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Friday, November 7, 2014

How Injuries Ruined the Rangers


By on 11/07/2014 05:00:00 PM

The Texas Rangers might be in a tough division, but no-one foresaw that at the end of the 2014 season, they would not only have failed to give the Oakland A's or the Los Angeles Angels a run for their money, but would be last behind even the Houston Astros with the worst record in the American League. How did it all go wrong? There are many factors which go into the success of a team, and I won't claim to cover them all here. What follows is simply an example of how badly injuries can ruin a season.

A couple of months ago, one of our followers tweeted us to suggest that we take a look at all the Texas injuries in relation to their original Opening Day lineup, which I thought was a great way to think about what injuries do to a roster. We've spent a lot of time writing about the multitude of Rangers injuries this season; why not have one piece to show what they did to the team over the course of the season?

I initially started to do this as the reader suggested by trying to visually represent Texas' misfortunes by way of a depth chart, but there were two main difficulties: firstly, that things started to go wrong so early in the year that it was actually somewhat misleading to use even the most tentative of depth charts, which already factored in injuries to the likes of Holland; and secondly, that there were just so many injuries to represent along with replacement players playing out of position (in some cases for the first time in their career), it would have been confusing to even try to represent them all in one visual. Besides, the Dallas Morning News already put together an excellent graphic of just how much salary MLB teams paid to players on the DL, with Texas shelling out a staggering $46.8 million, a huge 35% of their payroll.

Instead, I thought it might be more instructive to use lineups and DL moves to show how things fell apart over the course of the year, offering a step-by-step account of what a team has to deal with when almost all of the roster is hurt.

Let's start with what we think the Rangers might have wanted their lineup to be back in the offseason:

Lineup:
C: Geovany Soto
1B: Prince Fielder
2B: Jurickson Profar
3B: Adrian Beltre
SS: Elvis Andrus
LF: Shin-Soo Choo
CF: Leonys Martin
RF: Alex Rios
DH: Mitch Moreland

Rotation:
Yu Darvish
Derek Holland
Martin Perez
Matt Harrison
Alexi Ogando

Ian Kinsler might have been gone, but Tigers slugger Prince Fielder was part of the return and would form the heart of the order with Beltre. OBP machine Shin-Soo Choo would lead off. Elite prospect Jurickson Profar would man Kinsler's old position at second base and was expected to hit too. Darvish had established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball, Holland had been a very dependable mid-rotation starter over 213 innings in 2013 and there was promise from young left-hander Perez.

As we know, it all went horribly wrong for the Rangers, who finished with the AL's worst record and would have had MLB's worst record if not for a late surge and the similarly awful Diamondbacks. Players get hurt all the time, so what was the sequence of events that made this particularly painful for Texas? We'll go month-by-month to see who had to go on the DL and exactly what the Rangers were able to replace those players with. Let's start with what took place before a regular-season pitch had even been thrown:

Spring Training - Opening Day

The DL moves:
Joe Ortiz, LHP - fractured left foot - missed 183 days
Derek Holland, LHP - torn cartilage in left knee - missed 153 days
Engel Beltre, RF - fractured right tibia - missed 183 days
Yu Darvish, RHP - neck stiffness - missed 7 days
Matt Harrison, LHP - recovery from back surgery - missed 28 days
Jurickson Profar, 2B/SS - torn right shoulder muscle - missed 183 days
Geovany Soto, C - torn meniscus in right knee - missed 109 days

Needless to say, the Rangers did not run out their previously planned lineup on Opening Day:

C: J.P. Arencibia
1B: Prince Fielder
2B: Josh Wilson
3B: Adrian Beltre
SS: Elvis Andrus
LF: Shin-Soo Choo
CF: Leonys Martin
RF: Alex Rios
DH: Mitch Moreland
P: Tanner Scheppers

The Rangers lost Soto to a torn meniscus and Profar to a muscle tear in his right shoulder during spring training. Although relatively long-term injuries, both were expected back in 10-12 weeks. Profar's injury would prove particularly significant early on as 33-year-old journeyman Josh Wilson was called into action at second base. Although Wilson was strong defensively, he offered just a .570 OPS and four extra-base hits in his 24 games - not what the Rangers were projecting from the spot when Profar was pencilled in.

