This is a story about a surfer who became a pop star, and a pop star who became a clairvoyant.
Jack Johnson was born in Hawaii, the son of a professional surfer, and he might have been one himself if, at 17, he hadn’t lost a bunch of blood and teeth in a serious accident during competition. Maybe it was then that he gained supernatural powers of divination. Maybe it was some other, much later occasion. I wouldn’t dare to speculate. Somewhere along the way, though, Johnson became an unwitting portal through which the universe spoke of the future fall of men. Consider the following insipid ditty from Johnson’s third album:
Situation Number One, It’s the one that’s just begun, but evidently it’s too late.
Situation Number Two, It’s the only chance for you; it’s controlled by denizens of hate.
Situation Number Three, It’s the one that no one sees; it’s all too often dismissed as fate.
Situation Number Four, The one that left you wanting more; it tantalized you with its bait.
This song is called “Situations,” and you just read the whole thing. It runs 78 seconds from beginning to end. The lyrics are perfectly perfunctory. It’s something just this side of a limerick, cutesy in its rhymes and imprecise in its use of words. Or is it, even if Johnson never knew it, something much, much more?
I rise to argue the latter. These lines, like the prophecies of old, pertain to a real and tangible future. Specifically, they pertain to the futures of Alex Meyer, Tanner Roark, Danny Salazar and Carlos Martinez—four pitchers whose teams are using them in ways that, if it hadn’t been for the slip of Johnson’s prophetic tongue, would be thoroughly inscrutable.
Situation No. 1: Alex Meyer Hurtles Toward Death
Alex Meyer is older than Henderson Alvarez. Meyer turned 25 in early January, after spending his entire age-24 season with the Twins’ Triple-A affiliate in Rochester. He pitched only 130 innings in 27 starts, but he struck out 153 batters—27.1 percent of those whom he faced. However, he also walked 64 batters, and when that lack of control (let alone a starter’s command) followed him into Grapefruit League play, the Twins elected to remove him from the battle for the fifth slot in the rotation. Meyer will start this season right back in Rochester, sitting, waiting, wishing for an injury or underachievement that might reopen a place for him on the parent club.
Here’s the problem with the Twins’ thought process on Meyer: It might already be too late for him to become a good starter, and he’s ready to relieve in the majors right this second. Delaying his move to relief—and his promotion to the big leagues—might be counterproductive at this point.
Here’s a chart showing the distribution of career rWAR of pitchers whose first season came at age 23, and who started at least seven games in that season:
This is for seasons 1969-2014. The sample at age 23 is 120 hurlers. The value bins were chosen to allow easy categorization of players. Players with subzero WAR figures were, obviously, disasters. Then there’s a bin for marginal players, one for acceptable players, one for useful players and one for truly valuable players. At 23, all of those options remain open to a pitcher. Nearly 50 percent of all pitchers in this sample ended up accruing at least 4.0 WAR, which won’t blow any doors off, but signifies a pitcher who provided some value even to an average contender.
At age 24, things get uglier:
(Sample size: 90)
The rate at which hurlers truly bust rises substantially here. There are still a number of pitchers who hang on and make positive contributions for a few years, but that slice of the pie has grown at the expense of the more valuable slices to its left. Of course, some aspect of this is selection: Better pitchers are more likely to be given a chance earlier, but for Meyer the distinction is irrelevant. Whether he’s still developing or simply deemed unexceptional by his club, he’s failing to keep pace with the future stars. Age is a factor even in a pitcher’s development, particularly with regard to the age at which he finally clears his team’s developmental hurdles and graduates into MLB. By 25, that trend becomes clearer:
(Sample Size: 51)
Now, it’s nearly half of pitchers who will be worth less than 1.0 WAR for their careers. They have only a one-third chance of being worth as many as 4.0. More damning than that, though, is the way the few success stories in the age-25 group break out. They can be sorted into clear categories:
· Knuckleballers – Tim Wakefield and Tom Candiotti each had their first seasons at age 25. This makes sense; developing late when relying on the knuckler is no problem. It’s not something Meyer is going to be able to replicate, though.
· Japanese Imports – Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka have a very good reason for not reaching MLB until they were 25. They were pitching at the highest competitive level available to them in Japan. Comparing them is hardly informative in Meyer’s case.
