Grading Neftali Feliz, Joba Chamberlain and 10 Relievers Turned Starters
In the old days, starting pitchers and relief pitchers were one in the same. Pitchers were pitchers. When they pitched mattered little so long as they sucked it up and pitched. Even serious injuries were treated with a small application of dirt on skin.
As I'm guessing you've noticed, things are different now.
Somewhere along the way, they figured out that having designated relief pitchers was a good idea. Somewhere else along the way, they figured out that some guys are simply better suited for relief work than starting duty.
This is not to say that clubs can't change their minds about their pitchers. They're liable to transition starters into relief roles and relievers into starting roles.
Turning relievers into starters is tricky. Relievers aren't used to high pitch counts or outings that last five, six or seven innings. To boot, many of them aren't used to throwing any more than two different pitches. They are best when they're in their element, and starting is so not their element.
Teams are aware of the complications, but they experiment with their relievers anyway.
The question is whether there's any kind of discernible track record when it comes to relievers-turned-starters. Is there a trend that shows it's a bad idea? A good idea? A toss-up?
Let's go ahead and take a look. The 10 relievers-turned-starters listed ahead should serve as a telling sample group.
Note: All stats come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Daniel Bard, Boston Red Sox
Bard as a Reliever
Between 2009 and 2011, Daniel Bard was one of the most effective relievers in baseball. With over 192 appearances that spanned 197 innings, he compiled an ERA of 2.88 and a K/9 of 9.7.
Bard's best weapon in those three seasons was his fastball. Per FanGraphs, an average Bard fastball came in at around 97 miles per hour. He could push it as high as 100 miles per hour when he cut it loose.
Bard also featured a nasty slider, one that helped him post swinging-strike rates over 11 percent in 2009 and 2011. Last season saw him post the highest WAR of his career at 1.8. Only eight relievers across MLB posted higher WARs.
A key part of his success in 2011 was improved control, as he posted a career-low BB/9 of 3.0.
This seems relevant now.
Bard as a Starter
The decision to use Bard as a starting pitcher seemed doomed from the start, as he gave up five earned runs on eight hits over five innings in his first regular season start against the Toronto Blue Jays.
He managed to settle down after that, but he hit the skids in May. In six starts, he posted an ERA of 5.03 and walked more batters (21) than he struck out (13) in just 34 innings.
Bard made his final start on June 3, giving up five earned runs in 1.2 innings thanks largely to six walks and two hit batsmen. He was demoted soon after and hasn't been seen since.
Bard ended up with more walks than strikeouts in his 10 starts, and his average fastball declined from over 97 miles per hour as a reliever to barely over 93 miles per hour.
The only thing uglier than his 5.24 ERA is his 5.74 FIP.
Joba Chamberlain, New York Yankees
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Chamberlain as a Reliever
Joba Chamberlain was dominant down the stretch after the Yankees called him up late in the 2007 season, allowing just a single earned run over 24 innings. He struck out 34 in those 24 innings and walked just six.
According to FanGraphs, Chamberlain's fastball averaged better than 97 miles per hour in 2007. That year, he also posted an absurd swinging-strike rate of 16.4 percent. That was thanks in part to his slider, which was nasty.
He picked up right where he left off in 2008, posting a 2.28 ERA and a K/9 of 11.6 through his first 20 appearances.
By the middle of the 2008 season, the Yankees had more than enough evidence at hand to suggest that Chamberlain was a dominant reliever. The question was whether that dominance would translate over to starting duty.
In the end, the temptation was just too great.
Chamberlain as a Starter
The Yankees decided to move Chamberlain into their rotation in June of 2008. He ended up making 12 starts between June and August, going 3-1 with a solid 2.76 ERA. However, he came down with a shoulder injury and had to be placed on the disabled list. He missed about a month's worth of action.
Chamberlain was used out of the bullpen upon his return, and he promptly went back to dominating. In 10 appearances in September, he posted a 2.38 ERA and struck out 14 in 11.1 innings.
The Yankees decided to push their luck.
Chamberlain was used exclusively as a starter in 2009, but he managed only mediocre numbers. He finished with a record of 9-6 and an ERA of 4.75. His fastball checked in at an average of under 93 miles per hour, and his K/9 was a measly 7.6. Just like with Bard, the only thing uglier than Chamberlain's ERA was his FIP, which checked in at 4.82.
That season was the end of the Yankees' experimentation with Chamberlain as a starter. He had a mediocre season as a reliever in 2010, and he had to undergo Tommy John surgery last season.
