What went wrong for the Rangers — and how to fix them
The lessons come hard and fast in the major leagues. In the span of less than a month, the Texas Rangers’ dream season has morphed into, well, not quite a nightmare but at the very least a prolonged bout of anxiety. It’s a lot to digest, even for an Ivy League-educated ex-pitcher on a whirlwind career trajectory such as Rangers general manager Chris Young.
“I’ve learned a ton,” Young said, reflecting on his ongoing transformation from player to executive. “I don’t think you’re ever truly prepared for this. And I don’t think you ever really dominate all aspects of it.”
Only six years ago, Young, 44, was an active player, wrapping up a 13-year career in which he debuted with his hometown Rangers, made an All-Star team, and won a ring with the 2015 Kansas City Royals. After a couple of years working in the MLB league office, he was hired as the Rangers’ GM, working under longtime lead executive Jon Daniels before taking his place as the head of baseball operations on Aug. 17, 2022.
One year later, the first Rangers roster for which Young was solely responsible was in prime position for the American League West title. This stunning development came on the heels of a three-year stretch in which the Rangers won just 63.3 of each 162 games they played, the franchise’s lowest point in 50 years.
That didn’t stop the Rangers from launching into an aggressive spate of roster building over the past two years, adding big-name players such as Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Nathan Eovaldi, Jon Gray and Jordan Montgomery through trades and free agency.
“To some extent it was to accelerate the rebuild,” Young said. “In a market this size, I think that our fans deserve that. They shouldn’t have to go through a five-, six-, seven-year rebuild.”
It worked. Under future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy, the Rangers were on pace to win more than 100 games into the third week of June. Their run differential suggested they were even better than that, marking them as a triple-digit winner all the way to the end of August. Texas’ offense was on pace to score 1,000 runs as late as June 14.
After the Rangers beat the Angels on Aug. 15, just shy of the anniversary mark of Young’s rise to the top of the club’s front office, Texas had won 12 of 14, a hot stretch that began in the immediate aftermath of its trade deadline additions of Scherzer and Montgomery.
“Championship seasons can be few and far between,” Young said. “When you have that chance, these players have earned the right, this coaching staff has earned the right, to have the support they need.”
At that point the Rangers were on pace to win 97 games but had the run differential of a 105-win team. Simulation-based probabilities gave Texas a 79% shot of winning the AL West, even though the defending champion Houston Astros were hot on their bootheels. The Rangers owned a 99% shot of making the postseason.
And then things took a turn.
What went wrong
The current standings tell the story of what came next. An eight-game losing streak, a frigid spell that stretched into 16 losses in 20 games. What had been a 6½-game lead in the division turned into a three-game deficit. Those gaudy probabilities tumbled, with Texas’ slump coinciding with hot play from both the Astros and Seattle Mariners.
What in the name of Nolan Ryan went wrong?
The Rangers rolled through deGrom’s early-season-ending elbow injury and a monthlong injured list stint from Seager. But they went 2-7 when Seager was hurt again in late July.
The rotation ranked 11th in ERA (3.95) and sixth in quality starts through July 18, when Eovaldi turned up with a forearm strain. Since then, the starters rank 24th with a 5.02 ERA.
Josh Jung was having a Rookie of the Year-caliber season, with an .813 OPS, 22 homers and 67 RBIs, when he suffered a fractured thumb. He hasn’t played since Aug. 6.
Starting catcher Jonah Heim made his first All-Star squad but landed on the IL with a wrist problem just before the trade deadline. He’s back in the lineup but hit just .167 in his first 22 games after returning.
Most recently, Adolis Garcia hurt a knee while trying to run down a home run ball in a game against Houston. He was placed on the IL on Sept. 8. Garcia leads the Rangers in homers (34) and RBIs (100).
The relief staff hasn’t been a strong point for most of the season. Texas ranks 26th in bullpen ERA and has more blown saves (29) than saves (27). That’s not great.
Lately, though, things have been even worse, and at times, it feels as if the Rangers don’t have a reliever capable of navigating through a clean inning. Since the beginning of September, the Texas bullpen has a 6.80 ERA and has allowed a .985 OPS.
Remember those tales of the Rangers being on pace to score more than 1,000 runs? The regression monster has caught up to a number of key performers.
Using the All-Star break as a dividing line, you can see the respective declines:
• Adolis Garcia (.848 OPS before/.750 OPS after)
• Ezequiel Duran (.870/.603)
• Josh Jung (.835/.716)
• Leody Taveras (.812/.609)
• Jonah Heim (.812/.599)
Not all of the Rangers have fallen off. Semien and Seager have continued to mash, Nathaniel Lowe has picked up his production and Mitch Garver has been one of baseball’s hottest hitters.
But the lineup hasn’t been as deep, and an offense that was scoring 5.8 runs per game before the break has lost about a run off that average, which makes the shortcomings in the bullpen and a recent slump for the rotation impossible to mask.
Perhaps the biggest source of solace in all this is the presence of Bochy, a three-time champion with the San Francisco Giants and the 10th-winningest skipper in baseball history.
