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2019 AL West Preview: Texas Rangers, pitching staff overview

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The Rangers pitching staff is attempting to rekindle that 2013 magic.

Minnesota Twins v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Last season, the Rangers didn’t have a single starter qualify for the ERA title. Mike Minor led the team with 157 innings pitched across 28 starts. A 45-year-old Bartolo Colon was second on the team in innings pitched. Behind those two pitchers, thirteen other pitchers made at least one start for Texas. All together, their starting rotation posted a 5.37 ERA, a 5.18 FIP, and the lowest strikeout rate by a rotation in baseball. During their heyday a few years ago, their pitching was never a strength, but they’re simply starved for quality arms now.

After trading away Cole Hamels at the trade deadline last year, and losing a number of pitchers to free agency, the Rangers had almost an entire rotation to fill out this offseason. If the year was 2013, the rotation the Rangers assembled would have been really impressive. That year, their five starters posted a cumulative fWAR over 12. Unfortunately, a half decade later, these same five pitchers enter this season with an average of just 6 fWAR total over the last five years. Injuries have been the main culprit in their decline as each of these starters have dealt with a significant injury of some sort since 2013 (four Tommy John surgeries and one shoulder surgery). All of them will be looking to salvage something out of their derailed careers and the pitching-starved, rebuilding Rangers are the perfect match. -JM

Projected Rotation

LHP Mike Minor

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 48.97% 93.2 120 101 92
Changeup 19.02% 86.2 90 120 110
Curveball 10.90% 80.9 128 83 126
Slider 21.12% 87.7 113 54 111
Stuff+ Explainer

A year ago, Minor was signed to a 3-year, $28 million deal in a slightly surprising move. The Rangers saw the former 7th-overall pick’s brilliant season as a reliever for the Royals and determined they would make a starter of him once more. To hear FanGraphs tell it, the results were inconsequential. Minor accrued 2.2 fWAR in 2017, followed by 2.2 fWAR in 2018. His pathway to those results showed him to be roughly the starter he’d been for the Braves in the earlier half of this decade, prior to a shoulder surgery that wiped out his 2014 and 2015. Relying heavily on his above-average fastball, Minor was plenty respectable, but he’s now the curious ace of these 2013 All-Stars. It’s a commentary on this staff’s composition that Minor is the closest thing to an innings-eater in Arlington, but the next name on this list likely has him beat by potential. -JT

RHP Lance Lynn

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 45.3% 94.1 128 141 95
Sinker 34.1% 92.7 138 134 101
Cutter 10.9% 87.8 88 101 137
Curveball 9.6% 80.3 105 107 112

After sitting out the entire 2016 season because of Tommy John surgery, Lance Lynn picked up right where he left off. The year after his surgery, he made 33 starts for the Cardinals and he made 29 starts (and two relief appearances) split between the Twins and the Yankees last season. Two years ago, he outperformed his 4.82 FIP by over a full run, riding a .244 BABIP to a 3.43 ERA despite seeing his walk rate and home run rate rise to career highs. The script was flipped last year. He lowered his FIP to 3.84 by cutting his home run rate back towards league average and posting his highest strikeout rate since 2013. Unfortunately, he was done in by a .336 BABIP and a poor strand rate.

Unlike so many other pitchers today, Lynn throws almost exclusively fastballs. He throws three varieties, a four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter, and they’re all very effective for him. He doesn’t possess overpowering velocity but has enough movement on each of them to keep hitters off balance. His command slipped a bit more last year as his walk rate jumped up to 10.9%. Maybe with another between him and his elbow injury, his command will start to return. -JM

LHP Drew Smyly (2016)

Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 56.80% 91 91 116 112
Cutter 15.60% 85.3 48 100 76
Changeup 4.80% 80.8 116 82 129
Slider 22.70% 76.5 38 123 97

Dr. Soggy Arm scoured MLB and wisely selected the driest home stadium imaginable to make his return to big league action. Smyly will likely be limited in pitch counts early in the year, but theoretically he remains a talented pitcher with stuff that plays anywhere. Still just 29-years-old, it would be reasonable to expect some rust, but at his best Smyly has one of the more peculiar breaking balls in the game. Listed as a curve by Brooks and a slider by Statcast, the sharp horizontal break despite extremely low spin has gotten good results despite outlier numbers. ~JT

RHP Edinson Volquez (2017)

Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Pitch Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 7.90% 94.1 138 91 40
Sinker 50.40% 93.7 112 102 96
Changeup 25.50% 84.3 139 118 126
Curveball 17.70% 81.6 119 89 70

The Rangers leaned into reclamation projects in a major way this year, with Volquez, Smyly, and Miller. Volquez has looked most impressive thus far this spring, with velocity returning after a 20-month break.

