How to Make the Rangers Bullpen Great Again

DALLAS - Let’s talk things through regarding the Rangers bullpen. 

After being a bottom five dumpster fire to start the season, Texas has risen to 18th in baseball with a 4.44 ERA but still sit 25th in WAR with 0.5. Sam Dyson, last year’s late inning stalwart, found the way to San Francisco along with some cash for a still unknown asset. Injuries have hit just about everyone, keeping them out of the majors for a couple weeks minimum. Every time the bullpen finds consistency, something happens that disrupts the flow.

At least, that’s the story to date.

One day the injuries will be gone, and the only inhibitor will be their own ability. That’s something manager Jeff Banister has talked about a lot during times when the bullpen has struggled: the pitchers inability to get outs when called upon.

When that day comes, what does the bullpen look like? How effective can they be?

A high risk pool (of pitchers)

Before we can figure out the how and why, we’ve got to figure out the who.

For this exercise, I’ve chosen the nine most common names associated with the Texas bullpen: Dario Alvarez, Tony Barnette, Matt Bush, Alex Claudio, Ernesto Frieri, Jeremy Jeffress, Keone Kela, Jose Leclerc, and Tanner Scheppers. Frieri made the cut because of his major league experience, and the indications that he’ll be given every opportunity to succeed by Banister and company.

There’s no dedicated long reliever role, as that seems a rotating door. Nick Martinez, Austin Bibens-Dirkx, and other have all held the spot. It doesn’t represent a high impact role, so while it is important it’s not been the focus of the problems this season.

One notable name people may be looking for is Connor Sadzeck.

The Rangers' top righty on the farm looks like he’s going to be a bullpen arm going forward. While he’s likely to make an impact when he comes up due to scorching velocity, I left him out because he hasn’t debuted yet. All of this research and analysis comes from a major league sample size. With Sadzeck I’d be projecting, which is a valid principle but somewhat undermines the purpose of this article.

Let’s (not) role play

One thing you won’t see is an assignment of a specific role to a player. We won’t be deeming anyone a closer, a setup man, or things like that. While prevalent inside the game, it feels inappropriate and limiting. The more accurate and efficient way of allocating bullpen resources is figuring out what situations relievers thrive in, not what specific inning.

That means instead of saying “Matt Bush is our closer so we will use him in the 9th inning almost exclusively,” it’s more “Matt Bush is good against lefty hitters and thrives when the game is close, so we will use him when that situation arises.”

Will you always be able to fit relievers into their ideal situation? Of course not; 162 games mean you’ll have to compromise by making less than ideal choices due to other circumstances. What this would result in is a more optimal use of your bullpen overall, which should lead to more wins. Of course, as we noted above there’s no guarantees. There’s no reason not to optimize your process in order to give yourself the best winning opportunity.

So when each reliever is profiled, they’ll also be given a set of circumstances that the metrics say they’ll fit best in.

What metrics you ask?

A special OPS mission

We’ll be using on base plus slugging percentage (OPS) per situation to judge the quality of each reliever in that specific situation. OPS shows how competent pitchers are as limiting both on base and slugging in any given situation. It’s a comprehensive metric that best displays offensive competency.

Is this the perfect measurement? No.

The reality is there is no perfect way to determine these things without it turning into a Tolstoy novel. There are so many metrics that tell us so much that you can get lost in them for days (since I did in the process). I wanted to find an easy to understand number that was reliable and simple.

The number to remember on OPS is .710, which is league average for a batter. So if a pitcher is holding batters below that, they’re succeeding. If they’re allowing a higher number, they’re less effective.

Put another way: if a pitcher is allowing a higher OPS on average just imagine that he’s consistently facing a better hitter. Same with a lower OPS on average, just with a worse hitter. You’d rather face an actual trout than Mike Trout, so if a reliever is giving up the OPS of Mike Trout in a situation they’re not doing their job.

Now that we’ve gone through the fine print, let’s get to the players.

