ST. PETERSBURG -- This one may be hard for Rangers fans to believe after a decade of watching some of the worst starting pitching in the Major Leagues. A franchise that counted Ryan Drese, Chan Ho Park and Ismael Valdes as Opening Day pitchers at some point during those long and painful years from 2000-09 is in a position it has never experienced before. The Rangers are entering the American League playoffs with collectively possibly the four best starting pitchers of any of the four teams still left. The barometer for determining this shocking development? The same one used by John McGraw, Connie Mack, Casey Stengel and all the other great baseball minds from many years ago.
Earned run average. The Rangers' four starters for their 2010 American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays -- Cliff Lee, Colby Lewis, Tommy Hunter and C.J. Wilson -- have a lower combined ERA than any of the top four starters from the other three teams. "That's the reason why we're here," third baseman Michael Young said. "Pitching is the reason we're here. We have a deep lineup, everybody knows that. Colby, Tommy and C.J. have had great years and it was great to add Cliff Lee. Pitching is the reason why we're here." Now, in this advanced age of baseball statistical analysis, there are countless other ways of measuring the effectiveness of a starting pitcher. But in ERA, the Rangers win out. Rangers starters Lee, Wilson, Lewis and Hunter combined for a 3.47 ERA over the course of the season. That includes Lee's time with the Mariners. The Yankees? CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Andy Pettitte come in at 3.97, followed by the Rays quartet of David Price, Matt Garza, James Shields and Wade Davis at 3.96. Then comes the Twins with Francisco Liriano, Carl Pavano, Scott Baker and Nick Blackburn combining for a 4.24 ERA. "That tells you why we're here," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "That's why we're in the postseason. Those guys stepped up and pitched to their ability. They met expectations and they exceeded them. They stood tall all year long." Want another shocker? All four Rangers starters bring an ERA of under 4.00 into the postseason. Hunter, called up in June, does not have enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, but Lee, Lewis and Wilson do. Only three times in 2000-09 did a Rangers pitcher have enough innings (at least 162) to "qualify" and still have an ERA of under 4.00. Hunter had just 128 innings after being called up in June. But there were just 29 starters in the American League who pitched at least 125 innings and had an ERA under 4.00. The Rangers had four of them. No other team had more than three. "We worked pretty hard this year," Hunter said. "We bought into a system and a way of pitching. Getting Cliff Lee helped that out. You look at the way he pitches to contact, that's what we all bought into. I know I don't have strikeout stuff, so I really had to buy into the pitch to contact [philosophy] and let the defense make plays." Certainly having an excellent bullpen helps and there's no doubt that, overall, the Rangers relievers have probably had a better year than the rotation. But there is also no doubt that starting pitching has been the biggest problem for the Rangers over the past 10 years and represents the biggest turnaround in the organization in any single area. The next few weeks will really decide who has the best of what. The real test for the Rangers starters will be in the best-of-five series against the Rays and what lies beyond that if they do advance. But for the Rangers to get this far and to get into the playoffs with these pitching credentials is further reinforcement of the efforts by the entire organization -- from club president Nolan Ryan on down -- to change their culture of pitching. "We have a Hall of Fame pitcher at the top of the organization, and a manager [Ron Washington] and a pitching coach who believe that's the way to win," general manager Jon Daniels said. "We have a scouting group that is focused on identifying pitchers who can play here and a player development staff that makes it a top priority. "This is not by accident." No longer are the Rangers a team that is viewed purely as a one-dimensional offensive juggernaut. "Their pitching staff is better than people give them credit for," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "They've got some really capable starters." The Rangers' four starters for this series reflect the club's intense efforts to find pitching. They drafted Hunter, signed Lewis as a free agent and traded for Lee. Wilson was a long-time reliever who was switched to the rotation. In other words, the Rangers look for pitching in every way possible. When Daniels took over as general manager, one of his goals was to get at least some pitching back in every trade they made. Two years ago, the Rangers were last in the American League with a team ERA of 5.37. This season, with significantly improved starting pitching, the Rangers finished fourth in the league with a 3.93 ERA. It was their lowest since a 3.83 team ERA in 1990 and this was their highest ranking as a staff since they led the league in 1983. "It's not the end goal, but considering where we were a couple of years ago, it's a pretty substantial step in the right direction," Daniels said. "It took a little while to get the ball moving in that direction, but once we did it, it's really been moving downhill. It has changed the identity of the franchise." Overall, the Rangers rotation ranked seventh in the American League with a 4.23 ERA, but that includes Scott Feldman's 5.48 ERA and the 5.58 ERA posted by Rich Harden. The Rangers rotation underwent several changes as the season progressed but the one they are taking into the playoffs has combined to have a pretty good season, even if it hasn't been viewed that way nationally. It could be that starting pitching turns out to be the Rangers' secret weapon going into the playoffs after a decade of being their biggest headache. "They've pitched well all year," catcher Matt Treanor said. "Nobody on this team has overlooked them. Everybody here knew how important they have been for us. Early in the season we weren't getting deep into games but after the first month until late in the season, you never really heard about it anymore. "Our starters have been pitching deep into the game and pitching very well."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.