The Rangers have that really shiny stat, the one about the starting pitchers logging at least five innings in every one of the club’s 27 games, the longest season-opening streak in franchise history.
That’s really impressive and very good.
Texas has 20 Quality Starts in those 27 games. Last year, the club’s 20th Quality Start came in Game 44.
The Rangers rotation sports an ERA of 3.06. Only the White Sox have a stingier mark in the American League.
All this, without Yu Darvish.
No rotation in baseball has generated more double play groundouts. They’ve held baserunners well — they’ve allowed only four stolen bases, with five other attempts thwarted. They’ve been healthy, needing only one start from someone other than the regular five.
Here’s the problem.
In those 27 starts, each of which has lasted at least five frames, only three times has a Rangers starter completed the seventh inning.
Cole Hamels went seven on Opening Day.
A.J. Griffin went eight a week ago.
Colby Lewis went seven two days after that.
Seven times those standard 5.0+-inning efforts failed to complete six.
In 27 games, Texas starters have logged 162 innings.
That’s a clean six frames per start.
There’s residual damage, unsurprisingly.
The Rangers bullpen, believed to be a strength coming into the season — and objectively speaking, there was and is no reason to think of it otherwise — has the American League’s worst relief ERA (4.95) and worst opponents’ batting average (.278) and worst WHIP (1.44 baserunners per inning) and worst OPS (.846).
Texas is right in the middle of the AL pack as far as straight reliever workload is concerned, but a rotation ballyhooed thus far for not yet putting up a clunker hasn’t really saved the pen like you might think.
Pick a Rangers reliever, any one of them, and you can point to a drop in velocity or a dip in command in the last handful of games, if not both. Losing Keone Kela to injury hurts, without a doubt, but really, outside of Tony Barnette and Phil Klein (last night’s 10th notwithstanding), the men in the Texas bullpen haven’t been as sharp lately as we’re accustomed to seeing.
Sometimes it’s been difficulty throwing strikes. Other times an inability to put hitters away, resulting in long at-bats and high pitch counts.
Last night, six Rangers relievers went a combined 4.1 innings. Before Klein’s final pitch, the pen line was 4.1-4-1-1-3-7. Too many baserunners but ultimately effective in run prevention (though, of course, the one run, off Shawn Tolleson, extended the game) — still, in getting those 13 outs the pen needed 99 pitches, only 57 of which were strikes.
That’s far too many pitches (nearly 23 per frame), and not enough strikes (an uncharacteristic 58 percent).
They’re better than this. But they’re getting worked hard, and when they’re needed for a third of the game nearly every night, it adds up.
There are reinforcements who should be called on for help at some point, but none is banging the door down at the moment.
Luke Jackson is missing bats (14 strikeouts in 8.1 AAA innings) but he’s issued seven walks and still hasn’t been asked to work back-to-back nights, likely because his spring training was abbreviated due to a lower back issue.
Andrew Faulkner is getting straightened out (3.1-1-0-0-0-4 in his last four outings) but has had at least two days down between Round Rock assignments.
Matt Bush hasn’t worked consecutive days since his first two Frisco appearances, and while he’s been outstanding overall (.163/.245/.326, with 14 strikeouts and four walks in 13 innings), his readiness for the big leagues is being evaluated not only between the lines.
Plus he’s not on the 40-man roster, an issue that’s going to get stickier once Darvish comes off the 60-day DL.
Same goes for non-roster candidates like Michael Roth, Francisco Mendoza, Jefri Hernandez, and Carlos Fisher, each of whom has had an interesting start to the season out of the Round Rock bullpen.
Jose Leclerc, shifted to the Frisco bullpen a week and a half ago, has been more effective in that role, but he’s getting three days of rest between outings as the transition takes hold. He’s on the 40-man roster but not ready to help. The big league bullpen, under the circumstances, can’t afford middle men who can’t yet work more than once every three days (let alone two).
Connor Sadzeck, also on the roster, made a Sunday relief appearance for the RoughRiders after four starts — but that was only because he took the ball after Darvish’s two innings were done. Some think Sadzeck’s future is in relief, but he’s being groomed as a starter for now.
Tanner Scheppers will eventually be an option, presumably, but he’ll need a rehab assignment before returning to Arlington, and there’s been no signal that that’s imminent.
The Rangers rotation is on a healthy streak of not getting chased early, and that’s cool and that’s good. But every once in a while, a 7.1 or 8.0 would be really helpful, because the bullpen is on a workload streak of its own, and while consistently chewing innings up is what you want from your starters, it’s the last thing you want from your relievers, especially as a unit.