How Rangers’ defense has proven to be a real game-changer this season

Tribune Content Agency

DETROIT – They go together hand-in-hand, or more like hand-in-glove. A good pitching staff isn’t good without good defense. A good defense doesn’t really matter without a pitching staff that can execute pitches. The saying is, we’ll just let Bruce Bochy take it away …

“It’s pitching and defense,” he said after the Rangers’ 5-0 win over Detroit Monday. “That’s the key. That’s the game changer.”

In the story of whatever the 2023 Rangers become – and the first third of the story looks extremely promising – Monday’s game exemplified how the two elements can change games more than any of the previous 52. Call the Rangers’ 34th win “the one about the defense.”

Yes, Nathan Eovaldi had his fourth scoreless outing in the last 30 days. Yes, Corey Seager launched his fourth homer in 12 days since returning from the IL. His three-run homer (and a later single) give him 19 RBIs in the 11 games since returning, most in the majors. And, yes, the bullpen was quite effective for a change. Four scoreless innings.

It all pushed the Rangers back to 15 games over .500, matching their best-ever 53-game record (34-19). They also clinched a winning road trip. They have five wins with two more games to play. In a month in which they’ve spent twice as much time on the road than at home, they are 12-5 in away games.

But let’s talk about that double play. It came with one out and the bases loaded in the second inning. Eovaldi had already gotten one grounder with the bases loaded that first baseman Nathaniel Lowe and catcher Jonah Heim turned into a force at the plate. The Rangers have done this routinely this year, throwing the second most bases-loaded, no-out pitches (46) in the majors. They have allowed one hit. Then Eovaldi got in on the hands of former Ranger Andy Ibáñez. Jammed him.

The ball rolled slowly toward short. Seager, at 6-4 the tallest shortstop in the league, charged it, made a quick throw to second against his momentum to Marcus Semien. And Semien, who changes direction as well as any second baseman in the league, turned it into a strong relay to first … just in time for umpire Jeremie Rehak to signal the runner was safe. Who could blame him? You had to assume the way the ball was hit; it couldn’t be turned. Replays, however, showed Lowe catching it before Ibáñez’s foot hit the bag. Inning over.

“Corey made an unbelievable play,” Eovaldi said. “That was a big inning for us.”

A little context: The ball came off the bat at 63.5 mph, according to StatCast. The system shows that only five balls hit slower this year have been turned into 6-4-3 double plays.

Quite simply, it’s the kind of play the Rangers didn’t make last year.

The Rangers’ $500 million middle infield struggled with unfamiliarity. They didn’t get much spring training time to work together in 2022. And it showed.

A year ago, the Rangers ranked dead last in a stat Fangraphs calls “Double Plays Runs Saved.” According to the metric, if you buy it, the Rangers lost 6.4 runs on double play situations a year ago. This year: They were 12th in the league entering Monday. And they saved runs Monday.

It extends to the entire infield defense. Josh Jung has been a significant upgrade defensively at third. Lowe has improved at first over last year, though defense remains his biggest flaw. He was out working one-on-one before the game on scoops.

In the overall Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) metric, the Rangers began the day fifth in baseball at +14. The four infield positions accounted for 12 of those 14 saved runs. Only San Diego’s infield (at +15) began the week with more runs saved.

“Everybody is really locked in on every pitch,” said infield instructor Corey Ragsdale, who also worked with the infielders last year. “I’m really proud of the focus we’ve had in games. Everybody is in a good spot when it comes to preparation. It’s just meshing really well. It’s been cool to watch.”

Said Seager: “I think it’s just a matter of time. We know where we like the ball to be thrown. There is no wondering. There are no ‘new’ plays. It’s just taken some time. And we are hitting our stride now.”

Seager is not known as an excellent defender. That may be unfair. His offensive production is so superior that defense is always going to be a secondary part of the story. And the presumption is that tall shortstops have less range. The truth: It only makes more remarkable his ability to make some plays. He also went deep into the hole to field a grounder and turn it into an easy out at first.

“He definitely gets underrated because of how big he is,” Ragsdale said. “To do what he does at his size is special.”

On Monday, it made for a win all about defense.

Twitter: @Evan_P_Grant

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