Building the 2016 Rangers – The Pitchers and the Opening Day 25-Man Roster

Texas Rangers starting pitcher Derek Holland throws against the Seattle Mariners in a baseball game Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Last time, we built the Rangers a new lineup and defensive alignment through minor league promotions, free agency, and trades.

But we still have free agent dollars and gaps to fill amongst the mounds-men. I spent my focus there on a righty and lefty to bring quality back to the middle innings. Also, I haven’t spent much time on the Yu DarvishCole Hamels combo, because 1) so much has already been said and 2) their numbers and mound presence really do cause my words to come up short. So I’ll make this brief.

DarvishHamels

I’ll simply say this is arguably the best one-two combo in Rangers history, with apologies to the Hall of Fame combinations of Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins for a season in 1975, followed shortly by Bert Blyleven and Perry in 1976-77. Even with a Cy Young in his future in San Diego, Perry had hit his late 30s and definitely SHOPPED at Ace for his mound hardware, if you catch my drift, but was no longer a Top 10 MLB pitcher. The same goes for the 1992 Rangers, who saw Kevin Brown emerge as an ace-caliber righty with Cy Young-worthy stats, but also witnessed the inevitable rusting of the ageless Nolan Ryan.

This is different, as we have two pitchers, in their prime, from the right and the left sides of the rubber, teaming up in a true best-in-baseball contending tandem. By the numbers, averaging 2012 to 2014 (given Darvish’s Tommy John-erased 2015), here’s what we’re getting in Darvish and Hamels:

Pitcher ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
Hamels 129 3.21 1.1437 8.0 0.8 2.3 8.7 3.85
Darvish 128 3.14 1.2047 7.3 0.9 3.6 11.2 3.22
Pitcher BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip X/H% GB/FB WAR
Hamels 0.239 0.292 0.375 0.667 0.297 35% 0.82 5.3
Darvish 0.218 0.298 0.351 0.650 0.298 35% 0.73 4.3

That’s Clayton KershawZach Grienke or Stephen StrasburgMax Scherzer territory, my friends. Simply put, they’re both able to be “stoppers” in terms of ending losing streaks, easily, and in addition to bringing the depth to make it to October, they are the kind of dominant 1-2 punch that wins IN October. Two aces, in their prime, each signed for multiple seasons, has NEVER happened here, and may not for a long time, so simply put: enjoy this.

Now a key caveat: in my last column, I had a deal for A.J. Pollock that had Martin Perez going to the Diamondbacks. First, I still stand by that deal in principle, but my heart isn’t in it. I think it’s giving up a lot and probably still not enough to get Pollock, and he’ll probably cost more than I’m estimating in payroll. I am more and more a believer in Delino Deshields, so I will herein scrub that Arizona trade and have Martin Perez as the #4 Starter between Derek Holland and Colby Lewis.

MartinPerez

If I hold onto Ryan Rua and go with Deshields every day in CF with Perez and Lewis at #4 and #5, I think that gives us a better chance to win at a lower payroll number. So I stand corrected, SDI fans. Pretend the AZ trade is an alternate reality that never happened. It’s one of the great benefits of being a blogger; once written, it always exists, but once rewritten, it is ever changed.

So, in my roster breakdown below, I’ve corrected based on my heart and not my metrics, and factored in Deshields, Rua, and Perez, sans Pollock. Nothing could make me happier than being wrong first time around on that one.

Ok, so back to reality:

We took a brief look at Storen in our snapshot of the Elvis Andrus-to-Washington deal, and the flash numbers show why he’s considered an elite stopper: he’s having his best season, with a 5.33 K-to-BB ratio, and strikes out 11.3 per 9 this season. He’s proven to be one of the tougher relievers in baseball to hit hard, with a WHIP of .941 and an extra base hit percentage—extra base hits as a percentage of all hits—of just 11%, despite a fairly high .82 groundball-to-flyball ratio. The key has been a major change in an already above-average pitch for Storen: his slider/cutter (the definition for him varies by scout). His slide-piece has increased in dominance due to an increased leg kick and change in his grip, with Fangraphs analytics showing an extra two inches of horizontal break.

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 20:  Pitcher Drew Storen #22 of the Washington Nationals throws to a New York Mets batter in the ninth inning of the Nationals 7-2 win at Nationals Park on July 20, 2015 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)For a guy with a sinking fastball and sharp curve, that kind of lateral movement can be absolutely withering, especially to righties, and the numbers bear it out. Storen has been just above-average against lefties, who hit him at a .288 clip (but slug a pedestrian .300), but he’s channeling Mariano Rivera when righties come to the plate. In 66 at-bats through August 4, righties were hitting .088 against him with one home run (the lone homer he’s surrendered), 4 walks against 29 strikeouts, and a paltry .188 slugging percentage.

