Derek Holland and the Rotation Dilemma

Since I last looked at the rotation, a few things have happened that have served to radically alter the data to work with when deciding what constitutes an ideal rotation for the Texas Rangers, for the rest of the season and on to the playoffs. They are:

1. Scott Feldman is awesome again. Over his last 3 starts Feldman has been simply phenomenal, barely walking anyone, stranding runners like a boss, and limiting home runs. He may be getting a little lucky here and there, but he still deserves credit for his 1.19 ERA in those three starts. I know I am personally guilty of taking Feldman for granted, and I was upset earlier this year when he complained about his role with the Rangers. Thanks to injuries, Feldman had his wish of consistent starts granted, and he has taken advantage of this boon to show the Rangers he is now where he belongs. The only problem is that if Feldman continues this run, or at least doesn’t blow up in a spectacular way from here on out, he is naturally going to expect a playoff rotation spot. The playoff rotation, however, is a 4-man job, and Darvish, Harrison, and Dempster are virtual locks for spots. That leaves what is becoming a more open competition every day for the final spot, which brings me to my next point.

2. Holland has been less than awesome. Over the season, Holland’s FIP is over 5.00, making him the Rangers’ least valuable starter in terms of contribution to the team, and the Rangers’ worst starter on a rate basis by a full point of FIP. Nevertheless, last offseason he was the recipient of a significant contract extension. That contract was awarded on the basis of the trend in Holland’s performances between 2009 and 2011; by all indications, Holland was a rising star, capable of taking on a big haul of innings and getting the team through them. He wasn’t without flaws; there were some problem areas, like a weakness for home runs, and a tendency to melt down when things got dicey. Still, he was outplaying his main competitor for a spot, Roy Oswalt.

3. Roy Oswalt has not been awesome except when he’s pitched out of the bullpen, but he dislikes pitching out of the bullpen on principle, so blergh. Oswalt is a tough nut to crack. On the one hand, he has been getting knocked around more than his fair share, resulting in a really high ERA relative to his fielding-independent metrics. On the other, Oswalt’s results have been absolutely stellar out of the bullpen so far. In the four innings he has pitched (two appearances of two innings each), he has 6 strikeouts, no walks, and two hits. For comparison’s sake, his last outing as a starter lasted 5.1 innings and was a dismal affair where he allowed 8 runs. Small sample size notwithstanding, Oswalt does appear to benefit from limited exposure, unless his bullpen excellence simply coincides with a change in approach which has “fixed” the disparity between peripherals and results.

The problem facing the Rangers is not only one of deciphering which pitcher is likely to perform best down the stretch, but also managing egos. Neither Derek nor Oswalt has any desire to pitch out of the bullpen; they’re starters, and take pride in that. Its difficult to know what exactly the agreement is between Rangers management and Oswalt consists of; although Oswalt has been explicit about only wanting to start, it is hard to imagine the Rangers handcuffing themselves by promising Oswalt something that was obviously anything but a foregone conclusion. While its important to keep Oswalt happy, Derek Holland is the real concern for me here. Derek has always seemed like he’s a couple steps away from turning into a dominant ace; the flashes of brilliance he has shown have often been counterbalanced by disaster starts, but with more confidence, Holland could lead the rotation. Moving Holland to the bullpen for a player who so embodies the concept of veteran that he appeared to be ready to retire last season can only undermine Holland’s confidence, and thus his ability to dominate on the mound.

Of course there’s more to it than managing egos; although it would seem Oswalt is the superior pitcher, it could be that moving him to the rotation and Holland to the bullpen would simply result in a reversal of where each player is now. For many reasons, the bullpen is something of an easier role, especially when it isn’t a high leverage situation. You can throw harder, and the hitters aren’t familiar with your stuff. In my opinion, the better move is to keep things the way they are. Holland is important to the franchise, whereas Oswalt is a rental player, and Holland seems to be more vulnerable to mental hurdles than Oswalt. As for the playoff rotation, I’m going to wait to see how that evolves. I really, really hope that Holland gives the fans no reason to doubt that he belongs on the bump, but if Feldman continues to perform beautifully and Holland can’t get it together, I hope the Rangers will simply give the spot to the better player, feelings aside. The playoffs are a different animal, where the stakes are immensely high. No matter how sensitive the player, the gloves have got to come off.

Jul 31, 2012; Arlington, TX, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Derek Holland (45) leaves the game in the seventh inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Rangers Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-US PRESSWIRE

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