· Pitch-to-contact oddities – Bob Tewksbury, Doug Fister and Chien-Ming Wang are the closest things to normal, successful starting pitchers in this pool of late risers. They each have (or had) conventional arsenals and bear (or bore) heavy workloads, but none miss (or missed) any bats. Meyer isn’t remotely similar to any of them, except in that, like Fister, he’s very tall. The aforementioned strikeout and walk rates Meyer has posted in his minor-league career are close to double the numbers this group would recognize.
· Relievers – Eureka! Greg Harris, Octavio Dotel, Dick Tidrow and Norm Charlton pave the way here. Hard throwers who failed as starters because of their faltering command and control make for exceptionally high-ceiling bullpen assets. Meyer is a brutal fit for each of the other successful subsets of 25-year-old rookie arms, but here, he fits.
Despite not having suffered any of the serious injuries typical of the modern pitching prospect, Meyer has only 337.2 innings pitched in 68 professional starts. He signed late after being drafted in the first round in 2011, and didn’t pitch in a game until 2012. He’s really just getting started, but with a balky shoulder, shaky command and each tick-tock of the clock threatening to start stealing ticks from his fastball, Meyer is out of time to develop as a starter under the Twins’ stewardship. If they weren’t ready to hand him a job in the starting rotation, they should have given him a job in their bullpen instead, to begin building his trade value.
Situation No. 2: Tanner Roark Gets Banished to the Pen
Tanner Roark didn’t pitch in the Majors until his age-26 season, in 2013. Because I know It’s the first thing you’ll wonder, here’s the way the outcomes shake out for starters who don’t get their start until the age Roark was when his came:
The median pitcher from this pool is worth less than a single WAR before he retires. Roark’s story is truly exceptional, though. His 2.57 ERA is the best any starter has ever posted over their first two seasons at his age, given at least 30 starts. His 3.24 FIP is the second-best. Roark is a triumph, the exception to the rule. He’s as fascinating as he is valuable.
Well, actually, he’s quite a bit more fascinating than that, at least to the 2015 Nationals. Mike Rizzo and Scott Boras made sure of that, when they conspired to add Max Scherzer to the already-loaded Washington rotation, and to keep the whole band together. “Denizens of hate” is an odious word choice, but a little imprecise mysticism is to be expected when one receives prophecy.
What most interests me about Roark is not, in truth, the fact of his exile. He’s a good pitcher, but his strikeout rate was uninspiring last season, he lacks an elite pitch, and his track record is short enough to justify skepticism that he can sustain his success. No, more intriguing is that Roark is part of a trend. Around the league, more than ever, good players are being given short shrift in order to serve the needs of teams who can afford even better alternatives. Hitters aren’t immune, either. Only once since the last expansion of the league have part-time players (those with between 200 and 450 plate appearances) made up a larger percentage of the total number of above-average hitters league-wide.
It’s possible to explain that away—it could be injuries, and not team choices, that are holding down the playing-time accruals of good players. Anecdotally, though, situations like Roark’s are becoming uneasily commonplace. I wrote about Andre Ethier’s version of the same conundrum last month. On the mound, Drew Smyly suffered a similar fate after his impressive rookie showing in 2012. Yusmeiro Petit not only spent the bulk of his 2014 season as the Giants’ sixth starter, but appears ticketed for the same role in 2015. Over the past four seasons, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly have each taken turns of some length in the Cardinals’ bullpen, due simply to the team’s surfeit of viable starting candidates.
In the past, financial strictures and/or the competitive landscape likely would have forced creative solutions to logjams like these, or would have forestalled their development in the first place. Under the current rules, though, the league usually has at least two or three teams (this season, I count four or five) noticeably uninterested in winning, which softens the competition for some elite free agents and deepens the talent pool in which teams with short-term needs and immediate aspirations can fish. In tandem with the flood of national TV money that gives every team extra slack when it comes to accepting sunk costs or allocating resources suboptimally, that allows these situations to not only occur, but drag on for as long as the personalities involved permit it.
There’s no question Roark is getting a raw deal here. He’s 28 years old; just had a season only 47 other active pitchers have matched at any point in their careers; won’t qualify for arbitration until 2017; and is staring at a full-season assignment to middle relief work. This is his big chance, and forces beyond his control have wrested it from him. I’m not sure how sad we ought to feel for Roark. The Nationals are simply doing what every team needs to do: maximize their win expectancy by calling upon all their resources. It’s just that, as always, progress has a human cost.