A further positive sign was his overcoming what looked like a slump. After an understandably stellar start to the season, Storen stumbled in June, as seen below:

Split AB BB SO SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
April/March 33 3 11 3.67 .242 .306 .242 .548 .364
May 43 0 16 .140 .178 .163 .341 .222
June 33 3 9 3.00 .303 .351 .424 .776 .375
July 29 3 12 4.00 .138 .219 .138 .357 .235
August 3 0 1 .000 .000 .000 .000 .000

After an almost unhittable May, he was something close to below-average as a closer, with a .303 opponents batting average and a .424 slugging percentage. The slump may have been one reason, combined with previous October struggles, that Washington made the late July trade for Phillies closer Jonathon Papelbon, a move that did not sit well with Storen at all (more on that in a moment.) But the move for the Nats may have been a bit unnecessary, as Storen had already rebounded and had as dominant a month in July as his spring numbers would have predicted:

Split AB BB SO SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
July 29 3 12 4.00 .138 .219 .138 .357 .235

So why deal a closer with these numbers, especially for a shortstop whose performance, while still above average in the doldrums upon which AL shortstops are riding these days, is nothing worthy of his otherworldly salary? For one, they’ve shown a lack of confidence in Storen, culminating with his demotion to setup man with the acquisition of Papelbon. Far from taking the move in stride, Storen was as politically correct as someone seething can be. He was quoted by Bill Ladson of MLB.com as follows on the day of the Philly trade:

“All I’m going to say is, I’m aware of the move and I’ve talked to Mike (Rizzo, National’s GM) about it. I’ve talked to my agent about it,” Storen said. “We’ve had some ongoing discussions. Until those have progressed, I’m just going to leave it at that. No comment for now. But as the situation goes, I’ll keep you guys posted.”

 That’s not a happy man. The fact I’m assuming Storen will be available hinges on a few things. First, the Nationals would have to re-sign Papelbon (or another closer). I’m betting on that rather than giving the job to Storen because this move is a slap in the face of a shutdown closer. We’ve seen the likes of Neftali Feliz ride the demoted-closer shuttle to a meltdown, although his descent was exacerbated by the horrible experiment in starting a few springs ago. But there’s ample history, going back to the Goose Gossage-or-Sparky Lyle debates of the late 70’s Yankees, that closers put preternatural value on that bloated stat, the save. More to the point, they live on the adrenaline of the slam-the-door ninth inning, of being the guy the ball goes to when the game is win or lose. Never mind that ballgames are decided everywhere from the first to the fifteenth innings, and that the shutdown setup man is every bit as valuable as the closer in today’s specialized baseball. There is a somewhat vampirical effect to the closer bug; once bitten, pitchers are ever restless unless staked to a slim lead with the ball in the 9th.

So besides re-signing Papelbon, the reality of a disgruntled Storen would have to persist. Unless the Nats storm through October, and Storen turns in a postseason the likes of which we haven’t seen from a setup man since Francisco Rodriguez was dealing for Anaheim in 2002, I’m willing to bet the feathers will stay ruffled.

With all that in mind, with their shortstop likely to test the free agent waters, and with Elvis being a much better fit in a power-laden Nationals lineup, I do believe Drew Storen can be the Rangers closer for 2016, albeit for a considerable price. But for numbers like those above, I’m willing to pay that price and let Shawn Tolleson slide into the setup slot. And before you worry, I don’t buy into the same problem for rookie closers as the proven firemen. There are far fewer instances of broken psyches for rookie closers replaced by veterans, and the Rangers are a welcoming home abode for Tolleson (an Allen product), so I’m not concerned about a Washington closer drama down Arlington way.

Tolleson

With the back end of the bullpen shored up, we still have to steady the middle relief corp. But before that, we have to decide who takes the ball between Holland and Chi Chi Gonzalez in the Ranger rotation. I looked at two possible free agents, both of whom I loved — Jordan Zimmerman and Johnny Cueto—to form a trifecta of dominance with Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels. But even with my optimism, I couldn’t make the budget work. Based on the likes of Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer setting the top-tier annual salary for pitchers at $30 million annually, for long-term deals, I couldn’t see any reasonable economics for either Cueto or Zimmerman. They’re each generally considered a Hamels-level ace, with Cueto having anchored a staff before and Zimmerman pushed to #3 in the Nationals rotation by Scherzer and pre-injury Stephen Strasburg.

What that means to me, in the real world, is a bidding war led by teams with massively deep pockets on both coasts, from New York (the Yankees) to L.A. (the Dodgers), with a good bit of northern exposure (Toronto) and North side drive (the Cubs) backing it. All that equals 5-7 years of between $25 and $29 million a year, I’d bet. That’s just too rich for the Rangers, given Hamels’ salary, the need to try and keep Darvish when he reaches free agency after 2017, and the sheer insanity of sinking roughly $55 million into three arms, two of which have already shown a scary tendency to break down.

So where do I go? After digging through the full list of free agents, possible trade partners, and kids in the system that might take up a #4 spot, I came to what was, for me, a very surprising conclusion.

Free Agent signing:

  • RHP Colby Lewis for 2 years, $10M

I keep underestimating Colby Lewis, trying to come up with a reason to let him go, and at every turn he foils me. He’s become amazingly proficient at playing his role: the mid-to-late rotation anchor. He’s rarely outright horrible or downright dominant, but he keeps the Rangers in game after game that they probably have a right to lose. In a down season, one can argue, based on fielding-independent pitching, that he’s been the Rangers top starter, pre-Hamels (3.64 FIP). He’s put up a full-season career best 4-1 strikeout to walk ratio, and even averaging a hit an inning, his combination of control and limited home run allowance has kept him in games to the tune of a career-high quality start rate of 67%. Despite being a fly ball pitcher, he’s given up only 6 homers at home in a very rough home season for the Rangers, and his percentage of hits going for extra bases (36%) is tied for a full-season career low.

