Despite some pretty heavy divisional favorites coming into the season, the classic adage, ‘you can’t predict baseball’ is as relevant today as ever. With the Twins’ commanding divisional lead over the ‘shoe-in’ reigning-Central-champion-Indians, and the Rays keeping pace with the injury-riddled b-squad Yankees (and the Red Sox seemingly not able to get out of their own way), the American League is rife with interesting story lines.
Although the Astros are likely going to run-away with the West (ok, so that one was predictable), one of the intriguing developments going into the summer is the other Texas-based AL team, as the Rangers have positioned themselves to potentially be buyers at this year’s trade deadline en route to their first potential postseason berth since 2016.
Few expected Texas to contend this season, and most projection systems had them a near-90 loss team. Despite the minuscule expectations, Texas is playing well through the first ~40 percent of the season, led by some unlikely players.
The Rangers are currently 36-32 coming off a series split with the sputtering Red Sox. The surprises have been all over the lineup and on the mound, led by two unlikely starting pitchers that few expected to be impact-players.
Earlier this week, my colleague Kenny Kelly profiled veteran journeyman Lance Lynn’s excellent year. Lynn is playing well despite bouncing around between four teams over the last two years.
Today we take a look at Mike Minor’s sudden surge as a reliable starter, a mere year-and-a-half after Texas moved him into the rotation following a season in the Royals’ bullpen. Texas’ previously yawn-inducing one/two punch has actually been one of the most effective tandems in baseball this season, with Minor leading all pitchers in bWAR and Lynn not that farr off the top-ten.
Mike Minor’s 4.5 bWAR is nearly a full-win ahead of second-place Hyun-Jin Ryu, who is showing his dominance for the first time in years. Last season the Rangers signed the 31-year-old Minor to a three-year deal, expecting to turn the then-reliever into a starter. Coming off a season in which he tossed 77 ⅔ innings out of Kansas City’s bullpen, Minor started 28 games and pitched 157 innings for Texas in 2018; he showed particular steps forward in the second half of the season.
Overall, 2018 was a success as far as getting Minor’s innings up from less-than 80 to 157. He earned the extra innings, as he posted an earned run average 11 percentage points better than the league average (a 111 ERA+). Minor’s 4.36 RA9 was fine, but nothing special, and his strikeout rate went down eight percentage points. Again, looking at the second-half splits however, he showed marked improvement as the year progressed.
2019 has been an opportunity for Minor to demonstate that 2018 was not a fluke. In 89 ⅓ innings so far this season, Minor has posted a 2.52 ERA, earning his an ERA+ of 195 (or if you prefer, an ERA- of 52). His strikeout rate is hovering around 25 percent, which is considerably higher than his career 21.8 percent. He’s averaging a near-.300 BABIP-against, which is right in-line with what we would expect from a league average standpoint, and though his walk rate is a tick higher than last year, 7.7 percent is still at league-average.
There is one thing that Minor has been good at this season that is not likely to sustain itself through the remainder of the year: his ability to leave men on base and get out of innings.
His strand rate this season is a sky-high 87.1 percent, considerably higher than his 74.6 percent career mark, and well above league-average. Putting this into the context of the average American League starter, we generally would expect that 87 percent to dip down to about 71 percent, which obviously would have a major effect on the number of runs scoring against Minor.
Looking beyond the results, and diving more deeply into Minor’s repertoire, we some some subtle changes in his approach, but nothing transformational. Overall, he is relying less on his four seam fastball, and supplementing it more often with his curveball and changeup.
Minor has adjusted his pitch selection slightly, but not dramatically. Here is the breakdown of aggregate pitches thrown since Texas moved him back into the rotation, per Brooks Baseball.
Minor’s contact-against percentages have largely stayed the same between 2018 and 2019, with approximately 20 percent of contact classified as soft, 42 percent classified as medium-hit, and 38 percent hard-hit. The results on the types of balls batters are putting in play against him however has changed pretty substantially.
In 2018, Minor generated a near-45 percent flyball rate, and a 34.4 percent groundball rate. This year, that has flipped, as batters have generated 34.8 percent flyballs to 43.9 percent on gounders, a surprising development in the hitters’ fly-ball revolution days.
While few would have projected Minor for a career-year on the other-side-of-thirty, he’s been pitching very well going back to the second-half of last season. After the All Star break in 2018, Minor held hitters to a paltry .194/.251/.369 slash line. In 57 ⅔ innings, he posted a 2.97 ERA.
For the Rangers to sustain success and make a wild card run, they are at the mercy of the top-end of their pitching staff (Minor and Lynn) and are hoping for their offense to continue to perform. While they remain an underdog to earn a wildcard spot, if the Indians and Red Sox can’t put together a decent winning streak, a Texas postseason berth is there for the taking.