The Rangers beat the Mariners 15-1 on Saturday, and then — as if afraid it wouldn’t stick — 14-1 on Sunday. On the season, Texas has scored 162 runs, which is more than any club except those hapless Mariners and the powerhouse Dodgers, and their .342 wOBA is also among the 10 best in the game. The problem in Texas has not been the bats. The problem that has kept the Rangers just barely above .500 and battling the As for third place in the AL West has been the pitching.
Nineteen pitchers have taken the mound for the Texas Rangers in 2019, and as a group they have performed substantially less effectively than reasonable observers might have hoped for coming into the season. Our preseason depth charts had the Texas rotation pegged for a 4.82 FIP (23rd overall) and the bullpen for a 4.40 mark (12th). Texas’s actual performance to date has been among the poorest in the game. So far in 2019, Rangers starters have a better FIP (5.50) than only the Orioles, Angels, and Cardinals, and the bullpen’s identical mark is better only than Baltimore. Something, clearly, is going wrong. But what?
The obvious answer is that the Rangers are walking far too many hitters (11.3% of batters faced, which is the second-worst mark in the league) and not striking out all that many opponents, either (19%; also second-worst, this time to a different team). No team has a K/BB worse than the Rangers’ 1.68. No team, in fact, even comes all that close. The Rangers have been bad at striking hitters out and have also been bad at not putting them on base via the free pass. Those are bad things to be bad at. But this is a little bit like saying that a house is on fire because it’s burning. We know — but what started the fire?
As always, the answer is probably a combination of things, but I think one clue lies in the fact that the Rangers as a group throw fastballs — four-seamers, two-seamers, cutters, and sinkers, as categorized by Baseball Savant — 65% of the time. This figure would have been unremarkable 10 years ago, when the league-wide fastball rate sat at 63%, but today that makes them the most fastball-happy team in the American League, and behind only the Cubs in the major leagues. Jesse Chavez throws fastballs 92% of the time (mostly cutters). Lance Lynn is at 88%, split among three types. Chris Martin, Drew Smyly, Kyle Dowdy, Ariel Jurado, and Shelby Miller are all above 70%, too.
The Rangers’ heavy fastball usage matters, I suspect, because it is increasingly incongruous in a game filled with breaking balls. Over the last decade or so, major league pitchers have both become increasingly comfortable throwing breaking balls behind in the count and also found themselves behind in counts less often. The result is that, as far as we know, there has never been a time in major league history when hitters were less likely to face that most predictable of pitches, the fastball thrown when the pitcher is behind in the count.
But the Rangers are a throwback — and not in a good way. Texas pitchers are both getting themselves behind in counts all too often (29.6% of their pitches thrown this year have come behind in the count, which is tied for the highest rate in the game) and then throwing a lot of fastballs in those situations (74% of the time; again among the highest marks in the league). The net result is that Rangers pitchers have thrown a higher percentage of fastballs behind in the count, as a percentage of their total pitches thrown (22%), than almost any other team in baseball. And that means that hitters are more able to predict that those pitches are coming.
The results have been poor — as they usually are when you give big-league hitters a good idea of what might be coming. Once they fall behind, Texas pitchers have walked four times as many hitters as they’ve struck out (by far the worst ratio in the game; Tampa, by contrast, has a 0.77 K/BB ratio after falling behind, which is astonishing). And when hitters do make contact, they do damage: Texas pitchers have allowed an atrocious .516 wOBA on fastballs thrown behind in the count, which is the third-worst figure in the game. On the rare occasions where Rangers pitchers do throw breaking balls while behind in counts, by contrast, their wOBA is a bad-but-much-more-respectable .365. The gap between the two figures is among the biggest in the game.
My theory of the case, in other words, is not that the Rangers have been ineffective on the mound because they’re throwing their fastballs a lot, and those fastballs have been ineffective. My theory is that the Rangers’ fastballs have been ineffective in part because they’re being thrown a lot — and are therefore easier for big-league hitters to anticipate, and either lay off or hit hard. Yes, there are other things going on here — variation between different kinds of fastballs, ability to locate, and the thousand other things that go into pitching — but I think part of the problem in Texas right now is that their pitchers are throwing fastballs as if it’s 2010 in 2019. In a league that’s pitching backwards more often than ever, the Rangers are predictably pitching forward. In the early going, at least, it’s gotten them into trouble.
Texas probably isn’t going to challenge for the division in a year in which the Astros seem destined for the crown and the As and maybe even the Mariners might have enough in them to finish a few games above .500 and make things complicated for a team taking a run at Houston. But the Rangers have enough firepower in their bats that even slightly better pitching could help them a great deal, and throwing maybe a few fewer fastballs — especially behind in counts, when they’re most expected — might help them achieve just that.
Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness.