With the 2022 regular season over, it is that time where we go back and take a look at the players who appeared for the Texas Rangers this past season.
Today, we look at pitcher Cole Ragans.
One of the positive stories from 2022 was Cole Ragans breaking into the big leagues and holding down a spot in the starting rotation over the final couple of months of the season. The 2016 first rounder had been one of the Rangers’ top prospects before missing three seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018, and then another Tommy John surgery in 2019 after he re-tore his UCL right before he was going to start a rehab assignment.
Ragans got back on the mound in 2021 and just the fact that he was able to perform as a starter that season was a win. He did solid work for Hickory in the first half of the season, then struggled in the second half when he was promoted to Frisco. Ragans returned to Frisco to start 2022, putting up a 2.81 ERA in 10 starts before being promoted to AAA Round Rock. He continued to excel in the PCL, putting up a 3.32 ERA in 8 starts, showing enough to get moved up to the big leagues at the beginning of August.
Ragans made four starts for the Rangers in August, then was placed on the injured list in what was essentially an inning-management move. He returned in early September and made five more starts, giving him nine on the season. His final numbers were a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings, spanning nine starts.
Overall, it was a successful season for a 24 year old who was just a year removed from missing three straight years and who had two Tommy John surgeries, one that it makes sense to feel positive about. That said, Ragans is probably still, for 2023, AAA rotation depth, not someone who you want to plan on counting on for a bunch of major league starts in 2023.
Ragans’ 40 innings of work came in at -0.1 bWAR and 0.2 fWAR — essentially, around replacement level performance. The second level measures indicate that his 4.95 ERA was around what one would expect — he had a 4.91/4.85 FIP/xFIP, as well as a 4.78 xERA. That is about 20-25% worse (park and league adjusted) than MLB as a whole.
In looking at Ragans’ peripherals, his walk rate of 9.2% is a little higher than the 8.4% league average, while his HR/FB rate is about what one would expect, as you can see from his FIP and xFIP being almost identical. At 1.35 HR/9, his home run allowed rate was higher than the 1.1 HR/9 rate for MLB as a whole in 2022, though, despite the fact that a he generated popups (which are treated as fly balls for that calculation) at a rate almost twice the major league average.
The reason for this is that Ragans allowed a lot of balls in play in 2022. Ragans struck out just 27 of the 174 batters he faced in the major leagues, a 15.5% K rate which is well below average. To put this in perspective, the only qualified starting pitcher in 2022 to have a rate lower than that was Marco Gonzales, who struck out just 13.2% of batters he faced in 2022. Cal Quantrill had the next lowest, at 16.6%. MLB pitchers struck out 22.1% of batters they faced in 2022, so Ragans was fanning batters at a rate that is one-third lower than the league as a whole.
Interestingly, Ragans wasn’t that bad at missing bats — he had a 10.9% swinging strike rate, not that far off of the 12.2% swinging strike rate for the league as a whole. However, he generated very few called strikes — just 11.3% of his pitches resulted in called strikes, compared to 16.4% for the league as a whole. There were 409 pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched in 2022, and the only ones who had a lower called strike rate than Ragans were Taylor Clarke of the Royals, at 10.0%, and newly signed Texas Ranger Dominic Leone, at 10.0%.
So add it all up and Ragans was a little worse than average in walking batters, a little worse than average in allowing home runs, and a lot worse than average in striking out batters. And in terms of striking out batters, he was a little worse than average in generating swinging strikes, but a whole lot worse than average in getting called strikes.
That’s kind of weird. When we talk about pitchers who struggle to strike out batters, we usually talk about them struggling to miss bats. In the case of Ragans, though, it wasn’t so much missing bats as it was not getting batters to not swing so much.
A lot of that has to do with the hittability of Ragans’ four seamer. He allowed a .501 wOBA and a .406 xwOBA on his four seamer in 2022. Ragans shut down lefties in 2022 — which is a bit surprising, given that his changeup is considered his best pitch — though he didn’t face many lefties. But the lefties he did face didn’t hit any of his pitches hard. Righties, though, teed off on everything other than his changeup, putting up a .424 xwOBA against his four seamer, a .391 xwOBA against his cutter, and a .612 xwOBA against his (rarely used) curveball.
In looking at his heat maps, the location of his four seamer appears to have been an issue. Generally speaking, pitchers who have success with a four seamer work it up in the strike zone, as its “rising” motion gets batters to swing under it. Ragans, however, mostly located his four seamer in the middle of the zone, glove side. That meant that righthanded hitters were generally getting the four seamer middle-in, which meant getting a better look at the pitch, as well as being a zone which is going to be in many righty hitters’ wheelhouse.
As a point of comparison, on every pitcher page, Statcast shows five similar pitchers based on velocity and movement. The two names that jumped out at me on Ragans’ page were Jeffrey Springs and Robbie Ray. Springs, the former Ranger reliever turned successful Rays starter, threw his four seamer about as often as Ragans, but his heat map showed he was consistently locating it up and arm side. Ray consistently put his four seamer up and glove side. Both of them were successful with their four seamers. The simliar pitchers who didn’t locate their four seamers up in the zone, on the other hand, did not have success.
Now, it is worth noting that we are talking about 40 major league innings — not a real big sample size to look at. I’d be interested in what his minor league heat maps show, and whether his location was different in AA and AAA than in the majors.
But overall, it would seem that Ragans is going to have to make some changes and work up in the zone more if he’s going to have success. The interesting thing about all this is that historically, Ragans has fanned a lot of batters — his issues have been with too many walks. In his brief stint in the majors in 2022, his walk rate wasn’t great, but wasn’t the problem — the problem was not enough Ks.
Ragans will most likely start the season in Round Rock, and from a standpoint of the success of the big league club, if things go well, we won’t see him much in Arlington (since that would mean the veterans are staying healthy and producing). Ragans will hopefully have the opportunity to build on 2022, continue to build up his innings, and show that he is ready to step into a major league rotation in 2024, whether for the Rangers or for someone else.