Dario Alvarez

Not a major league reliever

I hate to start with a negative, but the reality is Dario Alvarez shouldn’t be on a major league roster. If Jake Diekman was able, I imagine Alvarez wouldn’t be. He’s allowing an OPS over .800 to both lefties and righties, the latter posting a .882 off him.

At Globe Life Park, Alvarez is throwing batting practice with a .940 OPS against.

If his team is ahead, Alvarez has a .826 OPS.

Behind? .939.

In the direst situation, two outs with runners in scoring position, Alvarez allows an OPS of 1.176.

When the Rangers traded for Alvarez last year, moving Travis Demeritte onto Atlanta while also getting back Lucas Harrell, they hoped they’d be able to rehab him into a competent second lefty behind Alex Claudio. Alvarez just isn’t making it happen for some reason, and it’d be best for Texas if they explored all opportunities in finding a replacement.

Tony Barnette

Best in low leverage situations, at home, on back to back days, against right handed batters, with team behind

Since joining the Rangers from Japan, Barnette has been a Swiss army knife out of the bullpen. He’s done everything from pitch late innings to early mop up work. His versatility has been his biggest value point. By the numbers, Barnette might be the reliever best used in his current role.

Barnette is almost as good in low leverage situations (.700) as he is in high leverage (.694). He is way better when the team is behind (a staggering .505). One big difference is his ability to perform well at home (.634) versus away (.827).

He’s unaffected by going on consecutive days, posting a .619 with no days of rest. He’s most effective against righties, posting a .676 against same handed batters.

Barnette’s ability to get out right handers and flexibility between roles makes him a great asset for Texas. When he comes back from the DL, he’ll continue to thrive as a multi-tool with some soft tendencies.

Matt Bush

Any non-blowout, 2 days of rest, best on the road and against righties

Matt Bush has found himself a lightning rod for a good part of his Texas tenure. From his initial signing after a prison sentence for alcohol related driving crimes, to more recently where his performance was not optimal, fans seem to be sour on the former #1 overall pick.

While the fan mindset is one of “What have you done for me lately,” there’s plenty of evidence that shows being used in high leverage situation fits Bush.

If anything, the worst thing you can do is put him in low pressure situations.

Consider that his OPS figure when a game is tied (.588) is over a hundred points lower than when the margin is 4 runs or greater (.759). There’s no disputing that Bush is an odd duck though; he’s excellent when there’s runners in scoring position (.475) yet hittable when there’s a runner on first base (.847).

Bush needs to improve against lefties (.726), but is nails against righties (.526). He’s good at Globe Life Park (.642) but better anywhere else (.556). It’s the same situation with rest; on two days rest he’s bulletproof (.488), but one day (.620) and no rest (.611) aren’t shabby either.

Despite the recent concerns about his production, the career sample size yields numbers that indicate this is more just temporary turbulence than full time meltdown. His status as the 9th inning guy is limiting him to specific situations that may not be optimal, but the quality is present.

Alex Claudio

High leverage, 1-2 days rest, best versus lefties, at home regardless of lead

My colleague Kate Morrison was on top of Claudio before anyone and she couldn’t have been more right. Claudio is like Barnette, except for being a southpaw and better.

He’s a lefty stopper, as they only post a .490 OPS against Claudio. In high leverage situations, he’s got a .517 which is outstanding. You can use him when the team is behind (.652) or ahead (.645). He’s more vulnerable away from home (.737), but he rules the Globe (.615).

There’s nobody you want on the mound more than Claudio if you need a lefty neutralized. You can trust him in dangerous situations (.625 late and close), and there’s almost no variance between one and two days of rest (.637 to .629).

In a system that has struggled to produce quality starting pitching, Claudio is an example of how strong Texas is at developing late inning arms.

Ernesto Frieri

Multi-situational, low or high leverage, more rest the better, left or right both

The new kid on the block, Frieri is most remembered as a whipping boy by Texas when he pitched for the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Orange County Adjacent to the Pacific Ocean in America (LAAoAiOCAttPO just felt weird to type).