He's just now trying to reestablish himself.
R.A. Dickey, New York Mets
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Dickey as a Reliever
Yes, R.A. Dickey was used primarily as a reliever once upon a time. He made starts here and there between 2001 and 2009, but he made nearly 100 more relief appearances than he did starts.
His workload was heaviest in 2003, when he appeared in 25 games out of the Texas Rangers bullpen. He posted a 4.81 ERA in those appearances, which was slightly lower than the 5.25 ERA he posted as a starter that season.
Generally speaking, Dickey's career numbers as a reliever fail to impress. In a total of 99 appearances, he posted a 4.19 ERA, a 1.69 K/BB and an opponents' batting average of .282.
In retrospect, this is not at all surprising. Dickey never fit the bill as a typical reliever, as he could neither throw hard nor strike hitters out. At best, he was a decent long man. In reality, he was just lucky to be there.
Hence the reason he reinvented himself.
Dickey as a Starter
Dickey didn't become a full-time starter until after he spent a couple years in the minors learning how to throw the knuckleball. He joined the Mets in 2010, and his track record since then pretty much speaks for itself.
Dickey has made 79 starts since the start of the 2010 season, posting an ERA of 3.01 and a K/BB of 2.98.
He was arguably the best pitcher in baseball in the first half of the 2012 season, going 12-1 with a 2.40 ERA. He pitched back-to-back one-hitters in June, the latter of which lowered his ERA to an even 2.00.
He hasn't been quite as sharp since the break, going 2-1 with a 4.78 ERA in five appearances (four starts). Nonetheless, he's still tied for third among NL starting pitchers in WAR, according to FanGraphs.
He also ranks sixth in MLB with a FIP 2.94, a sign that there's nothing at all fluky about the power of his knuckleball.
Neftali Feliz, Texas Rangers
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Feliz as a Reliever
Not unlike Chamberlain, Feliz was dominant when he first broke into the big leagues in 2009. In 20 appearances, he posted a 1.74 ERA and a K/9 of 11.3.
Per FanGraphs, his fastball came in at an average of just over 95 miles per hour, but he could crank it up to 100 when he needed to.
Feliz stayed pretty consisted in 2010 and 2011, racking up 72 saves in 134 appearances with a 2.73 ERA and a K/9 of 8.5. His fastball averaged over 96 miles per hour both seasons, and he maintained a swinging-strike percentage over 11.0 both seasons. He also held hitters to sub-.200 batting averages both seasons.
The Rangers toyed with the idea of making Feliz into a starter before the 2011 season, but they ultimately chose to hold off and watched Feliz record 32 saves. They also very nearly got to watch him clinch the World Series.
The Rangers could have been content to keep Feliz as their closer. Instead, they revisited the idea of having him start.
Feliz as a Starter
Feliz only got to make seven starts this season before he was forced to shut it down with an elbow injury, and it was determined this week that Feliz needs Tommy John surgery.
However, what's surprising about the seven starts Feliz made this season is that his performance was fairly reminiscent of his performance as a reliever in 2009-2011.
Feliz managed to post a K/9 of 7.8 as a starter, only slightly lower than the 9.1 K/9 he posted as a reliever between 2009 and 2011. He also managed to hold opponents to a .185 average as a starter, as opposed to .173 as a reliever.
He did all this despite a drop in velocity and a decreased swinging-strike rate.
Fluky? Absolutely. Though Feliz posted a respectable 3.16 ERA this season, his FIP checked in at 4.63. He never was as good as his ERA indicated.
When he gets healthy, he should find his way back to the bullpen.
Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays
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Morrow as a Reliever
Brandon Morrow wasn't much of a reliever when he first made it to the big leagues in 2007. He posted a 4.12 ERA in 60 appearances with the Mariners, and he led all major league relievers with a BB/9 of 7.11.
Morrow settled down in 2008, posting a 1.79 ERA in 40 appearances as a reliever. He only walked 15 in 36.2 innings, a respectable BB/9 of 3.73. He balanced that with a K/9 of 11.5.
According to FanGraphs, Morrow averaged over 95 miles per hour with his fastball in those days, and he posted swinging-strike rates over 11.0 in both 2007 and 2008.
Meanwhile in San Francisco, Tim Lincecum, the man the Mariners had passed on to take Morrow, won his first Cy Young award in 2008.
That may have played a part in Seattle's decision to try and convert Morrow into a starter.
