The case of the Texas Rangers and the incredibly shrinking strikeout rates

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One of things that really stood out when I was doing projections over the last month was how the 2011 Rangers had a bunch of guys that didn’t strike out anywhere near as much as usual. In fact, seven of their nine veterans with at least 400 plate appearances last season set new career-lows when it came to their strikeout rates.

Here’s this list, comparing their 2010 strikeout rates (K/PA) to their 2011 marks. I’m also adding their previous career lows.

Ian Kinsler: 12.4% to 9.8% (previous career low: 11.5%)
Adrian Beltre: 12.8% to 10.1% (previous career low: 12.8%)
Elvis Andrus: 14.2% to 11.1% (previous career low: 14.2%)
Michael Young: 16.0% to 11.3% (previous career low: 12.0%)
David Murphy: 15.1% to 13.9% (previous career low: 15.1%)
Yorvit Torrealba: 18.5% to 15.5% (previous career low: 16.5%)*
Mike Napoli: 26.9% to 19.7% (previous career low: 23.8%)

Josh Hamilton: 16.6% to 17.3%
Nelson Cruz: 18.2% to 22.6%

Torrealba came in at 12.9% in 136 at-bats as a rookie in 2002. 16.5% was his low mark in any of his six previous seasons with at least 200 at-bats.

I didn’t include sophomore Mitch Moreland in the above list. His strikeout rate went from 20.8% in 2010 to 18.0% last season, but given that he had just 145 major league at-bats entering the year, I didn’t think that was a big enough sample. Besides, I hardly needed him to help make my point. Seven career lows. Five of the team’s seven most important hitters (tossing out Murphy and Torrealba) lowered their strikeout rates by at least 20 percent.

That’s just incredible, in my opinion. Andrus is the only one of the seven players who is still on the upswing of his career. The others should be holding steady at best.

As for the two who declined, Hamilton still beat his career average. Cruz’s mark was slightly worse than his career average.

The data is so stark that I couldn’t help but wonder if maybe the Rangers were getting some help. Maybe they could have been stealing signs at home? The team as a whole had a K rate of 14.0% at home and 15.7% on the road. That’s a significantly larger gap than the league home-away splits (17.7% at home, 18.3% on the road), but not a big enough difference to suggest that something fishy was going on, not when they were still so much better than average on the road.

It will be interesting to see if the Rangers can keep it going this year. Napoli, Young, Beltre and Kinsler all have to be viewed as candidates to decline after exceeding expectations in 2011. I think Kinsler may avoid that fate and the Texas offense could make up for some of that production with better health (Beltre, Napoli, Hamilton and Cruz all played in fewer than 125 games last year), but barring a Prince Fielder signing, it’s going to be difficult to score quite so many runs again.

Steven Matz likely to start season on DL; Zack Wheeler to adhere to innings limit

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Mets manager Terry Collins said on Wednesday, “It’s unlikely that [Steven Matz] will start the season with us.” The final spot in the Mets’ starting rotation will go to either Zack Wheeler or Seth Lugo, Newsday’s Marc Carig reports.

On Wheeler’s innings limit, assistant GM John Ricco said, “There’s going to be some number but we don’t exactly know what that is.” Wheeler missed the last two seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Neither Wheeler nor Lugo have had terrific springs as each carries a 5.11 and 5.56 Grapefruit League ERA, respectively. However, Carig notes that Wheeler has impressed simply by appearing healthy and brandishing a fastball that once again sits in the mid- to high-90’s. Lugo, meanwhile, proved crucial to the Mets last year, posting a 2.67 ERA across eight starts and nine relief appearances.

Rockies sign 30-year lease to stay in Coors Field

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Nick Groke of the Denver Post reports that the Rockies agreed to a $200 million, 30-year lease with the Metropolitan Baseball Stadium District, which is the state division that owns Coors Field. As part of the deal, the Rockies will lease and develop a plot of land south of the stadium, which will cost the team $125 million for 99 years.

As Groke points out, had the Rockies not reached a deal by Thursday, March 30, the lease would have rolled over for five more years.

Rockies owner Dick Monfort issued a statement, saying, “We are proud that Coors Field will continue to be a vital part of a vibrant city, drawing fans from near and far and making our Colorado residents proud.”

The Rockies moved into Coors Field in 1995. It is the National League’s third oldest stadium. In that span of time, the Rockies have made the playoffs three times, the last coming in 2009 when they lost in the NLDS to the Phillies. The Rockies were swept in the 2007 World Series by the Red Sox.