When Do You Blame The Coach?

A week ago, the Texas Rangers bullpen had been performing in a very iffy manner, and Sam Dyson was atrocious in the "closer" role.

No one mentioned Brad Holman as the problem.

The Rangers offense has been consistently inconsistent; running up the score in one game, looking completely ineffective in the next.

There has been no outrage over Anthony Iapoce, the Hitting Coach.  Except for a couple of guys who have been grumbling about him since he was hired.

Bullpen management has been a mess, and there have been some concerns about Left Field and First Base playing time.

Manager Jeff Banister has been criticized fairly heavily, but to be somewhat fair he's not doing anything differently than in previous years.

Beyond the usual suspects, there hasn't been too much muttering about Pitching Coach Doug Brocail.  Until he was asked for some comments about the surprising and unexpected pull of Yu Darvish in a game against Oakland.

"The 1st 5 innings he got away w/ a lot of stuff. He didn’t pitch in at all. I was ready for him to come out."

Darvish was pulled by Banister without any mound visits, without any signalling, and without any significant communication between Catcher Jonathan Lucroy and Pitcher Darvish.  After an 8 pitch walk to Yonder Alonso, which went to a full count and featured three foul offs by Alonso, Brocail informed Banister "(he) had seen enough."  There was never an attempt to communicate, according to Brocail, because Darvish hadn't adhered to the "game plan" of pitching inside.  Banister, for his part, said Darvish was pulled without warning because "He was brilliant, then got behind hitters. As good as he looked through five, the sixth just got extremely challenging on him."  This is a hard quote to take from Banister, who has repeatedly preached a philosophy of letting (other) pitchers get themselves out of jams, including the inability to find the strike zone.  Which, I will note, Darvish was still doing...just not as well.

These comments caused a minor storm of controversy after the game, most of which was anchored to Brocail's comments.  Doug Brocail came across as nit-picking Darvish's performance publicly, a huge no-no for coaches at the MLB level.  He seemed like a petulant teacher unhappy that a student had solved a problem using an alternative process, and furthermore punished the student for doing so.  Banister's comments indicated a Manager not actually in control of his team, seeking to blame his actions on his coach and the player.

Some have called for Brocail to be fired.  The inevitable response is that coaches don't actually do all that much, so firing Brocail wouldn't actually accomplish anything.  This defense is predicated on the idea that the Pitching Coach isn't actually on the mound making pitches, and further doesn't have the power to make a pitcher throw the pitch the coach wants at any given time.  Or indeed any time.  This is true, of course.  Although, as we clearly see from the Darvish game, the Pitching Coach apparently has the ability to bypass normal routines and get the best starting pitcher on the staff pulled prematurely from a game.

As frustrated as many Rangers fans are, you're never going to get anywhere arguing with the beat writers, the team's news editors or PR people, the managers and coaches, or the front office.  Evan Grant, to pull a name at random, is never going to agree with you that Doug Brocail should be fired, unless Brocail does something so public, embarrassing, and possibly borderline illegal that Grant loses more credibility and readership by ignoring it.

Doug Brocail may not be back next year...I can't make a predictive statement on that yet.  The current Rangers management doesn't seem to like firing people mid-season, though.  In fact, I suspect Banister would be the first to go if any of the on-field staff get canned.  Banister's management choices have a much more obvious and direct impact on the games than Brocail's and Iapoce's.  You could even argue that the Rangers would be .500 or better except for choices made in-game by Jeff Banister.  You can't PROVE that, of course...but there is plenty of evidence to support the argument.

At the same time, Brocail and Iapoce can both make pretty good arguments that they, at least, are doing their job.  When the Rangers' bats work, they work gangbusters.  Rougned Odor still isn't on top of his game, but he HAS been more patient this year.  And just as with the Pitching Coach, Iapoce can't actually get on the field and tell Odor how to make every single swing, or tell him mid-at-bat to NOT swing at this pitch as it's coming toward him.  It's just not possible outside of video games.  And to be honest, if Darvish would have been pitching inside to Oakland hitters, maybe he would have had better results.  Personally I doubt it; Darvish has never had any luck challenging Oakland hitters.  It was pretty amazing to see him getting the outside edge calls that were requiring Oakland to swing at pitches they couldn't do much with.