Morrow as a Starter
The Mariners decided to use Morrow as a starter for the first time in September of 2008.
The experiment didn't go so well. In five starts at the end of the 2008 season, Morrow went 2-2 with a 5.79 ERA, walking 19 batters in 28 innings pitched.
Morrow made strides as a starter in 2009, going 2-1 with a 3.68 ERA in 10 starts, but walks were still a problem. Walks continued to plague him upon his arrival in Toronto as well, as he posted a BB/9 of 4.06 in 2010 and a BB/9 of 3.46 in 2011.
He managed a K/9 over 10.0 both years, though, and he was able to keep his FIP well under 4.00 both seasons.
Things finally seemed to be coming together for Morrow this season. He had a 2.78 BB/9 and a 3.01 ERA through 13 starts, three of which were complete-game shutouts.
However, he was undone by an oblique strain in June and hasn't been seen since.
Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers
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Ogando as a Reliever
Alexi Ogando was quietly one of the most effective relievers in baseball in 2010, going 4-1 with a 1.30 ERA in 44 appearances. His ERA was the second-lowest mark in the majors among relievers with at least 40 innings pitched.
He was able to do that with a merely decent 8.2 K/9, which was paired with a BB/9 of 3.5. He got by mainly thanks to his fastball, which averaged just over 96 miles per hour, according to FanGraphs. He finished with a swinging-strike rate close to 11.0.
However, Ogando was essentially a one-trick pony. He had a blazing fastball, but that's about it. If the Rangers were to choose to make him into a starting pitcher, they would have been taking a risk.
That was bound to happen. As we well know by now, the Rangers are a risk-taking organization.
Ogando as a Starter
Ogando opened a lot of eyes as a starting pitcher early in the 2011 season. He ended up making the All-Star team with a record of 9-3 and an ERA of 2.92 through his first 17 starts. He had a K/9 of 6.7 and was holding hitters to a .213 average.
He broke down after that, going 3-4 with a 5.29 ERA and a .289 opponents' batting average in nine starts immediate following the break. The big difference was a .329 BABIP; his BABIP in the first half of the season was .241.
What's strange is that PITCHf/x data shows that both Ogando's fastball and his slider were more effective in 2011 than they were in 2010. He thus became more of a complete pitcher during his time as a starter than he was as a reliever. The league just happened to catch up with him later in the season.
Ogando has worked almost exclusively out of the Texas bullpen this season, and he's once again been a major asset. He's striking out more batters this season than he did in 2010, and he's once again making good use of his slider. He's using what he learned in 2011.
Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox
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Sale as a Reliever
The White Sox chose Chris Sale with the 13th overall pick in the 2010 draft, and they wasted little time getting him to the majors. He made his major league debut on August 6, 2010, just a few weeks after the draft.
Sale was productive out of Chicago's bullpen down the stretch, posting a 1.93 ERA and a 12.3 K/9 in 21 appearances. Per FanGraphs, he threw his fastball at an average of roughly 96 miles per hour and posted a swinging-strike percentage just over 10.0.
Sale was productive again as a reliever in 2011, posting a 2.79 ERA in 58 appearances with a K/9 of an even 10.0. His slider was his best weapon, and it proved useful in compiling a swinging-strike percentage of 11.5 percent.
Amazingly, Sale was able to hold righties to a .199 average in 2011. Lefties fared slightly better, hitting .208 against him.
It was clear that Sale was ready for the rotation.
Sale as a Starter
Sale pitched well out of the gate for the White Sox this season, going 3-1 with a 2.81 ERA in his first five starts.
However, he didn't really get going until after he was shut down and sent to the bullpen after he experienced some elbow tenderness.
In 10 starts between May 12 and the All-Star break, Sale went 7-1 with a 1.94 ERA and a K/9 of 8.8. In a total of 69.2 innings, he walked only 16 and held hitters to a .195 batting average.
Sale has slowed since the All-Star break, posting a 4.64 ERA in three starts with a .284 opponents' batting average. His struggles are largely related to a loss of velocity brought about by a dead arm, a reality that has forced the White Sox into giving Sale some extra rest.
On the whole, though, Sale's first season as a starter is a success. He currently leads all AL starters in FIP at 2.82.
Jeff Samardzija, Chicago Cubs
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Samardzija as a Reliever
It took some time for Jeff Samardzija to find steady work with the Cubs. He made spot starts and occasional relief appearances between 2008 and 2010, and he also spent time ferrying back and forth between the big club and the minors.
