No one should hit the panic button after the first nine games of a 162 game schedule, just ask the 2019 Washington Nationals. However, if there’s a phase to zero in on for the Texas Rangers in 2022, it’s the bullpen. The bullpen has pitched 47.2 innings through nine games, and yes, Friday’s eight innings due to an opener count towards the figure. The Rangers’ pen allowed the second-most hits, the most runs, the most home runs, and one of three teams that haven’t recorded a save. The numbers don’t look pretty. “There’s a component to be a Major League pitcher and a good pitching staff,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “There’s going to be traffic, and you’ll face [tough lineups]. The ability to execute is what stands out right now.” To blame all of the bullpen struggles on lack of execution is a bit premature. Again, it’s one of the most worked pens in MLB right now, while Rangers’ starters pitched the fewest innings among any starting staff.
In 2021, the bullpen ranked seventeenth, middle of the pack, in MLB in ERA and worked the ninth most innings. It was a solid group that those didn’t view as a weakness for a 102-loss team. Heading into 2022, about half of the group from last year returned. Could the struggles early on be a factor in the shortened Spring Training? “I don’t think so,” Brett Martin told me. “I think Spring Training was the perfect length. Maybe four weeks will be plenty, but three weeks might have been a little too short.” Also the Rangers had to make a couple of pitching moves with Dennis Santana on the COVID-19 injured list, Josh Sborz on the ten day injured list with right elbow soreness, and two separate blister issues (Jon Gray and Spencer Howard).
“It’s tough to answer,” John King said to me when asked if the struggles are due to the shortened spring. “It’s rare too because we only build up like two innings. It’s more for the starters and position players that have a lengthier ramp-up. All the bullpen feels good.” Both Martin and King said they overall feel good. Brett said he was sorting out a few things, but in his last outing on Sunday, he did work out of a bases-loaded no-out jam limiting the damage to two runs on two RBI groundouts. For John King, he’s had four scoreless outings since giving up a couple of runs on Opening Day. While Chris Woodward hasn’t established inning roles within the bullpen, leverage roles are. Though I asked BJ (Brett and John) together who impressed them the most out of the pen, “Brock Burke,” Martin said. “Strikeout machine!” King added.
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Brock Burke is one of the shining bullpen arms showcased on this staff in 2022. Since early 2019, Burke has dealt with injuries, including shoulder surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2020 season. One goal for Burke, he told me, was simplifying the mentality on the mound. “Don’t think about mechanics [and] don’t think about anything but getting the hitter out,” Burke told me. It’s about that aggressive mentality of throwing as hard as possible while utilizing all his stuff to get a hitter out. “It’s helped me go right at guys with all my stuff and all my best stuff just attacking hitters.”
Burke struck out ten of fifteen hitters faced in his first two outings, though he ran into issues Sunday, allowing two hits and a walk. Burke said the veteran guys like Garrett Richards and Greg Holland have been influential for him and what he’s been able to do on the mound. “I’ve been asking a lot of questions,” Burke said. “I’m sure they’re sick of my questions at this point.”
Questions Brock mentioned to me were what to do in the bullpen, how to approach multiple innings in the pen, and how to stay ready, just to name a few. “[Richards and Holland] have been a huge help [and] helped me along with those kinds of things. All the questions that I’ve had from trying to transfer as a starter to bullpen guy, and both of them have done it in the past, more Richards than Holland, but both have been a big help.”
Every Brock Burke 4-seam fastball this season pic.twitter.com/3ZanGJCYOv
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Do the Rangers see Brock Burke as a future starter? “Not yet,” Rangers manager Chris Woodward said. “We’ve looked at him before he was healthy; what do we think his best role. It may be more stretched out, like two or three innings, but right now, we’re not going to go there until halfway through the year when [Jose] Leclerc and [Jonathan] Hernandez get back, and we make an adjustment there depending on the rotation. [So] we don’t have any thoughts to do that.” For Burke, whatever role he’s in, he’s good with. “I’m just happy to be here and trying to get dudes out,” Brock told me. “Whatever they need, whatever role they need is whatever I’m good for.”
The bullpen started their own pool for the season. According to a few bullpen guys, the group tallies a system that includes strikeouts, big situations, etc. Each guy contributes to the pool, and at the end of the month, whoever has the most tallies wins half the pot. The other half goes into the end-of-season jackpot. “It’s pretty cool,” Brett Martin said. “[It] keeps [the] good competition between everybody.” “It’s a pretty cool idea within the bullpen to give us extra motivation.” The bullpen will get needed rest on Monday with reinforcements heading to Seattle. The Rangers anticipate Jon Gray to make Tuesday’s start coming off the injured list due to a blister. Plus, the team hopes Dennis Santana is available later in the week after the Rangers placed him on the COVID-19 injured list.
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