Texas Rangers starting pitcher Colby Lewis (48) throws a third-inning pitch during the New York Yankees vs. the Texas Rangers major league baseball game at Globe Life Park in Arlington on Wednesday, July 29, 2015. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)

Despite being 36, Colby is winning as he’s never won before, with a 12-4 record. His 4.68 ERA is a bit deceptive, as his FIP is a more reasonable 4.09. He still gets hit more than I’d like, with more than a hit an inning, but he’s posted the second best walks-per-9 of his career (1.9), which has helped keep up his K-to-BB ratio and held down the runs plated by those hits and homers (1.2 per 9 innings, just better than his career 1.3 ratio).

The real secret to Cobra’s success has been the Ranger’s bats. He’s getting the third-best run support in baseball, with 6.19 runs averaged per start. That’s not sustainable, but even if we back that number off, we see he’s having a season where he’d win considerably more than his share of games. With his 4.00 FIP, we could back the Rangers per-run support down to 4.2 and still expect a record of perhaps 10-6 or, at worst, 9-7. But the real story is just how big of a jump those two runs are. If we look at the league’s average scoring per starter, moving Colby to 4.2 runs a game would mean a move from league leader to below average. At 6.19 runs a game, only Drew Hutchison and Mark Buehrle top Colby, and both are backed by Toronto’s big bats. Sliding down by two runs would mean only 4 pitchers, including Madison Bumgarner and Jeff Samardzija, would receive less support.

So why gamble on a guy who is winning because the offense scores for him? Well, for one, that’s a luxury you can afford in a #4 starter, and it beats paying $20+ million for the likes of a Samardzija this offseason to fill the spot and win without support. Second, based on the idea of adding the bats of Ian Desmond at shortstop and A.J. Pollock in center, I think the Rangers per-game offense should be stronger next season. For a fly ball pitcher, too, putting Pollock, who is above average in most defensive sabermetrics defense categories, in center field is a huge move. Pollock is strong in Range Factor, with a 2.48 compared to the NL average of 2.42, and builds on a superior center field platoon for Texas, with Deshields also sporting a 2.88 RF, albeit in fewer games. Playing Joey Gallo in lieu of Shin-Soo Choo is a downward move overall, as Choo ranks second among qualified rightfielders in RF (2.30). However, we still have the average to above-average arms of both Gallo and Josh Hamilton, along with the range of sometimes-starter Deshields at one of the corner spots, to turn doubles into singles and track down fly balls in concert with Nomar Mazara‘s spot starting at all three spots.

Basically, the numbers and my eyes tell me I don’t want this guy to leave. My heart backs me up. Since he was a 22-year-old on a rotten Texas team, Cobra has been through a lot  with this team, as has the team with him. The Rangers’ giving him a chance on his return from Japan to the Major Leagues in 2010 coincided with his emergence as a foundational piece of the pitching staff. He deserves to be part of the Darvish-Hamels rotation (the fact that he’s the one guy on this team that I can still claim is older than me doesn’t hurt, either).

Trust me, I thought long and hard about adding a third stellar arm, with Cueto and Zimmerman as my two best candidates. But in factoring in the combo of a recovered Derek Holland, a retained Martin Perez, and resigning Colby, I couldn’t justify spending what would probably be $55-$60 million on three starters when Lewis and Holland give you roughly the same value for a fraction of the cost.

In looking at Cobra’s current salary, and assuming that he wants to stay in Texas – again, I’m assuming we’ve made a good impression—I think it’ll take approximately $6 million a year to sign Colby, and I think we owe him enough to gamble that he’s got two years in his arm.

So with that, we have the following as my projected rotation for 2016:

Pitching Rotation

  1. Yu Darvish – RHP
  2. Cole Hamels – LHP
  3. Derek Holland – LHP
  4. Colby Lewis – RHP
  5. Martin Perez – LHP

If Holland comes back late this year and into spring with anything close to the stuff he was showing before his elbow went last season, then we’re looking at a 1-2-3 punch right up there with Washington, the Dodgers, and the Mets.

holland

Colby is, as noted, a bulldog and anchor at #5, and I expect my redux candidate of Martin Perez to be a great #4 between Holland and Lewis. Meanwhile, youngsters like Chi Chi Gonzalez, Dillon Tate, Luis Ortiz, and Luke Jackson could each make a run at a roster spot and push for the fifth starter spot should Perez or Lewis struggle.

Of the kids, despite Jackson’s recent callup, I think Dillon Tate has the best odds of doing the rotation-bullpen shuffle, and being an impact pitcher in both, at least by mid-season next year. For the sake of fun and dreaming, I’m being very optimistic, saying he dominates out of spring training, and starts April throwing seeds out of the Round Rock or Frisco rotation, then moves quickly up to Arlington by June (…more on Dillon shortly).

