It's weird to look at a team with the best record in the American League and think of them as a hard-luck story, but the Texas Rangers aren't exactly living a charmed life this season. For example, I'm going to list everything that's gone right with their rotation this season:
Thus endeth the list. It's remarkable, really. Every other starting pitcher they've touched this season has turned to dust. It's a reverse King Midas story. Or, wait, maybe it's the actual King Midas story, because that doesn't turn out well for him. Maybe the problem is that the Rangers have a bunch of pitchers whose ligaments and tendons have literally turned to gold. Literally!
Neftali Feliz and Colby Lewis were supposed to be crucial cogs, but instead both needed elbow surgery. Derek Holland has been on and off the disabled list, and he's been horribly inconsistent. The Rangers did the smart, proactive thing and acquired two veteran starters, Roy Oswalt and Ryan Dempster, who have long track records and recent histories of success. Both have been hot awful, with ERAs over 6.00 as Rangers.
The most maddening development might be the odd season of Yu Darvish. Maybe it shouldn't be maddening. We didn't know what he would do against major-league hitters for the first time, and look at that, we still don't know. But there were a lot of reasons to be optimistic. For example, I'm going to pick a Darvish strikeout completely at random and make a GIF from it. My hypothesis is that it will be a completely absurd, unhittable pitch. Here goes:
I mean … that's like the Jack Handey quote:
Anytime I see something screech across a room and latch onto someone's neck, and the guy screams and tries to get it off, I have to laugh, because what is that thing?
It's like that, but with a pitch. And every time Darvish pitches, you can see why he caused a bidding war.
Except he's been wildly inconsistent. Bad probably isn't the right word to describe his whole season -- his 4.51 ERA is good enough for a 100 ERA+ in Arlington -- but he certainly hasn't been good since the start of June. And now he's skipping a start because of a minor quad injury, which isn't cause for panic, but it's not the most thrilling development, either.
The biggest surprise is with how he's been inconsistent. He can't throw strikes. This wasn't supposed to be a problem:
Those are his stats in the Japanese Pacific League, and they hint at a pitcher with superlative control. The overall walk rate in Japan is usually much lower than over here -- 2.3 walks per nine innings for Pacific League pitchers last season, compared to 3.1 for the 2011 American League -- so you can't just translate those numbers right over. But he still looked like a pitcher who could put the ball where he wanted, more often than not.
There are all sorts of theories, ranging from the change in baseballs to the obvious one about better hitters being able to lay off of his pitches more. Whatever the reason, Darvish isn't a polished ace; he's a young pitcher with more stuff than command. That doesn't make him a bust. It just makes him a little less exciting in 2012.
What can the Rangers do about Darvish and the rest of the rotation? Light a few candles. Cross their fingers. Hope like hell. Because the talent's there. Holland, Dempster, Oswalt, Darvish ... these should all be good pitchers, dang it. And whatever the Rangers could have done, they've done it. The Rangers are in first place, and they've long been threatening to run away with the division. But they're one of the oddest hard-luck first-place teams in memory.