Two Big Dominoes for the 2016 Rangers Season

(Note:  This was originally written early Opening Day. Since it involves some fortune telling, I've left most of the piece intact, but there have been a few edits that may or may not have been affected by Texas' first trip through the rotation.)

This is the time of year to prognosticate which players are going to be "key" to the Texas Rangers' success, and exactly how successful the Rangers will be on the diamond. Jamey Newberg and Ben Rogers discussed, in the debut episode of their new short podcast Spitballin', that Derek Holland, Martin Perez and Delino DeShields, Jr. were their picks as key players for the Rangers. I agree that two of those players are key, but not, strictly speaking, because the players' individual performances can elevate the team that much. Before we move on, a warning: I don't like making declarative statements that can be easily disagreed with, and I want to stress that this is all based on my opinions.

DeShields, Jr. was a highly rated infield prospect from the time he was drafted until rumors of "lack of effort" ostensibly bumped him off of Top 100 prospects lists. He played rookie ball in 2010, was promoted to A in 2011 and struggled, albeit with 30 stolen bases. Delino repeated A-ball in 2012 and played like an All Star. He was promoted to High-A ball late in the year, where he once again struggled with everything but stolen bases.  DeShields started 2013 at Rookie-level again, played himself back to High-A quickly, and again played at a high level with a .317 batting average and 51 stolen bases. In 2014, with rumors about his effort surfacing, he started at AA Corpus Christi and once again, except for stolen bases, struggled to hit. Houston, at this point, apparently considered him a busted prospect and left him unprotected in the 2015 Rule Five draft, when he was selected by Texas. He was used as a fourth outfielder, something that suited his speed, and was eventually placed in center field when a combination of DeShields' on-base percentage and Leonys Martin's poor bat and injuries forced a change at the position.

Starting 2016, the Rangers' outfield consists of Shin-soo Choo, Ian Desmond, Delino DeShields, Jr., Ryan Rua, and Justin Ruggiano (editor's note: Ruggiano has since been DFA'd). Waiting in the wings is, possibly, Josh Hamilton when (if) he returns from the disabled list.

There are rumblings that Ian Desmond may be moving to center field at some point this season. He's been making the catches there.  While he's certainly not nearly as fast as Delino (not many in MLB are), he has a cannon arm, good throwing accuracy, and possibly a better instinct for the outfield than DeShields.

But what about DeShields' on-base percentage being a "catalyst" for the Rangers last year? Well, I went and looked up what it was. OBP isn't an interpreted stat, it is what it is. Here's how it went:

Me: "Bryce Harper, Joey Votto (duh), Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen... OK, these are just the best hitters in baseball. These are obvious. Let's get down into the ones you don't think of..."

Me: "Oh, there's Prince Fielder at '10' and Shin-soo Choo at '12'.  And they both only had good halves... be really nice if they could both have good years."

Me: "Nick Markakis. Damn. He doesn't do much but get on base. Nelson Cruz... I guess he did more than just hit home runs last year... Kendrys Morales... didn't expect that. Time to turn the page...."

Me: "Dee GordonBrandon Belt? Moose? Fowler? DeShields! There he is!"

That's not bad. DeShields was in the top 100 players in On Base Percentage. I had to set minimum plate appearances at 300, which put DeShields at 76 out of 268. That puts him outside of the top 25%, but better than 33%. So, not really *elite*, but certainly *good*. He had the third-best OBP for the Rangers, slotted between Prince and Choo, and Moreland and Beltre.

The problem is that Delino produced at a below-average level offensively, somewhere between his poor minor league years and his good minor league years. Closer to his poor years, but unfortunately in-line with the usual decrease most minor-leaguers make as they advance to higher levels. While his speed is elite and his plate discipline is providing at least part of a good offensive threat, DeShields is out of place in center field and there's no real reason to expect him to increase his offensive skills.

The bottom line is Delino DeShields, Jr. is an everyday outfielder ONLY on a lesser team, no matter how many kind words he receives for being a "catalyst". With Rua, Ruggiano, and likely even Desmond outperforming him offensively, I see DeShields on the bench by the end of May at the latest. Barring player moves and injuries, of course.