But even saying all that, Brocail should still be in the hot seat.  I have no problem with his pitching philosophy, or his gruff attitude.  His comments and treatment of one of his players was out-of-line, though.  It was made worse by comparison with how other members of the pitching staff have been treated in similar situations.  You don't get accusations of insubordination against Cole Hamels, or Sam Dyson.  Or even Martin Perez.  Darvish, however, gets the typical rookie treatment of a short leash and needling comments.  You can bet that Brocail and Banister are just as frustrated when any of those pitchers have trouble, yet they neither get the same fast hook, nor the same comments.  This is inexplicable to me.

It has been stated repeatedly that this was a baffling move by Banister and Brocail.  A big part of that is because Brocail has been perceived as MORE open and communicative than Mike Maddux was.  Brocail can't make Darvish's pitches for him, but his job is to implement organizational philosophy and do his best to put each pitcher in a position to succeed in every game.  The comments Brocail made, and his part in pulling Darvish unexpectedly, do not further those goals, they work against them.

This is where Doug Brocail did screw up, and deserves some blame.  From my perspective anyway, either Darvish felt he could completely ignore Brocail, or Brocail did not communicate the "game plan" properly to Darvish.  When Darvish got results with a different strategy, Brocail seemingly failed to either work with a plan that was effective, or failed to adapt a new plan that would transition Darvish to a strategy Brocail felt would work even better.  And finally, when Darvish did have trouble, there didn't appear to be any effort made to correct the situation, just a quick yank without any communication.  That's poor management anywhere other than life-threatening situations.

I'm willing for the moment to give Brocail some benefit of the doubt.  His chosen actions and subsequent comments were likely due mostly to frustration, for understandable reasons.  Unless this becomes a habit with Brocail, my consternation is still firmly fixed on Banister.  He is Brocail's superior on the baseball field, and as a self-professed and lauded players manager who values proper leadership, as well as understanding the emotions and motivations behind player's actions, he should have been in between Brocail's hasty judgement and a poor game management move.  Normally my criticism of Banister is limited to his extremely poor choices of words during interviews, and his, in my opinion usually deplorable, bullpen management.  It really seems unusual to me that Banister engaged in pulling Darvish at that time.

BUT...I'll also readily admit that I don't know what all Banister considers when he makes any of these decisions.  He can run a bullpen opposite of how either "The Book", conventional wisdom, or modern analysis says to run a bullpen one night, and the next make almost perfect changes at almost perfect times.

Then again, as TMAC pointed out to me yesterday on Twitter, the Manager always looks better when the players execute.  Which is true.  It was pointed out frequently in 2015 that Shawn Tolleson wasn't the best option at "closer", but as long as it worked out no-one wanted to complain TOO loudly.  Blaming the coach is all about judging what you can see without all of the contextual information, and trying to understand what you can't see.  And that's an article for another time.

The Rangers Are 5-9

Well, this one was fun... If you're the kind of person that enjoys holding your hand over a hot flame.

  • Yu Darvish got the start today, and for five innings, things looked great. Yu got through all five frames with no Oakland A's crossing the plate. To that point, he only allowed a single, which was quickly erased with an inning-ending double play in the third inning.
     
  • Then, in the sixth inning, things got weird. In the top half of the inning, Jurickson Profar reached on an error, stole second, and was then driven in by Elvis Andrus. Elvis promptly stole second, then third, and on a Nomar Mazara grounder, broke for home and slide into the plate before the tag. Just like that, it was 2-0, although the offense to that point hadn't exactly looked potent.
     
  • In the bottom half, Darvish started off with a walk to Trevor Plouffe. After Bruce Maxwell lined out to left field, Adam Rosales hit a game-tying home run to left field. It was only the beginning of a sequence that further saw Darvish give up a double and a walk. At that point, Jeff Banister had seen enough and lifted his ace from the game at only 82 pitches.
     
  • I'd probably have liked to have seen Darvish have the opportunity to work out of his own jam, especially given the options Banister limited himself to at that point in the game. If command issues were the reason for lifting the team's best pitcher in the sixth inning at only 82 pitches -- and there's every reason to believe that's the case -- then it was questionable, at best, to have Tony Barnette and Dario Alvarez as the first two guys out of the bullpen.
     