Situation No. 3: The Cleveland Con
No team more aggressively pursues long-term contract extensions with its pre-arbitration players—especially those who give off the faintest scent of star potential—than the Cleveland Indians. It’s a minor miracle that this team, who last winter bought up free-agent seasons from Michael Brantley and Yan Gomes just before they could break out and gain leverage, hasn’t already sealed deals with at least one or two of its heralded collection of breakout starting pitchers.
It makes some sense that Corey Kluber, who won the Cy Young Award last season, might wait and see how rich a jackpot he could command after a repeat performance. It’s conceivable, given Trevor Bauer’s well-documented self-confidence and intelligence, that the price to tie him down would be too high for Cleveland’s tastes right now. Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar, however, have each lived through Tommy John surgery. Each has been on the brink of failure. Each has needed return trips to the minor leagues. They should be so self-aware that signing away potential free-agent riches for a little security would suit them fine.
The Indians haven’t pounced, though, perhaps because they have ample leverage—and cost control—over each player as it is. Carrasco’s rocky career path has held his earning power in check. Salazar has had, if possible, an even more unusual career than Carrasco’s, but it’s his service-time accrual that grabbed my eye this week, when the parent club optioned him to Triple-A.
Despite making 10 starts during the 2013 Indians’ playoff push and 20 more during his sophomore season last year, Salazar has only 162 days of service time to his name—not even a full season’s worth. The Tribe called him up for an emergency start in July 2013, but they then sent him back to the minors for about four weeks. (That’s just a hair longer than the minimum 20 days an option must last in order for the days spent in the minors not to count as MLB service time.) Salazar finished the season with 55 days of service.
Early in 2014, despite impressive strikeout numbers and excellent raw stuff, Salazar was having too many short outings, and letting the bases get clogged too often. The team optioned him again, on May 15th, and recalled him only in the days leading up to the trade deadline—though it was apparent that he was ready to return as early as the end of June.
Then, one might deduce, some intern earned his entire summer’s worth of class credit on a single day in August, when he noticed that, given Salazar’s current accrual, the pitcher would finish the season with 173 days of service, clearing the bar for a full season’s worth by a single day. On August 6th, Salazar was sent back to Columbus again. He stayed only 10 days (the legal minimum, unless an injury necessitates a roster move in the interim), but since he’d been optioned earlier in the year for more than 10 days, he still didn’t get credited with MLB service during his stay in Triple-A. After being called back to the big leagues, Salazar turned in a strong eight-start stretch in which he struck out 51, walked 12 and posted a 3.42 ERA, closing out the season with a bang.
Normally, this dance would now be over. Salazar has been optioned long enough in each of the past three seasons to exhaust the Indians’ right to do so again, under normal circumstances. However, Salazar’s 2010 Tommy John surgery slowed his development somewhat, and MLB granted Cleveland a fourth option year on him in light of that fact. That’s how we’ve ended up back here again.
It’s my turn to play Carnac, or perhaps Chipper Jones: I’ll just bet you that Salazar comes up to the Indians sometime between May 17th and May 24th. The Super Two cutoff for 2015 was two years and 133 days of service. Salazar can come in at one year and 133 days at the end of this year if he debuts on or after May 17th. If that is the case, at season’s end, the Indians will have gotten two and a half seasons of Salazar (interrupted, truncated ones, but two and a half years of the man’s life, and of his arm) for just over one year of service time. They’ll still be two years from paying him arbitration salaries. They’ll still have five years of club control remaining.
This likely wouldn’t happen to a hitter, because this kind of manipulation doesn’t work for position players. Even timing promotions and demotions perfectly, and assuming a minimum of time lost for travel, shuttling position players back and forth between the high minors and the majors would leave underqualified players with an increased load to carry. Moreover, because workload monitoring and management aren’t a part of the usual conversation about position players, needing fresh legs to rotate in at shortstop during a three-week stretch without an off day would not be regarded as a legitimate reason for this kind of move. (Salazar’s August demotion last season was, half-truthfully, ascribed to the team’s need to deepen their bullpen and take pressure off some overworked arms.)
