The Rangers New-Look Playoff ‘Pen

The Rangers carry a 3-2 series lead back to Texas over the weekend, needing just one win to advance to its second consecutive World Series. The team successfully staved off the Angels in the regular season and convincingly took care of the Rays in the ALDS in large part due to its retooled bullpen. The acquisitions of Mike Adams, Koji Uehara and Mike Gonzalez were each singularly effective, but the compounded factor of utilizing this trio has made even more of an impact.

Add to that the relief usage of starter Alexi Ogando and the emergence of Scott Feldman as a late innings threat and it’s clear that this Rangers playoff squad differs substantially from the team that fought for the AL West crown all season long. The new-look playoff bullpen also sheds light on a potentially revolutionary way to effectively use pitching staffs in the postseason.

Jon Daniels took an interesting approach at the trade deadline. His starting rotation posted the second-highest WAR tally in the American League, but there was some cause for concern. Colby Lewis pitched better than his ERA suggested, but his league average-ness was a step down from last year. Alexi Ogando was less effective in the second half, presumably from tiring of the starter’s workload. The jury was still out on whether the same tiring would affect Derek Holland and Matt Harrison, neither of whom had logged as many big league innings before.

However, Daniels didn’t improve his rotation through targeting starters as the deadline approached. He instead took a more holistic view of the situation and improved the pitching staff by acquiring top-flight relievers. Bringing in Adams, Gonzalez and Uehara meant that starters didn’t need to face the same lineup on the third and fourth trips through. The much improved bullpen effectively shortened the game. Put those three, or any combination of them, in front of Neftali Feliz and Holland, Harrison or Ogando only needs to throw five or six innings.

It shouldn’t surprise then that the Rangers led the junior circuit in cumulative pitcher WAR in August and September. The starters were able to pitch more effectively because what potentially hurt their production was masked by the appearances of these relievers. From April through June, the Rangers rotation averaged around 6.3 innings. In July that average rose to 6.7. With the newly acquired relievers in tow, the Rangers rotation averaged just 5.6 innings per start in August, and 5.8 innings per start in September. The rotation also tallied 5 WAR in September after a relatively disappointing 3.7 WAR in August. The plan appeared to be working: starters pitched less and therefore magnified their strengths.

In the playoffs, the Rangers have taken this approach to an entirely new level, by combining the acquired trio of relief aces and closer Neftali Feliz with starter Alexi Ogando and Scott “Swingman” Feldman. The idea of using a multitude of relief aces in a playoff series gave way to the idea that some manager, maybe not this year or next year, is going to take full advantage of the assets at his disposal and bypass the traditional starter-reliever mechanism in place.

That manager may look at a starting pitcher more as the guy that literally starts the game as opposed to the best option for pitching six innings. That manager is going to theoretically maximize pitching staff productivity by using several different pitchers in short spurts throughout a game, ensuring that nobody faces a lineup more than twice. That manager is also going to throw different looks and repertoires at the opposing lineup by mixing and matching from the second or third inning on.

No reason to have Colby Lewis pitch six innings when he can toss two, before Feldman comes in for another two, followed by Ogando for a pair of frames, and then Uehara, Adams and Feliz for the latter third. By using pitchers this way they would likely be able to pitch again the next day, or the day after. Starters wouldn’t need as much rest as they wouldn’t pitch as much in a specific game.

Sure, there are exceptions and potential downsides. If a starter is absolutely dominating an opposing lineup, and his team leads 7-0, there really isn’t a concrete reason to lift him. As for negatives, it’s entirely possible that habitual creatures like starting pitchers would experience culture shock if they were suddenly asked to pitch six innings over three games as opposed to in a single game. If they can’t psychologically handle the change, the concept might fall apart.

But it makes enough sense, especially for a team with as many relief options as the Rangers, to merit a shot. Some manager is going to revolutionize the postseason usage of pitchers by taking full advantage of their strengths and hiding their weaknesses in this capacity. He will realize that he has an all-star pitching staff at his disposal and manage games the way he would in that exhibition.

The Rangers may not need to implement that strategy to win the World Series this season, but no team was better equipped in the bullpen for the playoffs than they were, thanks to the interesting deadline approach taken by its front office.




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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

19 Responses to “The Rangers New-Look Playoff ‘Pen”

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  1. Aaron says:

    I like the idea but I don’t anyone’s going to go beyond what the Rangers are doing any time soon. Acquiring multiple relievers of the caliber of Uehara, Adams, and Feliz is not easy and you have to pair them with starters who are willing to be flexible about things like their K and W totals. I guess you could start from scratch and not sign ANY starters, just try to acquire a bunch of above average bullpen guys. Seems like it’s be hard to get enough innings over the course of a season, though. Maybe a hybrid model with two or three traditional starters and two or three spots in the rotation taken up by a committee.

    Still, I don’t see it happening. Kudos to the Rangers for recognizing their assets and using them appropriately but this combination of the right assets and willingness to experiment doesn’t seem likely to happen very often in the future.

