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.