  • Coming into the night, Barnette had pitched 5.1 innings, and he wasn't exactly inducing soft contact (5.3% versus 17.5% in 2016). Insert your normal qualifier about small samples and all of that, but given how things have transpired thus far, and with Alvarez clearly being a lefty specialist at this point, I figure that in a tie game with men on, you'd like to use one of your better pitchers to hold the score as is.
     
  • It wasn't to be, as Barnette and Alvarez each gave up a run, but since both were inherited runners, they were charged to Darvish's ledger on the night, making it a 4-2 Oakland advantage.
     
  • One more point on Darvish. Evan Grant indicated on Twitter that the coaching staff -- in this case manager Jeff Banister and pitching coach Doug Brocail -- may have been attempting to send a message to Darvish in yanking him about attacking hitters. If that's truly the case, it's disturbing to me. As I've mentioned before, the "rah rah" antics and the fiery passion are great, but I'm not sure what good they do if they risk alienating the team's best pitcher in April. Maybe there's more to this, but if that's all it is, I can't say I understand it.
     
  • As it stands, the Rangers scored no more than the two runs, and if you're looking for somewhere to place the blame, there's plenty to go around. The offense wasn't good tonight, with the offense only mustering three hits on the night.
     
  • It's worth noting that Jonathan Lucroy hasn't been very good at the plate so far in 2017. Yes, his BABIP is low at .189, but his wRC+ also sits at 31. That's 69 percent below league average, offensively, and the Rangers simply need him to be better going forward. No, Mike Napoli hasn't been good, and Carlos Gomez has shown only minor flashes of brilliance, but Lucroy is a guy that only recently had been talked about as someone the Rangers should perhaps extend long-term. I expect that he'll turn it around at some point, but it's worth keeping an eye on.
     
  • At this point, it's still pretty early in the season, but it's becoming clear that unless Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels are virtually perfect -- or someone like A.J. Griffin occasionally steps up like last night -- the bullpen is going to make things a little dicey if the lead is five runs or less. Perhaps things can be shored up, but for now, that's the way things will go. We're probably in store for a bumpy ride in the late innings of a lot of close -- and some not so close -- games.
     
  • Quick turnaround for a day game tomorrow at 2:35, so I expect we'll see Robinson Chirinos behind the plate. Martin Perez will take the mound for Texas.

Week Two: The Bullpen Strikes Out

OK, that's a bad title.  But I couldn't get it out of my head.

[NOTE: insert gratuitous pic of Kylie Minogue's backside here.  We need *something* to distract us from this mess...]

Following Andrew Cashner's not-stellar debut, the story, either pushed by the Rangers or copied by the beat writers from each other, was that despite the outcome, the Rangers were pretty happy with Cashner.  And they were right to be.  While it's still a Small Sample Size (of one, sort of) a pitching performance can say a lot more than one at bat, or even a game of at bats.  I'm not gonna say that Cashner's performance had a real gem hidden inside; it didn't.  But it should have been worse than it was.  Cashner himself made a lot of good pitches, although his future success is going to largely depend on getting his strikeouts up.

Cole Hamels.  Geez, I don't want to have another "I told you so" year.  Having three pitchers that can't make it through six stresses the bullpen.  That's beyond the problem of having a clear #1 pitcher, a couple of MOTR guys, and a couple of back-enders.  But that could be worse.  A lot of teams don't even have that.

The bullpen is what has everyone worried, but there are several factors at play.  One is the apparent organizational philosophy of multi-inning relief efforts.  Except when you let some of your more capable pitchers only face one batter.  I...I just don't get it.  The multi-inning thing is real; they've done it over and over the last two years.  I didn't imagine it.  But if that's a philosophy thing, and not just a knee-jerk decision by *somebody*...then why do you bring your sharper guys in for only one batter?  Last year I surmised that Banister was going to use the first six weeks of the year to test his bullpen and find out what people could do.  I think he sort-of did that?  Maybe?  Except he kept doing the multi-inning thing a lot...but without any rhyme or reason that I could discern.  I really hope we find out what's going on, someday.

I didn't create this image.

I didn't create this image.