I am still concerned about Chi Chi Gonzalez strikeout to walk ratio. That, combined with an inability to miss bats, means he has to pitch to weak contact.

Texas Rangers pitcher Alex Gonzalez pitches in the eighth inning during a Major League Baseball spring training game against the Kansas City Royals at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Arizona Wednesday March 4, 2015. The Royals beat the Rangers 13-2. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Dallas Morning News) 03102015xSPORTS

The precision and upsets to timing that that takes is a challenge if your name is Greg Maddux. Anyone this side of him, it’s a recipe for trouble, and we have to watch carefully to see if Chi Chi can turn either his two-seam fastball or, more likely, his changeup into a reliable swing and miss pitch. Eventually, hitters start to square up any pitcher who doesn’t have 2-3 different changeup speeds with those kinds of ratios, and Chi Chi does not. I’m going to be bullish on him and bet his work ethic adds velocity and movement to his fastball this offseason, and he wins the fifth spot out of spring.

Finally, we reach the roster density that separates contenders from pretenders: bullpen depth.

The bullpen is the sinew of a pitching staff. It is the connection that stabilizes the entire apparatus, the thing that lets the muscle of big-time starters power through to a shutdown closer in the marrow-deep pressure of a tight ninth inning. Basically, bigtime winners have bigtime bullpens. From Kansas City last year to the Rangers’ World Series teams to the championship Yankees dynasties, championship teams have shutdown arms to bridge the gap between the 6th or 7th and a lights out closer.

I don’t think I have to convince you, but let’s use 2011 as an example. For relievers only, with at least 40 innings pitched, what did the Rangers bullpen look like? And what about St. Louis? Could bullpen arms have been that razor’s edge that separated the Rangers from a ring? Here were the main arms for each team, along with their averages and how the bullpen’s stacked up:

2011 Rangers vs 2011 Cardinals regular-season bullpen performance

Player WHIP IP G BB SO ERA FIP HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Mark Lowe 1.444 45 52 19 42 3.8 4.16 6 0.263 0.333 0.434 0.768
Neftali Feliz 1.155 62.1 64 30 54 2.74 3.57 4 0.194 0.289 0.309 0.598
Darren Oliver 1.137 51 61 11 44 2.29 2.77 3 0.236 0.28 0.312 0.591
Yoshinori Tateyama 1.091 44 39 11 43 4.5 4.32 8 0.220 0.276 0.405 0.681
Average 1.207 50.5 54 18 46 3.33 3.71 5 0.228 0.295 0.365 0.660
Player WHIP IP G BB SO ERA FIP HR BA OBP SLG OPS
Fernando Salas 0.947 75 68 21 75 2.28 3.16 7 0.186 0.25 0.316 0.566
Jason Motte 0.956 68 78 16 63 2.25 2.48 2 0.202 0.262 0.296 0.558
Eduardo Sanchez 1 30 26 16 35 1.8 3.03 1 0.144 0.28 0.216 0.496
Mitchell Boggs 1.368 60.2 51 21 48 3.56 3.44 4 0.266 0.329 0.382 0.711
Average 1.068 58.3 56 19 55 2.47 3.03 4 0.200 0.280 0.303 0.583
Advantage StL StL StL Tex StL StL StL StL StL StL StL StL

That’s illuminating but not surprising: in every category that mattered, save for the want of one walk, St. Louis’ bullpen dominated the Rangers. And it wasn’t that the Rangers bullpen was bad. They put up average numbers. But in October, average doesn’t cut it, and even the dominant pitching of Neftali Feliz wasn’t enough to balance out the difference in bullpens. Now, you’ll note I’m not looking at OCTOBER stats. That’s because we don’t build teams based on that small a sample size. What both the Rangers and Cards were banking on – and what came true in 2011 – was that the trends of the regular season would play out in October.

So the importance of the bullpen is there, in black and white (or blue and red). And we’ve set up the starters, and put in place the lights-out closer. So who is the sinew of this team?

I’m assuming some holdovers here leading into the aforementioned Drew Storen as closer. Shawn Tolleson has done more than enough for me to want another look with stronger bullpen mates, and I think Nick Martinez is a strong candidate for a middle- and long-relief role, assuming Gonzalez seizes the #5 spot. My favorite stat of Martinez’s is that he’s made a considerable improvement in getting ground balls (.53 GB:FB ratio last year, .80 this season), which has helped drive a slight improvement in efficiency and thus his quality start percentage to double last season’s numbers (33% up to 65% this season). His efficiency shows up in an improvement in pitches per plate appearance (3.77 this season vs. 3.94 last season), and he’s improved his first-pitch strike percentage from just over 52% to nearly 60%. If he gets the same strong run support that he’s received this year, and throws like he did as the birthday boy Wednesday the 5th, he could be the leading candidate to push Gonzalez to new heights if he wants the #5 rotation spot.

Should Chi Chi struggle, we could do much worse at #5 than Martinez and a cadre of kid colleagues nipping at his heels.

