Heading into the 2016 season, the Rangers looked set to have one of the best bullpens in baseball. They returned closer Shawn Tolleson, who converted 35 of 37 save opportunities after being named the Rangers closer in May 2015, as well as Jake Diekman, Keone Kela and Sam Dyson, the trio of flame-throwing setup guys who helped the team storm through the second half of the season to their first American League West championship since 2011. During the off-season, the Rangers added further to their stockpile, picking up another guy capable of throwing around 95 mph, the Seattle Mariners Tom Wilhelmsen, in a trade for deposed center fielder Leonys Martin.
Then, in April, balls actually started getting pitched and, but for a few bright spots — Diekman, Dyson and newcomer Matt Bush — things went to hell.
Tolleson blew his fourth save of 2016 Tuesday night, throwing a middle-middle fastball to the A's Khris Davis, who deposited the meatball into the left field seats for a game-winning grand slam. Tolleson, who'd loaded the bases with no outs before getting two popups prior to facing Davis, threw the power-hitting outfielder nothing but fastballs. When he finally missed with one, Davis made him pay.
It was the fifth home run given up this season by Tolleson in 14.2 innings pitched. In 2015, he only gave up nine home runs in more than 72 innings. The problem for Tolleson is clear. Despite his being somewhat unlucky this season — his home run to fly ball rate is an absurdly high 27.8, while the league average usually hovers somewhere between 10 and 12 percent — the former Dodger has lost the ability to command or deceive with his change-up, the pitch that had been his best. For whatever reason, batters seem to know when the change is coming, either from spin on the baseball or Tolleson tipping it, and have been able to lay off of it. Stripped of his out pitch, Tolleson must be exceedingly precise with his fastball location. When he isn't, as he hasn't been for much of the season, he gets rocked. Wednesday, Rangers manager Jeff Banister said Tolleson was going to be taken out of the closer role for awhile, which is the right move.
As bad as Tolleson's been, Wilhelmsen has been worse. He's given up six home runs in 15.1 innings and has looked befuddled and overmatched each time he's taken the hill this season. He's a fly-ball pitcher who benefited greatly from the run-suppressing environment in Seattle and isn't the kind of guy who has the pure stuff to fight his way out of this kind of slump by striking guys out. If he continues to perform at the level he is now — worse than replacement level — the Rangers' will get better simply by getting rid of him.
Tolleson and Wilhelmsen have been given a long leash by Banister because managers across baseball have a bias toward not scrapping veterans to early. As their pitchers' roles diminish, however, it's easy to see reasons to hope.
Despite his struggles, Tolleson is still tied for the American League lead in saves with 11. That's because the Rangers have also managed to give him the highest number of save opportunities (15) in the league. If he'd converted 13 of them, the Rangers would be first place, rather than 1.5 games behind the Mariners. A merely competent closer will be put in position to succeed by the Rangers, again and again.
Sam Dyson, the guy who's been promoted to take Tolleson's place should be that guy. He doesn't have traditional strikeout stuff, but his 98-mph bowling ball sinker means that he has one of the highest ground ball percentages in baseball. He might be best utilized coming in with men on base in an attempt to get a double play, but he'll be better than Tolleson on the back-end, at least until Tolleson can figure out his changeup.
If Tolleson doesn't get better, the Rangers might be best served taking Dyson out of the role at some point anyway. Bush, the former first overall pick and resident of the Florida state prison system, made his major league debut last week and has yet to give up a run in three appearances. He has all the stuff one could ever want from a closer. He's got a 98 mph fastball with late movement, a wipeout 92 mph slider and a decent change-up. If Banister can learn to trust the rookie, Bush could free Dyson for more targeted duty. It's the plan with a little risk, but even more upside.