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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