The Rangers are rolling on all cylinders these days. Their +92 run differential is fourth-best in the Majors, and they are 11 games over .500 since the start of June. As Carson noted the other day, they have received good production out of center field, and really that translates to every other spot in the lineup as well. And while the Rangers’ bullpen has pitched better during the past two months, it still remains the team weakness… perhaps the team’s only weakness. As such the Rangers have been linked to both Heath Bell and Mike Adams as potential bullpen reinforcements, though it is widely thought that Bell is more likely to be dealt, so let’s focus on him. Would acquiring Bell be the proverbial final piece of the puzzle for the Rangers?
Looking at the Rangers’ lineup, we see that they are top ten in WAR at every position except for left field and right field, where Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz have missed significant time. They are top five in the Majors in both WAR and wRC+ at catcher, second base, third base and designated hitter. In short, hitting has not been a problem.
The Rangers don’t have an elite rotation ratio-wise, but they have been productive, and they have certainly been consistent — the rotation has only received three starts from someone (Dave Bush) outside of its main five members. And with Colby Lewis performing better since April ended, the rotation doesn’t necessarily have a weak link either. In fact, over the past 30 days, all five starters — the other four being Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando and C.J. Wilson — have above-average xFIP marks. No problems there either — at least none that can be fixed at the trade deadline, unless Jon Daniels and Co. want to blow away the Rockies and grab Ubaldo Jimenez.
The bullpen on the other hand, has not been as productive or consistent. For the season, the bullpen’s WAR of -0.7 ranks dead last in the Majors, and the ‘pen’s 4.75 FIP is last by a lot. That’s not good at all. However, in digging a little deeper, we can see that things have improved significantly in the past two months.
Some of the guys most responsible for the early season struggles, guys like Cody Eppley, Michael Kirkman and Darren O’Day have been sent back to the minors, while others like Bush and Brett Tomko have been sent packing altogether. Darren Oliver has been nearly spectacular as he has been the past two seasons, and Yoshinori Tateyama has been a pleasant surprise as well. With only an 87-mph fastball, the Japanese import isn’t blowing anyone away, but with a 16-mph difference between his fastball and slider and changeup, he’s getting the job done and then some — his Clutch score of 1.44 is best amongst all relief pitchers with at least 20 innings thrown this season. And Mark Lowe has been solid once again, though his K/BB numbers have worsened for the second straight year.
If the drop in Lowe’s K/BB rate is a concern, then the drop in Neftali Feliz’s is downright alarming. Last season his K/BB was 3.94, 20th overall among qualified relievers, but this year it has dipped to just 1.30. He is striking guys out less and walking them more. In fact, as Mike Axisa pointed out last night on Twitter, Feliz has only struck out six of the 73 right-handed batters he’s faced this season. A dip in results like that will often lead to questions of character, and this week Feliz had to deal with accusations about his “fire” on the mound. He’s by no means a liability, but he has not yet regained the dominant form he flashed last year.
Elsewhere, Arthur Rhodes is this close to filing a whiplash workman’s comp claim, and Tommy Hunter and Scott Feldman have been shoehorned into relief roles just recently as the Rangers look to find effective use of all 25 spots on the roster. Nevertheless, the bullpen, an extreme liability at the season’s outset, is trending up. And in the playoffs, the starter that gets left out of the mix can serve in the bullpen as well.
So on the one hand you have a bullpen trending up, and on the other you have Heath Bell, who is trending down. Now, let’s be plain — Bell is still a very good reliever. For the season, Bell has 10 more shutdowns than Feliz, and one less meltdown, and is one of just 13 relievers in the Majors who have compiled at least 20 more shutdowns than meltdowns. For some reason, he’s bucking the PETCO Park odds and performing better on the road than at home, and his 2.96 FIP is better than anyone in the Rangers’ bullpen. Bell is still good, his resume just isn’t as bulletproof as it used to be.
Bell’s strikeout rate has been down all year, which wasn’t a problem in April when he wasn’t walking anybody, but in the past three months, his walk rate has ticked up steadily. His velocity hasn’t been the issue, but his curveball has not been nearly as effective this season. His wCB/C score was been among the best in the Majors in 2009 and 2010, but has been below average this year. Perhaps as a result, he is getting far fewer swings and misses — his SwStrk% is hovering at career-low levels. Lastly, Bell has not been as nearly dominant against lefties as he used to be. His 3.59 FIP and 4.17 xFIP against lefties, while not being terrible numbers for a right-handed reliever, represent career lows for Bell, as does his paltry 1.55 K/BB against southpaws.
It’s that performance against lefties that is most concerning. As mentioned above, Rhodes has been awful, and so has the Rangers’ bullpen overall against lefties. While the ‘pen’s xFIP of 3.80 ranks 13th overall against righties, its 4.03 xFIP against lefties ranks just 23rd overall. Finding someone who can tame lefties should be of chief concern for the Rangers’ pen, and at the moment, that is not Bell. The question that needs to be asked, and can likely only be answered by Rangers scouts is — is this recent drop in performance, both against lefties and overall, a small-sample-sized blip on the radar for Bell, or is it the beginning of the end of his dominance?
Though the Rangers’ bullpen still could use some help, the situation is not as desperate as it once was, and thus the need to acquire someone has lessened as well. Add to that the fact that players who aren’t as effective as they used to be but are just as expensive are generally not the guys for whom you want to be trading valuable prospects. Still, even in accounting for the league change, Bell will help the Rangers ‘pen if they acquire him. It’s just that plugging him in and saying he is the one missing link standing in the way of the Rangers’ second consecutive pennant is not quite the slam dunk that it used to be.