One of the more remarkable stories of the 2016 season for the Texas Rangers is Matt Bush, former #1 pick as a shortstop turned reliever turned felon turned Rangers bullpen weapon. Signed to a minor league deal, and without even an invite to the major league camp this spring, Bush nevertheless turned heads at the back fields, throwing in the upper-90s with a nice breaking ball, and putting himself on the map as a legitimate option for the major league pen in 2016.
Bush was assigned to AA Frisco to start the minor league season and performed impressively there, putting up a 2.65 ERA in 17 IP, with 18 Ks against just 4 walks. It was enough to earn a call up to the majors in early May, and a combination of his solid performance and a lack of other viable options has resulted in him quickly becoming a trusted member of Jeff Banister's "A" bullpen group.
Unfortunately, being a trusted member of Banister's bullpen isn't good for a pitcher's arm...two relievers the Rangers were counting on in 2016, Keone Kela and Shawn Tolleson, have been injured and/or ineffective this year, after being ridden hard in 2015, and Matt Bush is already showing signs of wear in the few weeks he's been in the majors.
Taking a step back, its important, when considering Bush, to remember his background. Bush was drafted as a shortstop, and while he converted to pitching in 2007, he only threw 7 innings that year before being out of baseball for a while. In 2010, he made a comeback with the Rays, throwing 13 innings that year, and then had 50 innings in 2011 at AA before almost killing a man in a drunk driving episode that cost Bush the next four years of his playing career, and resulted in him spending around three years in prison.
So when we are looking at Bush's workload, we're not looking at this like we would the workload of a normal 30 year old reliever...we are looking at it from the viewpoint of a guy who, even including this season, has less than 100 innings as a professional, and who hadn't pitched since 2011.
And his use in Frisco reflected that...he pitched on back-to-back days just twice, and generally had his outings regularly spaced out. That's a luxury, of course, you have in the minor leagues that you don't necessarily have in the majors.
Once called up, Bush was electrifying, throwing in the upper-90s and looking untouchable. He made his debut on May 13, pitched again on May 15 and then May 17, then was off several days before pitching against on May 21.
Right after that, though, was when Banister started leaning hard on Bush...he pitched three consecutive days, May 23, May 24, and May 25, then was off two days. He followed that up with back-to-back outings on May 28 and May 29, then pitched again last night, May 31, in an aborted outing that saw him pulled after retiring just one of the four batters he faced.
And if you look at the Brooks Baseball data -- click here -- you can see how the use has impacted Bush's velocity. The first four times he pitched, he averaged anywhere from 98.48 to 98.73 mph on his fastball.
On May 23, he averaged 97.66.
On May 24, he averaged 97.35.
On May 25, he averaged 96.43. That was on his third straight day pitching.
On May 28, he averaged 97.77 -- closer to normal, after two days off.
On May 29, he averaged 96.19.
On May 31, he averaged 95.5.
Bush was asked to pitch three days in a row, five out of six days, and six times in nine days -- a heavy workload for any reliever, much less one who barely picked up a baseball for four years and has very little history of even pitching. Jeff Banister has said that they don't plan on using Bush three straight days anymore -- that's why he was unavailable on Memorial Day -- but a plan that spreads out his workload more than that may be necessary.
What's perhaps most alarming to me, though, is the situations in which Bush is being used. When he was used on the second and third day in a row on May 24 and May 25, it was to pitch in a three run game the first time, and in a four run game the second time. There's no reason for a valued reliever to be pitching for a third straight day in a four run game if there is any other viable option. The last three times Bush has pitched, it has been the same story -- up 4 runs on May 28, up 3 runs on May 29, and up 5 runs on May 31.
The problem isn't just that Bush is being ridden hard -- he's being ridden hard in games that aren't particularly close.
That being said, that seems to be reflective of Jeff Banister's philosophy. He's going to use his "winning pieces" late with a lead, whether that lead is one run or five runs, and oftentimes regardless of how much the "winning pieces" have been asked to pitch in recent games. We saw the toll that took on the pen last year, and we can see, in the case of Matt Bush, it already taking a toll now.
The inevitable response from certain circles is, well, he has no choice...he doesn't have other relievers he can rely on, so he has to overuse Bush, and Sam Dyson, and Jake Diekman. But Banister does have a choice...at home, up by four runs, he didn't have to pitch Dyson in the ninth on Sunday. Up five runs, he didn't have to use Matt Bush yesterday. He has Luke Jackson in the pen. He has Alex Claudio in the pen. Are those guys you trust as much as Bush or Dyson? No.
But in a 162 game season, you're going to have to rely on those pitchers to pitch with a lead every now and then. Otherwise, you're going to end up blowing out your pen, or using your "winning pieces" in situations where, because of overuse, they aren't effective...as we saw last night.
In trying to understand why Banister is choosing to manage the pen this way, this tweet from Tepid last night seems to hit the nail on the head:
Maybe Banny keeps using Dyson, Diekman, & Bush because they're his best relievers & he only knows how to fight for every inning, every win.— Tepid Participation (@TepidP) June 1, 2016
That's part of the "Never Ever Quit" ethos. It not only means "Never Ever Quit" when you're behind, it means you don't let up when you are ahead. You don't use Luke Jackson up 5 in the ninth, because it gives the team an opportunity to come back. And yes, maybe you're leaning on your "winning pieces" more than you'd like, but that's a problem to be dealt with down the road, and there are games to be won today.
In the meantime, I just hope the organization can figure out a way to use Bush such that he's not broken before his major league career has really gotten started.