PHOENIX -- We will forever think of this 2023 triumph as the first World Series championship for the Texas Rangers franchise, which had previously been MLB’s oldest team without a ring. But let the record show that with their 5-0 victory over the D-backs in Game 5 on Wednesday night at Chase Field, the Rangers also made history of another sort.
Having entered the postseason as the American League’s fifth seed (AKA second Wild Card), Texas tied -- with Bruce Bochy’s 2014 Giants! -- as the lowest playoff seed to win the World Series. Additionally, the Rangers have the sixth-lowest regular-season win total (90) for a World Series winner in a 162-game season.
These facts are sure to trigger the traditionalists, who prefer we go back to a (much more boring) time when the teams with the best records in each league advanced directly to the World Series. They’ll criticize the newly crowned champions as a product purely of the expanded postseason format.
But the wide-open nature of an expanded postseason is a feature, not a bug. And we’re here to tell you that anybody who paid a lick of attention to the 2023 MLB season knows this Rangers team is not a fluke.
Low though their seed might have been, the Rangers are real champions who went out and earned it.
“I've said all year that I thought they were the best team in the American League,” said Arizona closer Paul Sewald, who spent most of the season with the Rangers’ AL West-rival Mariners. “When they're at their best, that lineup comes at you, and they did a great job. They’re deserving champions.”
Here are five reasons why the World Series champion Rangers are real:
1. They tied the AL West champion Astros in the regular season
This is deceptively easy to forget. The Astros were certainly the more accomplished team when the two tangled in the AL Championship Series, and with all standings ties now resolved by math instead of tiebreaker games, they were the AL West champions by virtue of their 9-4 record against the Rangers in the regular season.
But when you get right down to it, both of these teams finished 90-72.
Had the Astros gotten past the Rangers and won the World Series this year, would anybody be downplaying them as a product of the postseason format? Of course not. So why should we do that with the Rangers? If anything, they had a harder road through the postseason as a result of losing the tiebreaker.
“One win, one flip, I mean, one pitch could have changed us from being a five seed to a two seed,” said Rangers catcher Jonah Heim. “The playoff format is what it is. You’ve still got to go out and win your games. I think this team did a tremendous job on the road, battling adversity.”
Speaking of …
2. They won four games in Houston to win the ALCS
The Astros reached the ALCS for a record seventh straight year. Say what you will about the sign-stealing scandal, but there’s no denying that the accomplished club is an elite team in this era.
Texas took Houston down the hard way by winning four ALCS games on the road, in the midst of going an unprecedented 11-0 away from home this postseason. The AL West standings were settled by mathematical tiebreaker. But if you want things settled on the field -- in a series long enough to limit randomness -- well, the Rangers did everything they could to show they belonged in the World Series. They beat the reigning World Series champs on their own turf.
3. They had an elite run differential
The other day, D-backs manager Torey Lovullo was talking about run differential.
“Did anybody know what a run differential was 30 years ago?” he said. “No way. But for some reason, it’s pretty close to being accurate.”
Lovullo’s club was just the second ever to reach the World Series (so, two out of 238 pennant winners in modern MLB history) with a negative run differential.
That’s called the exception that proves the rule.
Generally speaking -- as Lovullo alluded -- run differential tells us a ton. It might take a month. It might take a year. It might take multiple years. But over a long enough period of time, if you outscore your opponents by a significant margin, you’re going to collect a lot of wins. If you get outscored by a significant margin, you’re going to struggle. Not rocket science.
The Rangers’ run differential this season was plus-165. In the AL, that was second only to the Rays’ plus-195 mark (yes, better than the division-champion Astros and Orioles, both of whom were plus-129). The Braves (plus-231) and Dodgers (plus-207) were the only other clubs with higher marks.
Years ago, statistician Bill James created the Pythagorean Theorem of Baseball -- a formula that uses runs scored and runs allowed to determine what a team’s record should have been. Following that formula, the Rangers’ 881 runs scored and 716 runs allowed suggested that, if not for some inter-season randomness, they would have been a 96-66 team. That’s a pretty good team!
4. They were an offensive juggernaut
The only team that outscored the Rangers this season was the Braves. The same Braves that had an identical weighted runs created plus (or wRC+, arguably the best total measure of offensive contribution, adjusted for league context) as the 1927 New York Yankees.
OK, so the Rangers weren’t at ’27 Yankees level, but they still scored 881 runs -- the 10th most of any MLB team in the past 10 seasons. Their 114 wRC+ was second in the AL only to the Rays (118) and fourth overall. They led the AL in the sabermetric “Triple Crown,” with the league’s top batting average (.263), on-base percentage (.337) and slugging percentage (.452). They had 26 games in which they scored 10 runs or more -- an MLB lead and franchise record!
The Rangers put up these numbers despite several of their best bats -- Corey Seager, Jonah Heim, Josh Jung and Mitch Garver -- missing significant time due to injury over the course of the year. At full strength -- something Texas was in the postseason, until Adolis García strained his left oblique in Game 3 of the World Series -- and even, at points, at something a lot less than full strength, the Rangers proved to be nothing short of one of the most explosive offenses in MLB.
So it’s no shock that they were able to steamroll opponents in the playoffs.
5. They added big pieces at the Trade Deadline and evolved
Your final record determines your postseason seeding (or lack thereof), but it doesn’t tell the full story of the team you take into the playoffs. The Rangers’ record did not reflect the fact that they added Max Scherzer and Jordan Montgomery to their rotation at the Trade Deadline. While Scherzer ultimately wasn’t physically capable of providing as much impact as hoped, Montgomery was a major difference-maker, with a 2.79 ERA and 160 ERA+ in 11 regular-season starts.
Also, the Rangers’ overall bullpen performance this season (4.77 ERA and an MLB-high 33 blown saves) masked the improvement made by closer Jose Leclerc over the course of the year. Leclerc wasn’t fully healthy at the start of the season, affecting his velocity. He spent a good chunk of the season in mopup duty and low-leverage situations. But Leclerc was a force of nature basically going back to the start of September. His reclaiming of the closer’s role in emphatic fashion made the Rangers a much different late-inning ballclub than what they had been earlier. This, too, was not reflected in the overall record.
Another thing not reflected in their record is the addition of rookie Evan Carter. Ranked by MLB Pipeline as one of the top 10 prospects in the game, he joined the team in September and instantly became one of the club’s best players. In fact, he set a postseason record with nine doubles in October. By calling up Carter, the Rangers added an impact player barely three weeks before the end of the regular season.
The bottom line
Fret about the format all you want, but the Rangers were a loaded team, even with major offseason signing Jacob deGrom on the shelf much of the season. They were streaky, they had some bullpen issues that needed ironing out and they blew a late-season opportunity to lock down the AL West title. Ultimately, though, they survived the marathon that is the Major League season with an electric offense that routinely outscored opponents and the ability to adapt.
“Everybody across this roster got tested, and everybody responded and answered,” said Scherzer, who was on the fourth-seeded Nationals team that won it all in 2019. “You found so many different ways to win ballgames. So many different guys stepped up. That's what makes it special, is that you're at this moment where you get to celebrate together.”
The 2023 Rangers might be the lowest-seeded champion in World Series history. But they are completely deserving of the Commissioner’s Trophy.