A First-Half Retrospective: The Rotation


After handing Max Scherzer (13-1) his first loss of the 2013 season, the Rangers were nearly no-hit by Justin Verlander on Sunday, eventually losing 5-0 in the rubber game in Detroit. The loss is Texas’s 4th in 5 games heading into this well-needed All Star Break.

I could flower up the language and get all #narrative on you, but let’s save that for when the Rangers actually make the postseason, shall we? Right now Texas is 2.0 games behind the Athletics — who walked off on the Red Sox in extra innings on Sunday — in what has morphed into a no-doubt-about-it two-team race for the 2013 American League West crown.

At 54-41 the Rangers are currently on a 92-win pace, which should certainly be good enough for one of the five playoff spots. Would it be enough to win the division? That remains to be seen. As it stands the A’s are 56-39, meaning they would have to go 35-32 to reached 91 wins — a game short of the Ranger projection.

Is that a realistic scenario? It depends how good you believe Oakland is. On the one hand you could say they are, more or less, the .600-ish team they’ve manifested themselves as during the 1st half this year; on the other, you could posit that the youth in their rotation has overachieved, and that their vaunted lineup is due for a decent amount of 2nd-half regression.

Whichever way you see it, whether they are more like an 87-win true talent team (which would have been a reasonable preseason projection), or 95 — as they’ve been playing in 2013 — it’s safe to say Oakland is all that stands between the Rangers and a 3rd American League West Championship in 4 years.

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The Rangers’ pitching staff has seemingly been hanging by a thread during numerous stretches in 2013, and yet it remains — as a unit — the fabric that has held this team together in the 1st half, given the underperforming nature of the offense. Sure, fans have had to bleed through some pretty excruciating starts from Justin Grimm, Nick Tepesch and Josh Lindblom. Sure, no one would have expected that Matt Harrison and Alexi Ogando — 40% of the preferred rotation — would miss so much time on the DL. It’s a testament to the rotating-door of pitching depth within the organization that the Rangers haven’t completely fallen on their face this year.

And, let’s be honest, although Texas has been hit with the injury bug as badly as any team in baseball in 2013, it’s largely been ignored by the media; people are generally inclined to invoke injuries as an excuse only when a Team X_ becomes Losing Team X_. Injuries are the simple, easily-digestible justification to cover a myriad of issues. In the Rangers’ position, for instance, injuries have turned them from perhaps a top-3 team in baseball and made them league-average; as currently assembled it’s not enough to win the West, but, still, it’s a compendium of youth and inexperience that will (hopefully) be able to say it survived long enough for the reinforcements to finish the job.

Derek Holland, not Yu Darvish, has statistically been the Rangers’ best pitcher in 2013. In 125.0 innings he owns healthy strikeout (8.67/9) and walk (2.65/9) rates, and his 3.08 ERA would be a career-best by nearly a full run if it winds up that way. At the moment his predicted ERA (xFIP) is 3.43 and SIERA is 3.56, so we shouldn’t be looking at a terrible amount of negative regression in the 2nd half. Per FanGraphs, Derek’s current Wins Above Replacement figure is +3.8, meaning he’s on pace to be roughly a 6.0-win pitcher this year.

Yu Darvish has been exceptional, too. His 3.02 ERA is even a shade better than Holland’s, and he leads all of baseball in strikeouts. If the ALDS started tomorrow, Darvish is pitching Game 1, Holland Game 2, and some cognitive dissonance will have to be at play for what follows thereafter. Sabermetrics love pitchers like Darvish, because he undeniably racks up boku strikeout figures; the one glaring problem to Darvish’s 2013 campaign has been his HR/FB% (15.6%), which is one of the 5-worst figures in the American League.

If he cuts that out, or at least gets back to a sustainable league-average-ish number, he’s on the frontline of MLB’s most dominant starting pitchers. At the moment his +3.0 fWAR total is nothing to sneeze at, but, at the same time, he can be better than he has been. The Rangers need him to be.

We’ll see if Texas makes any pushes for pitching this year on the trade market, but don’t count on it. Alexi Ogando is scheduled to pitch right after the All Star Break, and Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison are due back in August. If Texas has Darvish, Holland, Harrison, Ogando and Lewis healthy all at the same time, then we as fans will all be resting comfortably. But if we know anything about pitching, it’s that it’s both flaky and inconsistent, and you can never truly bank on pitchers returning from injury to be effective.

Names will be bandied about in the coming weeks. Matt Garza. Jake Peavy. Cliff Lee. David Price. And we’ll be tuned in to listen. My life revolves around percentages and probabilities, but if I had to handicap the Rangers making a trade for a starting pitcher in the next two weeks, I’d lay the odds at somewhere around 20%.

But what that’s really saying is, well, a couple things:

(a) I’m fairly confident that two of Harrison, Ogando and Lewis will be in the rotation come October. But that’s just a feeling. My logic tells me the Rangers front office has very little incentive of rushing guys like Harrison and Ogando back from injury at anything less than 100%, because each are under contract through 2016 and beyond, and there’s no reason to jeopardize their future value at some premature stage (like this). Colby Lewis is a much different case. He’s signed for only $2 million in 2013 and will be a free agent again in a handful of months. On a personal level, I want him back and pitching at full strength to work himself into a new contract (elsewhere) after the season. But on the business end, it really doesn’t matter if he makes it back or not, because he’s owed such an insignificant portion of the team payroll.

(b) In deciding whether adding a starting pitcher on the FA market is worth it, the real question you should be asking is How much better is Pitcher X_ than the Rangers’ starter he’ll be replacing?

This is the predominant reason I don’t believe Jon Daniels will add rotation help.

The 20% is that little gray area for the pitcher that can be a significant upgrade. These are the pitchers Jon Daniels will be looking at; not a Garza or a Peavy who is maybe worth 1.0 more win in the 2nd half than a guy like Lewis, or Ogando, or Martin Perez, but that’s not enough to give up prospects for. The targets are the TORP’s, and if there are no TORP’s to be found, then let’s roll with what we’ve got.