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August 14, 2013

The Lineup Card

Nine of Our Favorite Pitcher Conversions

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Luke Hochevar
This isn’t a lifetime achievement award nor is it any definitive decree about the success of moving the troubled former no. 1 overall pick to the bullpen. It’s more a nod to somebody who’s taken quite a bit of heat on these virtual pages and deserves at least a mention for what he’s been able to do out of the Royals bullpen.

In the shadow of the dominant Greg Holland, Hochevar has been nearly as productive after racking up a 5.45 ERA in five seasons as a starting pitcher and teetering on the verge of the arbitrary bust status and the much more tangible DFA status. Sure there’s some luck in Hochevar’s 1.72 ERA with a drop from a .315 BABIP last year to a .219 this season. There truly is a better pitcher there, though, in short efforts. His walks are down to their lowest levels. His strikeouts are way, way up from 6.2 per 9 in his last five seasons as a starter to an even 9.0 per 9 (or 16.0 percent to 26.1 percent in the preferred parlance).

According to the Brooks Baseball data, he’s eliminated the slider completely this year, and while that still leaves him with a very wide repertoire, he’s replaced that with much more cutter use to go with a traditional four-seam and two-seam fastball. And as you would expect, he’s throwing harder, going from 93.4 miles per hour last year to 95.7 out of the pen.

It’s never what you want to happen with your former no. 1 overall pick, but this version of Hochevar is much more likely to be a standout at his role than any one we’ve seen before. —Zachary Levine

2. Steve Avery
As I understood it, in the early ‘90s every girl had a favorite New Kid On The Block and every boy had a favorite Atlanta Braves starting pitcher. Mine was Steve Avery: he was left-handed, and I was left-handed, but he also wasn’t Tom Glavine, and all the other kids already liked Glavine. My grade school baseball glove also had Steve Avery’s printer-scanned signature on it, and that was enough for me.

But Avery was just as good as Glavine, in my opinion, as evidenced by the 1991 NLCS. Of course, he wasn’t as good as Glavine, as time would show, and by 2000 he was nearly out of baseball.

Then in 2003, for some reason, he showed up in the Tigers organization, specifically with my hometown Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens. What in the world was Steve Avery, my favorite pitcher as a lad, doing on the Hens? That blazing fastball was gone after years of recovering from various surgeries. He turned into a crafty left-handed reliever, basically a Steve Avery-shaped ghost of a pitcher.

After a month with the Hens, he posted a sub-2.00 ERA in 14 innings and got the call-up. He may have provided some helpful advice to the young pitchers, such as Fernando Rodney and Jeremy Bonderman (who is eerily in Avery’s position this year) but his 1.63 WHIP and 3.4 K/9 rate — as well as a .364 batting average against lefties (as a left-hander!) — didn’t cut it, even for a team that would go on to lose 119 games. He finished the season back in Toledo, where he nearly hit Phil Mickelson (who is NOT left-handed) in the head with a line drive. —Matt Sussman

3. Alex Torres
The always somewhat wild Alex Torres was so bad in Triple-A last season, walking 63 batters in 69 innings, that a phantom injury was invented so he could go down to the Gulf Coast League and work with Rays pitching guru Marty DeMerritt, whom Torres had known as a teenager. (DeMerritt lives in Torres' homeland, Venezuela, in the off-season.) Torres, a starter throughout his minor-league career, returned to Triple-A on the last day of the regular season and had the best start of his pro career. That prompted the BP Annual to suggest, perhaps wishfully, that "if Torres can rebuild his confidence on that performance, he could eventually deliver on his promise as a mid-rotation starter, or"--we added, as an afterthought, "thrive in the bullpen."

