Prince Fielder, Texas Rangers defying expectations

It didn't appear early on that the Rangers would field a competitive team this season, but somehow, with Prince Fielder leading the way, they have.
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

By Shaun Ranft

I don't mind being wrong. When it comes to sports, I almost enjoy it. That is where I currently find myself midway through the season regarding the Texas Rangers. Back in March, before the season had even started, I assumed theirs was lost. There were just too many question marks. Prince Fielder, brought over in a trade with the Detroit Tigers, appeared in only 42 games in 2014. Up until that point in his career, the fewest amount of games he had played in was 157 back in 2006, his first full season with the Milwaukee Brewers.

Shin-Soo Choo, who slashed .285/.423/.462 in 2013 en route to a contract worth $130M, finished last season with a line of .242/.340/.373. Adrian Beltre wasn't getting any younger, there were concerns about Yu Darvish coming back from an injury the season prior; on and on it went. All of this worry even came about one week before Darvish was ruled out for this season. He needed Tommy John surgery, which looked to me like the final merciless nail in the Rangers 2015 season. If that weren't unfortunate enough, pitcher Derek Holland left his first start of the season after just one inning. He had spent most of 2014 recovering from knee surgery before running into shoulder problems this past spring. He hasn't appeared for Texas since.

The Rangers finished 67-95 in 2014, recording their first losing season since 2008 (79-83), due almost exclusively to injuries. While I believed there was no way a team with such an abundance of talent could repeat such an unlucky campaign, that didn't mean they were going to suddenly compete.

I was wrong.

They aren't striking fear into the hearts of their opponents but entering Wednesday their record is a steady 41-43. Despite being seven games back of first in the AL West, they only trail the wild card race by four. Pitcher Yovani Gallardo, brought over in an offseason trade with Milwaukee, is having his best year since the 2010, 2011 seasons. While his K rate is slightly down with his walk rate seeing the slightest of increases, he's managed to keep an ERA of 2.67 to go along with a 3.52 FIP through 18 starts.

The arms of 35-year-old Colby Lewis and 36-year-old Wandy Rodriguez have chipped in admirably as well. And though the bullpen has its shortcomings, Texas is a playoff contender at the moment due to just how tight the AL race is. They know better than anybody that all it takes is a wild card berth for anything to happen.

If anyone would have realistically thought that Holland and Darvish could have combined for one inning pitched through July 8th and Texas would be 41-43, I would have shook their hand and asked their prediction on that night's lottery numbers. So solid pitching has helped them to this point; what else?

Fortunately there's been the bat of Mitch Moreland—.291/.336/.527, 14 home runs—because the likes of Adrian Beltre (.244/.279/.370) and Elvis Andrus (.238/.290/.315) have consistently failed to produce. Leonys Martin, who slashed .274/.325/.364 last season, is only hitting .227/.271/.331 while Choo has posted numbers worse than last year's (.229/.312/.397). Although, he does have 11 home runs thus far, which puts him on pace to surpass last season's total of 13.

As bad as those production numbers are, it's not shocking. Beltre was going to regress eventually, Andrus has had shortcomings at the plate for a while now, and Martin's first encouraging season was last year while Choo, 32, evidently cashed in at the right time. Texas is just about middle of the pack in each team batting category despite all of this underachieving, but there's one major reason for that—the iron man that was, and might be again: first baseman Prince Fielder.

Fielder is experiencing something of a career year, which sounds a bit odd considering the source: a 31-year-old whose best years appeared to be behind him, but a 31-year old who ranked in the top five of MVP voting three times over the course of his career all the same (2007, 2009, 2011).

He's played in 82 of a possible 84 games this season, is the second-best hitter in the AL behind recently injured Miguel Cabrera, and currently holds a career mark in average (344). The last time he finished with a batting average over .300 was in 2012 (313), and this season would mark only his second-ever as a .300+ hitter. He's struck out only 39 times in 82 games, which puts him on pace for 80 overall, roughly, which would be his lowest amount over a full season (and ever) since – you guessed it – 2012 (84).

Though his home run total is relatively low (13), he should still figure to hit 25-30 long balls. In all of baseball he ranks third in average, fifth in OBP, 15th in slugging, and seventh in OPS (936). After the most disappointing season of his almost 11-year career, this is precisely what the doctor ordered. It's just that several months ago it was hard to imagine it as a possibility. Not just for Fielder, but this ballclub as a whole.

Again, I was wrong.

Incredibly, they're not even the talk of the AL West, what with the division-leading Houston Astros and all. This division as a whole has been fascinating. The Oakland Athletics are in the cellar, the Seattle Mariners have entirely underachieved, and the Los Angeles Angels are starting to get it all together.

It's hard to imagine the Astros holding on to the division throughout the rest of the year, though anything can happen—which also means the Rangers could find themselves at the top come season's end in what would become one of baseball's most memorable bounce-back seasons. As it stands though, a wild card berth would suffice, and right now they're in decent shape for that. Who would have thought?

You already know the answer.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball ReferenceESPN, and Fangraphs

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