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  2. The Nicker says:

    Great article, although it should be noted that Ron Washington should probably read this first and foremost, considering he’s left his starter in too long in arguably every single game of the ALCS.

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  3. kr says:

    When Girardi was forced to do this in game 5 of the ALDS (with great success) there was an uproar from not only media members but a lot of well respected internet writers/saber types. Dave Cameron was definitely FOR Girardi’s moves but many others were not. “Binder!! “Coffee Joe” etc. And that was in a situation forced upon him by an injury.

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  4. Bill says:

    No reason to discuss Uehara. He was awful for TEX, both in the regular season and continuing into the post-season. Mop-up only right now.

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    • CJ says:

      Well that’s not really fair, he only pitched 18 innings and allowed an above-average number of HR’s in that small sample size. His xFIP was 2.03, with a K/BB ratio of 23, so he really didn’t pitch all that badly.

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      • Bill says:

        He’s faced 80 batters as a Ranger and gave up 8 HRs. Simply AWFUL results. He’s lost the confidence of his teammates and most significantly his manager, proven by many his demotions (8th inning, to 7th inning, to 6th inning, to only when behind).

        He has certainly been effected by poor “luck” (HR/FB ratio). However, that is irrelevent in the right-now. I do expect him to rebound and have a good 2012. As you noted, that 23:1 K/BB is too good to ignore.

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  5. brett says:

    So including their impact on the rotation, is it possible that elite relief pitchers contribute more aggregate WAR than they’ve traditionally been given credit for?

    Further, could this be one of the causes of offense being down across baseball? It seems the number of teams with three or four very good relievers has increased in recent years. The Rangers might be at the forefront but I don’t think they’re the only team to employ this strategy. It might make an interesting study.

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  6. Marc says:

    You overlooked one major advantage of this strategy in NL parks: not letting the pitchers hit. – pinch hitting or double switching every time the pitcher;s spot comes up.

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    • Bryz says:

      Yeah, but if you have 4 bench players, you risk going through all of them in one game. If you have a late-inning injury, you may have just backed yourself into a hole. Roy Oswalt in left field, anyone?

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  7. kash says:

    to shock the audience here, if the rangers win it all ( and by that i mean taking the world series!!) i rec’m’d that the rangers go a 6 man rototation next year, cj wilson will probably be exiting, leaving harrison, ogando, holland, lewis, feldman and maybe stretching out feliz and or martin perez.

    6 man roto is good because these guys are being overworked for 2011 ( see giants 2010 and how they fared in 2011 by work usage )

    go with the 6 man roto!!!!!!!!!! sign heath bell in 2011 ( save the money on cj wilson, you wont be able to afford him )

    revolutionize pitching once again nolan ryan and daniels! the 6 man roto is here!

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  8. Bob Loblaw says:

    Would you guys be surprised to find out that the Rangers starters splits in the playoffs look like this:

    ERA: 5.40
    FIP: 5.92 (!!!!!!!)
    xFIP: 4.16 (regressed based on regular season data)
    K/9: 8.60
    BB/9: 4.60 (!!!!!!)
    HR/9: 2.20 (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

    For more, see here: http://i.imgur.com/i3ZT6.jpg. FG staff, you’re welcome to use this image if you’d like, I made it.

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  9. Alex says:

    Tony Larussa tried something like this. it was 3 pitchers that pitch 3 innings a game. It didn’t turn out well due to some bad spots, and ‘starters’ only going 1-2 innings instead of 3, etc.

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  10. delv says:

    Hilariously, this strategy is the exact opposite of what the media described as the Rangers’ supposed strategy as pushed by Nolan Ryan—where starters go DEEPER into games out of design.

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  11. Jason says:

    Texas’s approach isn’t unprecedented. Dick Williams did this kind of stuff with the ’70s champion A’s: shorter SP outings than the prevailing norm, using Catfish Hunter and other starters as relievers, and bringing Rollie Fingers into high-leverage spots in innings 5-7 even if it meant a lesser pitcher finished the game/got the save.

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  12. KB says:

    The idea of using multiple pitchers in short stints – with no true starter was tried by LaRussa and Duncan in the early 1990s (it may have been the late 1980s). They scrapped the idea after 5 days – as Bill James states in his book on managers – the pitchers did not like it and the system just did not work.

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  13. Jose says:

    Appears to be a strategy better suited for Playoff series. You can take say 3 starters and then have a vast committee that is on call to enter the game whenever the situation becomes necessary according to the manager. So say a pitcher gives you 4 or 5 innings. No problem, just start the committee rolling. But you need to have a good 4-6 pitchers to call on. If you have no off-day, it can bit you, but otherwise, it can shorten the game and create massive problems for the opposition’s lineup. The difficulty is in getting egos to go along with this strategy. But if you give your best 3 pitchers their starts, I can’t see why this would ever be a major problem with the goal of winning it all as the prime directive.

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