To put it bluntly: Unless Delino DeShields, Jr. is producing offensive value at an increased level, his presence on the bench as a fourth outfielder/speed substitute will be the best indicator that the outfield is healthy and contributing to a winning team.

TO BE PERFECTLY CLEAR: I am NOT saying Delino DeShields, Jr. is a bad player, or has no value to the Rangers. I AM saying he is lacking as a center fielder, which can be improved; and he wasn't as significant an offensive threat as he's has been talked up to be, and there's no reason to believe he'll be better this year. Which can be improved, as well. And the fastest way to improve is by using other players who are better than he is.

One week in: Delino is batting to the tune of a 85 wRC+ (100 is average), against a 94 last year but in-line with most projections. His OBP is outstanding. There isn't really enough information to judge his defense statistically, but I think all of us have noted his noodle arm costing bases already.

Now let's look at the pitching staff. I have to be forward here; I'm concerned about Texas' starting rotation. I know a lot of Texas fans find this an absurd point-of-view, but I hope you'll stay with me on this.

I'm not worried about Cole Hamels. Hamels is on the bubble of age-related decline, but there's an increasing, though inconclusive, body of evidence that top-flight, durable pitchers can fight off the effects of aging. Additionally, Hamels had an interesting year in 2015 as he was less effective than he had been, yet managed to work through a move to the American League that necessitated a change in style. Cole finished the year managing to turn decreased peripherals into the kind of performance you expect from your headlining pitcher. Like Darvish, even in bad games he limited damage and maintained control into the sixth or seventh inning, giving the team a good chance to win.

I'm not worried about Martin Perez. His stuff plays; his only liability is a tendency to lose control of his emotions, and therefore lose control of his body. However, before tearing his UCL, Perez was showing that he could maintain composure... I'd imagine the key is going to be forming a strong relationship with his catcher and with pitching coach Doug Brocail.

I'm not worried about Colby Lewis. Colby has already shown this year that he's going to, barring injury, give Texas another year of the same. He's going to once again define the idea of a #4 pitcher: someone whose reliance on command and fly-ball tendencies mean he's going to give up runs and home runs, but he's going to do it in such a reliable and predictable manner that you don't really worry about it at the back end.

I'm not worried about the fifth starter. Which is to say, I'm as worried about the fifth starter as everyone is always worried about the fifth starter. It's the fifth starter. A position that is increasingly just the "spare" starter, rather than a weekly matchup. Have you noticed that?  Fewer teams have a named, consistent "fifth starter". It's just "one of the other guys".

Anyway, I bet you figured out who I'm worried about. The only question is, "Why am I so worried about Derek Holland that I listed him as one of the dominoes of the Rangers' season?"

Holland was the 748th pick in the 2006 draft. He performed well in 2007 in Low-A and performed even better in 2008 in High-A and AA.  Notably, he struck out 10 per 9 innings, walked 2 in the same span, and gave up almost 0 home runs. In 33 games with the big club in 2009 he didn't do so well, but still created positive value. Derek went to AAA in 2010, pitched well despite lower strikeout and higher walk rates, and managed to increase his performance slightly when called back to the Rangers. In 2011, he pitched 198 innings for the Rangers and won 16, despite a still-decreasing strikeout rate and a walk rate that was still 3 per 9.

The hope was that now that he had a full season behind him, Holland would begin to add his great peripherals back into the mix in 2012. Except for an almost 50% increase in home runs allowed, he was largely the same pitcher. Fans (and coaches) noted his habit of losing control and frequently giving up his runs in bursts in one inning; sometimes pitching coach Maddux and manager Ron Washington could coax him through the inning; sometimes not.

So once again, hope was put on 2013 for Holland to finally develop completely. And it finally happened, at least to the extent that it probably ever could. Derek pitched over 200 innings, got his K rate back up to 8, kept his walk rate under 3, and cut his home runs allowed by 50%, back to less than 1 per 9. Holland finished the year with a 3.42 ERA, a 3.44 FiP, a 3.68 xFiP, and generated 4.3 fWAR.

THIS was the pitcher Texas had been expecting. Or at least, as I said, close enough to expectations to be completely acceptable. This is a guy you could pencil in to that #2 slot that "Hollywood" Cole go-sit-down-now-Kyle-Seager Hamels will occupy in a rotation headlined by Yu Darvish.

