Equal parts infuriating to fantasy baseball players and exciting to forward-thinking baseball fans, this Rangers bullpen has it all. Instead of some boring free agent acquisition to fill the role, or a lucky prospect turned into dominant reliever, the Rangers have turned to a collection of quantity (all with quirks). And quantity is always the best option in the bullpen, where quality usually costs too much money. Deciding which guy saves the most games for the Rangers this year will be tough though.
If you could sort closers into three houses using Pharrell’s sorting hat, you’d probably have three classes. Grizzled Veteran Closer! Hot Young Unproven Prospect! Bounce Back Candidate!
Playing the part of the Grizzled Veteran Closer is Joakim Soria. Obviously, health is a big part of the question here. He had Tommy John surgery in 2003, and again in 2012, and in between he wasn’t the paragon of health either: a rotator cuff strain, some shoulder problems, and a thigh strain show up on his DL history. And his velocity hasn’t been steady:
Zoom out and the velocity isn’t quite as turbulent. He’s averaged 91 mph since we started measuring these things, and last year in a down year, he averaged 90.8. Maybe velocity isn’t so important to Soria’s arsenal — he does throw three pitches semi-regularly.
Or he did. He barely threw the change up at all last year, and it didn’t get a single whiff in ten tries. All ten were predictably thrown to lefties, though, and all ten resulted in ground balls. The good news is that his curve still gets great whiffs for a curve (20+%, average is 11%), and tons of ground balls as well (70+% last year). If he gets his command back (he should), he’ll be able to get whiffs and grounders and only really be a health risk.
Playing the part of the Hot Young Unproven Prospect is Tanner Scheppers. Amazingly, he’s only three years younger than Soria, but he’s got the 96 mph gas of a young man. He’s got good command (2.72 BB/9 career, 7.3%), a curveball that also gets whiffs (15%) and grounders (49%), and his changeup is better than Soria’s. And with a proven sinker, he should probably put up better ground-ball percentages than the veteran. There was some worry about his health (his shoulder in particular) on the way up, but since he’s moved to the pen, he’s been healthy. Just a punch in the face on the street is all that shows up.
And then the Bounce Back Candidate! Neftali Feliz may not feel like a veteran, but he’s been through Tommy John surgery and two different roles on his team, so even at 26 years old, he counts. His change up might be the worst of the three (11% whiffs, 49% ground balls by BrooksBaseball), but his fastball is the best. At 96 with wicked movement, the fastball gets whiffs like a breaking pitch (12.4%) and allows him to succeed against lefties without the changeup.
The best available research on closers suggests that previous experience closing is not actually a great predictor for future saves. Unfortunately, it’s hard to use closer arsenal to predict saves, too — there have been too many fastball/slider closers in the history of baseball to ignore that fact.
Few things have actually been linked to closer changes. Handedness, which doesn’t matter here. Velocity and strikeout rates, which does matter here. But it confounds the issue — Scheppers has the velocity, but not the strikeout rates, Soria the strikeout rates, but not the velocity, and Feliz the best chance for both and also the fewest innings last year.
Spring training might actually matter here. If Feliz is showing his 95+ velocity and striking more guys out than Scheppers, he’ll be the natural fit for the role. But if he’s complaining of aches and showing less sizzle, it’ll be easy for the Rangers to tout their under-the-radar free agent veteran closer acquisition as the real plan all along.