Backup outfielder Engel Beltre was also put on the DL before the season started after he suffered a fractured tibia. Meanwhile, that shaky pitching depth had been exposed well before that. Derek Holland suffered a knee injury in a freak accident at home and was forced to undergo microfracture surgery before even making it to spring training. Potential left-handed reliever Joseph Ortiz was involved in a motorcycle incident that left him with a broken foot. Matt Harrison was only just beginning to make minor league starts when the major league season commenced.

That isn't a mistake at starting pitcher either; Tanner Scheppers really did get the ball for the first game of the season after ace Yu Darvish had to start the season on the DL with neck stiffness. The fact that their Opening Day starter was a player who wasn't expected to be a key part of the rotation was an omen of things to come.

April

The DL moves
Joe Saunders, LHP - left ankle bruise - missed 53 days
Adrian Beltre, 3B - left quad strain - missed 16 days
Tanner Scheppers, RHP - right elbow inflammation - missed 48 days
Jim Adduci, LF - fractured left finger - missed 93 days
Pedro Figueroa, LHP - left elbow inflammation - missed 159 days
Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B - herniated disc - missed 159 days

In the middle of April, the Rangers already had nine players on the disabled list, with Opening Day starter Scheppers the latest victim. Star third baseman Adrian Beltre had landed on the DL with a quad strain. When left-hander Joe Saunders went down with an ankle bruise, he became the fourth Rangers lefty on the shelf before a week of the season had been completed. This was the lineup they were forced to run out on April 22nd, when Shin-Soo Choo sat out with an ankle sprain that would turn out to be far worse than hoped:

C:  J.P. Arencibia
1B: Prince Fielder
2B: Josh Wilson
3B: Kevin Kouzmanoff
SS: Elvis Andrus
LF: Michael Choice
CF: Leonys Martin
RF: Alex Rios
DH: Mitch Moreland

That's already four out of nine players missing from that original projected lineup and Texas hadn't made it through April. It wasn't catastrophic at this point: Beltre would return in a couple of days, and Choo did not need to go on the DL (although in hindsight, perhaps he should have).

However, their depth was starting to disappear. Backup left fielder Jim Adduci joined Engel Beltre on what would become a long list of ill-fated outfielders when he suffered a broken finger. Kouzmanoff, who actually hit well filling in at third, succumbed to a herniated disc right before Beltre returned to reclaim his spot. Another left-handed reliever, Pedro Figueroa, went down with elbow inflammation. Not all of those names will seem crucial, or even well-known, but it would turn out to be relevant.

To make matters worse, even though Fielder was one of the regulars who had managed to avoid the DL, he was not hitting at all. The big first baseman was walking more than he struck out, but at the end of April he had a .206 average with just two home runs. His slugging percentage of .314 was lower than his on-base percentage. Although the hits came back a little in the first two weeks of May, the power didn't.

May

The DL moves
Donnie Murphy, 2B - neck strain - missed 15 days
Martin Perez, LHP - elbow inflammation - missed 141 days
Matt Harrison, LHP - lower back inflammation - missed 138 days
Prince Fielder, 1B - herniated disc - missed 135 days

The man who once hit 50 home runs in a season had just three by May 17th, when it emerged that he had a herniated disc in his neck. Fielder was given an injection to try to relieve the pain, in the hopes he could return to the lineup in a couple of days. His season was over less than a week later. Three Rangers players in total made what would turn out to be their last appearances within the space of that week, as Perez would need Tommy John surgery while it emerged that Harrison had a serious spinal condition.

This would force them to rely on the likes of rookie Nick Martinez, a 24-year-old who had shown some promise in the minors but was just 22 innings into his major league career when he was moved back from the bullpen to a starting role after these injuries. They would also have to promote and start second-year hurler Nick Tepesch, who had struggled to a 4.84 ERA in 2013, for most of the remaining four and a half months. The move that was perhaps the most indicative of the Rangers' plight was the 8 starts and 80 total innings they gave to 32-year-old Scott Baker, who had struggled so badly with injuries that he had thrown 15 innings in the previous two years. Baker would display his usual solid command but 15 home runs ballooned his ERA to 5.47.

