Coming into the 2016 season, the bullpen figured to be an area of strength for the Texas Rangers. If for no other reason than having been solid down the stretch in 2015, it appeared to be the area of least concern.
A Keone Kela injury -- one that will sideline him until the second half of the season -- as well as general ineffectiveness have made Texas' relieving corps the worst in the American League, and in in the running for the worst in baseball.
Say what you want about the save statistic, but it can have its uses at times. Right now, it's useful in evaluating Shawn Tolleson. You see, racking up a ton of saves -- as well as a lack of blown saves -- doesn't necessarily indicate a great pitcher. On the flipside, blowing a ton of saves is probably a fair indicator that things aren't going as planned.
Certainly a major area of concern would be manager usage of his bullpen. No, Jeff Banister can't simply rely on the same two or three guys every night out of the bullpen. At the same time, an insistence on using Shawn Tolleson to close out close games appears to be, at best, an exercise in foolishness.
Tom Wilhelmsen finally got the axe on Monday, bring up Luke Jackson in his place. Last week, Matt Bush got called up to the big club, and he's looking like could be a great addition as well. For Wilhelmsen's part, he was the worst reliever in baseball by almost every metric. His fWAR of -0.9 is easily the worst, and sounds even worse when you consider that the best reliever, Andrew Miller, has put up an fWAR of 0.9. Two relievers, and they couldn't be more different. Wilhelmsen's 9.37 FIP was also the worst mark in baseball.
Yet, for all the talk about Wilhelmsen, there has always been the prevailing thought that, even if he's not the closer, Shawn Tolleson is a valuable contributor to what should have been a strong bullpen unit. The numbers say otherwise.
He has posted an fWAR of -0.7, and his FIP of 7.06 is fifth-worst in the sport. Win Probability Added (WPA)? Dead last at -1.91. We're not just talking about a guy that can't be counted on in high-leverage situations. This is a pitcher that likely wouldn't be counted on if he had come into the season in literally any other role. But because he's the "closer", for some reason he gets twice the rope with which to hang himself, apparently.
Looking at FanGraphs, Tolleson's O-Swing%, the rate at which hitters are swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone, is 19.4%, down from 26.2% last season. His Z-Swing%, the measure of swings on pitches inside the zone, is 69.1%.
We look further at his Z-Contact%, the amount of contact hitters are making on swings inside the strike zone, and it's a whopping 89.3%. Put it all together, and we've got a pitcher that isn't inducing nearly enough swings outside the zone, being forced to come back in to hitters, and serving up heavy helpings of meatballs.
It's no coincidence, then, that the Rangers bullpen, as a whole, has an fWAR of -1.9, tied for the worst mark in baseball. To think that most of that is tied up in two pitchers is somewhat astonishing.
Tom Wilhelmsen is gone. I'd be surprised if, barring needing a fresh arm at some point, he sees a Texas uniform again. I've talked ad nauseam in the past about how his K/BB rates simply don't play well enough for him to be relied upon. So, that's part of the problem that's fixed.
And while it may seem like a crazy overreaction to some, it might just be time for Shawn Tolleson to get the axe as well. Because again, it's not just a case of a guy struggling to close out a few games. It's a case of a pitcher that wouldn't have a job if he hadn't come in with such high expectations.
So while I'm all for not overreacting to small sample sizes, there comes a point when it's no longer beneficial to anyone to keep pretending things will just somehow get better. It's much easier to wait for a struggling slugger to bounce back. Relievers, on the other hand, generally need to be much more reliable in much smaller samples in order for them to be effective.
At the very least, a demotion to mop-up duty in blowouts would seem to be in order. Want to put him in to close out a 5-run lead in the 9th inning? Go for it. Beyond that, I think it's time that the Rangers take a close look and see if maybe, just maybe, there's someone else within the organization that can provide a little more upside -- or at least less downside -- than what Shawn Tolleson has provided thus far. It isn't only about finding a reliable closer. It's about trying to stabilize the whole bullpen in order to prevent meltdowns in close games.
As is, the bullpen has already lost numerous games for the Rangers this season. It's nearly June, a time when the temperatures rise in Texas, and when you can't simply keep waiting on guys to figure things out. And unless the Rangers get some better production from their relievers in high-leverage scenarios, they're going to find themselves on the wrong end of far too many games like the one they lost in walk-off fashion Tuesday evening.