Texas Rangers starting pitcher Nick Martinez (22) throws a third-inning pitch during the Houston Astros vs. the Texas Rangers major league baseball game at Globe Life Park in Arlington on Wednesday, August 5, 2015. (Louis DeLuca/The Dallas Morning News)

Jake Diekman has a great fastball, and even with his control struggles, he’s shown a great ability to get swings and misses and strike out hitters, so he’s a quality lefty arm to keep in middle relief and setup work. I’m not going deep into those three because I think we can look at what they’ve been this year and hope they’re consistently the same over the next two to three seasons. With both Tolleson and Diekman, I think the odds are with them, as each is a power arm.

Diekman

I also really like Sam Dyson, who has an arm as good as Diekman and some amazing sinking movement. His stats aren’t dominant, but honestly, I like watching him throw, love the ability to get ground balls, and am looking forward to familiarizing myself with him as he introduces himself to Texas fans. I did factor him into my staff coming into next season, but my analysis is light for two reasons: 1) I think his numbers don’t reflect what we could see from him, given his arm and his fastball movement, so I don’t trust the numbers quite as much compared to what I’ve seen from him. Secondly, I just haven’t SEEN much of him until lately, and he slipped past my radar in the Marlins deal, as all the focus was on Hamels and Diekman.  I’d like to see better numbers, especially strikeouts per inning and K-to-BB ratio, but I’m going by what I see, not what the numbers tell me. I think he’s got a better shot at teaming lefty-righty with Diekman than does a just-too-young Dillon Tate coming out of Suprise. So, while I’m going to spend the next few paragraphs on Dillon Tate, I think it’s just too far to put Tate on my initial 25-man roster. Again, like Diekman, I think Dyson is a product of stuff above stats right now, so I’ll comfortably make him an economical high-upside part of the initial 25-man roster, as well.

Dyson

I think Dillon Tate could surprise many of us with his maturity, and I’m assuming that, while he has both starting and relief options, he’ll make the team by mid-season. Plus, I really loved the pick, so I’m going to spend time on him here that could easily be devoted to Luis Ortiz or Jake Thompson. Tate’s versatility, college pedigree, and first-round pick status make him the more intriguing case to me. Since he’s a bit newer, let’s remember the scouting report on him, from our very own Martin Wayne’s draft preview:

“Dillon Tate is an athletic 6’2 right-handed pitcher out of UC Santa Barbra who was in the bullpen his first two years and was moved to the starting rotation due to an injury to one of the Goucho’s starters. Tate can really gun it in there, getting his velocity up to as high as 98 mph. There is some effort to the delivery but some scouts think he is athletic enough to make the transition. Tate’s transition has been a success so far for UCSB as he has been one of the best college pitchers this year and is up for the Golden Spikes Award. Tate could turn out to be an ace if everything breaks his way, if not he may be relegated to the bullpen.”

Dillon Tate

All things being equal, I would expect to see a first-round collegiate pick like Tate in the Arizona Fall League this season, if only to get him more seasoning before spring. But that’s not the case for Tate. He’s pitched very limited innings as a pro so far, with only a single inning at Spokane as of August 4. This isn’t a fault of his, or a sign of injury. It’s merely an organization protecting the high value of a first round pick – Tate signed with Texas having already logged 100+ innings at UC Santa Barbara, a career high.  Assuming his arm bounces back and he shows the life his scouting report suggests, either Tate or Luis Ortiz could fight it out for the last spot in the Texas bullpen next spring. However, with Tate having a relief pedigree from college, I’d expect him to put pressure on more veteran arms for a last spot in the pen. I’d be too optimistic to say that happens out of spring, unless he puts together a legendary March in Surprise, but by mid-summer, I think he makes the jump through Frisco and Round Rock to knock on the Globe Life bullpen door.

That leaves, in my mind, two arms we need to fill the pen coming into the season, and I’d go to free agency for both. One is a familiar name to Rangers fans, the other possibly the best lefty reliever on the free agent market.

Free Agent signing:

First into the pen is a blast from Rangers World Series past. Darren O’Day was a key member of the 2010 Rangers bullpen. For that team, he was one of four arms with 40+ innings, and dominated. In 72 games and 62 innings, he had a 2.03 ERA, 45 strikeouts against only 12 walks, and an .887 WHIP. Despite not having a dominant fastball or high strikeouts per nine innings, he allowed only a .196/.251/.297 slash line.

Blue Jays at Orioles April 24, 2012

That dominance lasted until the World Series came around, sadly, when his ERA ballooned to 13.50 and the man who allowed 5 homers in 60 regular season innings gave up two blasts in two innings, including a fifth inning shot in Game 1 and a crushing 8th inning blast in Game 4, both losses.

Since leaving Texas for Baltimore in the 2011 offseason, however, he has reverted to his dominant regular-season form. He’s having what might be a career year this season, with the following stat lines:

ERA G IP BB SO FIP WHIP H9 HR9
1.35 41 40.0 11 52 2.76 0.950 6.1 0.9
BB9 SO9 SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS 
2.5 11.7 4.73 .185 .252 .295 .546

As you might have guessed by now, I’m going to latch onto the ratios here, which are not quite up to Drew Storen levels, but are better than even the very impressive current Ranger closer, Shawn Tolleson. Of note, the 11.7 strikeouts per 9 inning are two more than his career high, and his 4.73 strikeout to walk ratio is just 0.2 off his career high. Like most relievers, due to the limited number of innings pitched, his ERA is a bit misleading, but we get an idea of how well he’s pitched not by that 1.35 ERA but by the still-impressive 2.76 Fielding-Independent Pitching, a stat that takes on additional significance when you factor in situation.