The Rangers still weren't totally unrecognisable. Here's how they lined up on May 23rd, the day after the Fielder news emerged:

C: Robinson Chirinos
1B: Mitch Moreland
2B: Rougned Odor
3B: Adrian Beltre
SS: Elvis Andrus
LF: Shin-Soo Choo
CF: Leonys Martin
RF: Alex Rios
DH: Michael Choice

With a recurrence of Yu Darvish's neck trouble forcing their ace to skip a start, the next five starting pitchers for Texas would be:

Scott Baker
Nick Martinez
Colby Lewis
Nick Tepesch
Joe Saunders

That is a completely different list from the five starters who were projected to be in the rotation before the season began. Only Tepesch and Saunders had even pitched in the majors in 2013, neither of them very effectively. Darvish would return to make his next start, but this was already a pitching staff decimated by injury and Darvish aside, the rotation now on the field was barely above replacement level, and in some cases below.

The other problem was that one of the key players on the field wasn't really healthy either. That lingering ankle problem meant Choo wasn't able to play the outfield every day, with Choice, Daniel Robertson and even Moreland giving him breaks in left, and Moreland was forced to become the primary first baseman. The option to use Robertson was even taken away temporarily towards the end of the month, after a collision with Rios left him with facial fractures. Choo's performance was still strong on the surface, with an excellent .412 OBP at the end of May, but a .354 BABIP masked some of the issues and he had just three steals in six attempts, highlighting a decline in speed for a player who had was a threat to steal 20+ in each of the previous five seasons.

The only promising fact was that a significant portion of that original starting lineup remained, including key infielders Andrus and Beltre. There was also hope for the future in 20-year-old Odor, considered an excellent prospect in his own right, who had been promoted just a couple of weeks before and would play the majority of second base the rest of the way, although the team didn't know it yet.

June

The DL moves
Alexi Ogando, RHP - right elbow inflammation - missed 117 days
Mitch Moreland, 1B - left ankle impingement - missed 113 days
Tanner Scheppers, RHP - right elbow inflammation - missed 110 days

Texas was still playing .500 ball (35-35) on June 16th, which didn't look great in the context of the A's and the Angels starting to pull away, but they weren't in the basement. That was the last time Texas could even pretend to be in touch in the division. At the end of June they were 37-45, 14 games behind the A's and just two ahead of the Astros.

Not only was Texas having to give far more starts than planned to Michael Choice as a result of Choo's troublesome ankle, they now had a total mess at first base after Moreland hit the DL with his own ankle issue. It would turn out to be the end of his season and although that wasn't clear initially, the Rangers still had to find someone to fill in. Their attempts included Brad Snyder, Donnie Murphy and veteran Carlos Pena.

If the name Brad Snyder isn't familiar, it's because he's a 32-year-old prospect-turned-minor league journeyman who had just 37 major league plate appearances prior to 2014. He had also never played first base as a professional. The Rangers had traded for a first baseman who had played at least 157 games in eight consecutive seasons and it only took until June for things to go so badly wrong they were using an outfielder with literally no experience at the position and fewer major league games started than the number of seasons Fielder has played.

At the end of the season, the total production from Rangers first basemen was a .216/.292/.338 line that was better than only Astros first basemen, and they managed a league-worst 40 extra-base hits. The pitching woes were not going away either; Scheppers and Ogando were both lost for the season, taking away two more bullpen options and potential backup starters.

July

The DL moves
Nick Martinez, RHP - left side discomfort - missed 20 days
Geovany Soto, C - right groin strain - missed 17 days
Jake Smolinski, LF - bone bruise in left foot - missed 56 days

Even that lead over the Astros would not last long as Texas went 1-12 in the two weeks before the All-Star break. From June 16th to the break, the Rangers were a miserable 3-22. They would play .380 ball from that last time they were at .500, going an MLB-worst 32-60. In July, the Rangers gave starts to the likes of Miles Mikolas and Phil Irwin. With Ogando, Scheppers, Martinez, Holland, Harrison and Perez on the disabled list,  the Rangers had lost more than half of their planned rotation, plus some hurlers they had thought were backup starters, and were now looking anywhere they could to get some innings. At the All-Star break, there was no thought of trading to catch anyone in the West; Texas was 38-57 after getting swept by both the Angels and lowly state rivals Houston, and the season was gone.