“We’ve spent most of the year in first place,” said Semien, who grew up in the Bay Area as a Giants fan. “We’ve had a little lull lately, but all in all, when you look at Year 1 with Bruce Bochy, you have to like the way we’ve played.”
Indeed, all is not lost … yet.
How they can turn it around
The nadir of the Rangers’ slide came at the worst possible time.
Everything was still on the table for Texas, one of the six existing franchises still in search of its first World Series crown, when Houston arrived in Arlington for a huge three-game series, beginning on Labor Day, that promised to be as big as anything we’ve seen in Texas baseball for a long time.
“It’s one where, it’s why you play,” Bochy said before the opener. “We’re excited. The series is going to get a lot of attention, as it should. Two teams that are tied, trying to get [to the postseason].”
It started well. No, really. The Rangers jumped to an early lead in the first game of the showdown on the strength of a 453-foot Seager blast, sending a sellout gathering at Globe Life Field into a frenzy, and led 3-0 through four innings. From that point on, the Astros outscored the Rangers 39-7 and clubbed 16 homers while completing the most resounding three-game sweep imaginable in the last installment of the 2023 Silver Boot Series.
The proper sound effect for this would be that of the helium escaping from someone’s freshly pricked birthday balloon.
“It’s part of the game and you have to let it go,” Bochy said after the series finale. “You don’t have any other choice. Obviously, it was not a good series. There wasn’t a lot we did well.”
After Texas lost to the lowly Oakland Athletics on Sept. 8, the odds were down to a 7% shot at the division and a 57% shot at the playoffs. A couple of wins over Oakland stopped the bleeding (and pushed the playoff odds to 65%), but the Rangers have work to do. Key series loom against the teams they are fighting against for position, the current series in Toronto (the Rangers won the opener on of a four-game set on Monday) and two remaining series against Seattle.
Texas has a clear mission: pass either the Mariners or Blue Jays. The final two AL spots will go to two of those three contenders, as the Orioles, Twins, Astros and Rays all have close to 100% probabilities by now.
To do that, a few things are going to have to happen.
They need Garcia back, though at least in prospect Evan Carter, they introduced an intriguing replacement. Eovaldi needs to ramp up to something like a full workload. Meanwhile, Jung is making progress, having taken some swings off a batting tee over the weekend. His thumb isn’t going to be quite right until the offseason, but there is increasing hope he can get back and help later this month.
More innings from the rotation
Look, neither Mariano Rivera nor anyone like him will be walking through the Rangers’ bullpen door. As Bochy and pitching coach Mike Maddux shuffle roles and try to identify favorable matchups, the worst thing for the relievers, and for the coaching staff, is for the group to be gassed on top of everything else.
That’s why the onus is on the rotation, where the bulk of Texas’ current pitching talent lies. Simply put, the starters must consistently work deep into games. Scherzer has to be Scherzer, the future Hall of Fame ace, and not the guy who was battered around by the Astros. Eovaldi is working his way back in real time, getting two starts off the IL but on severely limited pitch counts. His stuff was much better the second time and that trend has to continue. Let’s not forget that before he was injured, Eovaldi was leading the AL in innings and was positioned to make a solid run at this year’s AL Cy Young Award.
The Rangers could really use Montgomery and Gray getting hot, and for Andrew Heaney to basically keep doing what he’s been doing. No one in this trio needs to go on a historic scoreless innings streak, but they do need to get into the sixth and seventh innings consistently. This would give the Texas offense a chance to build some runway early in games and Bochy a chance to be more fine with how the Rangers match relievers with different segments of opposing lineups.
If the core five of the Texas rotation can be steady, that gives Bochy the luxury of using his solid rotation depth hurlers — Martin Perez and Dane Dunning — in multi-inning, medium- and high-leverage relief stints to shrink the responsibilities of the back of the bullpen.
Stars being stars
Semien and Seager need to keep producing like the top-10 MVP candidates they’ve been all season. And when (or if) Garcia comes off the IL, the streaky powerhouse of a right fielder needs to catch fire.
In the 25 games before his injury, Garcia hit .147 with a .555 OPS, but he won a key game against Minnesota on Sept. 3 with a game-ending homer, one that seemed to provide the perfect launching point for Texas in the Houston series.
“That was a great moment for us,” Semien said before taking on the Astros. “Definitely needed that moment to get the ball rolling going into this series.”
But the Rangers soon learned one lightning-strike moment won’t save their season. It’s more a challenge of weathering the ups and downs of a stretch run as a contender.
Globe Life Field is situated amid a sort of mecca for leisure activity, adjacent to the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park, which features towering roller-coaster tracks that dominate the horizon and serve as metaphors of the Rangers’ campaign — and, perhaps, its hope. Because no matter how steep the plunge is on one of those rides, you still have the promise of another climb directly ahead.
“The difference between good and great in this league is very small,” Scherzer said. “You always feel like you’re on the edge of being great. But it’s hard to be great in this league because everybody is so good. The difference is just all the little things.”