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.