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Annually, teams spend early draft picks on flamethrowing college relievers. These hurlers generally sit in the mid-to-high 90s and complement their gas with a plus slider, remarkable poise, and a startling lack of control. Still, teams select these relievers high, selling themselves on elite stuff and a perceived quick path to the majors. Surprisingly or not though, the big-league track record of top relief draftees is poor. Take a look at all the relievers* picked in the first two rounds from 2006 to 2011:

Player

Pick

MLB IP

WARP

Chris Perez

42 (2006)

379.1

4.8

Casey Weathers

8 (2007)

0

0

Edward Kunz

42

2.2

-0.0

Jonathan Bachanov

52

0

0

Josh Fields

20 (2008)

159

3.4

Daniel Schlereth

26

93

0.3

Cody Satterwhite

67

0

0

Drew Storen

10 (2009)

351.1

4.4

Rex Brothers

34

242.3

1.8

Billy Bullock

70

0

0

Daniel Tillman

81 (2010)

0

0

Lenny Linsky

89 (2011)

0

0

*To qualify, pitchers must have made no more than five professional starts. Bolded players are still active. Paco Rodriguez aside, the classes of 2012 and 2013 already look similarly grim.

It’s not just that half of the names above never played a big-league game, or that just four notched 50 career appearances. It’s that at the very top end of the curve—one that could, admittedly, be re-shaped by Nick Burdi, Jacob Lindgren, or one of a dozen others—sits Drew Storen. Storen is a good reliever, a former and perhaps future closer who has made money and justified his selection. But he’s not regularly vying for the Rolaids Relief Award, and he’s a reminder that players of his ilk offer less upside than toolsy outfielders, high school lefties, and virtually every other player type.

More to the point, teams can usually develop effective bullpens without spending a top-80 pick on reliever-only types. Most big-league relievers were either tabbed as starters or selected long after MLB Network’s cameras stopped rolling. It’s an exaggeration to say that you can shake a tree and ten relievers will fall out—as Rogers Hornsby once lamented of good glovemen—but a surprising number of the sport’s best firemen were either failed starters or inexpensive investments. To wit, take a glance at the top relievers by DRA in 2015:

Player

DRA-

Acquired

Carter Capps

62

3rd round, drafted as reliever

Andrew Miller

63

1st round, drafted as starter

Aroldis Chapman

67

Signed as starter

Kenley Jansen

69

Signed as catcher

Cody Allen

70

23rd round, drafted as reliever

Dellin Betances

71

8th round, drafted as starter

Wade Davis

72

3rd round, drafted as starter

Darren O’Day

74

Signed as amateur free agent

David Robertson

75

17th round, drafted as reliever

Josh Fields

75

1st round, drafted as reliever

Koji Uehara

75

Signed as starter

The relationship holds the further down you go. Look at any bullpen, and you’ll see that most relievers were made, not born.

To get a feel for how to build a reliever, it’s helpful to look at a case study. For our purposes, let’s examine Andrew Edwards, a 24-year-old righty in the Kansas City Royals system.

Edwards is on the cusp of joining the big-league club. After posting a 0.50 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 18 innings in Double-A, he maintained his dominance in Omaha. Before a rough outing on Memorial Day, Edwards had scattered six hits across his first 7 1/3 Triple-A innings, striking out 14 hitters. Edwards’s stuff backs up his impressive numbers: His fastball reaches the upper-90s, and he complements the heat with a two-plane slider that flashes plus. Whether he can throw it effectively enough to work in the very back of a big-league bullpen remains to be seen, but the only barrier between Edwards and a spot in MLB’s army of high-strikeout relievers is time.

That’s not to say that Edwards’s future was always so clear. Prior to 2016, Edwards spent the better part of two years in High-A. His career SO/9 was under seven, and he had just posted a 3.86 ERA in Wilmington, which isn’t particularly impressive in a league so pitcher-friendly that cleanup hitters are required to bat blindfolded.

Edwards is a big kid at 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, and he’s always had a good fastball. But he was never a top prospect. He went undrafted out of high school and spent two seasons playing in junior college ball joining Western Kentucky’s rotation. Pitching for the Hilltoppers, Edwards posted a 4.69 ERA with solid, if unspectacular peripherals, particularly considering that college baseball had shifted to BBCOR bats. The Royals saw enough to draft him in the 19th round in 2013 though, and shipped him to their Rookie-ball affiliate in Burlington. They immediately plugged him in the bullpen.