Given a middle reliever and setup man’s abnormally high number of late and close innings, a high strikeout ratio and low FIP number are both key, and O’Day has managed to impress in both categories. In fact, among pitchers with 30 innings pitched and a WHIP below 1.00, Darren O’Day is seventh in baseball in strikeouts per nine innings, and 16th in opponents OPS (.546). The only really troubling number for O’Day is his 4 homers in 40 innings. A decent bit of that has to do, ironically, with his side-arming submarine delivery; his breaking pitches tend to flatten out, and his fastball can quite literally rise, which is great at eye level but trouble when you miss at the letters.

From a chat with Baltimore reporter and blogger Steve Melewski in June of this year, Darren talked about the unique rising action of his fastball:

“Lot of sidearmers have trouble elevating fastballs, but I elevate a four-seam fastball up and in on lefties. It kind of keeps them off balance so that I can get them out down and away.

“I get a lot of swinging strikes. So I pitch up in the zone. Traditionally, sidearmers are sinkerballers, they get a lot of groundball outs. If you look at my results, you see more popups and flyouts because I do pitch up so much.”

O’Day said his teammates even have a name for that elevated fastball he throws.

“My teammates have affectionately named that pitch the Jennie Finch. You know, the fast-pitch softball player, very famous,” O’Day said. “Actually, I think she may throw harder than me. So they’ve named it that, they just call it the Finch.”

Between that arm slot and that movement, O’Day is one of those relievers who should age well. He has good control, and even when he’s wild, the unusual arm angle gives hitters an entirely unusual release point to judge. Now, that riser means that he doesn’t get a great deal of grounders (0.56 groundball-to-flyball ratio), but for a flyball pitcher, O’Day manages to keep the ball in the park relatively well, and only 30% of the hits he gives up go for extra bases. The release point and it’s impact on angle of attack and timing for the hitters induces popups and weak fly balls, and given his one inning or less per game, hitters don’t get the luxury of seeing him often enough to adjust in real time.

My estimate of 2 years and 9.5 million might be a bit optimistic; I could see O’Day asking for at least three years, as he’ll be 33 next season and this will likely be his last chance for a significant free-agent contract. Given his multi-year run with Baltimore, and the combination of size and fairly low-stress impact his delivery has on his shoulder and elbow, I’d be open to going 3-4 years and up to $5.5 million a year, maxing out at $6 million.

However, we do have to be careful tying up a huge chunk of payroll flexibility in relievers because, as good as O’Day has been, one of the most volatile and also one of the most readily available commodities is a shutdown reliever, because they emerge from nowhere year after year, all throughout the baseball landscape. As noted above, we have to hope, in fact, that someone like Dillon Tate, if not a starter, can assume that role. But for an ideal situation, and trying to build a winner for 2016 and 2017, I’d love to see a return of submariner Darren O’Day to the Arlington mound. And who to join him from the other side of the rubber? An old lefty making kids a decade younger look old and infirmed themselves.

Free-Agent signing:

Oct 3, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Matt Thornton (46) pitches in the eighth inning in game one of the 2014 NLDS playoff baseball game at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: H.Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, Mike Thornton was born the year of the bicentennial. But as I think my esteemed colleague Aaron Mathews has shown with his writing in this space, being of a ‘70s vintage does not mean you’re not still able to deliver as well as the kids these days. So it is with Thornton. To be fair, I’ll line him up against the same statistical criteria we put to Darren O’Day. Here’s the result, first an average for the 2012-2014 seasons, then for this season alone:

  ERA G IP BB SO FIP WHIP H9 HR9
‘12-‘14 2.98 66 48.0 13 37 3.30 1.267 8.9 0.5
2015 3.08 38 26.1 7 16 3.78 1.063 7.2 0.7
  BB9 SO9 SO/W BA OBP SLG OPS 
‘12-‘14 2.5 6.8 2.87 0.284 0.339 0.346 0.685
2015 2.4 5.5 2.29 0.206 0.264 0.324 0.587

What I like about Thornton’s numbers is the fact that key numbers improve, even as we’re averaging against an older-age season in 2015. His ERA/FIP and K:BB ratio is down a bit, but we see improvements in every other key category beyond strikeouts. Essentially, it appears Thornton has gotten more efficient. The piece that I think is most encouraging is that he’s reverted his positive downward trend for pitches per plate appearance, as shown below:

Pitches per PA

What I really like about this is that, for this season, his pitches per PA has dropped to a career low 3.5. Now, what is the key factor there, in terms of FUTURE success? Defense? A 39-year-old who is not Billy Wagner is going to need more pitches per PA to shut down opponents via strikeout, so what we’re seeing here is the ability of Thornton to induce batted balls. Based on is groundball to flyball ratio, which is a career-high 0.69, but if we look at his extra base hits per all hits, we’re seeing some interesting trends. Not all of them entirely good, but I think entirely logical:

