In perhaps the most stunning development of the spring, news broke over the weekend that Nolan Ryan could be on his way out as CEO of the Texas Rangers.
Ryan, who is also part-owner of the club, joined the Rangers’ front office as team president in 2008 and has also served as the team CEO for the past couple of seasons. But a power struggle within the organization resulted in general manager Jon Daniels taking on the mantle of team president, which may lead to Ryan’s departure from the organization and a major PR blunder for the Texas Rangers.
Perhaps the most iconic baseball player ever produced by the state of Texas, Ryan has overseen the Rangers’ rise to prominence during his time in the front office. Ryan’s implementation of a pitching philosophy that stressed innings over pitch counts is often cited as the reason for the Rangers’ improvement in run prevention, leading to the team making the playoffs in each of the past three seasons and getting to the World Series in 2010 and 2011.
But did Nolan Ryan actually improve the Rangers’ pitching staff?
Ryan tends to receive a lot of credit for the Rangers’ improvement in ERA, and sure enough, the club’s ERA has improved dramatically over the past five years:
Year ERA MLB Rank
2008 5.37 30th
2009 4.38 18th
2010 3.93 9th
2011 3.79 18th
2012 4.02 13th
The problem with ERA, however, is that it is a measure of run prevention as opposed to pitching effectiveness. Run prevention is not something that is solely up to the pitcher; while he plays a big part, he tends to have very little control over what happens once the hitter puts the ball in play.
Fortunately, the sabermetric stat FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was created specifically to address this problem, and it operates on the same scale. So what does FIP say about the Rangers’ pitching?
Year FIP MLB Rank
2008 4.83 28th
2009 4.49 23rd
2010 4.17 22nd
2011 3.98 16th
2012 3.90 14th
Here, too, the Rangers have steadily improved. However, it has not been the stunning improvement that everybody thought. As you can see, the Rangers’ pitching staff in 2008 was not quite as bad as it appeared; in fact, the .54 negative gap between team ERA and FIP was the largest in baseball that year. But in Ryan’s first two years as team president, the improvement in ERA as a league rank greatly exceeds what would be predicted just by the pitchers’ performance. Only in the past two years, when the Rangers made wholesale changes to their staff, did the team’s pitching performance start to mirror what the team’s ERA indicated.
So if it was not the pitching that improved, why did the Rangers’ ERA improve so much?
One word: defense.
Year UZR MLB Rank
2008 -45.2 26th
2009 25.9 7th
2010 20.3 10th
2011 25.9 6th
2012 14.1 9th
UZR, or Ultimate Zone Rating, is a measure of how many runs a defender saved relative to other defenders at their respective position. An UZR of zero equals a league-average defender, and the total is adjusted to every ballpark. Looking at the team UZR ratings, it’s easy to see where Texas has really improved since Nolan Ryan became president.
So what exactly happened between 2008 and 2009 that transformed Texas from one of baseball’s worst defenses to one of the best?
In 2008, the Rangers were starting below-average defenders at several key positions. Josh Hamilton’s glove in centerfield undid much of his contribution at the plate; Michael Young’s lack of range at shortstop became very apparent; and a trio of third basemen combined for some horrid defense at the hot corner.
This caused the Rangers to make major changes for 2009, the most important of which was moving Young to third base and installing the recently-acquired Elvis Andrus as the new shortstop. Nelson Cruz and David Murphy were given expanded roles at the corner outfield spots, while legendary glovemen Omar Vizquel and Andruw Jones were brought in as aging backups. The result was a massive improvement on defense that was not properly acknowledged at the time. Subsequent acquisitions like Adrian Beltre and Endy Chavez have only further reinforced this improvement over the past few years.
It is no coincidence that Texas’ improvement over the past four years has coincided with a massive drop in hits allowed and that the Rangers were among the top eight in baseball in that category during both their 2010 and 2011 World Series seasons.
Nolan Ryan has gotten a lot of credit for improving the Texas Rangers by implementing a new pitching philosophy throughout the organization, and perhaps that has had some effect. But it is silly to think that this philosophy has had more of an impact on the Rangers’ fortunes than the team’s efforts to improve the defense. While nobody would argue that Ryan is a franchise icon and one of the most popular athletes in the history of the Lone Star State, perhaps it is his replacement, Jon Daniels – the underappreciated GM responsible for the personnel moves – who should be the one credited with the Rangers’ success.
The info on FIP and UZR used in this article are courtesy of the good people at Fangraphs.