A lot has been said about the Rangers’ pitching staff this spring. Derek Holland’s knee, the battle for the final spot(s) in the starting rotation, and the two- or possibly three-horse race for the closer role have consumed headlines over the last several weeks.
In fact, a lot has been said about the Rangers’ pitching staff over the last several years, as it has transformed from a group that not too long ago had the league’s worst team ERA (5.37 in 2008) to one of the premier staffs in the game.
The arrival of Strikeout and Minimal Run Support King Yu Darvish, Holland’s coming-of-age, the emergence of Martin Perez, the Neftali-Feliz-as-a-starter experiment and the ensuing success then departure of Joe Nathan have been big storylines in the last couple seasons.
And that’s who usually steal the headlines in Major League Baseball when it comes to pitching - the starters and closers. In fact, if you Google “good pitchers,” the top suggested results are almost exclusively starters, with the likes of Mariano Rivera included as well.
But what is so often brushed aside amongst all the hype about the bookends of a pitching staff is the importance of the middle reliever.
And the Texas Rangers had one of the very best in 2013.
Neal Cotts, pitching in the majors for the first time in four years, was nothing short of phenomenal last season. He compiled a 1.11 ERA - only the best mark by a Ranger reliever in franchise history.
Pitching just 57 innings, starting zero games and finishing only six won’t put a guy into Cy Young contention. With no saves, a set-up man would’ve been hard-fought to get into the Rolaids Relief Man Award discussion (that award has apparently been discontinued after 37 years).
There just isn’t much flashiness to a middle reliever. The only statistic for them is the “hold,” which isn’t even regarded as an “official” statistic by Major League Baseball. A “hold” is when “a reliever comes into a game to protect a lead, gets at least one out and leaves without giving up that lead,” according to MLB Rules and Regulations. And it’s something Cotts did 11 times last year.
So a guy like Neal Cotts isn’t one that will jump off the stat sheet - in fact, despite pitching in almost exactly half of the team’s games after his May 21 call-up last year, Cotts didn’t accumulate enough innings for his 0.95 WHIP to “qualify” as a league leader.
Such is life for a middle reliever.
Cotts allowed only five of his 30 inherited runners to cross the plate last season. He pitched in a multitude of situations, too. The lefty was asked to pitch less than one inning 18 different times, exactly one inning 27 times, and more than an inning 13 times - and he was called upon in every inning ranging from the fourth to the ninth.
He was historically good, and it likely went unnoticed by many.
And here we are this spring, with Cotts as a sure bet on a staff defined thus far by question marks, but the only news following his outstanding 2013 is that he’s had a quiet spring.
Who will round out the starting five? Who will be asked to pitch the ninth inning this season? We still don’t know.
What we do know, however, is that Cotts is going to be rock solid in the middle to late innings. And the Rangers need that, too.
So this one’s for you, Neal. I know it’s locking down those unglamourous innings is a thankless job. I know there would be no good statistical season for a starter or a closer if it weren’t for the successful middle reliever. And I know there aren’t any awards or even statistics created to acknowledge you.
But I can still sing your praises. May you maintain your 2013 form, and continue to be that reliable bridge between the starters and the closer. Your last season could be the most unheralded franchise-record-setting year in the history of American sport, but know that I appreciate your craft.
Keep doin’ you, Neal. And Rangers fans will continue to have some of the best middle innings in all of baseball to watch.