RatiosLargeText

So here are my thoughts on the above, based on Thornton’s percentages, his age, his career history and repertoire, and his trending data: the guy is getting hitters to overswing, and some of those are ending up as blue darters and frozen ropes, but a more-than-favorable percentage (given his age) are ending up in gloves. He’s getting more infield popups than any season in his career, which tends to the “hitter overswing” theory, and his HR% and X/H% are not anything to alarm us, as noted, as both are at or below career averages. We’re seeing an aging pitcher getting hit harder, and adjusting. Here’s the 2014 take on his stuff, according to FanGraphs:

“After toiling away in Chicago for years, Thornton has traveled a little more the past few seasons. He finally arrived in Washington for their stretch run — promptly posting a 1.75 ERA (2.66 FIP) in 36 innings. His strikeouts have declined in recent seasons, thanks to a declining ability to generate swings on pitches out of the zone. After not allowing a contact rate over 78% in his first few seasons, hitters have been able to barrel the ball more the past three seasons, posting contact marks of 82%, 83%, and 84%, respectively. Washington’s bullpen should be good again, a blessing for them and a curse for Thornton. He isn’t likely to be high on the list if saves are needed, as he should be planted behind Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard at the very least. He’s good at getting left handed batters out, though, and he’ll surely continue that, although maybe not quite as well as he did in 2014.”

His numbers bear out the scouting report. Of the above, two percentages jump out: the jump in extra-base hits per overall hits, and the jump in line drives. This man has averaged only 20% line drives in his career, but this year he jumped from below his average to 30%. However, his extra-base hit percentage is exactly his career average (33%).

So why the positive feeling on a follow-up season, given some downward sabermetric trends? First, because relievers are notoriously inconsistent, and even with these few downward trends, Matt Thornton has been a model of consistency. His velocity being down, and line drive percentage up, is made up for by the inherent knowledge of pitching a late 30’s reliever has developed. That’s especially true for one who has been between leagues and with many different teams, catchers, and ballparks. Are there stats to back that up? No. That’s me having watched video of him and catching some Nationals games and liking generally what I see. I also really like the increase in swinging strikes. As Aaron Mathews brilliantly pointed out in his piece on the strike zone the other day, the expanding zone isn’t showing any signs of abating. His percentage of swinging strikeouts is likely due to hitters expanding their zone, as much as due to stuff, but I’ll take it, because even if the trend reverses, the odds are with him getting favorable calls.

As a fly ball pitcher who lives off his four-seamer and cutter, he tends to miss up when he misses, and those are pitches he will get called. That means that hitters will keep going up the ladder (thus the better-than-career-average 20% infield popup percentage he’s had this year). Secondly, he made his debut at 27, so even at 39, his arm has fewer big-league pitches than many contemporaries who debuted younger. In the minors, he was managed relatively well (averaging less than 70 innings per season, high for the minors but not bad enough to be dangerous.) And he’s one of the rare birds who got markedly better once he reached the majors, almost across the board. Mostly, this is due to his control improving once he got to the majors and learned to control his fastball both inside and out of the zone.

Moreover, he’s trending positively in terms of both efficiency and percentage of strikeouts swinging vs. looking. That latter number is key because it’s much less variable than an umpire’s strike zone for the called third. Here’s his pitch per plate appearance ratio, along with some key strike and strikeout percentages per season:

Year Pit/PA Str% L/Str S/Str L/SO%
2004 4.07 57.50% 23.90% 17.60% 26.70%
2005 4.23 59.20% 25.10% 19.60% 21.10%
2006 3.75 66.80% 20.80% 18.10% 16.30%
2007 3.74 65.30% 25.70% 18.10% 27.30%
2008 3.88 67.80% 22.70% 21.30% 23.40%
2009 4.02 67.40% 23.80% 20.50% 25.30%
2010 4.11 67.10% 21.10% 25.20% 24.70%
2011 4.02 67.40% 24.00% 17.60% 22.20%
2012 3.82 65.90% 28.90% 14.20% 39.60%
2013 3.75 64.00% 23.90% 14.10% 16.70%
2014 4.16 66.00% 20.20% 15.20% 32.10%
2015 3.55 64.00% 24.10% 14.30% 12.50%

And the last reason I like Thornton is the most important: I think he’s the best lefty reliever on the free-agent market, one who can be had at a reasonable price for one year, and one who will be a positive influence, with O’Day, as a veteran amongst the likes of Gonzalez, and even Tolleson, Dyson, and Diekman.

So that’s my staff proposal for 2016. A couple of key free agent moves, a mea culpa and definite “takeback” on the Martin Perez-to-AZ deal, a trade for a shutdown closer (maybe a stretch, but let’s be optimists), and most importantly, the deepest starting staff the Rangers have had since at least 2010-2011, and probably all the way back to the Perry-Jenkins-Blyleven years of the mid-to-late 70s.