It wasn't until 2011 that he earned a role as a full-time reliever in Chicago's bullpen. He logged 75 appearances, posting a 2.97 ERA and an 8.9 K/9.
His problem was control. Samardzija posted a BB/9 of 5.1 in 2011, not to mention eight wild pitches and five hit batsmen. He had a tendency to get himself into trouble.
Still, opponents only hit .197 off him. He helped himself with a 9.9 swinging-strike percentage, according to FanGraphs, and that had a lot to do with the fact that his fastball was coming in a little faster than it was before. His fastball averaged 92.9 miles per hour in 2010 and 94.8 miles per hour in 2011.
Samardzija as a Starter
In choosing to make Samardzija a starter, the Cubs were banking on the possibility of his control improving to the point where he could get through six innings on a nightly basis without getting himself in too much trouble.
This hope has panned out nicely, as Samardzija is maintaining a 3.52 BB/9 this season. He's also holding opponents to a .242 batting average.
Surprisingly, Samardzija's velocity has increased again. He's now averaging better than 95 miles per hour with his fastball, and he's turned his slider into a lethal weapon that has helped him compile a swinging-strike rate of an even 12.0 percent.
His 4.19 ERA is just OK, but Samardzija's 3.59 FIP qualifies as being above-average. On balance, his first year as a starter is going well.
Adam Wainwright, St. Louis Cardinals
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Wainwright as a Reliever
Adam Wainwright found himself as an unlikely hero in 2006. He was used largely as a middle reliever until the end of the season when Tony La Russa decided to make him his closer after Jason Isringausen was lost for the season.
Wainwright finished the season strong, picking up two saves at the end of the season. He then recorded four more in the postseason, ultimately recording the final out of the World Series.
It would have been a solid season even without the postseason heroics, as Wainwright finished the year with a 3.12 ERA and a 3.27 K/BB. He held opponents to a .226 batting average.
Wainwright as a Starter
The Cardinals wasted no time converting Wainwright into a starter after his postseason heroics. He opened the 2007 season in St. Louis' rotation.
Wainwright was forced to take his lumps, as he began July with a 4.81 ERA through 16 starts. After that, he went 8-5 with a 2.70 ERA in his final 16 starts, holding opposing hitters to a .651 OPS.
A finger injury limited Wainwright in 2008, but he really came into his own in 2009 and 2010. He won a total of 39 games with a 2.53 ERA. According to FanGraphs, Wainwright's collective WAR for 2009 and 2010 was 11.8. Only nine pitchers did better.
Curiously, Wainwright saw his fastball velocity increase by an average of three miles per hour in 2010. That didn't help him rack up more strikeouts, but it did help him achieve a career-low opponents' batting average of .219.
Wainwright had to undergo Tommy John surgery before the 2011 season. His 4.24 ERA suggests that he's struggled to return to form this season, but his 3.14 FIP suggests otherwise.
C.J. Wilson, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
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Wilson as a Reliever
It looked like C.J. Wilson had broken through as an effective reliever in 2007 when he posted a 3.03 ERA in 66 appearances with an 8.3 K/9 and a .203 opponents' batting average. He even took over as the team's closer after Eric Gagne was traded, recording 12 saves from July 31 on.
Wilson's 2008 season didn't go nearly as well. He finished with an ERA over 6.00 in 50 appearances, walking 27 hitters in just 46.1 innings. Opponents hit .265 against him with a .475 slugging percentage.
He rebounded well in 2009, posting a 2.81 ERA in 74 appearances. He began throwing a cutter that season, and it helped him limit righties to a .701 OPS just a year after they managed an .831 OPS against him.
He also upped his swinging-strike percentage to 10.2, according to FanGraphs, which helped him achieve a career-best 10.3 K/9.
Wilson as a Starter
Wilson began the 2010 season in Texas' starting rotation, and he went on to become a quality-start machine. Of his 33 starts, 20 were quality starts.
He was able to do this despite a 4.1 BB/9, largely because he held opponents to a .216 average. He featured his cut fastball even more, and that helped him hold righties to a .236 average. He held lefties to a .144 average.
The next season brought more of the same. Wilson went 16-7 with a 2.94 ERA, upping his K/9 to 8.3 and his K/BB to 2.78. He was successful against righties once again, holding them to a .227 average with a .354 slugging percentage.
According to FanGraphs, only eight pitchers compiled higher WARs in 2010 and 2011 than Wilson.
This season, he's 9-7 with a 3.27 ERA through 23 starts. Par for the course.
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