The Texas Rangers can hit -- that's almost always been true, especially in that hitter-friendly park. But it's only recently that they've been able to pitch. Even when the Rangers were making the playoffs in the 90s, it was due almost entirely to an offense comprised of sluggers like Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, and Rafael Palmeiro.
In 1999, the Rangers won 95 games and the AL West with this rotation:
This is a thing that happened. Aaron Sele was legitimately productive for a time, but he shouldn't be the leader of a playoff pitching staff. Rick Helling didn't miss bats, didn't have great control, and was an extreme flyball pitcher whose homer rates were decimated by the era and the Ballpark in Arlington. He was the Rangers' second-most productive starter in 1999. To top things off, this staff somehow survived the year despite the Rangers ranking towards the bottom of the league in Defensive Efficiency.
Once the offense vanished, so did the Rangers' winning. The Rangers dropped from fourth in the majors (and fourth in the AL) in True Average in 1999 to 17th in 2000, and the start of a four-year stretch of last place finishes began.
From 2000 through 2004, the Rangers had just five starters (designated as starting in 60 percent of their appearances) throw at least 100 innings while posting an ERA+ of 100 or better. They combined for 1,933 innings in that stretch, and a 4.76 ERA. The Rangers had 10 other pitchers throw at least 100 innings in that five-year period, and those 10 put up just 2,034 combined frames and a 6.04 ERA. Offense was higher a decade ago, but not that much higher.
This actually overstates the success, as Kenny Rogers and Rick Helling accounted for over 1,200 of those average-or-better innings on their own. The rest of the group put in a season and change of acceptable starting, while everyone else with any kind of impact was generally awful.
There has been much more consistency in the Texas rotation over the last five seasons, all under general manager Jon Daniels. The top five in ERA+, using the same criteria as above, was far more consistent, productive, and with the exception of trade acquisition Cliff Lee, stuck around, too. The below-average group was much improved as well: despite there being just the six instead of 10 like in the previous batch, they threw more innings (2,207), posted a superior ERA (3.77), and had just one pitcher -- Robinson Tejeda -- more than 10 percent worse than average. Tejeda threw just 101 frames, so the Rangers didn't let him pitch poorly long.
The 60 percent starts threshold doesn't take into account that C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando were great in their time as starters, either, but that's to the current regime's credit. The pre-Daniels Rangers used starters who needed to convert to relief to survive in the majors -- Darren Oliver, Joaquin Benoit, Chan Ho Park -- while the current Rangers have received some of their best starting from former relievers who were overqualified for their old gigs. That's a trend they plan to continue with former closer Neftali Feliz.
The change from awful to great starting is more deliberate than a cycle of fortune. Yes, the Rangers had some unfortunate luck with injuries, or prospects just not panning out. But the depth that Jon Daniels has built up since taking over as general manager in 2005 has gone a long way towards keeping those problems from repeating.
It didn't start that way, with Daniels dealing Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez for a package that included Adam Eaton. Eaton was a below-average hurler when acquired, and things got worse for him from there. The John Danks for Brandon McCarthy swap -- which broke up the vaunted "DVD" prospect trio of Danks, Edinson Volquez, and Thomas Diamond -- didn't work out for the Rangers either. McCarthy was effective, but rarely on the mound due to injuries, while Danks has now thrown over 900 innings of above-average baseball for the White Sox over five seasons.
Daniels' next major deal for pitching would help erase some of that damage, though, as he sent Mark Teixeira -- who was nearly guaranteed to hit free agency and a massive payday in the near future -- to the Braves. For Teixeira and reliever Ron Mahay, Daniels received Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison and Feliz. That's two-fifths of the current rotation, a starting shortstop on two World Series teams, and a catcher who is now producing for the Red Sox.
International signings cover another two of the five slots. Colby Lewis, who originally was part of the pre-Daniels Rangers, succeeded in Japan and was brought back to the states by Texas. His 110 ERA+ and 400-plus innings since returning have been huge for the Rangers. Yu Darvish doesn't have any MLB starts just yet, but the six-year, $60 million contract he signed was Texas' wallet and international scouting department flexing their muscle.
Then there is Derek Holland, signed Tuesday to a five-year contract extension. Unlike Volquez, who has yet to show consistent success, or Diamond, who has just 29 major league innings despite being a huge prospect more than half-a-decade ago, Holland has turned into a productive pitcher. He, along with Wilson, Harrison, and Feliz, represent a success with pitching prospects that just never previously existed in Texas.
Part of the reason for their success is that the Rangers could bring them all along at the necessary slow pace. Pitchers like Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter spent time in the rotation while Holland, Wilson, Alexi Ogando, and Matt Harrison figured things out in the minors or in relief. Feldman and Hunter are better starters than almost everyone the Rangers of 10 years ago were putting out there, but for these Rangers, they were (and still are, in Feldman's case) relegated to depth for even better hurlers.
Too much pitching is never a problem. The Rangers before Daniels were always short on starters, whether through poor luck, injuries, or just shoddy starters, but his teams have been blessed by depth due to planning and stocking. With Darvish, Holland, and Feliz under contract through at least 2015, even more pitching prospects on the way, and the team awash in money thanks to a new TV deal, that's unlikely to change anytime soon.