Any thoughts that the Rangers' luck might improve in the second half were dispelled when Alex Rios sprained his ankle almost immediately after the All-Star break. Two-thirds of that original outfield were now ailing and would never really fully recover, and Rios seemed to collect injuries from that point on, leaving after a hit by pitch in the same week that it was revealed rookie Jake Smolinski had not just a bruise but a fracture in his foot. Rios struggled with the ankle problem for the rest of the year in addition to a sore thumb, which got infected and ultimately ended his season early. While his performance had already started to dip before the ankle injury, Rios saw his production plummet for the rest of the year, finishing with a .709 OPS and just four home runs for his worst offensive season since 2011, a bad combination with his poor defensive rating in right field.

Perhaps the worst part of Texas' outfield troubles was how often they had to play Michael Choice. The rookie got 55 starts in the outfield, plus another 12 at DH, and was somehow one of the worst players in baseball by WAR despite only having 280 plate appearances. Choice had a .250 OBP, rated well below average in the outfield by pretty much every defensive metric and his -1.9 WAR was second worst amongst all hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, narrowly topping the Tampa Bay Rays' Jose Molina (-2.0). Choice was certainly unlucky, with a .208 BABIP, and perhaps his fielding is not quite as bad as this small sample size suggests, but there's no doubt that getting over 50 outfield starts from a player who was clearly below replacement level, instead of Choo or even Rios, was a big blow to the Rangers.

August & September

The DL moves
Yu Darvish, RHP - right elbow inflammation - missed 50 days
Shin-Soo Choo, LF - bone spur in left elbow - missed 36 days
Jim Adduci, RF - concussion - missed 25 days

Choo's miserable season finally ended at the end of August when it emerged that he also needed surgery to remove a bone spur in his left elbow. Since the day of that gaudy .412 OBP at the end of May, Choo hit .211/.289/.320, didn't steal a single base and was regularly slotted in at DH just to alleviate the ankle discomfort. Of course, he would bat first for almost the entire year, which was a terrific idea when his OBP was over .400 and certainly not when he played for almost 3 months with an OBP below .300.

It was also the end of the season for Yu Darvish in August, although his failure to return was certainly at least somewhat influenced by the Rangers taking up residence in the basement of the AL West, as the ace himself admitted when he went on the DL with elbow inflammation. Under the circumstances, it was probably for the best: Darvish was able to rest his elbow for almost two extra months and there was no serious structural damage to give the Rangers extra longer-term concerns. As a collective, Rangers starters would finish the year with an ERA of 4.75 that was third-worst in the league, while their WHIP of 1.451 ranked dead last. It would have been even worse had it not been for the long awaited return of Derek Holland, who pitched superbly in five starts for a 1.46 ERA, and another rookie, Lisalverto Bonilla, who made an impressive 3-start cameo and was one of only three Rangers starters, along with Darvish and Holland, to post an ERA under 4.

The following lineup is from a series that many might have thought would be crucial at the start of the season, a three-game set against the Angels in the second week of September. With Robinson Chirinos still recovering from neck stiffness, rookie Tomas Telis would fill in to make up perhaps one of the most unlikely lineups for any team in the 2014 season when the Rangers faced Los Angeles on September 10th:


C: Tomas Telis
1B: Adam Rosales
2B: Rougned Odor
3B: Adrian Beltre
SS: Elvis Andrus
LF: Ryan Rua
CF: Leonys Martin
RF: Michael Choice
DH: Luis Sardinas

Those players who survived from that original projected lineup are highlighted; 'unrecognizable' seems more appropriate now. Yes, that is Adam Rosales, he of the career 74 OPS+, at first base. That is another rookie, Luis Sardinas, at DH - a rookie with a minor league OPS of .691 who is better-known for his prowess with the glove. Ryan Rua, another rookie, has certainly shown much more promise with the bat in the minors, putting up an .866 OPS in 2014, but would hardly have expected to be starting in left field against key division rivals when he began his year at Double-A.

With Sardinas, Rua and Telis joining Odor and Choice, there were five rookies in this lineup. Of course, the Rangers were completely finished well before this point, but there's no question this lineup would never have happened without the remarkable run of misfortune. The Rangers had so little depth left that they only had three healthy outfielders at some points during September, after rosters expanded.

