more ABs, but Moreland has fouled up the plan by starting to hammer lefties. Elvis Andrus has been an improvement over last year as well. The disappointments, obviously, are Cruz, Kinsler and Napoli—and I think all three of them are going to hit. They’re way, way underneath their projections.
Everybody knows that the achilles heel of this club is the bullpen, which has allowed a staggering 16 dongs in 94 innings. Without Feliz, they were also walking about as many as they were striking out (overall, the K/BB ratio is still a terrible 66/43). Feliz is back and he appears to have recovered the extra velocity that was missing at the beginning of the season. His stint on the DL, however, forced Wash to expose 40-something lefties Darren Oliver and Arthur Rhodes, and their workload needs to be monitored carefully (Rhodes, in particular, is better off as a classic, purely situational lefty). Ogando’s success as a starter created a gaping hole in the 7th and 8th inning, and right now, there isn’t a power arm to replace him. Everybody else they’ve tried = napalm. Paging Jon Daniels...
Grindology Lesson 4—Have a Little Faith and Pound Some Budweiser
In their lone season of existence, the Seattle Pilots were managed by an old fart named Joe Schultz. Whenever Schultz brought in a reliever, he always greeted his new pitcher with the same pep talk: "Throw ‘em low smoke and we’ll go pound some Budweiser." I frankly don’t know if that’s applicable here, but I’ve always wanted to use it, so what the hell.
I guess we can offer similar advice to Ranger fans: keep the faith and go pound some Budweiser. If nothing else, at least they now have management that both knows what it’s doing AND has money to spend. If they can grind it out for another few weeks, the bullpen is a problem that can likely be money-whipped.
* NOTE: Hopefully, ongoing projects to compile and digitize statistics from the Negro Leagues will succeed, enabling us to include those players in any historical analysis like this. Baseball-Reference.com is among those giving it a go, but it’s expected to take another three years to get it up and running. For the record, there are 295 members of the Hall of Fame, including 205 players elected as major leaguers, 35 Negro League players, 27 executives, 19 managers and 9 umpires.