Edwards sat in the low-to-mid 90s with a poor slider and a stiff delivery when he entered pro ball. According to Kansas City’s roving pitching instructor Larry Carter, the first step in his development was to augment his motion: “He was a guy that was always across his body, and he was really ducking his shoulders down low and pinching down.” Over time, he was able to simplify his delivery, which helped him throw more strikes and pitch to the entire strike zone.

Steve Luebber, the pitching coach for Kansas City’s Double-A affiliate in Northwest Arkansas, also helped him get more out of his fastball and slider. “When I first saw him in 2014, he was a two-seam guy with a poor slider,” Luebber said. “His command wasn’t poor, but it wasn’t real good either.” Part of the problem was that he wasn’t unleashing his best fastball, or taking advantage of the leverage his large frame and long limbs provided. At one point Luebber issued a challenge: “I said to him, ‘If you’re 89-94, you’re just another guy. We want to see you letting the ball go.’”

Luebber worked with him to improve his weight transfer and to drive more efficiently towards the plate, while concentrating on throwing harder. The adjustments worked: His velocity surged and his command improved alongside. He also rebranded his slider after Luebber had him concentrate on throwing the pitch more downhill: “His picture of the slider was as a left to right pitch, and I want more depth with it. A lot of guys, once they start trying to throw it down, once they get a taste of throwing it, they see the reaction.” Edwards is still inconsistent with the pitch, but his best ones are sharp, with two-plane break, and feature the late tumbling action out of the zone that Luebber champions.

Improved focus has also helped Edwards. While not a bad make-up guy, Luebber calls him “easy going,” and notes that he’s had to push him. To his credit, Edwards responded to the challenge, and his receptiveness to instruction paved the way to his career development. Carter also cites his stint in the Arizona Fall League last year as a mental turning point, noting how the proximity to elite talent and a new pool of hard workers helped him get down to business: “I’ve noticed a real improvement in his maturity and his makeup since he got back.”

Just like that, the Royals have a legitimate relief prospect on their hands. He now sits 96-97 with life, is increasingly capable of moving the ball around the plate, and has learned when to go for the jugular and get a whiff. His delivery still isn’t easy on the eyes: He’s a high effort pitcher, he doesn’t always repeat his motion, sometimes overthrows, and all of his weight falls towards first base. It’s not ideal, and if he was a starter, he’d be dinged for his mechanics.

But he’s not a starter. He’s a reliever, a 19th-round freebie that the Royals plucked out of a small conference college program and developed into a legitimate back-of-the-bullpen prospect. Regardless of his ultimate role, Edwards is a reflection of the talent lying around on day three of the draft, and the latest reminder to teams tempted to reach for high-octane relievers early.

Andrew Edwards

Born: 10/07/1991 (Age: 23)
Bats: Right Throws: Right
Height: 6' 6" Weight: 265
Mechanics
Extremely strong frame; quick arm; high three-quarter arm slot; high-effort delivery on fastball; moderate head whack; falls towards first base line; slows arm down on offspeed; hides the ball well.
Evaluator Brendan Gawlowski
Report Date 05/15/2015
Affiliate Omaha Storm Chasers (AAA, Royals)
Dates Seen 5-15-16
OFP/Risk 50/Low
Realistic Set up reliever
MLB ETA 2016
Video No
Pitch Type Present Grade Future Grade Sitting Velocity Peak Velocity Report
Fastball 70 70 96-97 98 Plus-plus fastball with above average tailing movement for the velocity band; above average command; capable of moving the fastball around the zone; elevates in search of whiffs; generates whiffs in the zone; not afraid to come inside.
Slider 55 60 86-87 89 Two-plane slider; can throw for strikes; shape is consistent but break isn't sharp despite high velocity; pitch flashes plus with additional depth; does not replicate arm speed, slows entire frame down.
Change 40 40 86-87 87 Predominantly fading action; limited vertical tumble; consistently missed arm side; does not replicate arm speed; movement similar to two-seam fastball; clear third offering.
Overall

Hitters have a tough time seeing the ball out of Edwards's hand, which allows him to miss plenty of bats with his plus-plus velocity. His slider isn't a knockout weapon yet, but it's a two-plane breaker that flashes plus and should miss plenty of right-handed bats at the next level. His changeup was a weak offering in my viewing, never threatening the strike zone, but his first two offerings are good enough to safely project a middle reliever, with late inning upside if his slider ticks up a grade. Could succeed in the big leagues right now.


Special thanks to Arianna Takis, Bryan Holcomb, and Dylan Schultz for their generous and thorough research assistance.

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mattyjames1
6/07
Great stuff. Thank you.
bgawlowski14
6/07
Thank you!