If Marcus Stroman Is A Reliever, Was He Worth Where He Was Drafted?

With the 22nd pick in the 2012 Rule 4 draft the Jays selected Duke University right-handed pitcher Marcus Stroman. Listed at only 5-foot-9 Stroman would be one of the shortest starting pitchers in the majors in recent memory. Is he a starting pitcher, though? He was a starter in college and made 20 starts for Double-A New Hampshire in 2013. Yet, questions remain about whether his future lies in the rotation or the bullpen.

His height is an issue in the framework of keeping the ball on the ground and in the park. Still, it’s more than just height that makes some think Stroman will end up in a relief role. His delivery has a good deal of effort. He drops the ball to his side and brings it around past his hip. He then brings his elbow back with a stabbing action and slings the ball towards home. Upon release he jerks his head towards his glove side. These are all elements of a delivery that typically point a player towards relief. A pitcher that does these things makes it hard on himself to repeat his delivery in general, and to repeat his timing and release point in particular. Problems with timing and repeating your delivery leads to inconsistent or poor command and control. This was a fear some had with Stroman. The thing is, while Stroman does all these things that are typical of relievers he manages to overcome these pitfalls with his great athleticism. He’s able to repeat his delivery consistently and his command and control both grade out around average. Stroman is a power arm and has a strong and deep repertoire including two plus pitches. Given these things I feel the undersized right-hander could start in the big leagues – for a few years at least. I’m not so confident he will get the chance, though. That led me to the question: If Stroman is a reliever was he worth where he was drafted?

In order to investigate this question I looked at all the 1st round draft picks from the last 20 years who were drafted as relievers only. Why 20 years, etc…? It’s a convenient number that also always me to set up a comparison with my piece on 1st round 1B down the road. An interesting side note is that when we’re talking first round relievers we’re essentially talking college relievers by default. Teams are reluctant to take prep arms as relievers only and give them no chance to start even if they view them as future relief arms. College relievers have some appeal as relatively safe pieces that can help quickly. I decided to look at players who were drafted as relievers or who were overwhelmingly expected to be a reliever. That’s obviously going to result in a large amount of subjective line drawing on my part, but I don’t really see how it can be helped and I hope you’ll give me some leeway here. It’s difficult to determine the intended roles of pitcher draftees. Teams don’t always come out and state their plans for a pitcher. Some college relievers were taken as relief only (ie. Drew Storen for a recent example) and that’s easy enough. Some players started games in college but talent evaluators viewed them all along as a reliever (Rex Brothers). Less frequently college relievers have been taken with the intention of developing them as starters (Bryan Price, Carlos Gutierrez). Sometimes players are given a chance to start in the low minors in order to stretch them out, increase arm strength and durability and to allow them a chance to improve their secondary pitches even though they will end up in the pen. Sometimes projected starters are held to short outings in relief their first couple years in pro ball to protect their arms. Sometimes it’s just not clear at all which way a guy will develop and there’s disagreement in the organization or perhaps even in the mind of a decision maker as to whether the player will start or relieve. To include all pitchers who ended up in relief would skew the numbers too far, I think. I realize Stroman isn’t a surefire reliever (since I said I would develop him as a starter!), but I’m postulating the question here as if he were. By doing this I hope we can see more easily if he was worth taking 22nd overall if he ends up a reliever.

Why do pitchers end up relievers? There’s a variety of reasons. One common way is elbow, shoulder or other injuries preventing them from handling a starter’s workload. As discussed above, their command and control might be exposed as a starter. This is often a result of mechanical issues that prevent them from repeating their delivery, but not always so. Some players are just too stiff, unathletic or otherwise incapable of repeating. In one inning stints out of the pen with hitters only getting one look a pitcher’s command and control  these flaws are less likely to be exploited. Similarly, a lack of a quality third pitch can result in a pitcher getting hit hard the second or third time hitters see them in a game. That missing piece can be a breaking ball or an offspeed offering. In either case a pitcher typically needs the ability to change speeds and planes to prevent hitters from catching up to them if they want to succeed deep into games consistently. Often pitchers just lack the velocity or stuff to be worth teams giving them 150 innings a year. Sometimes these players perform better out of the pen in short bursts. Their stuff and/or velocity can play up when they only have to throw 20-30 pitches with maximum effort rather than pacing themselves. In some cases a player’s personality is just a better fit pitching in exciting situations at the end of a game. Others prefer the measured, reliable schedule of a starter with regular games, workout days and a throwing program. None of the above issues really concern me with Stroman. I think he could be effective out of the pen or as a starter. I do worry a little about how many years of 200 IP he can take, but that’s a slightly different issue.

