Tanner RegresScheppers

Scheppers
After producing very ordinary numbers in 2012 in limited duty, Rangers relief pitcher Tanner Scheppers yielded some outstanding results in 2013 as the right hander posted a 1.88 ERA and was 20th in baseball in WPA among relief pitchers. Scheppers primary job was to ensure the Rangers were still ahead when giving the ball to Joe Nathan in the ninth inning. With Nathan unlikely to return next season, Scheppers is the logical first choice to replace Nathan as the Rangers closer in 2014 due primarily to the fact Scheppers served as the primary setup man in ’13. That’s how the enigmatic bullpen chain of command works in today’s game. While Scheppers deserves the opportunity to earn the job, there are some reasons to not be so optimistic about Scheppers repeating his superb ’13 next year.
Building a bullpen is one of the more difficult jobs a baseball general manager possesses because pitchers who pitch in such limited samples will often generate polarizing results from year to year. A right handed flame thrower such as Fernando Rodney can dominate the league with a 0.60 ERA in 74.2 innings one season, and then appear rather pedestrian the following year with a 3.38 ERA in 66.2 innings. While Rodney was appearing to ascend to closer immortality with the likes of Mariano Rivera and Dennis Eckersley, the reality was Rodney was thriving in a small sample of innings before regressing to his overall talent level in ’13.To give the reader an idea of what kind of strange events can occur in small pitching samples, one will provide you with two recent examples. Hey, one is apparently some type of developing poet. Anyways, example number one involves a pitcher who produced a 5.25 ERA in his first 55 innings of the 2013 season. His opposing slash line sat at an abysmal .295/.346/.468, with a BABIP of .347, wOBA of .356, and K% of 19.9%. Anyone care to guess the pitcher who I am referring to is? Well, he tossed a masterful nine inning complete game against the Rangers on September 30th to help end the Rangers season. Yes, David Price’s first 55 innings of ’13 were atrocious before a visit to the disabled list steered his season back in the right direction. Price would finish ’13 with an opposing slash of .252/.281/.379 and an ERA of 3.33. Price was not close to finished or what ever the narrative was at the time. He was simply struggling as most starting pitchers do in a small portion of the season. Relievers are not allowed this luxury because they pitch in a smaller sample of innings.

One will now tell the story of a pitcher who had a solid month of June in ’13. The pitcher was a key free agent addition to a team who fancied themselves as contenders heading into the year. In 34 innings, this pitcher posted an ERA of 3.44 with an opposing slash line of .200/.231/.453 and wOBA of .290. His K% was 29.6 percent, his BABIP was .220, and he only walked 3.7% of hitters. Anyone care to guess who this phenomenal pitcher is? Well, if one guessed the Angels hurler who finished 2013 with a 2-14 record, 6.04 ERA, .346 BABIP, and K% of 17.7%, Joe Blanton, one would be correct. Blanton’s final slash line in 132.2 innings was .317/.357/.547 with an incredulous 29 home runs allowed. While Blanton was absolutely putrid the majority of ’13, his June was quite effective. Even in seasons when starting pitchers are terrible, they often pitch well during certain stretches.

Aren’t arbitrary endpoints fun? One can literally do this exercise with just about every pitcher. Due to the wide variance and unreliability of relievers, the wise way to construct a bullpen is with minor league journeymen who cost very little, such as Neal Cotts, and young pitchers already in the organization who are not capable of starting. Scheppers turned out to be the latter.

One issue with Scheppers is his propensity to pitch to contact, and not miss many bats. His strikeout numbers are not all that impressive as he only struck out 19.5% of hitters in ’13, and less than seven hitters per nine innings. His BABIP of .252 is 138 points lower than it was in ’12. Scheppers was simply fortunate enough to turn a lot of the contact into outs. That kind of trend will not continue as one could decipher from the three above cases the author referenced. If Scheppers does not begin to miss more bats, and increase his strikeout numbers, the balls he allows to be put into play will begin to become base hits as the cruel demon known as regression takes over.

Scheppers was basically a ground ball extraordinaire in ’13 as his 50.5 ground ball percentage indicates. Ground balls are great as they are not capable of traveling over the wall, but, eventually, the  ground balls will begin to find holes. Third baseman Adrian Beltre has been a defensive wizard throughout his career at the hot corner, but he produced his first negative DRS season of his career in ’13. Defensive metrics are not as reliable as offensive numbers, but with Beltre turning 35 shortly after opening day next year, and with his degenerative hamstrings, one would assume his defense at third base will continue to erode. With a pitcher relying heavily upon ground balls being asked to close out games, this could be somewhat of a problem.

A statistic which is often indicative of future success or failure is xFIP. The Pirates made a few shrewd moves to acquire pitchers who had posted high ERAs, but lower xFIPs the past couple of years. Relief specialist Mark Melancon and resurgent starter Francisco Liriano are two examples of the Pirates striking gold with low xFIP, high ERA pitchers. The statistic basically indicates what a pitcher’s ERA should be. Scheppers xFIP this past year was 3.88, while his ERA was 1.88. An increase of at least one and a half to two runs in ERA should not surprise anyone in ’14 if Scheppers does not increase his strikeout numbers.

Part of what made Scheppers so effective in ’13 was possessing the seventh highest ranked velocity fastball among relievers at 96.3 MPH. The fastball was also rated as the eighth best among relief pitchers this past year according to Fangraphs. Tanner’s fast ball is more of a two-seamer with late life and sink. Another glimmer of hope as this chart shows is Schepper’s seldom used curve ball beginning to miss bats in the final two months of ’13.

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It would be simple to say Scheppers should just throw his curve ball more, but the pitch might not be as effective if Scheppers were to just throw the pitch more often. Looking at these charts the author obtained from Brooks Baseball one can see Scheppers began to release his curve ball from a slightly different angle the final two months of  the ’13 season, which might have contributed to more whiffs based on added deception. One will also notice Scheppers using a sinker the majority of the time according to Brooks. That is actually his two-seamer.
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Even if Tanner Scheppers likely regresses in ’14 and is unable to hold on to the ninth inning role, the Rangers should not feel obligated to look outside of the organization for a position often overemphasized by the media, and former closers who now work in the media. The more prudent decision would be to allocate their resources in other areas, and allow one of the other many candidates already here such as Neftali Feliz, Neal Cotts, Joakim Soria, or even a minor league pitcher such as Wilmer Font the opportunity to close games. If one had not yet noticed, all four teams remaining in the postseason are currently using closers who did not even begin the season as the primary stopper, and they still somehow survived.
Dustin Dietz is a Staff Writer for ShutDownInning. He can be reached at Dustin.Dietz@shutdowninning.com or on Twitter @DustinDietz18
Dustin Dietz
Dustin graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in Radio/TV/Film, and a minor in history. He will often write about pitching mechanics and analytical baseball stuff. You will more than likely disagree with the majority of what he writes or says. In his spare time, Dustin time travels and plays at a replacement level in slow pitch softball leagues.

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