The Domino Effect and the Bullpen

The Rangers are 15-13. They have a better record than they did at this point last year. That much is fact. And yet, as things begin to kick into the second month of the season, there's this overwhelming feeling that I can't shake that something isn't quite right.

We can look at the offense, and the way in which Prince Fielder -- holder of a wOBA of .246 -- is somehow still batting in the middle of the lineup. That figure, by the way, would be the worst on the team if not for Hanser Alberto (.105) and Bryan Holaday (.199). One is a utility infielder with a grand total of 18 plate appearances on the season. The other was the presumed backup catcher until Robinson Chirinos went down with an arm injury. So, of course, it's easy to point at Fielder.

It's equally as easy to point to the 17 outs the Rangers have run themselves into on the bases, good for the worst mark in baseball. It's hard to have big innings when, 28 games in, you've given up nearly six innings worth of outs on the bases with silly mistakes. That doesn't even include the 8 times Rangers runners have been caught stealing, giving them only a 64% success rate when something closer to 75% is necessary for base-stealing to even be an endeavor worth considering.

We can look, perhaps less easily, at the starting rotation. Colby Lewis was a workhorse last night, going 7 innings while allowing only 3 earned runs on the road. If we're talking about quality starts, Texas now has 20 on the season from its starting pitchers, best in the American League. Unfortunately, as is the case sometimes with some statistics, quality starts can be a bit empty when the peripherals don't back it up.

Texas starters have put up a K/BB ratio of 1.86, tied with Kansas City for 2nd-worst in the American League. The good news? It has yet to really bit Texas in the butt. But make no mistake, a pitching staff that relies perhaps too much on contact is going to get burned from time to time. When it works, it looks great. When it doesn't work, it's going to look a bit lopsided. Fortunately, the return of Yu Darvish in a matter of weeks should help alleviate some of those concerns. From there, hopefully some members of the rotation (looking at you, Martin Perez) can begin going after hitters a bit more.

And while we're on the topic of pitchers throwing strikes, it's interesting to note that as far as pitch-framing goes, the Rangers haven't exactly been stellar. According to Framing Runs Above Average (FrmRAA), Texas catchers come in at -2.99. That's basically three runs that the numbers tell us Texas catchers have left on the board from poor pitch-framing.

And now, we get to the crux of the problem: The bullpen. Now, many will be ready to have my writing privileges revoked believing that I'm overreacting to a couple of bad days. That's not what this is about. Sure, it sucks to have the team lose games in walk-off fashion like the Rangers did the previous two days when the bullpen just couldn't quite hold off the Toronto bats. However, those bullpen problems stem from something that's been building for weeks now.

As it stands right now, Texas relievers have worked 81.1 innings; that's actually below the MLB average of 87.1. The main problem has simply been that there aren't enough reliable arms in the bullpen. Of those 81.1 innings, 57 have been worked by one of Shawn Tolleson, Sam Dyson, Tony Barnette, Tom Wilhelmsen, or Jake Diekman. 6.1 were worked by Keone Kela, who is now on the disabled list for the foreseeable future after having surgery on his elbow. That's all but 18 innings being worked by six pitchers, one of whom is now on the shelf.

In case you're counting at home, the Rangers have played 28 games. In only 17 of those games has Jeff Banister felt comfortable in calling on any reliever I hadn't already named above.

So perhaps that can lend some credence to the theory of the bullpen being a bit overworked. After all, the 4.98 relief ERA is the worst in the American League. If you're like me and don't feel like ERA is necessarily completely fair to pitchers, we can look at the FIP of 5.45, the worst mark in the American League by almost a full run. Or the wOBA-against of .370, which is easily the worst in the American League.

Suffice to say, we're no longer simply battling small sample sizes. This Texas Rangers bullpen has been the worst in the American League, and one of the worst in baseball. And while that sucks to write, it's not entirely their fault.

For many of the reasons I highlighted before even mentioning the bullpen, that's just how things have fallen thus far. When you go to Toronto, score a grand total 6 runs in the first three games -- and yet, you're still competitively winning or in each game until the final pitch -- you end up in situations that don't allow you to use your mop-up relievers.

In essence, I would contend that the bullpen is struggling as a domino effect to the offense too often failing to provide enough run support. In either of the last two games, one more run could have made a tremendous difference. Whether it be giving away outs on the base paths or having an ineffective DH hitting 3rd or 4th in the lineup on any given day, it's having an effect on the bullpen.

