That Nolan Ryan is not a man to be crossed was a lesson well learned by, among scores of others, the 158 batters he plunked during his 27-season career. So when Ryan sat down with Kevin Millwood near the end of his first year as Rangers president and told the club's nominal ace that he expected Millwood and his fellow starters to ramp up their conditioning and work deeper into games this season, Millwood took those words to heart. "Anytime Nolan says anything," says Millwood, "you're going to listen."
"I'm trying to get them to have the mind-set that I had," says Ryan. "We had to let them know they are capable of going late into games and even completing them."
The Rangers' offense has been as productive as ever—it ranked third in the AL in runs per game (5.3) at week's end—but the key to the club's quick start has been its newly durable rotation. Millwood arrived at spring training having shed 20 pounds, and his 2.96 ERA through 12 outings puts him on track for his best season since '05. The rest of the starters have followed suit. Through Sunday, they ranked second in the AL in pitches per game (99.5) and in innings pitched (343 2/3), and seventh in ERA (4.48)—and this from a rotation that's essentially unchanged from the group that finished in the AL's bottom two in each of those categories in '08.
Rangers hurlers aren't striking out many batters (5.43 per nine innings, by far the AL's lowest rate), but that's partially due to new pitching coach Mike Maddux, who's urged his staff to pitch to contact so that it can take advantage of the game's most improved defense. In '08 the Rangers' D was the league's worst, as measured by Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric that tracks how many runs a team's fielders save or cost relative to the league average. By that measurement, the Texas defense is now the AL's best. "We aren't a staff of Tim Lincecums," says starter Brandon McCarthy, "but we don't have to be."
The primary difference-maker on defense has been agile rookie Elvis Andrus, 20, who leads AL shortstops in UZR and whose promotion allowed the Rangers to shift Michael Young to third base, and Chris Davis, a strong defender who frequently played third last year, to first full time.
The '09 Rangers resemble no team more than the '08 Rays, who, while playing behind virtually the same rotation, improved from baseball's most inefficient defense to its most efficient in one year. A fair comparison? "If that means winning a pennant, absolutely," says Maddux.
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Photograph by GREG NELSON
ELVIS LIVES The 20-year-old Andrus has had the biggest hand in Texas's defensive overhaul.
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