On Tuesday night, the Texas Rangers defeated the Los Angeles Angels, 5-4. On the surface, this would appear to be an unremarkable result. "First-place team beats last-place team" isn’t a headline that gets on the front page too often.
The win moved the Rangers’ record to 36-10 in one-run games.
There’s always a temptation to write about a team that’s having success in one-run games in, oh, June or July. The idea being that there’s no way it can last, and that they’re due for a little regression. It’s not quite like shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s at least like writing an article about how fish can’t survive long in a barrel after they’ve been shot. No one is enriched. No one wins.
And occasionally, the team in question doesn’t stop winning one-run games. Of note: The Rangers are 36-10 in one-run games. They have a chance to set a major league record. They are either an outlier or they’ve unlocked the secret skill that baseball explorers have been searching for over the centuries. They’ve found the Ark of the Covenant, and they’re selfishly using it to win one-run games instead of reversing climate change or powering a war machine.
Or they’re an outlier.
When you achieve extreme outlier status in baseball, it’s impossible for writers not to point it out. I’m a veteran of the Buck Showalter Is Just Cagier Than Other Managers War of 2012, in which the Orioles (29-9 in one-run games) were lucky, and their fans got angry with anyone who suggested the team was lucky. It turns out the 2012 Orioles were lucky. They were 20-31 the next season in one-run games, 32-23 the season after that, and 25-26 the season after that. There was no repeatable skill, harrumphed the extremely erudite baseball writer, and it’s very easy to dust off those old arguments and reuse them. For the environment.
On the other hand, you’re reading this because of the 1997 Giants. That was the team that turned me from a kid who grew up with baseball to an adult who was absolutely fanatical about it. And they were the luckiest team I’ll probably ever watch. They were outscored on the season, but they still won the division. They were 23-17 in one-run games, which is sort of a garden variety kind of luck, but all season I had to hear and read about how lucky they were. Ticked me off something fierce.
So, I’ve experienced both perspectives, and I would like to offer my services as a mediator. This is a guide for Rangers fans who are tired of the luck narrative, and it comes in two parts.
Don’t waste your time fighting it
Do literally anything else but argue on the internet about why this is a repeatable, tangible skill that only the 2016 Rangers possess. Your argument comes from the heart, I get it. You’ve watched all of these games, and they follow the most basic pattern in spectator sports:
- Team creates positive outcome
- Team achieves positive result
You’ve seen it, over and over and over again. It’s what’s supposed to happen. Your team is supposed to do good things, and when they do it, they’re supposed to enjoy a win. And here comes some poindexter with fogged-up glasses and a logic fetish, telling you that you didn’t watch what you think you’ve watched.
Yeah, it rankles. Rankles to the core. Except think about the nature of a one-run game. What is a one-run game, really? They usually aren’t high-scoring affairs, for one. A distribution of the scores and records of the Rangers’ one-run games:
|Scores of Rangers games decided by a run||Rangers' record in games with this score|
The Rangers are at their best in the close games where there isn’t a lot of scoring. They’re 10-1 In the one-run games in which both teams combine for three runs or fewer. 18-3 in the games in which both teams combine for five runs are fewer.
Think about all the different things that can affect a game in which every run means exponentially more than the typical run.
- Broken-bat single
- Your relievers just don’t have it
- Other team’s relievers have it
- Umpire blows a non-reviewable call
- Infield single
- Bad break on a fly ball
- Infielder can’t make a tough play he normally makes (no error)
- Grounder just under the glove
- Fly ball just between two outfielders
- A replay review that just doesn't have enough evidence to overturn
- Wild pitch
- Passed ball
- Fast runner creates a run with his legs
That’s after five seconds of thinking, and it’s not including the profound oddities that baseball likes to fish-slap you with immediately after you think you know what’s going to happen. Catcher’s interference! A botched rundown! Choppers back to the mound that the pitcher just gets a piece of, ruining the chances of the defense behind him. Not every low-scoring one-run game is decided by a needy game of baseball looking for attention. But some of them are.
And the Rangers have won almost all of them, either by a) getting help from some of the above, or b) avoiding all of the above at the worst possible moment.
Winning all of the 3-2 and 2-1 games isn’t something that’s as easy as pointing to a great post-sixth-inning bullpen, hoping that will explain it away. Other teams have fine bullpens. Better than the Rangers, even. And while a good bullpen most certainly does help in one-run games, it can’t explain 36-10. People have done some serious research on this topic. It always turns out the same.
If I had more time, I would make a PSA with Orioles fans who raged against the logic machine in 2012. Set it to tinkly, melancholy piano, and have them explain in their own words what it was like to watch the same team fail so horribly in the same kinds of games the following season with the same roster. It’s never been a sustainable, repeatable skill before. Not sure why it would start now.
Laugh about it. Laaaaaaaaaugh about it. You don’t have to give those wins back. You get to keep the money from the casino, and the Rangers get to win the AL West and have a chance at the World Series. This should be funny to you.
I’ll be honest with you: The team that wins the World Series doesn’t have to be the best team in baseball. I’ve done the research, and it checks out. The 2014 Royals probably wouldn’t have beaten all 10 postseason teams from last year in a best-of-7,000-game tournament. That goes for most of the teams before them. The Rangers don’t have to be a true 36-10 team in one-run situations for you to be having a lot of fun right now. Unimaginable, incredible amounts of fun.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t look for things that would make the Rangers better in one-run games than the average team. The bullpen, maybe the defense, maybe how the lineup is constructed, maybe the bench, whatever, pick your argument and make it the best you can. It’s entirely possible that the Rangers will have the advantage in every one-run game they play from here through the end of the postseason, no matter how slight.
Just not, you know, a 36-10 kind of advantage. Because that is ridiculous.
This doesn’t mean that you have to stop expecting one-run wins. It’s every fan’s right to expect one-run wins. It’s every fan’s right to sift through the minute details of every one-run loss. And it’s not like regression is going to drop off all the one-run losses at once, like a paperboy ditching his stack of papers. The Rangers might be excellent instead of historically amazing in one-run games going forward. We’ll never know the difference!
This doesn’t mean that the Rangers are set up for trouble next year. The two teams used as examples here, the ‘97 Giants and ‘12 Orioles, both came out of the last-place mists in their lucky seasons, and everyone anticipated that they would fall into the ocean as their wings melted. Neither of them went away for a long, long time. And the Rangers didn’t crawl out of a pit like those two. They were already good. They should remain good.
This all just means that the Rangers have won 36 out of their 46 one-run games, which is a higher rate than any team in history. That’s funny. You should be laughing. Astros fans, not so much. But the Rangers, hoo, they’re doing something that every fan of every team should dream about. They’re winning in just about the most exciting way possible, and they’re past the point where they should care if it’s sustainable or not. They’re in. They have roughly the same 12.5-percent chance of winning the World Series that all of the other teams will have once they make the Division Series.
The Rangers have been lucky. Rangers fans have the right laugh and laugh and laugh. And everyone has something of an obligation to look at the numbers "36-10" and laugh along with them. There’s no explaining quite how it happened. But there sure is appreciating that it happened at all.