There's a lot of season left, and while the numbers say that the Texas Rangers currently have the worst bullpen in the American League, there's plenty of time to turn it around. Maybe Matt Bush gets a call-up in the near future. Perhaps the return of Shin-Soo Choo can somewhat stabilize the lineup. And maybe, just maybe, Tom Wilhelmsen really is starting to turn things around -- even if I'm not holding my breath just yet. And should the Rangers continue to hover around first place in the AL West near the trade deadline, it wouldn't surprise me if Jon Daniels managed to grab an impact reliever for the stretch run.

Bullpens are fickle. Year-to-year, and even month-to-month, things can change drastically. With not even one-fifth of the games in the books, I believe that this bullpen -- with some help from other facets of the team -- can once again be a strong point within the organization. Even if they look pretty awful on paper for the time being.

The Rangers Are 15-12

The game was decided on three home runs. The first, to lead off the game, was hit by Rougned Odor. The next two were hit by ex-Ranger Justin Smoak, a solo shot to tie the game in the 9th, and a walk-off two-run job in the 10th. That was all the scoring. 

The Blue Jays (13-15) defeated the Rangers (15-12) 3-1.

  • New market inefficiency: Visits to the mound. Martin Perez threw 5 shutout innings on 90 pitches (with just 46 strikes!), and looked totally uncomfortable. Rookie backstop and all-around nice guy, Brett Nicholas, must've visited Perez on the mound a dozen times over the course of his night. 
  • Heading into the night, Martín carried a 4.20 ERA with an abysmal 14/15 K/BB ratio in 30 IP. He exited his start with an 18/18 K/BB and a 3.60 ERA (4.89 xFIP). He is not an effective starting pitcher right now. With the abrupt rise of A.J. Griffin in the Rangers rotation, conflated by the oncoming storm that is Yu Darvish -- who could be back around the end of the month -- I don't think it would be the worst idea in the world to buy some time and put Perez on the DL for a couple weeks.
  • Despite the excruciating inning-by-inning pain from watching Martin Perez labor on the hill, the Rangers were still in position to win this game after he left. Tom Wilhelmson (1 IP), Jake Diekman (0.2 IP), Tony Barnette (0.1 IP) and Sam Dyson (1 IP) went by the script and allowed 1 walk and 1 hit, striking out 4 in 3 scoreless innings. Texas entered the 9th with a 1-0 lead; Roogie's leadoff HR was it.
  • Prince Fielder led off the 9th with an opposite-field double against Rule-5 pitcher Joe Biagini, and was pinch-ran for by Hanser Alberto. The next hitter, Ian Desmond, lined a single to right that was originally ruled a Jose Bautista catch, putting men on 1st and 3rd with nobody out -- statistically the best odds of generating at least one run.
  • Mitch Moreland followed by grounding into a fielder's choice to 2B, cutting off Alberto at the plate, and neither Elvis Andrus nor Brett Nicholas could do anything after. The Rangers blew their chance to provide insurance to Martin Perez in a start he didn't deserve to win. 
  • After three scoreless innings from the bullpen, and a miraculous eight scoreless innings on the night, Shawn Tolleson entered for Texas in the 9th.
  • Tolly's been brilliant since arriving to the Rangers. Heading into the 9th he had a 93.6% save rate (44/47) since joining the club. This is also to say that, in spite of that, he's probably only Texas's 3rd best reliever, and 4th if you're as high on Tony Barnette as I am. Shawn Tolleson has been great. He is one of the guys you are willing to stake a loss on if that's what it comes to, because more often then not he finds a way.
  • Tonight, he didn't find a way. The first batter he faced, Justin Smoak, hit a solo HR to left-center, erasing all the good fortune presented by the first eight innings. Then he allowed a double to put the winning run on second with nobody out.
  • Tolleson battled through it. After a strikeout and a walk, and another strikeout, manager Jeff Banister came out for a brief chat. I can only speculate it was in the vein of "Would you rather pitch to Josh Donaldson or Jose Bautista?" and Shawn replied "I'm a Texan. I don't pitch around anybody."
  • He pitched around Josh Donaldson. He walked him on 5 pitches to load the bases. Jose Bautista then flew out harmlessly to Nomar Mazara, and all was well.
  • After Texas did nothing in the top half of the 10th, Justin Smoak made quick work of Phil Klein in bottom half, depositing a walkoff shot to give Toronto the 3-1 victory. That's why the Rangers are 15-12.
  • As with any loss, there is blame to go around. But it's also the beginning of May.
  • Texas and Toronto are two of, maybe, six or seven teams in the American League who realistically expect to be around in October. There's a reason the Blue Jays opened the year as co-favorites in the American League (along with the Red Sox) according to Las Vegas.
  • The Rangers, meanwhile, have a bullpen that's absolutely toast, and Colby Lewis is starting tomorrow. There's a good chance that there's a roster move tomorrow to get somebody up from Round Rock. 

