After months of back and forth banter, the Texas Rangers announced last week that they would be keeping both of their flame-throwing relievers (Neftali Feliz and Alexi Ogando) in the bullpen. That plan lasted less than a week. With starter Tommy Hunter out until at least May, the team announced that Ogando will begin the season as a starting pitcher.
Ogando is an interesting choice for a spot in the rotation given his lack of history with the role. The former outfielder has just over 100 appearances (majors and minors) as a pitcher, with just three of them coming as a starting pitcher. He has pitched in five games (one start) this spring, tossing 10.2 innings.
Despite being relatively new to the world of pitching, it’s easy to see the appeal of giving Ogando an expanded role. Working mainly off his high octane fastball and slider*, Ogando induced an above-average number of swings and misses (10.8% SwStr). With 39 strikeouts in 41.2 innings of work, he averaged nearly a punch out per inning pitched. In addition to the fastball and slider, the righty used a changeup (sparingly), and word on the street is he has dabbled with a splitter this spring.
*Among pitchers with at least 40 innings, the 14.4 MPH seperation between Ogando’s fastball and slider was the third largest gap in baseball.
While the stuff is enticing, there are some major obstacles in Ogando’s way, the most notable one being durability. In 2010, he tossed 30.2 innings at the minor league level before throwing 41.2 more in the majors. Those 70-plus innings represent a career-high for the slender righty. In the years before 2010, he pitched in the Dominican Summer League, throwing a combined 81 innings over the course of three seasons (not including 2008, which he missed because of legal issues).
Looking at the 2010 season, Ogando was used mostly in short relief. He threw more than two innings just twice innings and racked up 15 appearances with less than one inning pitched (34% of his major league total). In terms of pitches thrown, he topped 40 pitches just once and that was in his second major league game. In total, he averaged 15 pitches per appearance or one solid inning for a starter.
The next hurdle to overcome is a pronounced platoon split. The bulk of Ogando’s appearances came against right-handed batters and with good reason. Against hitters of the same hand, he earned a 2.07 FIP and a 2.90 xFIP. Moving across the batter’s box, things were a bit different. In a small sample size of 53 left-handed batters faced, Ogando’s FIP jumped to 5.23 with an even worse 5.91 xFIP. He walked more lefties (nine) than he struck out (six).
Going back to durability, it’s safe to say the Rangers should not expect to get 200 innings from the 27-year-old in 2011. Perhaps it’s not the intention of Texas to keep him in the starter’s role long-term. With Hunter expected back sometime in May and Brandon Webb working his way back from injury, maybe the team is just asking for Ogando to hold the fort until reinforcements arrive. If that is the case, it would be a rather simple transition moving from the rotation back to the bullpen. That theory would also explain the choice of Ogando as a starter over Feliz, avoiding the Joba Chamberlain route with their most talented major league arm.
Due to the lack of history in the role, it is tough to project Ogando’s numbers as a starter. One thing is for sure, his minuscule 1.30 ERA (fueled by a 92.9% strand rate) will see a few more crooked numbers attached to the front. And the increased exposure to left-handed batters could be a problem if he cannot find a pitch to help neutralize their effectiveness.
That said, the Rangers are becoming the go-to team for relievers looking for a starting role. After C.J. Wilson’s successful conversion, and the flirtation with Feliz, the Rangers should be well-versed in making this type of decision. Although it does not look like a fruitful experiment on paper, we will have to see how Ogando handles taking the ball every fifth day before judging the move.