Statement 1: The Rangers are not a first place baseball team.

Statement 2: This statement is false.

As a philosophy student, statement 2 messed with my head. The problem is that if statement 2 is true, than it is false. But if it’s false, than it has to be true. (Take a minute to allow your mind to re-congeal.) The problem with statement 1 feels very similar to statement 2; the Rangers actually are in first place in their division, despite nearing completion of an extraordinarily frustrating first half of the baseball season. It feels neither true nor false. Through 86 games, the Rangers are last in Major League Baseball in fielding percentage, having committed a league-leading 72 errors (compared to 105 for the entire season last year). Taken as a whole, the pitching staff is about where it was last year (team ERA of 3.96, compared to 3.93 in 2010), as is the team batting average (.268 compared to .276 last year, when they led the league). It is difficult to put a number on how many games the sub-par Ranger defense has cost this team, but it might mean the difference between leading the division at the break and falling into second (third?) place. The Angels are streaking. The Mariners are stacked on the mound. Meanwhile, the Rangers drift listlessly through a stretch of games against last place teams and struggle to play .500 baseball. Defense is the difference; and while this truth is pretty clear, it just doesn’t make sense. Andrus should be getting better. Beltre should be an upgrade at 3rd over Young. The core of this team is in tact and in its prime. The parts seem greater, and yet the whole is not.

Elvis Has Left The Building…Mentally (see what I did there?)

Since this slam dunk Andrus line rarely gets used as a home run call (3 in the last 2 years), it might be better served as an indication that Elvis has temporarily spaced out. Official scorers have determined that thus far Andrus has failed to make the routine play sixteen times this season, prompting the “E6” graphic to flash often enough that some may wonder if he simply adopted the number as his middle name (E. 6. Andrus). Elvis is a young player who shot up through the minor leagues. The major league team moved a reigning gold glove shortstop (asterisk, but a true statement nonetheless) and the face of the organization to 3rd to make room for him. Last year he made the all-star team, and was a critical part of winning the AL Pennant. This year, he’s playing like he knows it. The Andrus problem seems to be a case of a player who got too good too quickly. Now he is taking his enormous talent for granted, and the result has been unsettling. He’s been pulled, benched, and publicly reprimanded by his manager, but only time will tell if this has an effect on him.

We're having fun here, no?

Washing-fun (see what I essentially failed to do there?)

The bigger concern is the collective lack of focus that this team shows in the field and on the base paths, of which Elvis is a simply a microcosm. The Andrus problem speaks to a larger issue that will likely define the season for Texas, and it centers around the manager. On the scale of coaching, Ron Washington is much closer to Wade Phillips than Bill Parcells; he is a players’ coach as opposed to a disciplinarian. Both types can be successful, but both sides also face their respective challenges. For the hard-ass coach, the problem comes when the players get sick of being yelled at and micromanaged, to the point where they finally tune him out. The players’ coach, on the other hand, often struggles to get the best out of his team, especially after having some success. It’s not that the players don’t respect him; they simply no longer fear him. Right now, this team is starting to show a lack of fear. It is apparent in the team’s waning defensive focus, but even more so in the way players deal with the media. Michael Young had no issue making his frustrations very public over the winter and into spring training. Josh Hamilton did not hesitate to call out the third base coach for sending him home on the play that put him on the DL. Last year, Ranger fans came to appreciate the huge smiles on the faces of Elvis and Cruz. Funny how quickly charming becomes annoying when the player is struggling; the last thing Ranger fans want to see after an error are rows of teeth flashing under the guilty party’s nose.

Consider the Cowboys as a cautionary tale: In Wade Phillips’ first year, the Cowboys enjoyed immense regular season success. They quickly became enamored with their raw talents (despite playoff failure), and stopped paying attention to the details. When the talent lost focus, the team suffered. They made dumb, inexcusable mistakes that cost them games. Despite all the experts who insisted that the Cowboys had outstanding talent on their roster, the team continued to struggle because they no longer obsessed over the details of preparation. The fans screamed for a disciplinarian. Eventually, the team quit on its coach.

Ron Washington is no Wade Phillips. He has a more holistic understanding of his sport that Phillips did, and he has shown the moxie to sit players for mental errors and call them out publicly if necessary. Having said that, it is clear that the second half of this season represents a crossroads for Washington, because he has to do something that has never been a part of his job description; he has to convince these players–Andrus, Cruz, Hamilton, and so on–that they are not as good as they think they are. That’s what success does to a players’ manager; it requires him to find ways to keep his team humble, hungry, and focused on details. He has to find ways to get them to think the game all the time. He cannot let them do what Elvis appears to be doing: fall in love with his own talent. For the first time in team history, the Rangers are no longer the scrappy underdogs. They are now perennial contenders who are expected to win their division and compete for World Series titles. As great a job as Washington did last year, the thankless life of an MLB manager demands that he re-invent himself to some degree. These are the situations where disciplinarians usually excel, and it is now up to Washington to find a way to effectively challenge and motivate his team to eat, sleep, and obsess over the the minute details of the game. If not, Texas may find itself watching October instead of making history.

Looks like he picked the wrong week to stop snorting cocaine.

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