With the Rays' 'pen in early disarray in 2013, Torres was called on out of desperation. The ensuing numbers speak for themselves, perhaps even more loudly when you discover that Torres has allowed five of his six runs this year in just his last two appearances. Prior to that, he had an ERA of 0.26 (yes, you read that right) in 34 1/3 innings, having given up just 10 hits. His two recent stumbles have scumbled the numbers considerably, but he still has a 1.43 ERA, a 3.43 K:BB ratio, a 2.06 FIP and a 2.19 FRA. Torres has already been worth 0.9 wins for the Rays—more than 'pen pals Joel Peralta, Fernando Rodney and Jake McGee. In fact, he leads Rays relievers in pitcher WARP—until Jesse Crain is activated, that is. —Adam Sobsey

4. Jose Mesa
Let me sum up my adolescence in two words: Jose Mesa. When the Indians acquired Mesa in 1992 for Kyle Worthington, he was an erstwhile starter who threw really hard, but didn't seem to have much in the way of results. But he threw really hard. So, the Indians stuck him in the bullpen and figured they'd give it a try. By 1995, Jose Mesa was the most popular man in Cleveland. He was Señor Smoke. Mesa saved 46 games in 1995, which at the time, I conflated with "being a good pitcher and all-around human being" because I got that tingly "everything is gonna be okay" feeling when he came in. Mesa did have a good year (although some of that was low BABIP and high LOB% induced) and in 1996, he did more of the same. Not a bad return on a guy who was a starter with middling results because he only really had two pitches. Then came 1997. Specifically, Game Seven of the 1997 World Series, when the man who seemed so invincible and automatic... suddenly wasn't.

If you want to make a Red Sox fan one part wistful and one part angry, bring up Bill Buckner. For an Indians fan, bring up Jose Mesa... Pardon me, I need to do some soul-searching as to why when asked for my "favorite" starter-reliever conversion, I picked the guy who massively let me down. —Russell A. Carleton

5. Shawn Chacon, starter-to-reliever-to-starter
Back in the run environment of 2003, a 4.60 ERA was valuable when half the innings were in Coors Field. Shawn Chacon did just that as a starter, accruing a 2.2 WARP that season. So the following year, the Colorado Rockies, fearful of arm problems, sent him to the bullpen to close. Thus followed the most magnificent starter-to-reliever season ever: Chacon saved 35 games and blew nine, posting ratios of 7.4 walks per nine, 7.4 strikeouts per nine, and 1.7 home runs per nine. He struck out 52, walked 52, and allowed 52 runs! Normally, when an experienced starter becomes a reliever, they pitch better. They dial up their velocity and face the opposing lineuponly once. Chacon’s 2004 season defied that with the largest ever starter-to-reliever increase in ERA:

Name

start_yr

start_ERA

relief_yr

relief_ERA

Increase

Shawn Chacon

2003

4.60

2004

7.11

2.51

Livan Hernandez

2011

4.47

2012

6.42

1.95

Scott Terry

1989

3.57

1990

4.75

1.18

Chad Gaudin

2009

4.64

2010

5.65

1.01

Hipolito Pichardo

1993

4.04

1994

4.92

0.88

Neal Heaton

1990

3.45

1991

4.33

0.87

Don Kirkwood

1976

4.62

1977

5.15

0.53

Those are the only increases since 1950, minimum 100 starter innings and 50 relief innings. Amazingly, he returned to starting the next year, where it got stranger as he was traded in July to the Yankees and contributed to their division title with nine quality starts. —Andrew Koo

6. Jonathan Papelbon
The boring stories of starter-to-reliever conversions are when the starter fails and changes roles in order to be valuable to the team. It's rare to find a pitcher who leaves the world of starting behind before he even gets a chance to fail--and Jonathan Papelbon is the poster boy for this angle. Despite being a closer at Mississippi State, the Red Sox saw his potential in the rotation and converted him immediately upon signing. As a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, Papelbon had a 3.05 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 299 strikeouts in 277 innings. He projected as a mid-rotation starter who could throw a lot of innings.

When Papelbon made his major-league debut, it was as a starter. In fact, he has a career 2.25 ERA as a starting pitcher in Boston (yes, I'm aware it was only three starts). From there, the Red Sox needed him in the bullpen and kept him there for the rest of the 2005 season and to start 2006. All he did at that point was put up a 1.35 ERA (353 ERA+), 0.77 WHIP, and 159 strikeouts in 126 2/3 innings on the way to becoming one of the top closers in baseball. He never made another start after 2005.