After stops in various ports (including with his current manager in Pittsburgh), Frieri seems to have learned some things. Not only does he say the right things, his career numbers show a positive history.

He’s a righty who is actually better against lefties (.664 OPS to .695). He’s good when his team is ahead (.658) and behind (.680), yet oddly not as effective when tied (.780). He’s best in high leverage situations (.600), but not terrible with low leverage (.708) and slightly worse than average in medium leverage (.743).

The same goes for home road splits, though there’s a qualifier here. At home in his career, he’s posting a .639 while on the road a .724. The qualifier is his new home park is Globe Life, where he’s put up a 1.033 for his career. Of course that was for the Angels, but it wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on it either way.

What will help him and the team the most is how he’s consistent regardless of rest. Here’s the breakdown:

0 days: .695

1 day: .607

2 day: .657

3 day: .615

5 day: .427

6+ day: .762

So as long as you don’t put him in the garage forever, you can get plenty from Frieri as you need him. It’ll take a lot to shake the memories of his Angels tenure from your mind, but I’m here to say Texas might have found a gem in the rough.

Jeremy Jeffress

High or low leverage, 0 or 2 days rest, ahead, best versus righties, home or away

This isn’t the first time Jeffress has been examined by our lot this season, or even this month. The other half of the Lucroy return that shipped Lewis Brinson, Luis Ortiz, and Ryan Cordell to the Brewers, Jeffress’ tenure as a Ranger has been less than ideal.

As we write this he’s on the ten day DL, another stop on a mediocre season so far. More was expected of Jeffress, as he was the Milwaukee closer pre trade. Yet, it seems Jeffress has been miscast in a couple ways.

First off, using him against lefties is a terrible idea. Against lefties Jeffress is allowing an .811 OPS, while against righties it’s a much more manageable .641. For most of his career home has been his sanctuary, with a .681. Most of that has been at Miller Park; when pitching at Globe Life the number jumps to .780. The away numbers are better, but not much at .739.

With Jeffress you have a strange case of extremes. In high leverage situations career wise he’s great (.614), low leverage worse but still good (.688), yet a dumpster fire in medium leverage (.897). He’s good when his team is ahead (.620) but hittable if the game is tied (.765).

His usage rate stats fluctuate also. On no rest he’s fine (.680), with two days he’s good (.578), but with only one day it regresses (.729).

Like Matt touches on the article linked above, it might just be a case where less is more with Jeffress. His best usage is super situational, and that may not be what this team needs right this second. There’s no denying Jeffress this year has been borderline. I do believe that there is a place for him, and that it’s yet to be found.

Keone Kela

Any leverage, ahead, one day rest, both home and away, both lefties and righties

Keone Kela is the best pitcher in the Rangers bullpen.

This is something I firmly believe, even though there were times this year the team didn’t even want him around. Yet since his return from just outside Austin exile, Kela has been awesome. With due respect to Matt Bush, if you were looking for a guy to just stick in the 9th regardless of situation it should be Kela.

His mix against righties (.605 OPS) and lefties (.676) aren’t major enough to make a big difference. He’s almost as good at home (.646) as he is on the road (.616).

He doesn’t flinch regardless of low (.601), medium (.627), or high (.670) leverage. He’s not as effective on back to back days (.721), but give him one (.613) or two (.684) days off and he’ll get the job done.

Game is tied? No problem (.645). Handing him a lead? He’s got you covered (.606).  Got runners ready to score with two outs on the board? He’ll take care of it (.688).

I know folks are concerned about the emotional state of Kela at times. By concerned, I mean not knowledgeable enough to understand it yet still trying to hold it against him with the help of gasbags and to an extent his ball club. Yet, the numbers spell out why Kela is a guy that should be the first responder in any jam.

