COMMENTARY | The Texas Rangers are watching their lead in the American League West dwindle. The second-place Oakland A's have gained 3 ½ games on them in the last week, shrinking the Rangers' lead from 5 ½ to 2 games during that span.
The Rangers watched this happen last year. The A's were 13 games behind them at the end of June and 5 games out with 9 left to play, and the Rangers completely collapsed in September as the A's caught them and surpassed them to win the division on the last day of the season.
It has been said often that those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Rangers manager Ron Washington did nothing to shake his team up last year as the A's surged. Now, in 2013, it's time to learn from that. It's time to make some changes--namely, a change in the leadoff spot.
With the announcement that the Rangers' regular leadoff hitter, Ian Kinsler, will be out another two weeks with ribcage problems, Washington needs to act, and fast. Put designated hitter Lance Berkman in the leadoff spot and do it now.
Berkman is not the prototypical leadoff hitter. People normally think of the leadoff hitter as a guy with speed, which the 37-year-old Berkman does not have. But he gets on base--his on-base percentage is a robust .397, good for 8 th in the league. And on-base percentage is the most important statistic for a leadoff hitter. Stolen bases are nice (if you're successful at least 80 percent of the time), but first thing's first--you can't steal first base. Getting on base is more important for a leadoff hitter (or for anyone, for that matter) than speed or stealing bases.
The Rangers have been using Elvis Andrus in the leadoff spot in Kinsler's absence, but Andrus is miscast in that role. He has a .322 on-base percentage for the season, which at best is lower than league average and at worst is terrible for a leadoff hitter. Just because he plays shortstop and has some speed doesn't mean he will make a good leadoff hitter--he's got to be able to get on base. Andrus does have a .339 on-base percentage when batting leadoff, but that is still far below what is needed from an effective leadoff hitter.
With so many rookies on the pitching staff and no telling how long they'll hold up, it is imperative that the Rangers score runs in order to hold their lead in the AL West. They are averaging only 3 ½ runs per game in the last 8 games, and not coincidentally they are 3-5 in that period. And in that time the A's have made their move, pulling to within 2 games of the Rangers at the start of play on May 30.
Putting the player with the highest OBP makes sense if you want your team to score runs. Washington should know this, since he was a central figure in Moneyball in Oakland where OBP was one of the so-called "undervalued" stats used to evaluate players.
Using a big guy without speed in the leadoff spot is not without precedent, either. Some Ranger fans may remember the early '90s when 40-year-old DH Brian Downing batted leadoff. Downing, a former catcher who was nicknamed "The Incredible Hulk" because of his build and avid weightlifting, was never noted for his speed, but he got on base a lot (.377 and .407 OBPs in his two years with the Rangers) and those teams scored tons of runs.
The time to make the change is now, Washington. Put Berkman in the leadoff spot now while Kinsler is out. First place is no guarantee--you've got to make adjustments as the season goes on. The A's are gaining.
Brian Honea is a Dallas, Texas-based freelance writer who is a lifelong Texas Rangers follower.
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