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May 14, 2013
The leader of the last Rangers pitching staff to lead the league in runs allowed was Rick Honeycutt, so you know it’s been a lean few decades. Complemented by Frank Tanana, Charlie Hough, Danny Darwin, Mike Smithson and an able bullpen, that Honeycutt-led staff allowed 609 runs in 1983—11 years before the Rangers’ move to their current, hitter-friendly ballpark.
That’s an ambitious example to follow for this Rangers team, which currently leads the league in runs allowed per game, chased by another team hardly helped by its home park, the Yankees. Ultimately the third-place Tigers may catch them, helped by the more neutral Comerica Park, but that’s not really the point here. It’s that this is so unlike the construction of any Rangers team we’ve seen in this generation of the offensive explosion and immediate aftermath. This season, Texas is living at the league median on offense, eighth in runs scored per game.
Only once since 1995, when Kenny Rogers, Roger Pavlik, and Bob Tewksbury’s staff outshone Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, and Rusty Greer’s offense, has Texas finished a season higher in the American League rankings in run prevention than they have in run scoring, and that was in 2009, when they were seventh in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed (despite finishing eighth in ERA). Part of that has been the ballpark, but part of that has been a dearth of pitching that has gradually been addressed through better player development and one huge signing out of Japan.
While we think of the Rangers as the bomb-and-get-bombed franchise, they haven’t quite fit that mold on a consistent basis for a few years now.
The shift toward a pitching-heavy Rangers team—an even more exaggerated one when accounting for the hitter-friendly ballpark—has had to do with responding to departures, mostly from within.
The Rangers have absorbed huge losses on both sides even before this year, but this past offseason, nobody had a worse winter, in the loss of the type of names that sell jerseys.
The longest-tenured Ranger, Michael Young, was gone, as were Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, Scott Feldman, Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. Colby Lewis is still hurt, Matt Harrison is hurt, and both have had reported setbacks. Before that, it was goodbye to C.J. Wilson, Cliff Lee, and even Vladimir Guerrero, who were all key players on the first of two straight AL pennant winners in 2010.
As the Rangers players dropped off, so too did the support, and that’s not only from the crowd that overvalued Young’s impact. Their own general manager expressed his concern in this radio Q&A after failing to land big fish to replace big fish.
Of the 42 of us at Baseball Prospectus making preseason predictions, exactly a third picked the Rangers, while the majority—myself included—went with the Angels. Yet here the Rangers sit, five games up on the Athletics, which Is a lead twice as big as any other division leader in baseball.
What’s happened is that where hitting departures have occurred, they’ve mostly led to losses because the Rangers have failed to replace them within equivalent players from within. The position players who have come up since their run of success restarted have largely been non-impact players. Mitch Moreland has produced 0.3 and 1.2 WARP in his two full seasons of 2011 and 2012, and while he’s performing much better this year, there’s still a huge home/road split (1.072 vs. .774 in OPS).
Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin have threatened to solve center field after Julio Borbon’s struggles, but neither has yet established himself as an above-average full-time player. Meanwhile, the best position player we thought was coming up has turned into the Mariners’ problem at first base. And while David Murphy doesn’t fit that homegrown category, the internal option for replacing Hamilton hasn’t been wonderful so far this season, with a .205/.256/.376 line that wouldn’t suit any position well, much less left field.
It’s been the homegrown pitching that the Rangers have felt was worth keeping around, and they have, extending both Derek Holland and Matt Harrison with five-year deals a season apart.
Holland has been one of the American League’s best this year, turning around a disappointing 2012 in large part by lowering his walk rate to a career-best 1.8 per 9 innings, making this likely the third straight year of improvement in that category.
And when Harrison—only partially homegrown, as he was part of the Mark Teixeira trade while still a minor leaguer—got injured early in the season, the internal reinforcements were once again there. Alexi Ogando, a former Rule 5 pick brought up to the Rangers during the first World Series campaign, is off to a blistering start in 2013, mimicking the success he had as a starter in 2011.
Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm have both filled in admirably as back-enders for the combination of Martin Perez and Harrison, with Tepesch having the better output but Grimm, who was more of a prospect, the better peripherals.
In fact, none of the six pitchers to start a game for the Rangers this season has ever thrown a pitch for another major-league team, and assuming Perez comes up at some point, it will be 7-for-7. Not all were drafted or signed as amateurs by the Rangers, but all were at least acquired as prospects, if not fully raised through the system.
So what is this? Is it an awakening for a team that was tired of watching arms burn out by July and tired of needing to score 10 runs to win first-round series? Is it the influence of Nolan Ryan peddling a pitching-wins-championships philosophy to every neighboring office in Arlington?
Perhaps in part, but it may be a phase like any other team goes through—just a really well-timed one.
Not a lot of pitching there. In fact, other than a couple guys who have already pitched in the majors—including one who has already lost his prospect status and one who is 12 innings away from losing his—no pitching at all. The next wave, and a really high-ceiling next wave, is all going to be back in the Rangers’ more traditional wheelhouse of big bats.
So there might not be any more pitching help from the inside for quite a while, but the Rangers are really well set up thanks to this wave. They have 4 ¾ more years (through 2017) of controlling a top-five pitcher on the planet in Yu Darvish, and the Holland and Harrison extensions run through 2016 and 2017, respectively, with team options on both through 2018. Add to that Ogando and either Perez, Grimm, or maybe Tepesch, and they won’t need any more help if players stay somewhat healthy.
Sure, they went after Zack Greinke, but that would have been a luxury. They’ll probably pursue other big-ticket pitchers, since their TV deal and stature in baseball’s largest one-team market allows them to afford luxuries. But as the Rangers have lost out on big name after big name, they’ve done a really good job of making sure that didn’t matter on the mound.