Entering the 2023 season, all signs pointed to one aspect of the Texas Rangers roster as the weakest: the bullpen. Texas enhanced its rotation and the offense proved to be a strong point last season. Though 12 games into the season, the Rangers bullpen seems to be the team’s strong suit.
Even after allowing six earned runs in the last two games against the Kansas City Royals, the Rangers bullpen ranks fifth in MLB with a 2.84 ERA. The 44.1 innings match in the middle of the pack among all teams, a bullpen used to being the most overworked in the game. But what has been the difference between last year’s pen and this year’s?
“We’ve added a couple of really nice veteran pieces that set the tone on mindset and expectations,” Rangers bullpen coach Brett Hayes said. “[We] also got a couple of other guys in the bullpen [with] another year under their belt trying to build off of. We’ve got a good mix down there of personalities that everyone is pulling in the same direction.”
WILL. SMITH. @Rangers | #StraightUpTX pic.twitter.com/eBSraKtHa2
— Bally Sports Southwest (@BallySportsSW) April 12, 2023
If you count Taylor Hearn, who shifted mid-season from starter to bullpen, the Rangers have four guys returning from last season to the bullpen. Dane Dunning and Cole Ragans transferred from starters in 2022 to relievers in 2023.
“I feel like we have a good thing going on there,” Cole Ragans said. “Everybody is pulling for everybody [and we] get along really well. We have a good time down there [but] know when to be serious.”
Another aspect of the bullpen differences is the flexibility of roles. At the start of the season, Rangers manager Bruce Bochy mentioned that early in the season, he wouldn’t define bullpen roles. Though now it appears José Leclerc is the main closer at the moment, others are getting their chances.
“[Bochy] likes that flexibility because you get to the ninth inning, and you have options,” Hayes told me. “It’s obviously nice to have a 60 million dollar closer, but it’s nice to have four closers. Having that flexibility to match up the best matchups and you have guys you can trust is an added bonus.”
I asked Brett Hayes who has been the most impressive, and he ran down the list of each bullpen piece between Will Smith’s experience and his changing in messaging to Ian Kennedy reclaiming his success with the Rangers in 2021.
“I’m really happy where we’re at. I know Bochy and Mike have expressed the same thing, and we just kept getting rolling,” Hayes said.
Cole Ragans Strong Start
Another surprise out of the bullpen has been the success of Cole Ragans. In the offseason, Ragans did a lot of work to bulk up, which resulted in crisper stuff on his pitches. Through a small sample to begin the year, it’s paid off, including his first two Major League wins.
“We have a good group of guys to get some pointers from, the veteran guys and the guys that have been doing it,” Ragans said. “[I] got a little routine going [and] started doing weighted balls so that helps get loose.”
The weighted balls Ragans mentioned help a ton in preparation for the bullpen. He said it eliminated a lot of throws that he would do last season. Therefore, he’s ready and loosens quicker, which is essential considering Cole is in the long relief role.
“I know my stuff is good enough to get guys out. As long as I attack and get ahead, the rest will take care of itself,” Ragans said.
Cole Ragans has two winning decisions this year…in each of those two outings he threw a total of 5 pitches!
— Jared Sandler (@JaredSandler) April 12, 2023
Ragans told me that everyone in the bullpen helped him through the transition process, and it’s about mirroring when guys start throwing, whether it’s the middle-inning reliever or the late-inning relievers. The key for Ragans is getting the routine down, and with the success he’s having early on, the routine is working darn well. In five relief appearances, Ragans hasn’t allowed a run and struck out six batters. The tiny blip is the four walks in five innings, but Ragans is proving he can work out of those situations.
Tuesday’s extra-inning situation was a different one too. It was another test Cole passed with flying colors in 2/3 of an inning, getting out of a two-man on jam.
“Adrenalines flying, and it’s late in the game, so it’s trying to keep my nerves calm as I can, and know that we just got to attack and get guys out was my biggest thing,” Ragans told me.”
In the offseason, Rangers General Manager Chris Young said that good starting pitching results in improved other aspects of the team, like the bullpen. So while the starters’ numbers don’t jump out, the bullpen is certainly reaping the benefits of their improvement.
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