With A Little Luck, Tanner Scheppers Carving Niche As Closer-In-Waiting For Texas Rangers

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Armed with a fastball in the high 90s that was considered to be one of the best among his prospect class, fireballer Tanner Scheppers had the kind of ideal-world ceiling that might have made him a frontline starter for the Texas Rangers one day.

Now, while health concerns have more or less quashed that dream over the course of his development, the consolation prize hasn’t been too shabby either.

After a middling debut season in 2012 that saw him throw 32.1 innings of homer-prone (1.67 HR/9) relief that resulted in a 4.45/1.73 ERA.WHIP, Scheppers’ followup in 2013 has been eye-opening in a number of ways.

For one, he’s been more or less unhittable. In 32 thus far in 2013, the right-hander has allowed just three runs on 17 hits and 11 walks, good for a 0.84/0.88 ERA/WHIP that ranks him in the top-five in the former and tied for 11th in the latter among all relievers. Batters are hitting just .156 against him this year, compared to .333 last season.

In fact, he’s been so good that he’s already all but ascended the Rangers’ depth charts, and is now second only to closer Joe Nathan.

To climb that final step, however, he’ll need a couple of things: one, for the Rangers not to exercise the 2014 option on Nathan, and two … show that this incredible run is more than a luck-fueled mirage — and both are more easily said than done.

See, perhaps the most remarkable thing about Scheppers’ improvement is that he’s doing it with a dramatically reduced 5.63 K/9 (8.35 in 2012) and increased walk rate (3.09 BB/9, 2.51 in 2012), a deadly combo that should tell even those who aren’t sabermetrically-inclined that there’s something just a little off here.

When you add in his rock-bottom .172 BABIP and incredible 99.3 percent strand rate, and the picture you get is one of a hurler who is well out-performing his skill level and little more, right?

That would be the easy answer, but it’s not that simple. Yes, Scheppers is no doubt being boosted by the baseball gods here, and while his 4.03 FIP cries regression, it’s not as though the 26-year-old hasn’t made legitimate improvements either.

The main thing is that he’s doing a little more of pitching around the plate these days, with just 46.8 percent of his pitches inside the zone compared to 56.4 in 2012. Now, while his stuff over the plate is still drawing a fair bit of contact (79.3 percent vs. 80.8 in 2012), it’s the fact that he’s drawn more swings on his pitches outside the zone (31.9 percent vs. 25 in 2012) that’s made the difference.

Hitters are now making contact with Scheppers’ outside pitches at a rate of 65.3 percent compared to 53.3 last season, which may suggest that he’s doing a better job of keeping them off-balanced, as a 18 percent line drive rate (20.4 percent in 2012) and increased 51.7 percent ground ball rate (42.6 in 2012) would back up.

So while his BABIP might be incredibly low right now, it’s not to suggest that it should necessarily spike up to last season’s levels either.

And speaking of luck, there’s also the matter of Scheppers’ strikeout rate being diminished despite the fact that he’s actually improved his swinging strike rate from last season, going from 8.7 percent to 9.1 — so I suppose it goes both ways.

In short, the hurler has been both improved and lucky this season, and if he can keep the former trait going, it won’t be long before he ascends to the top of the Rangers bullpen, lucky or not.

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