So how successful have first round relief pitcher been over the last 20 years?

One thing that stuck out immediately is that they’ve overwhelmingly made the major leagues. Not counting players drafted recently enough to still be in the minors (Stroman, Ruffin and Weathers) there are only three players who didn’t even make a major league appearance on this list:

  • Robert Stiehl (Astros, 27th overall in 2000) was a college catcher converted to relief who showed off a power arm but little else. He lingered in the low minors for a few years before washing out at Double-A.
  • Jay Gehrke (Royals, 32nd overall in 1999) was signed with the compensation pick for losing Jose Offerman to Boston. He didn’t make it out of A-Ball. Gehrke was another hard thrower as the Closer for Pepperdine.
  • Kyle Kane (White Sox, 33rd overall in 1997) had pitched at Nevada before transferring to Saddleback College, a JC in California. Kane hung around doing work in the minors until age 28 but he was derailed by injuries and ineffectiveness.

The other 23 relievers drafted in the first round since 1994 all made the majors and combined for over 5971 IP. That’s roughly how many total innings Walter “Big Train” Johnson tossed in his career. That’s an average of 259 career innings per player, though remember that many of them are still active.

While appearing in the the majors seems a good bet for these players, a measure of success is more elusive. Looking at their performance only five of the players posted a career sub 4.00 FIP and only three a sub 4.00 xFIP. Eight of the pitchers has managed to save twenty games in a season, for what that is worth (little perhaps, but somewhat indicative of how teams regarded their talent). It’s difficult to evaluate relievers by WAR when so much value is given to IP for pitchers, but the career leader in fWAR among this group is Dustin Hermanson at 12.8. Nine players posted a negative fWAR while thirteen had positive career totals. Arizona State product Ryan Bradley chimed in with a nice, even 0.0 in 12.2 IP.

It’s difficult to define “success” in such a group, but if we wanted to narrow it to guys with positive career WAR and >100 IP that would give us twelve out of twenty-three draftees. So the numbers seem to bear out what we would expect. Drafting a reliever in the 1st round gives you a solid chance at getting a useful player. It looks pretty unlikely you’ll find a great player drafting this way, and that’s a fairly damning quality. While we haven’t looked at all the data yet it’s also almost certainly not a great value (in terms of fWAR) compared to other positions. That has a lot to do with the nature of relievers in general, but it’s still relevant. If you’re looking to add Wins through the draft you should probably look elsewhere in the 1st round. If Stroman is a reliever only was it worth using the 22nd overall pick on him and giving him $1.8 million? Probably not. I’d use him as a starter – and not only because there’s more value that way but because I think he can handle it and thrive in that role.

 



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Al Skorupa writes about baseball & baseball prospects for Bullpen Banter and Fangraphs/Rotographs. He lives in Rhode Island. He watches & videotapes a good amount of amateur and minor league baseball. You can follow him on twitter @alskor.


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GiantNut
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GiantNut
2 years 9 months ago

Interesting piece. My opinion with picks in the first couple of rounds is that they should be developed in to starters unless they prove they’re not able. Major League relievers are the cheapest positions in baseball… no reason to burn a first round pick on one.

dang
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dang
2 years 9 months ago

2007 was the year of the first round relief pitcher – don’t forget Phillipe Aumont.

GiantNut
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GiantNut
2 years 9 months ago

Because I lack the knowledge and am too lazy to look it up, I’m wondering if a team would be get more value drafting and developing “pinch hitter/platoon/4th outfielder/5th infielder” type of player than a reliever in the first round.
Obviously this doesn’t happen. No team drafts someone in the first round thinking “he will be a great bat off the bench”. But is that sort of player more valuable WAR wise than a typical reliever?

Bip
Member
Member
Bip
2 years 9 months ago

That kind of player would have to be good at defense, versatile, and have enough hitting ability to not be a black hole in the lineup. I think those types of players are pretty athletic and well-regarded generally, meaning that they probably are drafted in hopes of being good enough to start.

It’s different for starting pitchers and relief pitchers. Some pitchers simply wouldn’t make it as starters, but may be excellent relievers. Bench bats are not that way. Pretty much every bench player would be a starter if only he were better at some things. Every team would be better if they could acquire enough good players to fill out the starting lineup and bench.

Hank
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Hank
2 years 9 months ago

Usually these players are just guys who couldn’t cut it as a starter as they move up through the farm. Or hitters that start falling down the defensive spectrum quickly.