Solving That Upcoming Outfield Logjam

A little over a week ago, I talked about the upcoming outfield logjam facing the Texas Rangers. At the time, there was still a question remaining about Nomar Mazara's status with the big league club once Shin-Soo Choo returns from the disabled list.

With all due respect to those with the decision-making power in the Texas front office, this decision isn't all that difficult: Nomar Mazara needs to stay.

Look, I get the business side of all of this. That, barring a contract extension, keeping Mazara up rather than sending him back down to the minor leagues for another cup of coffee could eventually cost the team a year of of Mazara's services. That ship sailed long ago. The question no longer remains, "Should Nomar Mazara remain with the Rangers?" It's, "How do we facilitate that happening?"

By virtue of posting a wOBA of .375 on the season, Mazara's offense alone has made him worth the roster spot. And nearing 100 plate appearances, it's beginning to look safe to say that he's not phased by big league pitching. After all, it isn't just the results that are impressive, it's the approach that, if one didn't know better, would have one thinking they were watching a ten-year veteran of the game. And yet, Mazara just turned 21.

None of that considers the fantastic defense he's provided in right field during his brief stint, as well. Prior to Monday night's game, on the basis of UZR/150, Mazara ranked as the 2nd-best right fielder in the American League behind Adam Eaton of the Chicago White Sox. He only then went on to make a game-saving play in the bottom of the 8th inning, catching a Troy Tulowitzki fly ball and promptly delivering a laser to home plate to nail Michael Saunders for the double play and keeping the Rangers ahead 2-1.

So yes, I believe Nomar Mazara has earned the right to stay up in the major leagues. To heck with service time considerations at this point. So we're left to answer the question: How does Texas keep Mazara in the lineup once Shin-Soo Choo returns?

Make no mistake, Choo will be an everyday regular upon his return. Even after a horrid start to the 2015 season, Choo had a wOBA of .365. Texas has every reason to have him in the lineup on a consistent basis, so benching or platooning him isn't an option. Any trade scenario involving him likely won't materialize until the offseason. Take that off of the table.

And while Mazara is probably the better right fielder, the net effect of sliding Mazara over to left field and putting Choo back in right is probably more positive than the other way around. That leaves Ian Desmond potentially as the everyday center fielder, which I would be fine with at this point.

Even despite a horrid start, Desmond now finds himself the possessor of a .310 wOBA. He'll be streaky at times, but both offensively and defensively, he appears to be the best option to roll with consistently.

Of course, that leaves Delino DeShields as the odd man out. DeShields, a fan favorite because of his sometimes flashy play, simply doesn't pack enough punch offensively. Both Desmond and DeShields sport similar walk and strikeout rates, but DeShields has a wOBA of .296, and it took a two-hit night on Monday to raise it up that high. Add in the bad reads he's been getting in center field and the lackluster baserunning, and DeShields would seem to be a prime candidate to have a reduced role for the Rangers.

From there, things begin to get a bit murky. Josh Hamilton appears to already be suffering a setback with his knee after only 4 innings of a rehab assignment with Double-A Frisco. At this point, I can't imagine Hamilton can be counted on for much, if anything, going forward.

My initial thought would be to option DeShields and make Ryan Rua the fourth outfielder. The problem with that scenario is not having a backup center fielder, a situation I'm not sure Texas should test. I don't want to see Rua as the odd man out, but that may end up being the case. The only other solution would be if Texas felt good enough about Rua and Desmond both serving in utility roles at various times. Rua, of course, can play 1B, 2B, 3B, and corner outfield slots. Desmond, previously a shortstop during his time with the Washington Nationals, could potentially still play the position in a pinch, thus allowing DeShields to get the occasional start in center field while also serving as a fourth outfield and pinch-run option.

While that scenario doesn't immediately seem all that feasible, it's certainly one workaround. Whatever the case, it's a situation that the front office will be figuring out in the coming weeks as Choo prepares to return from the disabled list. When that time comes, the best option for the Rangers is to continue seeing Nomar Mazara in the lineup on an everyday basis.

The Rangers Are 15-11

This is Nomar Mazara's world. We're just living in it.