Once again, I got some people upset when I mentioned Banister's history of over-using arms.  The thing is, even when there is disagreement about the statement, I suspect the difference is actually over whether Banister is *right* to overuse arms...not that he *does* it.  Or to put it another way, that Banister does what is necessary to win ball games.  Banister had a bad bullpen to start the year last year, and he overused the arms that worked.  BUT, I would still make the point that he *continued* to overuse several relievers even when new bullpen pieces were provided.  In fact, several times over the past couple of years fresh arms were shipped to the dugout after some heavy usage...and Banister refused to play them.  A couple of these guys have since been traded away, both in fairly surprising moves.  My own supposition is that Banister wasn't going to use them, so Daniels traded them.  (I'm *guessing* about this, not making an accusation or anything like that.)

But anyway...let's throw the stuff we can argue about to the side, and look at how the actual relievers are performing.

Sam Dyson:  We're not talking about Sam Dyson.  He'll either be DL'd, at which point he will likely be done as Ranger reliever, or he gets one more shot or two BEFORE being DL'd, at which point he will likely be done as a Ranger reliever.  When Banister doesn't trust you, you will not be played.  Healthy Dyson will be traded or released.  NOTE: a few hours after publishing this piece, Dyson was sent to the Disabled List with a very plausible hand contusion. The severity of the bruise is unknown, as is the projected length of the DL stay. I suspect recovery from the bruise will require some rehab games, at least.

Mike Hauschild:  This one might surprise you.  The Rule 5 pick has to stay on the roster all season or be shipped back to Houston.  Here's what he's done, including the bad stuff:  ERA 9.64 FIP 7.65 xFIP 3.45.  That xFIP isn't bad, and indicates maybe he's had some bad luck.  Still, you would like a reliever closer to 3.2 and down, rather than 3.5 and up.  Batting average on balls in play:  .385.  That *is* some bad luck.  9.64 K/9:  That's pretty darn good.  1.93 BB/9:  That's decent, too.  A Home Run allowed every other inning:  that's not good.  But, I hope you can see why Hauschild will likely stick around...unless Banny stops using him.  Incidentally, Hauschild was a star pitcher on the Fresno Grizzlies team that beat Round Rock for the PCL championship in 2015.

Paw bumps!

Paw bumps!



Jeremy Jeffress:  His K's are way down, but so are his walks and BABIP.  FIP of 2.41 and xFIP of 3.45.  Really good ground ball percentage.  I think he'll be ok.  Maybe he'll ramp up the K's as the season progresses.

Alex Claudio's FIP and xFIP and complete lack of strikeouts indicate someone who isn't pitching as well as he appears to be.  A BABIP of .154 supports that conclusion.  Regression should still leave him as a really good long-man/middle reliever.

Dario Alvarez is the fill-in lefty specialist, and is probably best used in this role until he can be sent down to get some coaching at AAA.  He's likely to strike people out, but when he doesn't it's a walk or a home run.  A three true outcome pitcher.

The velocity is nice on Matt Bush, and I hope his brief DL stay actually helps, because he's not pitching as well as he did last year.  And because of the shoulder problems, I'm wary of predicting his upcoming performance, and a bit nervous of putting him in the closer role.

Jose Leclerc is actually pitching the way you usually want a closer to pitch.  I understand the arguments against making him a closer, but I think he's already shown he can just get up and pitch and stay within himself.  By far the best reliever in the bullpen.

You guys are gonna get sick of hearing it, but Tony Barnette is pitching a lot better than he looks.  Going into tomorrow his FIP will be about 3.5, with an xFIP around 3.  K/9 almost 1 per inning, no walks.  BABIP was .267; now .333 after Easter Sunday.

Diekman isn't going to be back soon.  He just had a new colon built this past weekend; or part of it.  I think he's still got six weeks recuperation,  then strength training, then some kind of spring training, then minor league games...I'll be amazed if he pitches for the big club this year.  I know that's not what the Rangers say, but that's what my math says.

Kela is in AAA for an alleged "bad behavior" incident in the clubhouse.  I know Kela is known for that, but clubhouse misbehavior bothers me.  It could mean either Kela is beyond regular control or the management group wasn't on top of things.  And if Kela and Banister have issues...then bringing Kela up from AAA isn't going to make much of a difference, because Banny won't use him.  NOTE:  A few hours after publishing, Kela was recalled when Dyson was DL'd, and was used to close out a game the same day.  Make of that what you will.