That gets to the heart of the specific issue with Salazar. As I alluded to above, Salazar is often guilty of leaving a lot of work to the relief corps when he starts—even if he has an otherwise impressive outing. A shade over 500 pitchers have made at least 30 starts in their first two major-league seasons, while working almost exclusively in that role. Of those, Salazar’s 30-percent Quality Start percentage (QS as a percentage of all starts) is lower than all but 10. That completely belies his skill set, though:
This chart only shows the 200 worst starters in the sample by QS percentage, but you get the idea. Pitchers as good as Salazar usually turn in longer, more satisfying outings than he has. Salazar works only 5.4 innings per start, well below even the very low modern standard for normal starter workload. His 89.6 pitches per start ranks 131st out of 148 pitchers who have made at least 30 starts in their first two seasons since 2000, so it isn’t really a matter of his pitch counts getting out of control. Rather, the Indians worry about injury risk whenever he works deep into games; Terry Francona has a quick hook; and traffic on the bases tends to pile up on Salazar. It’s not just lip service; Salazar really taxes the bullpen at a unique level.
Yet, it’s not just Salazar. It’s Francona and the Indians, too. Indians starters bequeathed 308 baserunners to relief arms last season, 50 more than any other team in baseball. Francona was proactive about matchups, making more pitching changes and using more relievers for short outings than any other manager in the league. We’re starting to see, if not a pattern and plan itself, then the imprint of one. The Indians just might be trying something truly new, using every inch of territory they can get with regard to roster rules to spread their workload more widely than any other team in baseball. It bears watching, but in the meantime, so does this: Salazar is an MLB-quality pitcher who will open the season in the minor leagues.
Situation No. 4: Carlos Martinez Has Got Some Bait A-Waitin’
Since 1988, 28 pitchers have racked up 100 innings pitched while working 80 percent of their outings in relief over their first two seasons, at ages 23 or younger. (Yes, I used the Play Index. Buy the Play Index.) It’s rare, to be good enough to be counted upon so heavily at so young an age, but to be asked to do so in relief. As Carlos Martinez, the most recent such hurler, gets a promotion to the Cardinals’ starting rotation, I looked up these pitchers to see who among them had successfully transitioned into starting roles as their careers went on.
The first thing you should know, I don’t want to tell you yet. So here’s the second thing you should know: 15 of the previous 27 pitchers to begin their careers the way Martinez has begun his never started (or have yet to start) a major-league game. That’s okay; many of them turned out well anyway. Rafael Soriano, Huston Street, Drew Storen, Jesse Crain and Rod Beck are among the group. If the Cardinals had simply left Martinez in a set-up role, they’d have been doing fine.
Now, I’ll tell you the first thing you should have known about the pitchers who started out like Carlos Martinez. The thing is this: Pedro Martinez was on the list. That’s significant, if for no other reason, because everyone and their ugly brother compares Carlos to Pedro so often that seeing any connection between them is going to radically shift the perceived possibility curve on Carlos to the right. Two of the most famously, hideously mishandled reliever-starter conversion efforts of this century, Neftali Feliz and Joba Chamberlain, were also in Martinez’s situation after their first two seasons in the majors. Then again, so was Johan Santana. Denny Neagle, Kelvim Escobar and Brandon McCarthy weigh in on the bright side of the possible conversion. Brandon Morrow and Terry Adams argue for leaving well enough alone.
Finding the right balance of risk and reward is difficult in the cases of most pitchers, but especially in the case of Martinez. All the historical precedents seem to pull toward extremes, and that’s exactly the kind of proposition Martinez feels like. He’s not going to have an average, ordinary, Carlos Villanueva (also on the list) kind of career. He’ll either get hurt, crash and burn due to his limitations as a starter, or thrive the way Santana did before him. (Let’s leave Pedro out of the equation.) Small pitchers like Martinez rarely get this kind of opportunity to stretch out and leave the bullpen behind. It should probably send us a positive signal about him that St. Louis was even willing to give it a shot. Still, the risk shouldn’t be dismissed. For all the promise, given the odds against a successful transition (and given the depth the Cardinals have; Marco Gonzales could have taken the job in Martinez’s stead), I think St. Louis is making a bad bet by moving Martinez.
Thank you for reading
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