The 2016 Texas Rangers 25-Man Roster

# Pitchers Pos B/T Ht Wt DOB Salary
11 Yu Darvish SP1 R-R 6’5″ 220 August 16, 1986 $10,000,000
41 Jake Diekman MR L-L 6’4″ 205 Jan 21, 1987 $550,000 (est.)
47 Sam Dyson SU R-R 6’1″ 210 May 7, 1988 $450,000
33 Martin Perez SP4 L-L 6’0” 190 April 4, 1991 $2,900,000
45 Derek Holland SP3 R-R 6’2″ 215 October 9, 1986 $5,710,000
35 Cole Hamels SP2 L-L 6’3″ 200 Dec 27, 1983 $23,500,000
22 Drew Storen CL R-R 6’1″ 195 Aug 11, 1987 $6,000,000 (Arb. Est.)
48 Matt Thornton SU L-L 6’6″ 235 Sept 15, 1976 $5,000,000
23 Alex Gonzalez LR L-R 6’3″ 210 Jan 15, 1992 $500,000
44 Darren O’Day MR R-R 6’4″ 220 Oct 22, 1982 $4,750,000
48 Colby Lewis SP5 R-R 6’4″ 245 Aug 2, 1979 $5,000,000
37 Shawn Tolleson MR R-R 6’2″ 220 Jan 19, 1988 $525,000
# Catchers   B/T Ht Wt DOB  
3 Wilson Ramos C R-R 6’0″ 220 August 10, 1987 $3,600,000 (Arb Est.)
38 Carlos Corporan C2 R-R 6’2″ 225 Dec 27, 1982 $975,000
# Infielders B/T Ht Wt DOB  
1 Ian Desmond SS R-R 6’0″ 195 Aug 26, 1988 $13,000,000
29 Adrian Beltre 3B R-R 5’11” 220 Apr 7, 1979 $18,000,000
84 Prince Fielder DH L-R 5’11” 275 May 9, 1984 $24,000,000
18 Mitch Moreland 1B L-L 6’2″ 230 Sep 6, 1985 $5,000,000* (Arb. Est.)
12 Rougned Odor 2B L-R 5’11” 190 Feb 3, 1994 $600,000* (projected)
# Outfielders   B/T Ht Wt DOB  
17 Lewis Brinson OF S-R 6’3″ 170 May 8, 1994 $500,000
16 Ryan Rua OF R-R 6’2” 205 March 11, 1990 $515,000 (Arb. Est.)
7 Delino DeShields CF R-R 5’9″ 210 Aug 16, 1992 $600,000* (projected)
32 Josh Hamilton LF L-L 6’4″ 240 May 21, 1981 $8,400,000 *(Anaheim covers $24M)
13 Joey Gallo RF L-R 6’5″ 230 Nov 19, 1993 $515,000
24 Nomar Mazara OF L-L 6’4” 195 April 26, 1995 $500,000
  • 2015 25-man Opening Day Payroll: $140,773,000
  • 2016 25-man Opening Day Payroll: $154,590,000*
  • Includes a revised estimate of a $5.5 million payout for the Elvis Andrus contract and a $7 million payout for the Shin-Soo Choo contract, diminishing by 10% of total contract value, year-on-year, through the life of both

A reminder on the lineups (reworked due to the scrubbed Pollock-from-AZ trade) and the staff noted above:

Batting Order vs. LHP

  1. Delino Deshields CF
  2. Roughned Odor – 2B
  3. Prince Fielder – DH
  4. Adrian Beltre – 3B
  5. Josh Hamilton – LF
  6. Ian Desmond – SS
  7. Mitch Moreland – 1B
  8. Joey Gallo – RF
  9. Wilson Ramos – C

Batting Order vs. RHP

  1. Delino Deshields – CF
  2. Roughned Odor – 2B
  3. Prince Fielder – DH
  4. Josh Hamilton – LF
  5. Adrian Beltre – 3B
  6. Mitch Moreland – 1B
  7. Ian Desmond – SS
  8. Joey Gallo – RF
  9. Wilson Ramos – C

Pitching Rotation

  1. Yu Darvish – RHP
  2. Cole Hamels – LHP
  3. Derek Holland – LHP
  4. Colby Lewis – RHP
  5. Martin Perez – LHP

So that’s my 2016 25-man roster, lineups, staff and payroll, as I’d project out of spring training (again, optimistically with some of the kids). One through twenty-five, I’ll put this team up against any in the West, bank on making the post-season, and then ride a deep pitching staff ‘round and ‘round the roulette wheel that is October.

Chris Connor
As a lifelong DFW resident, Chris Connor is a diehard Rangers fan, and worships at the altar of Arlington.
He pitched - typically backing up third after doing so - and eventually settled into catching in leagues throughout Richardson and Plano in his youth, graduating from and lettering in baseball at Richardson Berkner High School in 1998. He holds a Bachelors of Science in Management and an MBA, both from UT-Dallas.
As a writer, he acknowledges that he’s never had a brilliance for brevity, but tries to meander to a meaningful point as he channels Faulkner and buys bits by the megabyte. He believes the only things more beautiful than Ted Williams’ swing are Yosemite Valley at sunrise and his wife.
He lives with the latter, along with their beloved dog and quite tolerable cat, in Allen, Texas.

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