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July 26, 2010
The Unlikeliest Starter?
In the abstract, a 25-year-old southpaw starter sounds like an asset to any rebuilding movement. In practice, of course, whether that starter turns out to be an asset depends entirely on the 25-year-old southpaw in question. In his recent two-part prescription to fix the floundering Astros, Marc Normandin noted that the ’Stros should be “using the Rule 5 draft to snag some talent other organizations can't hold onto.” As it happens, Houston has already landed one Rule 5 pick who’s managed to hang around Minute Maid Park: Wesley Wright, whom then-just-installed GM Ed Wade plucked from the Dodgers in December of 2007. Wright is a 25-year-old southpaw, all right, but he’s no starter. Or is he?
Wright has served as a major league reliever for the past two seasons, but the Astros have plans for the present and future that call for him to abandon the bullpen and reinforce the rotation. An enduring change in role for Wright would instantly give the team another young starter to go along with Bud Norris and Felipe Paulino (and perhaps Jordan Lyles, before long), bypassing the need to suffer through the sturm und drang of drafting and developing one, a process at which the Astros haven’t exactly excelled in recent memory. If Wright could succeed as a starter, his makeover might help jumpstart a stagnant franchise, but does he truly fit the profile of a suitable candidate for conversion, or are the Astros trying to strike gold in a pyrite mine? Let’s explore the pros and cons.
Wright possesses a starter’s repertoire, at least in terms of the array of offerings he brings to the mound. The lefty throws five pitches: a four-seamer, an occasional two-seamer, a slider, a curve, and a changeup that he refined in winter ball last offseason, seen here courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz’s PITCHf/x tool:
While Wright’s diversified pitching portfolio might give him the necessary variety to take on a lineup more than once without stooping to excessive repetition, his major league results thus far justify some skepticism about the quality lurking amidst that quantity. Nate Silver found that “the typical pitcher will have an ERA about 25% higher when pitching in a starting role than when pitching in relief.” That’s bad news for Wright, who sports a career 5.24 ERA in relief; a forecast 25% higher than that figure would be unsightly indeed. However, there’s some reason to believe that Wright might be able to exceed the forecast of a “typical pitcher,” given his aforementioned assortment of pitches. In addition, Wright has suffered from poor fortune on balls in play, especially those in the air, which have tended to fly over the fences to a dismaying degree; though his ERAs have been ugly, his SIERAs hovered just above 4.00 in both 2008 and 2009.
Unfortunately for him, there are other ways in which Wright might be expected to suffer a more painful transition than Nate’s “typical pitcher.” At 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds (which may be generous, given his listings elsewhere at both 5-11, 160, and 5-10, 150), Wright doesn’t boast the prototypical physique of an effective innings eater. What’s more, he’s no Wagnerian flamethrower, capable of hurling baseballs at high velocities despite a compact frame; Wright’s average fastball flew plateward at just a tick over 91 mph in both 2008 and 2009, and dipped under 89 in his six relief outings earlier this season.
Eric Seidman discovered that pitchers who spent time in both the rotation and relief threw .7 mph harder in the pen, so we must deduct some additional speed from Wright’s forecasted velocity going forward. In Wright’s first (and, to date, only) major league start, a 4 2/3-inning outing against the Cubs on July 20, he uncorked his average four-seamer at under 88 mph. The plot of his horizontal movement vs. vertical movement from that start resembles the earlier image from his work as a reliever in 2010, except for a mysteriously absent slider:
Wright pitched fairly effectively (if not economically), allowing six hits and two walks and striking out five, but relatively few starters manage to succeed in the long run while failing to crack 90 with regularity, as we can see that Wright did in this plot of his velocity vs. horizontal movement:
It doesn’t help his that Wright sports a pronounced career split. Righties have hit Wright to the tune of a .258/.365/.516 line, while he’s limited lefties to .265/.349/.394. That kind of vulnerability to opposite-handed batters could prove more harmful than it has thus far in a role in which his manager won’t be able to deploy him selectively in situations likely to lead to success.
Wright’s first start wasn’t of the spot or emergency variety; those 4 2/3 frames had been some time in the making. Wright auditioned as a starter in the Dominican Winter League last offseason, recording a 4.29 ERA in eight starts and 35 2/3 innings. He showcased excellent strikeout stuff, ringing up 40 batters, but had trouble finding the plate, handing out 22 free passes. Wright has made 13 starts for Triple-A Round Rock in the Pacific Coast League this season, but little about his performance suggests much likelihood of sustained big-league success; Wright posted a 4.18 ERA on the farm, with subpar peripherals that added up to a 5.04 FIP and a translated 5.41 ERALF. He’s also already exceeded his previous single-season high in innings pitched.
If Wright does manage to make his change in job description stick, we’ll have the privilege of watching something exceedingly rare. What Wright and the Astros are attempting to do simply hasn’t been tried—at all, let alone successfully—very frequently in the 50+ seasons that compose our database (and which conveniently encompass essentially the entire rise of relievers in the modern game). From 1954-2009, here are all the pitchers who spent their first two seasons in the bigs (with the listing for year one aggregating any action they saw before losing their rookie eligibility) exclusively in the bullpen, and then went on to make at least half of their appearances in year three in the rotation (minimum of 20 innings in each season):
If Wright manages to make at least four more starts this season after tonight’s against the Cubs (without again appearing in relief), he’ll earn admission to this exclusive club, though whether these are footsteps in which he should wish to follow is up for debate. Wright differs from most of these men in at least one important way: he had very little minor league starting experience before toeing the rubber at the beginning of an MLB game.
Wright made only 23 minor league starts before taking the mound against the Cubs last week; among the other six late-blooming starters listed above, only Scott Feldman made fewer prior to his MLB starting debut. 13 of Wright’s 23 minor league starts came this season, and half of his previous 10 came as an 18-year-old in rookie ball.
But those are only the slow-to-start starters who made their moves in their third seasons; we’re excluding those who switched occupations further down the road. Let’s take a look at the top 10 men who went on to gain the most major-league starting experience after starting out with two seasons devoid of any:
Wright’s relative lack of minor league seasoning as a starter (in this group, only Braden Looper earned less before embarking upon his own conversion experience) qualifies him as a rarity among rarities, but he also stands out in another sense. Wright wasn’t just a reliever; he was a situational lefty who averaged a mere .90 IP/G before making his first major league start. Every pitcher on the list above threw upwards of one inning pitched per game in his first two seasons relieving in the majors. The highest career start total of any hurler who didn’t make a single start in his first two seasons of extended action in the majors belongs to Ed Vande Berg, with a whopping 17. With only 16 more starts after tonight’s, Wright could make unremarkable history.
It seems safe to say that the considerations against converting Wright outnumber the factors in favor, but the potential payoff should his metamorphosis exceed expectations probably justifies the risk, especially in light of the fact that the Astros aren’t going anywhere this season regardless of his role. In the short term, the Astros need bullpen help even more than a rotation restocking, but they can’t go too far wrong in seeing whether Wright has more to offer before consigning him to a short-relief role for the rest of his time in Texas.