Jose Leclerc

Any situation, best versus righties, one day rest, any leverage, home or away

Leclerc isn’t the coolest story on this Rangers team (Austin Bibens-DIrkx has that running away), but he’s close. I profiled Leclerc as a prospect before the season and said he’s got the stuff but won’t get an opportunity unless there’s some shifting in the bullpen hierarchy.

Seems safe to say there’s some of that.

Leclerc got his opportunity early by way of the Kela situation, announcing his presence with authority. Out of all the pitchers profiled today, he’s got the smallest sample size which goes with having the least amount of big league experience.

Within that experience shows a case of extremes.

Leclerc has owned right handed hitters (.404 OPS), but has been owned by lefties (.888). He’s been fine on the road (.652), but loves the friendly confines in Arlington (.521).

He doesn’t mind being ahead (.548) or behind (.553). He’s been nails late and close (.557), if it’s a one run game he’ll get the job done (.553).

There are some red flags however; he’s been not good with the game tied (.955) and it’s not good to use him in a high margin game (.798 with four or more runs).

His leverage numbers are great; a .621 in low, .472 in medium, and .611 in high leverage situations gives him some flexibility of use.

Pitching on certain rest situations does need some work. He’s stellar after one day (.440), but he regresses with no rest (.757) and on two days (.725). That and dealing with lefties are the two hurdles Leclerc needs to clear.

Those are things he can fix. If he does, Texas might have themselves a mini Kela on their hands. Another high leverage, high velocity arm would fit just fine in a bullpen that needs all of those they can have. Even in his current form Leclerc is doing a great job.

Tanner Scheppers

Low leverage, way ahead, 0/2 days rest, away, either handedness

Scheppers has been through it all in his career.

He was a highly touted reliever after shoulder problems at Fresno State. He was the 2014 Opening Day starter, before he got hurt and was bad at the same time. Injuries have kept him from consistent mound time over the last couple of years. That’s before we mention the uh…let’s call it incident in Cleveland a few years ago.

All that aside, there’s just not a lot of value in Scheppers.

He doesn’t overpower lefties (.751) nor does he succeed against righties (.739). He’s been awful at Globe Life (.836) though remarkable on the road (.612).

As you can gather, low leverage is where he operates best (.703).  Oddly enough it’s medium leverage (.802) where he struggles most, not high (.757).

Scheppers somehow has a below average OPS on back to back days or with two days rest, yet when he only gets one day off he regresses (.839).

Scheppers isn’t quite on the Alvarez level of not needing a big league gig, but he’s also a little short of usable situational righty. If he can pitch multiple innings, that would help his standing as someone who could mop up, allowing Barnette to take on more strenuous innings.

You’re a wild animal, broke my heart in two

Now that I’ve overloaded you with various assessments, here are the nuts and bolts. The Rangers bullpen has four legit arms in Bush, Claudio, Kela, and Leclerc. They’re the building blocks you can rely on, and if you can’t rely on even just one you’re in serious trouble.

Throw in Barnette, who can do anything and that gives you five guys you can count on without much concern.  The rest come with question marks that often lead to bus tickets and hard conversations.

That’s the issue with Texas as a whole. The best laid bullpen plans have gone awry, and there’s no real easy way to go about fixing that. They can call up Sadzeck, but there are no guarantees with him. Diekman is recovering from his trio of surgeries, and there are a lot of unknowns there also.

That’s the bullpen game though.

Even with the players that you know are good, it’s about trusting them on any given night. Their performance might match who they are, might not. All you can do is organize and understand the best you can, run them out there, and hope it doesn’t rain runs.

Bullpens are a lot like life. There’s no guarantees, no assurances that everything will work out. There’s a lot of preparation, a lot of hope, and reliance on others to make it all work out. It’s a lesson we can all learn, and one the Rangers are learning through some good but mostly bad experiences.

 

Make this far? Show Samuel some love for having to write about this bullpen by following him on Twitter @thesamuelhale.

© 2017 WFAA-TV


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