The 2017 Rangers are the platonic ideal of a mediocre baseball team. Through the first five-plus months of the season, they've never dipped more than seven games under .500 — they were 13-20 on May 8 — nor have the Rangers ever climbed more than three games above .500 — hitting 23-20 on May 19 and 24-21 on May 21. They've spent the season in baseball's purgatory, too good to give up on, not good enough to capture the imagination.
The Rangers can hit — they've hung out around the league leaders in home runs throughout the season — but the team's abysmal bullpen has repeatedly sabotaged the its efforts to go over the hump. More likely than not, this Rangers will miss the playoffs, dooming North Texas baseball fans to their 46th consecutive season without a World Series championship.
There is one thing, however, that's made this Rangers team worth watching almost every night: the stellar season being put together by the team's everyday shortstop, Elvis Andrus. Andrus, unfairly maligned by the team's fans in years past, is having his best season ever, eight years after breaking into the majors on opening day 2009. As the Venezuelan star tries his hardest to drag the Rangers to the wild-card game, let's take a look at what's made his 2017 so special.
Obviously, the first thing that's raised Andrus from a fairly standard first division shortstop to a guy who looks like one of the three or four best shortstops in the league is his incredible increase in power. Before 2017, Andrus' career high in home runs was eight, a number he achieved in 2016. He's gone a complete season without hitting a home run (2010) and had three consecutive years (2012-14) in which he didn't top four long balls. This year, with three weeks of games still on the calendar, Andrus has slugged 20. He's already hit 41 doubles, the most in his career, and is slugging .494, nearly 50 points higher than any previous season.
For the first six years of his Rangers career, Andrus played for Ron Washington. Washington, now on the Atlanta Braves coaching staff, valued moving runners over with bunts and stealing bases above all else, relying on Andrus to put the ball on the ground repeatedly, to the detriment of Andrus and the Rangers' output. Under Rangers manager Jeff Banister, hired before the 2015 season, Andrus has increased his fly ball percentage and reaped a commensurate increase in extra-base hits. Andrus has bunted once this year; Washington asked him to do so as many as 38 times in 2010.
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Thanks to the faith Banister's put in his shortstop, Andrus is third among Major League shortstops in offensive wins above replacement — a catchall stat that attempts to capture all facets of a player's offensive output — according to Fangraphs. When defense is factored into to the wins-above-replacement calculation, Andrus has been worth 4.1 wins more than a generic replacement shortstop. He's having arguably the best season by a Rangers shortstop in team history, if Alex Rodriguez' three-year stint with the team from 2001-03 is forgotten, as it should be. Andrus' 2017, when all the numbers are counted at the end of the year, will be better than any season Michael Young, the Rangers' beloved former middle infielder, had for the team.
Despite being in his ninth Major League season, Andrus has yet to turn 30, the benefit of his making his big league debut as a 20-year-old. His $120 million contract extension, derided as an albatross by ESPN's David Schoenfeld as recently as the winter of 2016, looks like a bargain, so much so that many expect Andrus to exercise an opt-out clause in the deal after the 2018 season.
With his increased production and durability, Andrus has given himself an outside shot at making it to 3,000 hits — he's sitting on close to 1,500 now — a milestone that would give him a shot at making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame, something that would've been unthinkable as recently as two years ago. He's an elite player; the rest of the Rangers need to catch up.