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Checking in on Rangers pitchers performances

Looking at the actual and expected results for the Rangers pitchers in 2021

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Texas Rangers Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Good morning, folks.

Your Texas Rangers are currently 16-17 on the year. We are approximately 20% of the way through the season...damn, that’s farther into the season than it feels like. The season is going by kind of quickly.

A little while back, we took a look at the Rangers hitters, and how the Statcast expected data compared to their actual results. Today, we want to take a look at the same info for the Rangers’ pitchers. We are going use wOBA and xwOBA — wOBA is a one-stop-shopping single number to express overall offensive performance, and xwOBA is the same thing, only using expected results based on exit velocity and launch angle of each individual ball put in play rather than what really happened, along with the actual walk, strikeout and HBP results.

A couple of notes here. First, league-wide, wOBA has been trailing xwOBA. In 2021, wOBA for MLB as a whole is .308, while xwOBA is .327, which means the actual results for offenses league-wide are about 6% lower than what would be expected. There’s some thought that this is at least in part due to the new ball that has been introduced this year, and there’s also the possibility of better defenses and our old standby random fluctuation contributing as well.

Secondly, the Rangers are 17th in MLB in xwOBA allowed — in other words, 16 teams have a better xwOBA allowed (with the Yankees being the best in baseball at .289), and 13 have a worse xwOBA allowed (with the Tigers, not surprisingly, being last, at .365). Because xwOBA is not park-adjusted, that means that the Rangers’ pitchers are doing worse than the raw numbers would indicate, if we assume that the new park is a pitcher’s park (and I think that’s a safe assumption).

Finally, we are five weeks into the 2021 season, so all these numbers come with the Small Sample Size caveat.

Here are the current numbers:

Rk Player Pitches Total Pitch% AB Hits wOBA xwOBA Diff
1 Arihara, Kohei 433 433 100.0 95 26 .394 .459 -.065
2 Lyles, Jordan 564 564 100.0 139 44 .396 .394 .002
3 Cody, Kyle 209 209 100.0 49 16 .393 .384 .009
4 Benjamin, Wes 116 116 100.0 19 4 .354 .381 -.027
5 Hearn, Taylor 310 310 100.0 60 16 .373 .367 .006
6 Bush, Matt 56 56 100.0 13 4 .555 .359 .196
7 Foltynewicz, Mike 538 538 100.0 129 35 .371 .351 .020
8 Martin, Brett 130 130 100.0 38 12 .330 .338 -.008
9 Rodríguez, Joely 130 130 100.0 28 7 .226 .315 -.089
10 Dunning, Dane 424 424 100.0 111 27 .272 .305 -.033
11 Allard, Kolby 219 219 100.0 50 12 .273 .304 -.031
12 Yang, Hyeon-Jong 183 183 100.0 46 10 .286 .303 -.017
13 de Geus, Brett 220 220 100.0 48 10 .312 .283 .029
14 Gibson, Kyle 601 601 100.0 150 30 .251 .279 -.028
15 Kennedy, Ian 197 197 100.0 51 10 .243 .255 -.012
16 King, John 210 210 100.0 63 18 .290 .251 .039
17 Sborz, Josh 187 187 100.0 44 7 .198 .227 -.029

So...first off, Kohei Arihara and Jordan Lyles have been bad. That’s no surprise, and dovetails with the eye test. It is noteworthy, though, that as bad as Kohei Arihara’s results have been — a .394 wOBA is, for example, what Juan Soto put up in 2019 — his xwOBA of .459 is even worse, indicating that Arihara has actually outperformed his expected results, be that due to quality defense, good luck, or both.

To put this in perspective, Mike Trout has a career .420 wOBA. Albert Pujols had a .459 wOBA in 2008, and that was his second best offensive season, behind a .461 wOBA. Kohei Arihara is turning his opponents into at-his-peak Albert Pujols. That’s really bad, and its a big part of why, despite all the focus on Lyles’ struggles, Arihara is a bigger problem for the rotation right now — his .459 xwOBA is the worst in baseball among pitchers who have logged at least 250 pitches in 2021.

Now, don’t get me wrong — Jordan Lyles has also been very bad. Neither Lyles nor Arihara have come close to pitching like legitimate major league starting pitchers. But Arihara has been worse.

After those two are a couple of rookie pitchers, Wes Benjamin and Kyle Cody, who had disappointing starts to the year and are not on the active roster currently, Cody being on the injured list and Benjamin optioned to AAA. Benjamin had command issues that sunk him, and that appears to have improved at the Alternate Training Site and in yesterday’s opener for Round Rock.

After them is a rookie pitcher, Taylor Hearn, who has had a disappointing start to the year but is still on the active roster. He had a good two inning performance yesterday, so maybe he’s turning the corner.

The guys doing well...Josh Sborz? Really? Josh Sborz has both the best wOBA and xwOBA among the Rangers pitchers this year. I would not have guessed that. Sborz made the team out of spring training because he was healthy and on the 40 man roster and they needed a bullpen arm, and he was sent down earlier this year briefly and then recalled. Looking at the data, he’s doing a pretty good job striking out batters and missing bats, has a decent walk rate, but is among the best in the league in terms of the quality of contact he is giving up. He’s a four seamer who works up in the zone, and an effective four seamer is going to generate a lot of pop outs, but he’s actually getting more “topped” balls in play than “under” balls in play.

Out of 32 balls in play this season, Sborz has allowed 0 balls in play that Statcast categorizes as “solid” contact, and 1 that Statcast categorizes as a “barrel” (barrel is the category that is the highest, best contact). That’s really good...but again, its a really small sample size. I expect either he’ll start generating more Ks or he’ll start giving up better contact...or both.

John King is also seemingly flying under the radar this year. Used as a middle reliever, King isn’t striking out many batters, nor is he getting a bunch of swings and misses. What he is doing, though, is not walking anyone, while also doing a great job of commanding his pitches and locating them on the fringes of the strike zone, resulting in a really high chase rate. Because he doesn’t have swing-and-miss stuff — he’s a sinker-changeup-slider guy — he’s not getting a lot of whiffs on the balls out of the zone that batters are swinging out, but he’s also not giving up solid contact on those pitches. Looking at his heat maps, he’s consistently locating his sinker arm side and his changeup on the lower corner of the strike zone, while using his slider as a chase pitch down in the zone.

From the heat maps and looking at the pitch break data for King, it appears King is doing an especially effective job of pitch tunneling — making his offerings all look the same initially. He ends up placing the sinker well armside, with the changeup looking the same to the batter but dropping more vertically, while the slider drops more than either the sinker or changeup but has much less armside run. By effectively tunneling, it makes it harder for the hitter to tell what the pitch is early on, and by commanding his pitches well, it means that the hitter is going to have a hard time making good contact even if he does guess right on what the pitch is.

The result is a ton of ground balls, not a lot of hard contact, and very few walks. We shall see if hitters learn to adjust and do a better job laying off borderline pitches, and if King can maintain the exquisite command he’s shown, but for now he’s doing a terrific job executing a good gameplan.

Ian Kennedy, Proven Closer. I had no idea what to expect from Kennedy this year, but I didn’t expect him to be nearly this good.

Kyle Gibson...out of 185 pitchers this year with at least 250 pitches thrown, Gibson is 27th in xwOBA. If we raise the bar to 500 pitches, that leaves us with 71 starters, and Gibson is 9th. That’s really good. Lance Lynn, incidentally, is 13th out of 185. Those three year deals, man.

Anyway...that’s where things stand for the Rangers pitchers as of now. We shall check in on them again in the coming weeks.