The Rangers Are Signing Mike Minor to Start

Coming into the offseason, the Rangers needed to add pitching. Just pitching, regular pitching, any kind of pitching. They looked thin in the rotation and they looked thin in the bullpen, and that makes things both complicated and entirely simple. Complicated, in that the Rangers needed plenty of help. Simple, in that there’s a lot of potential help out there. Already, the Rangers have added Doug Fister. Fister will help. The deal looks good.

The Rangers are one of the seven finalists for Shohei Ohtani. Obviously, landing him would be a dream. The team was also interested in Miles Mikolas, but he’s decided to sign with the Cardinals. Matt Bush is attempting a conversion from the bullpen to the rotation. And now, according to reports, the Rangers are signing Mike Minor to a multi-year deal. Minor entered the market as one of the most in-demand available relievers. The Rangers could use him as a reliever — but, apparently, Plan A is to convert him, too. Minor will get a chance to start, and the Rangers might end up with a six-man rotation.

There’s not much to say right now about the six-man idea. Could happen, could not. It would be a nifty way to help Ohtani’s transition to the majors, but there’s something like a 6-in-7 chance he goes elsewhere. For now, Minor is the focus. Minor is the pitcher the Rangers have in hand.

No terms have yet been released, to my knowledge, so we can’t evaluate the contract. We can just evaluate Minor, the player. He’s left-handed, standing 6’4, and he turns 30 in three weeks. Like the overwhelming majority of major-league relievers, he has a starting background. You’ll recall that Minor started for the Braves from 2010-2014. He sometimes looked very good! Then he missed the 2015 season. Then he missed most of the 2016 season. Minor had significant shoulder problems, and he needed surgery for a torn labrum.

That’s the bad one. That’s the one that can end a career. But Minor was able to reemerge as a Royals reliever, appearing in 65 games and finishing ninth in reliever WAR. According to Baseball Savant, Minor just ranked in the 90th percentile among relievers in wOBA allowed, and he ranked in the 97th percentile in expected wOBA allowed. The results were terrific, with Minor retiring both lefties and righties. Importantly, Minor gained three or four ticks on all of his pitches, across the board. Just about every pitcher throws harder when he moves to the bullpen, but few pitchers gain as much as Minor did. You can’t just forget about a pitcher’s shoulder surgery, but Minor did well to shove that whole chapter into the past.

It’s obvious that Minor can work out of the bullpen. That much, he just proved. He was one of the better relievers in the game, and he was far from a left-handed specialist. The only concern would be about his health, but, that’s why teams do physicals and examine records. The particularly interesting aspect here is the notion of Minor starting again. One couldn’t expect him to post the same stats. Starting is hard. But, in 2017, Minor added something. Or, I should say, he improved something. Minor gained a newfound faith in his slider, and by pitch values, it wound up as a top-20 slider in baseball, even though Minor didn’t even reach 80 innings.

Here’s what that slider looked like:

In the past, Minor threw his slider around 10-15% of the time. This season, that rate shot up to 36%, with Minor cutting a chunk out of his fastballs. He still has a curveball, and he still has a changeup, so Minor has a four-pitch repertoire. He was effectively throwing starting stuff as a reliever, so there shouldn’t be much worry that Minor doesn’t have enough pitches. Even if he loses a couple miles as he stretches out, that slider is a premium secondary pitch, and Minor doesn’t fall into predictable patterns.

There’s something else I like, here. Minor has never had a major platoon problem, but he made a change this season in how he pitches to righties. All of a sudden, in 2017, Minor started pounding righties over the inner half.

Those are from the catcher’s perspective. In terms of average horizontal pitch location, Minor threw righties the third-most inside out of all southpaws. Only Ryan Buchter and Jose Torres worked righties inside more. Minor worked inside more than Clayton Kershaw. He worked inside more than Madison Bumgarner. I like the approach, because it’s somewhat uncommon. You often see opposite-handed pitchers work hitters away, and hitters can sit and look for locations. Minor isn’t afraid to try to tie a righty up. I think it would bode well for him.

As transitions go, though, it’s a mixed bag. The Rangers tried to convert Neftali Feliz some years ago, and that ended poorly. They did the same thing with Alexi Ogando, and that was more hit-or-miss. Ogando had a solid year starting in 2011, but then injuries took bites out of his 2013. (Update: as noted in the comments, I should point out C.J. Wilson, a Rangers reliever-starter conversion that worked.) Looking at all of major-league baseball from the past two seasons, here are some of the most prominent reliever-to-starter conversions:

Just like Minor, these pitchers had started in the past. Starting wasn’t something completely unfamiliar. Still, it’s challenging to go back. Cahill ran into injury problems. So did JC Ramirez. Wood was bad. Chavez was bad. Erasmo Ramirez worked out pretty well. Biagini posted a worse ERA as a starter, but his peripherals were similar. Between Triple-A and the majors, he finished just shy of 140 innings.

Every attempted conversion is unique, but every attempted conversion also increases the workload. There’s more stress on the body, and that comes with downside. And starters just can’t throw quite so hard, and they run the risk of getting exposed. In 2016, there was hype around the Pirates trying to make Juan Nicasio a starter again, but he started just 12 times. He was in the bullpen for good by the end of June. As a starter, he had an FIP close to 5. As a reliever, he had an FIP under 3. Nicasio is just better in the bullpen. The Pirates learned that.

Which isn’t to suggest the Pirates regret anything. Nicasio went right back to relieving and he was just fine. The team learned what he could and couldn’t do, and they didn’t lose much for it. Similarly, even if Minor can’t start effectively, the Rangers would like to know. The only risk of significance has to do with elevated injury potential. If Minor were to get hurt as a starter, that would be a problem. If he were to remain available to just go back to the bullpen, well, Minor seems great out of the bullpen. That’s not a bad outcome.

We’ll see if the Rangers stick to the six-man-rotation idea. If they end up with Ohtani, it would be a sensible move. If they don’t, they’ll have other decisions to make. If Minor were asked to start every six days instead of every five, that would obviously lessen the load. It would conceivably make the transition easier on his body. Might be the key to the whole thing. There’s no way for us to know from out here, but you can’t blame the Rangers for not being creative. They knew they needed pitching, and with Mike Minor, they’re taking a fascinating chance.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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6 years ago

Rangers somewhat curiously turned CJ Wilson into a starter at age 30 after some injury prone years in the bullpen. They are completely different pitchers but just noting the Rangers have had some success doing this, Jeff only listed Feliz/Ogando who did not work out

6 years ago
Reply to  j6takish

He was a weird one, though – He was a starter in the minors, a terrible starter in the majors for part of his rookie season, then became a reliever, then turned back into a starter. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t listed in Jeff’s examples?

Ogando was converted into a reliever from a position player, then into a starter after some time in the ‘pen. Same with Feliz, minus the conversion – he was a reliever in the minors. That being said, it could also have just been overlooked

6 years ago
Reply to  j6takish

Ogando was a 3 win starter that year. Better than every other year combined.