Today is another theme day at Keeper Reaper as we look over the relievers converted into starters last year and determine how worthy they are of being protected.
Sale appeared in the majors the same year he was drafted, throwing 23 strong innings (after just 10 in the minors) out of the bullpen for the Sox in August and September of 2010. He threw another 71 great innings in 2011, and it looked like he could be the next great closer in the American League. Having been drafted as a starter, the Sox decided to move him back into the rotation, and he flourished beyond anybody’s wildest dreams. It’s just not that he was successful; it’s how quickly he was successful.
Of course, it wasn’t all roses and rubies (new phrase, use it!); his mechanics are so wretched that they will make your arm hurt worse than Hawk Harrelson makes your ears hurt when watching a game, and he came back down to earth in July through the rest of the year. His 3.6 K/BB wasn’t too far from the first half’s 3.9 mark, and his 9.5 K/9 topped his 8.5 from the first half. His ERA, however, ballooned from 2.19 to 4.03 and his WHIP from 0.96 to 1.34. The worst part was his home run rate exploding from 0.4 to 1.4. Righties obliterated his fastball to the tune of a 1077 OPS in the second half after he kept it at 685 through the first half.
Sale essentially experienced his regression in-season. That doesn’t mean we won’t see some in 2013 too, though. His 80 percent left-on-base rate was 5.5 percentage points higher than the league average for relievers, so betting on him beating the league average for starters by 8.5 percent again is a bad idea. After pumping Sale as a buy candidate in 2012, I recommend practicing caution with him as a keeper for 2013. I can envision ranking 20-25 starters ahead of him.
Lynn only spent some of the summer of 2011 in the bullpen before becoming a starter again, so his transition wasn’t necessarily as uncertain as Sale’s, but the results were almost more impressive because he put together a season that had bested anything he had done as a starter in the minors. That includes a where-did-that-come-from 9.2 strikeout rate, nearly a quarter of his batters faced. A 7.7 mark was the best he’d ever posted as a minor leaguer when pitching a significant amount of time (his 27-inning pro debut led to a 9.8 K/9). One major contributing factor was the lack of diminished velocity. His four-seamer was at 94 flat in 2011 and “dipped” to 93.96 in 2012.
While Lynn faded as the season wore on, like Sale, he also handled some yo-yoing between the rotation and bullpen with aplomb. Sale dealt with similar speculation in May but only ended up with one relief appearance. Lynn made six in the final two months. After a rocky August in which he had a 6.66 ERA, he rebounded for a huge September, winning his last five appearances—one out of the pen—with a 2.10 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 32 strikeouts to just seven walks in his 26 innings.
Lynn might be a bit overrated as a keeper asset unless you are dealing with dollar or round values, but he could end up as a value in the spring because of how his performance fell off after the break, even though he actually closed the regular season with a bang. Most guys don’t even have such a huge perch to fall from in their first year as a full-time MLB starter, so Lynn and Sale deserve credit for that.
Saved the best for last. Samardzija is the new poster boy for not giving up on a talented arm. He did nothing of merit for three seasons as a big leaguer. Part of it was that he was used sparingly, so he didn’t have a chance to make an impact, but it was mostly that he was awful in those limited chances, so he didn’t warrant a chance to make an impact. He emerged a bit in 2011, though his 5.1 walk rate belied his 2.97 ERA. But for once his nasty stuff was evident over a sustained period of time (88 innings), so the Cubs decided to move the 27 year old to the rotation, with extremely positive results.
Let others underrate him because he went 9-13. Sure, his other 24 teammates are something of a liability, but I’m far more interested in his striking out a quarter of the batters he faced (9.3 K/9) and shaving a full five percentage points from his 2011 walk rate down to a strong 7.8 percent (2.9 BB/9). He actually added velocity to his 95.6 mph four-seamer. It wasn’t much, but even moving to 95.9 mph is mighty impressive when you consider he threw 328 more fastballs in 2012 than in 2011.
His 87-mph split-finger is his best secondary pitch, generating a swing-and-miss 27 percent of the time, and he completed 51 percent of his 180 strikeouts with the pitch. His 85-mph slider is pretty damn good too. By comparison to the splitter, it looks silly, but the 14 percent whiff rate and 24 percent strikeout rate with the pitch are both quite good.
I’m not ready to label The Shark as the 26th-best player with which to build a franchise from scratch, but I am willing to put him on the cusp of being a keeper even in “Medium” leagues because of his potential. He has a deep, strong arsenal, and he has logged 175 innings to show how deadly they can be when he’s on his game. After an embarrassingly bad June (10.41 ERA in 23 innings), he closed the season with a 2.58 ERA in 87 innings that included 95 strikeouts, a 1.02 WHIP, and a 4.3 K/BB ratio. Unlike our other two subjects, he got better as the season progressed and closed with his best work.