Last year, the Texas Rangers shifted lefty C.J. Wilson from the bullpen to the starting rotation. The results were superb: Wilson racked up 4.4 Wins Above Replacement, playing a prominent role for the 2010 AL West Division title winner and Junior Circuit representative in the World Series.
This past spring, the Rangers made another ‘pen arm a starter. No, not Neftali Feliz. Texas didn’t change its closer’s role, but rather decided to see how Alexi Ogando’s power fastball/slider combo played while facing lineups multiple times. Through seven starts, Ogando’s results look spectacular. He’s got a 2.06 ERA in 43.2 innings pitched, making the Rangers’ brass look like geniuses.
Ogando has enjoyed more breaks and friendly bounces than perhaps any other pitcher in the game this season, and he still must answer questions about how he’ll handle a starter’s workload and combat opposite-handed hitters. That said, his underlying performance is strong enough to suggest that Texas could have another successful bullpen convert on its hands.
Ogando was originally signed by the Oakland A’s out of the Dominican Republic in 2002 as a strong-armed outfielder. In 2005, he was implicated in a human trafficking ring, and subsequent visa issues kept him out of the U.S. for five years. Texas selected the right-hander in the Double-A Phase of the ’05 Rule V Draft. They converted Ogando to the mound, watched his progress in the Dominican Summer League and hoped that he would eventually be granted a visa.
Once he got that visa, it didn’t take him long to reach Texas. Ogando racked up a 42/11 K/BB ratio in 30.2 IP between Double-A and Triple-A in 2010, earning a big league call-up by mid-June. Relying upon a fastball that averaged better than 96 MPH and a low-80s slider, Ogando then posted a 3.89 xFIP in 41.2 major league frames and pitched well in the Rangers’ postseason run.
So far in 2011, Ogando has been an above-average, if not ace-like starter when the focus shifts to aspects of performance that a pitcher most directly controls. The 27-year-old’s xFIP is 3.89, which is about two percent better than the big league average.
Not surprisingly, Ogando’s velocity has decreased as a starter, though his 94.2 MPH average trails just Michael Pineda, Justin Verlander and David Price among qualified starters. Texas Leaguers shows that fastball, thrown about two-thirds of the time, has gotten whiffs at an 8.3% rate (6% MLB average). Ogando’s slider (also down a couple of ticks on the gun) has been thrown about 30% of the time. The slider isn’t getting many whiffs (9.4%, compared to the 13.6% MLB average), but Ogando is doing a decent job of throwing it for strikes (63.1%, right around average).
Turning to our Plate Discipline stats, Ogando’s 59.7 first-pitch strike percentage tops the 58.9% MLB average, and he’s getting swinging strikes at an above-average pace, too (8.9% for Ogando, 8.4% MLB average).
Nabbing first-pitch strikes and inducing swinging strikes has helped Ogando post quality strikeout and walk per plate appearance figures: he’s punching out 18.7% of the batters that he has faced, while issuing a free pass just 5.9% of the time. By comparison, the AL averages for starters this season are 17.1% for strikeouts per plate appearance and 7.9% for BB/PA.
So, Ogando has legitimately pitched well in 2011. But, as that Bob Gibson-esque ERA suggests, he has also been exceptionally lucky. Ogando has a .193 batting average on balls in play, while the AL average for starters is .285. Perhaps Ogando can post a slightly better than average BABIP as a fly ball-oriented pitcher. But there’s no way pitches put in play against Ogando continue to find leather so often, short of magnets being slapped on the ball and the gloves of Rangers defenders.
Ogando has also been exceedingly lucky in stranding base runners — he’s leaving ducks on the pond 95.4% of the time, by far the highest rate among starters and way above the 72-73% big league average.
You can’t ride those Luck Dragons forever, Alexi — eventually, they’re gonna eat you.
Overall, Ogando’s first seven starts in the majors have been promising. He’s missing a decent number of bats, showing good control and, unlike last year, he’s at least holding his own versus lefty pitching despite possessing a two-pitch repertoire that suggests platoon problems. According to Baseball-Reference, Ogando has had the platoon advantage in just 36% of opponent plate appearances this season (46% MLB average). With managers stacking the lineup with lefties, Ogando has responded with an 18/6 K/BB ratio and a 4.14 xFIP in 27 frames against opposite-handed batters.
We still don’t know how Ogando will hold up as the innings accumulate, or whether he can continue to keep lefties at bay while largely ignoring his changeup. The Luck Dragons, his allies thus far, figure to turn on him, too. However, Ogando has shown enough talent for both the Rangers and fantasy owners to hope he can remain a solid starter.
A recent graduate of Duquesne University, David Golebiewski is a contributing writer for Fangraphs, The Pittsburgh Sports Report and Baseball Analytics. His work for Inside Edge Scouting Services has appeared on ESPN.com and Yahoo.com, and he was a fantasy baseball columnist for Rotoworld from 2009-2010. He recently contributed an article on Mike Stanton's slugging to The Hardball Times Annual 2012. Contact David at email@example.com and check out his work at Journalist For Hire.