I know it seems like I'm closing out with doom and gloom here, but I really do think most of the guys up there are able to be included in a bullpen that can go three innings of one run baseball.  Surely we all want three innings of no-run ball, but that's not very realistic.  I am, despite all the reports about the starting rotation's ERA, more concerned about the starting rotation going forward than I am the bullpen.  Mainly because I know Daniels can keep finding sacrificial arms for the bullpen, regardless of the bullpen management problems.  Finding five guys who can keep five runs from crossing the plate is a different matter.  Texas is supposed to have three starting pitchers who can do that reliably, but Perez still has some history to overcome; and Hamels is.......whatever Hamels is now.  Both Griffin and Cashner have shown signs that they can do the job, but neither is a lock, either.

As far as the offense goes....I haven't been paying attention, honestly.  The Rangers seem to either score lots of runs or get shut out.  I don't know what that means.

Fine Lines and Dark Circles

For a moment, consider the following sequences:

  1. Single, ground out, single, double, ground out, single.
     
  2. Single, single, line out, walk, walk, grand slam.
     
  3. Home run, strikeout, double, fly out, double, single, fly out.

No, what you're reading is not the sleep-deprived musings of a maniac that stayed up to watch a West Coast game (On second thought, maybe you are), but the sequences of three of Sam Dyson's outings thus far in the 2017.

Those three outings, as it turns out, are the major difference between the Texas Rangers being currently 2-5 in the standings and what really could be 5-2. Even if we throw out one of those outings because Texas and Cleveland were tied heading into the ninth inning on Opening Night, that's still potentially 4-3 at worst, which, only seven games into the season, sounds a lot better in your head.

Yes, I might have dark circles under my eyes from a late extra-inning game, but I'm fully cognizant of the fact that there are some very fine lines between this team being very good and mind-numbingly frustrating.

Fine lines like Sam Dyson not transmogrifying into the second coming of Shawn Tolleson.

Fine lines like Rougned Odor's hardest-hit ball of the season (110.8 mph) lining straight into the first baseman's glove or Mike Napoli's would-be home run to center field getting robbed by Mike Trout.

And even fine lines like the one that decided the fate of last night's game by allowing Carlos Perez's squeeze bunt to score Cameron Maybin to remain fair instead of rolling foul.

During the course of a 162-game season, these sorts of breaks happen. Build up enough of them and you know what kind of team you have. Things like the bunt or Odor's line shot? Those things tend to even out.

Your closer going into full meltdown mode? You might want to address that problem before it turns into something much more dire.

The offense? Churning along just fine. Say what you will about the struggles of Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, and even Mike Napoli at the plate. If not for blowing a ninth inning lead last night, Texas would have the most runs scored in the American League with 38. As it stands, the four runs the Angels scored vaulted them into the top spot with 41. No matter, the offense is going to be perfectly fine.

For all the hand-wringing coming into the season over the starting rotation, it's been the bullpen -- a purported strength -- that has been the weakest link. Yes, Sam Dyson has been mostly awful despite lowering his ERA by three full runs last night. But if you think having Tanner Scheppers out of the mix and Keone Kela on disciplinary leave at Triple-A Round Rock and Matt Bush inexplicably unavailable to pitch after an off day doesn't make a difference in that picture, then I'm not sure what else to tell you.

Not to be an alarmist, and I've seen a few others mention it on Twitter, but from the television side of things, Sam Dyson didn't exactly look comfortable warming up in the bullpen last night. It could be nothing. Or, given that his max velocity has yet to reach his 2016 levels -- even after considering that MLB tracking is 0.7 mph faster on pitches this season than before -- perhaps there's an underlying issue there. Mechanics? Injury? Who knows!

Bush, for his part, is the most concerning. I don't really want to speculate on the reason for him being unavailable -- and Jeff Banister's non-committal response when asked if he would be available for tonight's game -- other than to say that I hope Banister was simply taking the easy way of implying that the ninth inning was Sam Dyson's no matter what last night.

So despite all of that, knowing that maybe Tanner Scheppers gets healthy, Keone Kela won't likely be in baseball timeout for much longer, and that we should have more answers on Matt Bush later today makes me feel a lot better about what has been the major reason for this ball club being unable to lock down games late.

Yes, it looks bad right now. It always does before the dust settles. Fine lines well become more defined as time goes by, and I'm still thinking that this version of the Texas Rangers has enough talent to be competitive and good. 

But really, maybe Sam Dyson shouldn't be pitching late in games for now.