Thanks to Baseball-Reference's excellent team pages, we can see not only who started every game of the season, but how frequently a lineup was used. In total, Texas used 138 different lineups in 2014 (not including pitchers); in other words, there were only 24 games in 2014 in which they managed to use a lineup that had been used in a previous game. Their most common lineup was used just five times and featured J.P. Arencibia at first base. By way of contrast, the AL pennant-winning Royals used 70 different lineups, with a most common lineup, the one they rode most of the way to the World Series, that featured 33 times. Think about that for a moment: almost every day of the season, any Rangers player would have been able to look around them and see a player who hadn't been out there the day before - that is, if they weren't the one on the treatment table.

So was there a theme? A major reason that this season was lost so spectacularly? Injuries to significant players were clearly a big part of the 2014 disaster. Four members of that original offense were finished for the season well before the end of September rolled around. Rios had managed to stick around for most of the second half despite his injuries, playing terribly when he was in the lineup and sitting out regularly to further stretch the dwindling depth. Soto had been traded away to the A's when the Rangers were already done, while Profar's status still remains up in the air after a concerning 2014. The rotation was already ruined by the end of May and got even worse when Darvish went down for good in August, while the bullpen arms which still functioned were often called into emergency starting roles where possible. Joakim Soria and Jason Frasor were traded away because the Rangers were already so far out of contention by the deadline. 

Part of the problem was not only the quantity of the injuries, but the severity. The Rangers didn't just have to put a lot of players (26 moves) on the DL; they had to put a lot of players on the DL who never came back. 11 of those 26 never returned to the team after being placed on the DL; 8 of those moves came before the halfway point in the season. The Brewers only made 10 moves in total. With individual stints added up, Texas lost 2347 days to the disabled list, almost 1000 more than fellow strugglers Arizona and over double all but four other teams.

There's also the question of how the remarkably bad luck played a part in players trying to stay on the field when they clearly weren't capable of performing, and for the team letting them do so, as well as the effect so many injuries must have had on the mood in the clubhouse. Would Fielder have stayed out there for so long if Texas hadn't already been in the double-digits for DL moves? Would Choo have tried to play through that ankle problem all year? Would Rios have limped his way into September if there was a healthy, productive outfielder on the bench and another one ready in the minors?

We'll never really know what would have happened in these cases if action had been taken sooner, but it's clear that all these injuries gave Texas no options at all. At least initially, there was surely some extra pressure felt to play through pain because of how stretched the roster became, and there was certainly the incentive to shut injured players down and trade others from July onwards, when the record reflected the number of injuries.

All things considered, the problem for the Rangers was not that one specific thing went wrong, but that everything went wrong in unison. Sometimes key players get hurt. Sometimes bench players get hurt. Sometimes players get nagging ailments, and sometimes they suffer season-ending injuries. Sometimes they strain a muscle, or blow out their elbow, or collide with each other in the outfield, or get tripped by their dog on the stairs. On very rare occasions, all of these things happen in a very short period of time. It happened to Texas in 2014, and the results weren't pretty. Let's hope it's a better year for them in 2015.

Many thanks to the invaluable Baseball-Reference.com and their Play Index, which provided many of the stats for this piece, and MLB.com's Transactions page, from which the DL statistics were produced. 



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2 comments:

  1. Great review of a season "blown-up" by accidents, injuries and bad decisions made by management. Here's hoping for a better coming season. This remains to be seen, afterall, the Ranger's GM did replace the "interim manager" who turned the team completely around, and got "dumped" for his efforts.

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  2. On the starting pitching front Martin Perez will not be a factor for all of 2015, we may see some from him late in the season but with TJ surgery it is doubtful he will be of any real use to the Rangers this year. Matt Harrison won't start throwing until January 2015, it is not even a given that his career will survive what his back has been through much less will he be the pitcher he once was. No help from Matt, and good luck to him in the future! We are down to two bon-a-fide starters. Tepesch, Martinez, Lewis, Ogando, none of these guys will ever take us back to the paly offs. Martinez could have a future with more experience, after all he had never he pitched at AA I don't think. He was brought up from A ball to AA and then immediately forced into service in Arlington. Darvish is super, but has never won more than 15 games and can be a bit quirky at times. Of course it might help if the team scored some runs for him. And Holland has a super chance to be top of the rotation type, just needs to keep it together consistently. Lewis and Ogando need to go...........maybe in a package with someone that would include Jon Daniels!!

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