Starters Destined for the Bullpen

Relievers tend to be failed starters. Most front offices have come to realize that a closer or a late-inning arm is not worth a big multi-year deal or a first-round draft pick. Instead, general managers are building quality bullpens out of failed pitching prospects, former starters, and journeymen relievers. Find a hard thrower who hasn’t managed to develop a full repertoire and stick him in the bullpen where he can air it out for one inning and get by throwing only one or two pitches. Or get a starter with wild platoon splits and convert him into a specialist who gets same-handed hitters out. Look at the Royals or the Rangers bullpens, the league leaders in relief WAR. Other than a post-Tommy John surgery Joe Nathan, you won’t find a big name there, or a big salary (Nathan’s 2/14 is the most expensive).

By initially using Z-Contact%, and then looking at factors such as pitch mix, walk rates, and fastball velocity, I identified six pitchers who I think are likely to end up in the bullpen. Three of the pitchers have trouble missing bats, despite being hard throwers, and a trip to the bullpen might allow them to pick up some extra velocity while focusing on a more limited repertoire. The other three have swing and miss stuff, but factors such as a lack of control or durability, or difficulty in developing secondary pitches have limited their effectiveness as starters.

Has a Fastball But Not Much Else

Joe Kelly has appeared in 57 games for the Cardinals since 2012, 28 of them being starts. Despite averaging over 94 mph on his fastball, Kelly has been more of a groundball pitcher. As a starter in 2013, he has posted strikeout and walk rates of 13.5% and 9.8% respectively.While Kelly’s changeup is solid, his curveball and slider are likely not good enough to keep him in the starting rotation. Despite Kelly’s smaller frame, he has managed to avoid the longball. Unless the 25 year-old masters a third pitch, the bullpen is a good spot for him.

Tyler Chatwood has started 17 games for the Rockies this season, and thanks to very high groundball rates has done well, even with poor strikeout and walk rates. As the righthander is only 23, I may be jumping the gun on calling him a relief pitcher, but his declining velocity and reliance on the fastball signal reliever to me, not to mention his undersized frame. While he has improved on his career strikeout and walk rates of 13.4% and 10.3%, his rates this year are still below average. Chatwood’s changeup is below average, and he needs to develop a reliable pitch to get lefthanded hitters out. Moving to the bullpen may preserve his velocity and allow him to focus on his slider.

Henderson Alvarez has started all 54 games he has appeared in since 2011. After returning from a long DL stint, Alvarez has shown some improvement from his 2012 season when he posted strikeout and walk rates of 9.8% and 6.7%, respectively. However, the righthander had had difficulties with lefthanded hitters, as his wOBA splits of .374/.248 show. Much of this is due to his struggles with his changeup. Alvarez has gained confidence in his slider, and it has been effective against righties. The 23 year-old will get a chance to stick in the Marlins rotation, but his smaller frame, limited pitch mix and injury history will likely relegate him to the bullpen.

Misses Bats…And the Strike Zone

Alexi Ogando has bounced around between the bullpen and the starting rotation. He started in 2011, relieved in 2012, and is starting in 2013. However, he has had durability issues. His second-half numbers in 2011 dropped off significantly with increasing innings, and he has taken two trips to the DL in 2013. Furthermore, his fastball velocity is down from 95.1 in 2011 and 97.0 in 2012 to 93.1 in 2013. This has caused his swinging strike rate to plummet from 13.2 to 7.9.  His walk rate is also up significantly. Ogando was strong as a starter in 2011, and he still shows swing and miss stuff, but a return to to the relief role he held in 2012 would do him well, particularly if Joe Nathan departs as a free agent.

Nathan Eovaldi is a 23 year-old flamethrowing righthander. However, the young hurler has not yet developed a reliable secondary pitch. Accordingly, his strikeout rate is well below the league average. Also, while his control has been better this year, he still walks hitters at an above-average rate. Though his fastball can get whiffs as shown by his above-average swinging strike rate, his lack of secondary pitches has given him difficulty in finishing off hitters. He had some success with his slider in 2012, but has struggled to command it consistently in 2013. If Eovaldi can stay healthy and learn a secondary pitch, he will remain a starter. More likely, he will slot into a high-leverage bullpen role where he can focus on airing out his already potent fastball.

Tim Lincecum won back-to-back CY Young awards in 2008 and 2009. The last couple years have not been as kind to Lincecum. His fastball velocity has dropped by 2 mph, and his walk rate has gone up. Furthermore, his HR/FB ratio has shot up to the 13-15% range, well up from his career rate of 9%. Lincecum still has swing and miss stuff, as his swinging strike rate has not dropped off from his career rate. Lincecum was utilized as a multi-inning reliever in the 2012 World Series, and dominated in that role. While Lincecum proved a lot of skeptics wrong by remaining healthy in a starter role, transitioning to the bullpen can maximize his effectiveness. However, depending on how much money he signs for this offseason, his new team may have an incentive to try and keep him in the rotation.

While a good starting pitcher will always have more value than a good relief pitcher, moving these pitchers to the bullpen can maximize their productivity. All of them profile as at least solid relievers, and at this point in their careers, I have my doubts that any of them, with the possible exception of Lincecum, can handle the rigors of starting.

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Chris Moran is a second-year law student, former college baseball player and assistant baseball coach at Washington University in St. Louis. He writes for Beyond the Box Score, Prospect Insider, DRaysBay, and sometimes other sites as well. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

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While there are probably multiple omissions to mention here, I’d just like to point out one–Bud Norris. His career platoon split isn’t too heavy (.352 wOBA vs. lefties, .312 vs. righties) but as Eno Sarris outlined when Baltimore traded for him, this year it’s spiked (.378 vs. lefties, .289 vs. righties). This probably means a move to the bullpen is in his future–which may work out well, if he can continue that trend against righties.

chris moran
chris moran

Norris showed up on my list, but I didn’t include everyone in my article. If the splits are more than a 1-year blip, a move to the pen is in his future. Personally, I thought Ogando, Eovaldi, and Lincecum were more interesting candidates.