I guess you can look for a guy with large platoon splits, but is there a backup IF or 4th OF profile? (other than not good enough to start)

mattb2485
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mattb2485
2 years 9 months ago

Still will never let Jon Hart live down Paul Shuey 2nd overall in 1992….his first draft as GM of the Indians.

JUK
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JUK
2 years 9 months ago

I don’t understand why you don’t think Stroman will get a chance to start. Nothing the Jays have done suggest anything else. He may end up a reliever (and may not) but he wasn’t drafted as a reliever, so the whole premise of the article is pretty strange

Shankbone
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2 years 9 months ago

The 3 teams in front of him are known for their pitching recognition prowess, the Cards took Wacha, the Giants took Stratton and the Braves took Sims. That might tell a story of how he was viewed by them.

JUK
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JUK
2 years 9 months ago

It might and might not, but it’s not relevant. The Jays did draft him and seem intent on trying to keep him as a starter, so why the concern he won’t get the chance? For what it’s worth, I think he can stick, like Al does himself. He’s not going to get traded to a team who don’t see him as a starter either because there would immediately be a disparity in perceived value

Shankbone
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2 years 9 months ago

With his scouting profile, and the hype he was getting, he was seen as a last minute drop in the draft. He was more in the early teens. So its relevant that teams with good reps for scouting and development of pitchers most likely saw him as… a reliever.

Shankbone
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

I wasn’t trying to be unfair. But Stroman stood out early as one of the best athletes in the class, but the size really gave his “stock” volatility. Profiles on guys height and weight is notoriously unreliable, but when word got out he was really 5’9 the reliever label was pretty stuck. The Giants famously went against convention with Lincecum, Giants fans were thinking about this, maybe a bit too much. There definitely is a lot of factors with drafting, but with his athletic profile and big fastball, I think there is a reason he dropped. And that’s the reliever label.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 9 months ago

How significant would height really be for a pitcher anyway? If Stroman’s release point were the same distance from the plate but six inches higher, the angle difference would only be 0.4735 degrees, right? That seems like an irrational prejudice to me, but perhaps I’m missing some other element. Stroman definitely has the repertoire to be a starter and if he has no significant issues maintaining his velocity deep into games then it would be a real shame if height alone cost him that opportunity.

JayT
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JayT
2 years 9 months ago

For what it’s worth, Andrew Cashner was also a reliever in college, but he’s not on your list.

Ruki Motomiya
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Ruki Motomiya
2 years 9 months ago

I’m interested, how does adding WPA or some form of leverage change the relievers value on this list?

Damn my torpedo
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Damn my torpedo
2 years 9 months ago

I think if you look at the respect Oakland gives the position, along with TB, and that Rivera’s Yankees have 5 titles, and then note that the Red Sox have only won titles with supremely dominant pens, featuring other-worldly closers, perhaps Fangraphs is ignoring what their eyes see, namely beating a team over 7 innings is easier than needing 9.

Which is more vital, a true ace or a dominant closer? Anyone who claims the former – no doubt, period – I’d argue needs glasses. Aces are great but in todays game they’re gone in due time. Then what? Give me a #3, say.. Fister, and Rivera over Kershaw every day and twice on playoff Sundays.

Philbert
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Philbert
2 years 9 months ago

Based on their 2013 numbers, Fister would average about 3+ runs allowed over 8 innings while Kershaw would allow 1.5 or so over the same period. With “a #3”, your chances of even getting the lead to the bullpen are significantly lower. I would rather hand over a 3-1 or 3-2 lead to a decent reliever than a 3-3 tie to Mariano Rivera.

Dayton Moore's Genius
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Dayton Moore's Genius
2 years 9 months ago

Nope, you can draft relief pitchers with the Number 1 pick if you want. What’s the big deal?

Sivart
Member
Sivart
2 years 9 months ago

Whether or not the averages play out shouldn’t be the final word on whether or not it was worth it.

A team has to trust its methodology, and if they are confident that they are drafting a decent player, that is the right pick to make.

For example: I may have a better chance to not get hit by a car when I cross the street when the “walk” sign is showing. But if I see a car coming too fast to stop, the right call is to not cross the street – even if the average street crossing during a “walk” signal is the right choice. I have more information about the situation than just the probability of the abstract action.

So, essentially, the probability of an outcome is only absolutely applicable in a vacuum – since the team has further information (stats, scouting reports) those probabilities are no longer applicable (though still relevant).

Randy
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Randy
2 years 9 months ago

Chris Smith never made it to the big leagues

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