clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Matt Harrison and the Top-5 Starting Pitchers in Rangers History

The still-young left-hander is knocking on the door of a sparse list.

Jamie Squire

You probably know that the Rangers, have historically not had good pitching. Some of that is an illusion created by hitter-friendly home parks, but not a ton of it. They've finished in the top five of the American League in adjusted ERA+ in each season since 2009 (including a number-one finish in 2011, one of four in their history), but in the 37 seasons they had in Texas before then, they'd finished in the bottom five 19 times, and in the top five just eight times.

It's been even harder for the Rangers to find good starting pitching that stayed for more than a year or two; a lot of their recent success has been driven by good bullpens, and when they have had good starters they've tended to fade quickly or leave quickly. C.J. Wilson became a starter, was excellent for two years, and left town. The 1977 Rangers staff led the league with a 117 ERA+, but all five of the most-used starters -- Gaylord Perry, Doyle Alexander, Bert Blyleven, Dock Ellis and Nelson Briles -- were with the team for three seasons or less (consecutive seasons, that is; Perry did return briefly in 1980). Fergie Jenkins was in Texas for six seasons, but had only two of his really, really good ones with the team. Nolan Ryan is a Rangers icon for all kinds of reasons, but only a bit over 15 percent of his career innings came with the team. Kevin Brown should probably be in the Hall of Fame and was with the Rangers for parts of eight seasons, but didn't really get great until two years after he left.

Only three Rangers pitchers have led the league or tied for the league lead in wins, none since Rick Helling in 1998. Just one Ranger -- Rick Honeycutt in 1983 -- has led in either ERA or ERA+, and he was traded before the season was over. Only Ryan -- in 1989 and ‘90 -- has led the league in strikeouts.

It's a sad story, though the silver lining is that Yu Darvish, just 26 and a Ranger for at least five more seasons, has a chance to set a lot of franchise records. For now, though, the list of the franchise's all-time best pitchers is a bit like the list of the top players whose last names began with the letter Q or who were born in Alaska. Nonetheless, here's my top five:

5. Bert Blyleven (1976-1977): I could put someone like Jose Guzman on the list here -- Guzman was with the Rangers for six seasons (missing two in the middle with rotator cuff surgery) and was generally solid. I'd rather go with Blyleven, who was in Texas for only about a year and two-thirds but was spectacular, logging a 2.74 ERA (142 ERA+) with the team in 437 innings and earning 10.5 wins above replacement with the team. Guzman was worth two more wins in about two-and-a-third times more innings. With one year still to go on his contract in the winter of 1977, the Rangers signed Blyleven to a six-year extension -- then almost immediately traded him to the Pirates.

4. Nolan Ryan (1989-1993): As noted above, his Rangers career wasn't long, and he didn't exactly dominate the league. Still, what he did do is pretty spectacular: 301 strikeouts at age 42, a 2.91 ERA and 140 ERA+ at 44, an above-average ERA at 45, and 51 wins from age 42 through 46. He falls just outside the franchise top five in wins above replacement, but his brief Rangers career was special enough to put him on the list.

3. Fergie Jenkins (1974-1975, 1978-1981): I know I just pointed out that Jenkins the Ranger wasn't all that great, but that's just how slim the pickings are. Jenkins' 1974, his age-31 season and his first as a Ranger, was one of those quintessential seventies-ace years: he started 41 games and threw a career-high 328 ⅓ innings, completed 29 of those starts, won 25 of them while losing 12, with an ERA and ERA+ in the league's top ten. It was probably the best season ever by a Rangers pitcher (it is by WAR). He then had a subpar 1975 and was traded to Boston, was traded back for the 1978 season after clashing with manager Don Zimmer, and pitched extremely well for that season, just okay for two more, and was dreadful in the strike season of 1981. That's it: One brilliant year, one very good one, three more or less average ones and a clunker. That's your third-best starting pitcher in franchise history.

2. Kenny Rogers (1989-1995, 2000-2002, 2004-2005): I'd probably put Rogers first if I were just ranking pitchers rather than starters, as Rogers' first four years in baseball were spent primarily as a Rangers reliever, and in three of them he did very well. Rogers had three different tours with Texas, totaling 12 years and had one really excellent year as a starter in each stretch: the seventh and final year of his first tour, 1995, in which he went 17-7 with a 3.38 ERA (against a league-average ERA of 4.71) while pitching his home games in a hitter-friendly park; the third and final year of his second time through, 2002, in which he threw 210 ⅔ innings with a 123 ERA+; and his final year with the team, at age 40, in which he threw 204 innings with a 118 ERA+. He had some real clunkers there too -- many people had to figure he was done after his 6.19 ERA in 2001 at age 36 -- and had some brilliant years for other teams, but Rogers really was a very good pitcher for a very long time, and spent the most significant chunks of that time as a Ranger.

1. Charlie Hough (1980-1990): The knuckleballer is the franchise leader in innings, starts, wins, losses, runs allowed, strikeouts, and wins above replacement; he allowed two fewer hits than Rogers and 46 fewer walks than Bobby Witt. Even given the relatively poor competition, that's pretty impressive for a guy who spent his first ten-and-a-half years as a Dodger and was primarily a reliever in his first 12. Hough's age-34 season was the first in which he made even 15 starts; he made 34 of them that year, and would make at least 30 for the next eight seasons. He averaged a 112 ERA+ during those nine years as a full-time starter, leading the league in innings once, complete games once, starts twice, hits, homers, and walks once each, and hit batsmen twice. He was only rarely spectacular, making only one All-Star team, but was good-to-very-good for six straight years (1983-88), and never hurt you. On this team, six good years and three not bad ones is more than enough for the top spot.

It ain't over, though. Matt Harrison, entering his age-27 season and newly signed to a five-year contract, is 16th on the team's all-time WAR list with his 8.9 wins; a repeat of his 6.2-win 2012 would jump him to fifth on the list. Darvish, with his one season of 4.0 wins, sits 40th, but just seven more wins from the top ten. This list will grown in quality very soon, but for now Hough is the best of what is collectively a very bad lot.

Bill Parker is one of SBN's Designated Columnists and one of the creators of The Platoon Advantage. Follow him at @Bill_TPA and the Designated Columnists at @SBNMLBDCers.