Are Texas’s Pitchers Heading for a Breakdown?

(published September 18, 2011)

There’s an interesting experiment going on in Texas.

The Rangers may finish the season with five pitchers who have each started 30 or more games.  Through Sunday, the five – C.J. Wilson (32 GS), Derek Holland (30), Colby Lewis (30), Matt Harrison (28), and Alexi Ogando (28) – have taken the mound for all but five of Texas’s 153 starts.

It’s been a year of unusual health for the Texas quintet, who do half their work in the best hitter’s park in the American League.  Pitchers break down all the time for reasons large and small, predictable and not; pitching under conditions favorable to the hitter adds another risk factor to those inherent in the task.

In 2010, the Rangers got 20 or more starts from Wilson, Lewis, Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter, added Cliff Lee (15) in July, and got 13 first-half starts from Rich Harden before his annual injury.

With Lee and Harden gone, Hunter out at the start of the season with a groin injury (and ultimately traded to Baltimore), and Feldman having pitched his way out of the rotation,  Texas gave regular turns to three pitchers with a total of 63 career starts prior to 2011 (Harrison, 32; Holland, 31; Ogando, 0).

Are the Rangers pushing their inexperienced starters too far?

To begin with, the Rangers’ staff may not be as young as you think.  Though Wilson and Lewis were unfamiliar to most fans who first saw them in the 2010 postseason, neither is in his 20s.  Lewis, 32, bounced from Texas to Detroit to Oakland to Japan before returning to the Rangers in 2010.  Wilson, 30, pitched almost entirely in relief in his first five years in Texas, earning 52 saves, before becoming a starter in 2010.

The three younger pitchers have birthdays in September or October, so they’re on the older side of their listed ages.  Holland turns 25 in October, Ogando 28 the same month, and Harrison 26 last week.  Holland was drafted by Texas in the 25th round in 2006; Ogando was acquired in the Rule 5 draft from Oakland in 2005, and Harrison was part of the bounty from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira trade (along with Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, and Jerrod Saltalamacchia) in 2007.

Seven other teams have had five 30-game starters; those seven teams – the 2006 White Sox, 2005 Cardinals and Indians, 2003 Mariners, 1993 Dodgers, 1980 Athletics, and 1977 Dodgers — averaged 91 wins, and ten wins fewer the next year.

With one big exception, the young pitchers in these rotations fared well in subsequent seasons.  The pitchers in these rotations who were 26 or younger at midseason were Jon Garland, Cliff Lee, C.C. Sabathia, Jason Marquis, Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche, Ramon Martinez, Pedro Astacio, and Rick Rhoden.

That exception comes in the form of Oakland in 1980.  Manager Billy Martin decided that his young staff should learn to pitch complete games, presumably because that’s what they did in the old days.  They also washed out young in the old days, and that’s exactly what happened to Martin’s staff of Rick Langford (28 years old in ’80), Mike Norris (25), Matt Keough (24), Steve McCatty (26), and Brian Kingman (25).  They threw 93 complete games – the next highest total in the league was 48 – and averaged 251 innings that season.  All five were effectively finished as major-league starters by 1984.

That fate may not befall the Rangers’ starters.  Holland’s four complete-game shutouts may suggest otherwise, but the younger pitchers’ innings are being reasonably well managed.  This fivesome will average fewer innings per starter than any of the other seven sets, and the only individuals projected to finish the full season with 200 innings pitched are the 30-plus-year-olds Wilson and Lewis.  For all the talk of manager Ron Washington’s willingness to have his starters go deep into games, the club is averaging just a tenth of an inning above the league average.

One possible complicating factor will be the postseason, assuming Texas gets there.  A deep run will increase the wear and tear on those arms.

In trusting the relative youngsters to handle this load, the Rangers are reflecting the experience of their principal owner, Nolan Ryan.  Ryan had a cup of coffee in the majors when he was 19, blazing fastball and off-the-table curveball already in place.  He threw a stunning 202 innings in the minors that year, 1966; he hit the big leagues to stay at age 21.

Ryan’s wildness kept him from accumulating big inning totals for the Mets in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, as did his tendency to develop blisters. He was relatively ineffective in those years, and after four seasons with a walk rate of 6.1 per nine innings and a strikeout rate of fewer than one per inning, the Mets had had enough and dealt Ryan to the Angels in a package for shortstop Jim Fregosi.  Ryan promptly blossomed in his age-25 season, winning 19 games, striking out 329 batters in 284 innings pitched, and leading the majors in fewest hits allowed per nine innings.  His durability thereafter is the stuff of legend.

Maybe the truest Texas pitcher in Ryan’s image is closer Neftali Feliz, who may well join the rotation next season.  He was too dominant as a youngster to keep in the minors, and the Rangers limited his innings by using him in relief.  The team nonetheless recognizes that the value of a starter is much greater than that of even a top-notch closer, and hopes that Feliz will be ready for the kind of step forward in his age-24 season that Ryan himself saw at 25.

Starting pitching is still the most difficult part of the roster to develop and maintain.  Effective starters are the main reason we may well see Texas playing Detroit in the American League Championship Series in a few weeks.







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