The choice that the Red Sox made to keep Papelbon in the bullpen is a great example of one of the most interesting baseball decisions--if given the choice between a decent mid-rotation starter and an elite endgame arm, which would you choose? And in the years since the Red Sox turned Papelbon loose in the pen, many other teams have encountered the same thing. This isn't too dissimilar to the decision that the Cardinals face now with Trevor Rosenthal. Or what the Reds and Rangers had with Aroldis Chapman and Neftali Feliz. In some ways, Papelbon's success in the bullpen has led teams to leave many of these arms in the "safe" role. —Bret Sayre

7. Mariano Rivera
Some pitchers, like Jonathan Papelbon, readily make the transition from excellent starters to relief pitchers and eventually to dominant closers. Others take a different route—failing as a starter before being relegated to the pen. Often this is the career trajectory of a fringe prospect with decent but not overwhelming stuff who just can’t cut it on his second time through the order. Perhaps there is no better example of this than Mariano Rivera. Three years removed from elbow surgery, he failed miserably in his first introduction to the big leagues, posting a 5.40 ERA over 40 innings. Indeed, most successfully converted starters manage to salvage at least some part of their arsenals—say, a successful off-speed or breaking pitch, or both—and bring it with them into the pen, where they can increase velocity and dominate for a single max-effort inning. But when Rivera made the transition out of the starting role, his pre-bullpen repertoire was almost entirely shelved and reduced to essentially a single pitch. Now, with an aging team on the cusp of retirement, he’s blown three straight saves. Perhaps the pressure of a rare New York pennant race has started to affect his confidence. —Dan Brooks

8. Charlie Hough
A knuckleballer in mop-up relief. Sounds weird, right? That’s what Charlie Hough did for about a decade before he took on a second career as a starting pitcher. Through his age-30 season (1978), only one of Hough’s 340 appearances was as the starter. And it wasn’t for a lack of desire to be in the rotation. One can find articles dating back to the 1975 offseason about Hough trying to crack into the Dodger rotation, lamenting that Mike Marshall took all the high-leverage relief innings.

Hough got a few chances to start in 1979, 1980, and then in 1981 in his first season with the Texas Rangers. He was given a spot start, for instance, when Ferguson Jenkins was arrested in 1980 for cocaine possession. He hurled a five-hit shutout.

The Rangers converted him to a starter for good in 1982, and the rubber-armed knuckleballer pitched 12 complete games. He led the AL in that category in 1984 and innings in 1987. And as knuckleballers often do, he stuck around forever, hanging it up after the 1994 season. The best hitter in the NL when he broke into baseball was Roberto Clemente. When he retired, it was Barry Bonds.

Maturation and growing expertise in his craft may have helped him earn a rotation spot. As a relief pitcher, Hough walked guys at a 4.9/9 inning rate. As a starter, it was just 3.7/9. —Dan Rozenson

9. Chris Sale
Chris Sale could very easily be in the bullpen today. The lefty never made a start in the minors, and his first 79 big-league appearances were out of the bullpen, where he established himself as a dominant force. He wouldn't have been the first pitching prospect with rotation potential to make a big impression while blowing batters away in short bursts and get typecast as a closer, but the Sox resisted that temptation. Instead, they announced before last season that he'd transition to starting. They briefly changed their minds last May over concerns about chronic soreness in his elbow (coupled with his wonky mechanics), but when an MRI came back clean, they went back to their original plan to get the most out of his arm.

The Sox have repeatedly demonstrated a knack for keeping pitchers healthy, and they've done a good job of leveraging that ability to keep Sale off the disabled list (so far). 'Thanks to the organization's willingness to envision him in an extended role, Sale is one of baseball's best pitchers, and he's already accumulated about 200 extra innings that would otherwise have gone to far inferior arms. These are depressing days on the South Side, but at least White Sox fans can take pleasure in watching Sale's innings total continue to climb. —Ben Lindbergh

Related Content:  Bullpen Conversions

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