And then it all came crashing down. Again. Literally.

Before the season started in 2014, Derek fell down some stairs and micro-fractured something that you can't pitch with if it's micro-fractured.

BUT... when he came back from rehab and conditioning, right at the end of the season, he pitched in 6 games, winning 2 and ending with 1.46 ERA and... 2.19 FiP, and 3.72 xFiP, so there was a lot of luck involved... and his lowest K rate ever except for 9 official innings at Round Rock in 2012... but his walk rate was good, and he allowed no home runs.

What to make of this? The peripherals are a mess, which, honestly, you should probably expect of someone who almost lost an entire year of baseball.

So... 2015... Derek Holland tears up his shoulder in his first game of the year. He comes back after the All-Star Break and pitches in 10 games. His K rate is still around 6 per 9, his walk rate is still around 2.5 per 9, his home run rate is back up to 1.5 per 9; he pitches to a 4.91 ERA, a 5.30 FiP, but also a 4.45 xFiP, so that's... not very good, but should have been better.

Holland should have been almost as good as Colby Lewis, instead of worse.

Projections all say he'll be about as good as Colby Lewis has been going forward (they all say Colby Lewis won't be as good as he has been going forward). And *that's* only if Holland is healthy enough... his projected value is based almost entirely on his ability to take the ball for 150+ innings.

In other words, Derek Holland, as befitting all evidence, is likely to be the third fifth starter, slotting between Colby Lewis and whoever the other guy is.

So, to start the year off, Texas will have a solid TORP, Cole Hamels, followed by Martin Perez, who should be a solid MOTR starter, with probably enough upside to look like that farm-developed #2 pitcher Texas has been desperately seeking for years. The guy Derek Holland was supposed to be. After that Texas will throw out Colby Lewis, who will probably have a few games this year where he flirts with shutouts and complete game wins, and quite a few more where you'll be glad he made it through five giving up a run per inning. But he won't actually blow up very much, and those few gems he pitches make it all worthwhile. A #4 starter with ton of "grit." And then you've got the guy I've decided to call Russel Stover this year. You know Russel Stover. The "box of chocolates" company.

Except, honestly, we know what we're gonna get. Probably. Derek Holland is the last man in the rotation who is guaranteed a spot if he's healthy. He's not getting traded, not now. Unless... never mind. If he pitches well, his option next year is so cheap it's a no-brainer to pick up. If he pitches poorly, then he's your default #5.

That's why Derek Holland is my pick for the other key "domino" player. Because if I'm right, there's a huge hole in the middle of the rotation right now, and we'd better all hope Yu is in good form when he comes back from Round Rock or Frisco in six to eight weeks. Yu/Cole/Perez/Lewis/Holland isn't perfection, but it's pretty darned good.

If Holland "regresses" back up, to a form he hasn't had for a few years, then everything is fine. If he really is the worst pitcher in the rotation... then that sets the dominoes in motion, because a World Series hopeful needs another pitcher up there in the 1-3 slots... not another pitcher than can fill in the #5 slot. Those guys are cheap.

After the first week: Cole Hamels had a great start, except for home runs. I doubt that's a long-term problem. His peripheral stats indicate that, except for the home runs, he pitched wonderfully. I know a lot of people are going to read this and say "no duh", but I would like to stress that the statistical measurements basically say that Cole made a handful of bad pitches, and all the rest of them were very, very good. Not worried

Martin Perez: walks. We knew this. Attack the zone. Also, did you watch the umpiring in that game? I'm not sure how much I'm going to put on Martin.

Colby Lewis:  Below average for Colby, but not by much. It's OK. He beat his xFiP.

Derek Holland: He pitched in-line with projections. Statistically, he was on par with Lewis.

A.J. Griffin: Texas has one pitcher who has produced positive value by fWAR. It's Griffin. But don't get too excited... while his ERA and FiP were in-line, walking twice as many people as you strike out leads to an xFiP of "STINKY". Now, Texas has spent a fair bit of time fielding pitchers who get outs via the ground ball almost exclusively, so it's possible Texas can make this work. Anyway, congratulations to A.J. Griffin, the Rangers' best starting pitcher in the first week!(?)