Colby Lewis' Bid for History Highlights Unsung Hero of Rangers' AL-Best Rotation

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 17, 2016

June 16, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Texas Rangers starting pitcher Colby Lewis (48) throws to the Oakland Athletics in the first inning of their MLB baseball game at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports
Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

The most productive starting pitcher in the American League's best rotation came close to making history Thursday. As a general concept, that sounds like something that would happen.

But, Colby Lewis? Texas Rangers? That's unexpected and therefore a cool story.

With a 3.00 ERA through 13 starts, Lewis was already having a good season when he took the hill to face the Oakland A's at the Oakland Coliseum. He made it better by taking a perfect game into the eighth inning and a no-hitter into the ninth inning.

Alas, a four-pitch walk to Yonder Alonso snapped Lewis' perfect-game bid. And leading off the ninth, Max Muncy nixed the no-no with a double that Nomar Mazara missed by thaaaaaaat much:

"I thought he was going to get to it a lot easier," Lewis said afterward, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com). "It is what it is. You can't throw your arms up in the air and get all mad about it. You have to go back to work."

He did just that. Lewis also lost his shutout after losing his no-hitter—allowing an RBI double to Coco Crisp that was also nearly caught—but finished things off to seal a 5-1 win.

With his first complete game of 2016, the 36-year-old right-hander lowered his ERA to 2.81. That's the best in a Rangers rotation that now leads the American League in ERA at 3.52. Coming on the heels of a 2015 season in which the Rangers' rotation had one of the five worst ERAs in the AL, that's surprising enough. And indeed, nobody's ever said it's easy to pitch at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas.

But more so than what the Rangers rotation as a whole is doing, it's what Lewis is doing that boggles the mind.

It would be easy to explain it if Cole Hamels (whose 3.14 ERA is none too shabby, granted) was Texas' best starter. He throws strikes with a low-90s fastball, and he can still make hitters look foolish with a changeup that ranks among the best ever. Like a lot of guys these days, he's a strikeout pitcher.

It would also be easy to explain it if Yu Darvish were Texas' best starter. His health has only allowed him to make three starts this season, but he proved in those he still has great velocity and a slider that may be as nasty as Hamels' changeup. He's also a strikeout pitcher.

Heck, it would even be easy to explain it if Martin Perez were Texas' best starter. He can't contend with Hamels or Darvish in terms of raw stuff, but his sinker gets approximately all of the ground balls.

Lewis, on the other hand, excels at neither missing bats nor at managing contact. As you'd expect from a guy with his age and his injury track record—he's had shoulder, elbow and hip surgerieshis fastball hovers in the high 80s. Also, it's doubtful his slider, curveball or changeup will ever be among the GIFs featured at PitcherList.com

This makes Lewis a hard guy to sum up on paper. He's one of those guys you just have to, you know, watch.

That's the only way to understand it's not about what Lewis throws but rather how he throws what he throws. He'll work both sides of the strike zone with a four-seam fastball and a sinker. He'll also pitch backward, using his secondaries to get ahead before going to the heat. In general, the eye test says he's good at sequencing his pitches.

This is the long way of saying the obvious: Lewis just plain knows how to pitch. Most days, that makes him a solid innings-eater. On a good day, it apparently make him damn near unhittable.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

To echo the thoughts of CBS Sports' Dayn Perry, however, the sustainability of Lewis' current performance is a question mark. Maybe even a big question mark.

There are metrics that suggest Lewis is lucky to have his 2.81 ERA. The most basic is fielding independent pitching, which has Lewis rated as one of the luckiest pitchers in the American League.

That Lewis is walking only 1.7 batters per nine innings means he has one valuable skill, to be sure. But he's only striking out 5.6 batters per nine innings despite all those strikes. Because of that, he needs good fortune on balls in play.

The best way to earn that is to induce soft contact. Lewis isn't doing that. He entered Thursday with a 37.9 hard-hit rate, way above his career average of 31.7. According to Baseball Savant, his average exit velocity was 89.0 miles per hour. That's basically the league average.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

The number it all points to is .234. That's Lewis' batting average on balls in play. That's far below his career norm of .297 and therefore likely due for a major regression.

That's one reason nobody should be shocked if Lewis comes back to earth. Besides that, well, this is also the same guy who put up a 4.90 ERA across 2014 and 2015.

But the damage Lewis has already done should still make a difference in the end. He's played an important role in establishing the Rangers' six-and-a-half-game lead in the AL West, not to mention their three-game lead over everyone else for the top record in the American League. Even if they never get better, the Rangers should find themselves playing in October.

And even if Lewis is no longer their best pitcher by then, the Rangers will still be glad to have him.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

Follow zachrymer on Twitter 

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