An early-season shocker has developed in the American League pitching statistics, especially after what happened to Kyle Gibson on Opening Day.
Entering Thursday, no team had a better ERA from its starters than the picked-for-last Texas Rangers.
It’s true, even after their 7-4 victory Wednesday afternoon to the Los Angeles Angels.
Mike Foltynewicz allowed three solo home runs in six innings, lifting the rotation’s ERA from 3.16 to 3.24. He left the game down 3-1, and was somewhat remorseful after the Rangers rallied to a 7-4 victory.
“I apologized to the guys today,” he said. “It could have been a lot better.”
The Rangers were off Thursday before opening a three-game series at Chicago, where White Sox starters entered Thursday with the second-best rotation ERA at 3.28.
That kind of starting was expected from the White Sox before the season, but not from the Rangers.
Yet, here it is. It hasn’t kept the Rangers from rising above .500 — they are just one game below it at 9-10 (.474) — but it has kept just them above the meager 66.5 over/under (.410) win threshold set by Las Vegas oddsmakers.
The starters aren’t walking batters, and they’re piling up more strikeouts than in past seasons.
That’s a pretty good place to start.
“They’ve taken on the philosophy of we’re going to attack the strike zone,” manager Chris Woodward said. “We weren’t going to have guys that walked guys, and they’ve taken that to heart. They’ve set the tone in every game we’ve played. Outside of the first game, they’ve been phenomenal.”
All five starters are right-handers. Two of them are rookies technically, though Kohei Arihara logged 125 starts over six seasons for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Nippon Professional Baseball.
Dane Dunning, the other rookie, is scheduled to start Friday against the team that traded him away in December for Lance Lynn. Dunning’s 0.60 ERA leads all Rangers starters.
Kyle Gibson had a 135.00 ERA after the season-opening loss to the Kansas City Royals in which he allowed five first-inning runs while recording only one out. He has allowed only two runs, one of them unearned, over his past 21 innings to drop his ERA to 2.53.
Jordan Lyles (4.64) and Foltynewicz (5.32) are nursing higher ERAs, but their pitching has represented a sharp turnaround from their lousy 2020 seasons and they are showing signs that they will continue to improve.
“It’s been very cool to watch those guys,” Foltynewicz said of the rest of the rotation. “It makes me want to go out there and do better.”
The Rangers have 143 games remaining, so chances are the rotation will hit some speed bumps and have some different faces making appearances. That’s the nature of a 162-game beast of a schedule.
The Rangers are working with an unusual set up in the rotation, using tandems to fill two of the spots. One of the tandems is to help keep Dunning’s workload down in his first full season after Tommy John surgery in 2019, and the other is to protect Lyles from facing an opposing lineup too many times.
He’s on the verge of breaking out of that role. The Rangers are also keeping tabs on Arihara’s use in his first season in a five-man rotation as opposed to the extra days of rest he would received in the Japanese rotation structure.
But the right foundation for success is in place. The Rangers are throwing the ball in the strike zone.
They were tied for first in the AL with the Tampa Bay Rays for the fewest walks by starters (28) and tied for the first with the Cleveland Indians with a 1.06 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched).
“That was a big thing [the coaching staff] hit on in the beginning this spring training: We are not going to walk people,” Foltynewicz said. “If they’re going to get on they’re going to earn it. That’s our big mojo around here. We’re not going to walk anybody, get ahead with the first pitch and keep grinding those at-bats out.”
The bullpen has had more difficulties than the rotation, pushing the team ERA to 4.15. That’s eighth in the league, still better than what was expected before the season.
The Rangers have allowed 30 home runs, split evenly between the rotation and bullpen. That’s the most in baseball, and a side effect of pitching in the strike zone.
But through the first three weeks of the season, it’s hard to find much to complain about from the rotation.
“The starting rotation is going out there and killing it,” Foltynewicz said. “And we’re having fun.”