Volquez returns to the franchise he debuted with as a 35-year-old question mark, but prior to Tommy John in 2017 durability had been his calling card. Volquez may fulfill the Yovani Gallardo role of 2018’s Rangers, but his fastball-changeup combo should remain passable. -JT

RHP Shelby Miller

Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Pitch Type Frequency Velocity Stuff+ Whiff+ BIP+
Four-seam 60.1% 95.0 151 68 106
Cutter 11.9% 90.1 122 118 128
Curveball 23.8% 80.3 130 118 70

Another reclamation project, Shelby Miller is looking to find some sort of success after a roller coaster of a career. Miller broke out with the Cardinals all the way back in 2013 but inconsistency and injuries have prevented him from reaching that lofty potential again. His raw stuff has never really been in question—he’s even added velocity to his fastball after his Tommy John surgery—but his mechanics have never really sorted themselves out. He returned to the mound late last year after his elbow injury and posted an impressive 24.1% strikeout rate. The potential is still there, hiding beneath all the rest of the baggage. -JM

Rotation Depth

RHP Ariel Jurado
LHP Yohander Méndez
RHP Jonathan Hernandez
RHP Jason Hammel (NRI)
RHP Adrian Sampson (NRI)

With so many injury concerns populating the top of their depth chart, the Rangers will likely need to call on a lot of help from within their organization. Ariel Jurado, Yohander Méndez, and Jonathan Hernandez are what pass for pitching prospects in Texas. Jurado and Méndez already have a little major league experience but Hernandez hasn’t pitched above Double-A. Méndez might be the best of the bunch, but off-field issues caused the Rangers to demote him all the way to High-A last year. Adrian Sampson returned to the mound last year after a nasty injury suffered while pitching with the Mariners in 2016. He’s re-signed with the Rangers on a minor-league deal and should be stashed in Triple-A until needed. Jason Hammel also signed a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training, though the likelihood that he sticks around in the minors to start the season is pretty slim. -JM

Bullpen

Closer - RHP Jose Leclerc
2018 Stats: 57 23 IP, 1.56 ERA, 1.90 FIP, 2.5 fWAR
2018 Projection (ZiPS): 63 13 IP, 3.13 ERA, 3.08 FIP, 1.2 fWAR

If it weren’t for Edwin Díaz and Blake Treinen overshadowing him in the same division, Jose Leclerc’s breakout year in 2018 might have gotten a little more attention. He ranked third in the American League in fWAR and FIP, just behind Díaz and Treinen. Leclerc has always been able to rack up strikeouts and limit hard contact but his command has always held him back. He managed to cut his walk rate almost in half last year, though it was still over 11%. His batted ball profile leans heavily towards fly balls but he’s also shown an ability to generate obscene popup rates. That’s a big reason why his HR/FB rate sits at just 4.3% for his career. -JM

RHP Jesse Chavez
2018 Stats: 95 13 IP, 2.55 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 1.2 fWAR
2019 Projection: 76 23 IP, 3.99 ERA, 4.00 FIP, 0.5 fWAR

For the longest time, Jesse Chavez has served as a spot-starter and long-man in the bullpen for a number of teams around the league. He’s the sort of pitcher whose contributions to the team usually go unnoticed. But for the first time in his career, Chavez found himself inserted into high leverage situations towards the end of the season in Chicago. The Cubs were starved for quality arms in their bullpen, but Chavez had also made some real improvements to earn that trust. His strikeout rate matched a career high from 2012 and he also posted the lowest walk rate of his career. He re-signed with the Rangers this offseason though I’d be surprised if he ended the year on their roster. -JM

RHP Chris Martin
2018 Stats: 41.2 IP, 4.54 ERA, 3.52 FIP, 0.6 fWAR
2019 Projection: 50.0 IP, 3.90 ERA, 3.82 FIP, 0.5 fWAR

After two years as Shohei Ohtani’s teammate for the Nippon Ham Fighters, Martin returned to the states and was respectable for Texas. The 6’8 righty pumps fastballs into the upper-90s, so it’s plausible there’s more potential in there, but Texas could certainly do worse. -JT

RHP Shawn Kelley
2018 Stats: 49.0 IP, 2.94 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 0.5 fWAR
2019 Projection: 40 IP, 4.66 ERA, 4.63 FIP, 0.0 fWAR

The one-time Mariners prospect has had a rollercoaster of production over the past few years. He emerged as one of the Nationals’ best bullpen arms in 2016, only to implode catastrophically with a 7.27/8.62 ERA/FIP in 2017. Kelley rebounded in 2018 and earned a flip to the contending A’s near the deadline for international bonus space. Projections worry he’s about out of juice, but his track record outpaces much of the rest of his competition. -JT

The Pile

RHP Zach McAllister
RHP Connor Sadzeck
LHP Jeffrey Springs
RHP Jordan Romano
LHP C.D. Pelham

McAllister showed flashes in his initial conversion to the bullpen, but that was in 2015, and he’s struggled to surmount replacement-level since. Sadzeck converted more recently, and his upper-90s velocity is exciting, but a penchant for grooving pitches held him back from good results. Springs has induced whiffs at every level and seems like the best bet to be the first lefty out of the Texas pen. Romano was snagged via the Rule-5 draft (service of a trade with the White Sox) and offers classic 6th starter/long relief stuff - valuable for the brittle-boned Rangers rotation. Pelham offers upper-90s velocity from the left side, but little confidence in other pitches, making him an upside play that likely starts in AAA.

Others of note:

RHP/1B/3B Matt Davidson (NRI training for two-way work)

DFA’d a few times this offseason, Davidson kicked off a trend of two-way player acts from fringy MLBers. Like erstwhile Mariner Kaleb Cowart, Davidson has a powerful arm and not quite enough bat to profile at the positions he plays defensively. As Texas enters another year of an uncertain future, spending a roster spot on a flexible player like Davidson could help ease the roster crunch of a rotation built of glass.

RHP Matt Bush (recovering from TJ, back midseason)

A healthy Bush would be the Rangers’ setup man, but elbow issues waylaid his 2018 and Tommy John was ultimately invoked. He’ll return near the All-Star break if all goes well, but at 33 he’ll face longer odds of returning to his 2016 form.