To start or relieve? Teams have trouble choosing
Bard and Sale, for example, have different outcomes in transitions
Legend has it that, as a young pitching coach, 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series hero Johnny Podres once used a unique method to organize his staff. He told those who liked to go out at night to stand here and the milkshake drinkers to gather there.
The partiers were his starters. The clean livers were his relievers. A smiling Podres never denied the tale.
Maybe he was on to something. Major League teams, for all their modern resources, seem to have a difficult time deciding how to deploy their best young arms these days.
Exhibit A is Red Sox right-hander Daniel Bard. Once a dominant setup reliever, Boston attempted to convert him into a starter this spring. When he was optioned to Triple-A Pawtucket on June 7, he was 5-6 with a 5.24 ERA. Back in the bullpen, he blew his first save opportunity for the PawSox on Wednesday night.
On the other hand, the White Sox decided to turn left-hander Chris Sale into a starter this year and he could be headed to the All-Star Game. The move hasn't been without controversy, however. Sale experienced some soreness in his elbow in early May and had a precautionary MRI. He made one relief appearance and there has been some public debate about whether his innings should be limited this season.
Texas converted closer Neftali Feliz into a starter; he recently began throwing on the side after being sidelined on May 18 with elbow inflammation. Lance Lynn has successfully made the bullpen-to-rotation switch in St. Louis. The Reds planned to make Aroldis Chapman a starter, but decided against the change in Spring Training.
In all, 46 Major League pitchers have both started and relieved this season. Twenty-two have appeared in each role at least twice. Phillies right-hander Kyle Kendrick, who has been a swing man for the past four seasons, sees a trend.
"I pay attention. You want to see who else is doing it, certain guys and how it works out for them," he said. "I've seen that a lot of teams are doing it with guys. It's definitely more than last year.
"The roles are different. So you have a routine for one and a different routine for the other. It's easier to go from starting to relieving, but it's totally different. When you relieve, you get a real [adrenaline] rush. You've got to calm yourself down. So it's way different. It's a totally different part of the game."
Three common themes emerged when respected baseball people were asked what is the best way to identify which pitchers should start and which are better off coming out of the bullpen. Here are the markers they look for:
How many plus pitches does he have?
"If he had a fastball and a slider, but he didn't have a changeup or a cutter or something else, he might be better suited to pitch out of the bullpen," said Reds general manager Walt Jocketty. "But if he's got three or four quality pitches to get a hitter out, he's probably going to have more success as a starter."
Added Tony La Russa, who managed 33 years while making it to the World Series six times and winning three: "You have to evaluate what the guy's repertoire is. A starting pitcher has to be able to do certain things. He has to have a number of pitches so he can go through the lineup several times and can get right-handed hitters out as well as left-handed hitters. It's pretty simple. If you've got a guy who has a pretty explosive one or two pitches, that's not enough to be a starter, but he can be great as a reliever."
What is the greatest need for the team? Feliz, who was a starter in the Minor Leagues, is a good example.
"When he came into the big leagues, the five spots were taken as far as starting," said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux. "We needed some help in the 'pen and he came in throwing that blazer. It was just a new look for everybody. He threw awfully hard and he kind of found his niche in the 'pen. We needed some people on the back end of the bullpen. He profiled as that and then, given the opportunity, became one of the better closers in the league.
"[After the 2010 season] we put Nefti in the rotation and we said, 'That's great.' Then we went to Spring Training and we didn't have a closer. Although we could have used another starter, I think there was a bigger need to have a closer. So he went into the bullpen as our closer in 2011. Then our first move that [GM] Jon Daniels and company made in the [past] offseason was getting a closer, Joe Nathan. That filled the void we had the previous year and that allowed Nefti to start."
Does he have a rubber arm?
"You look at something like how quick his arm will bounce back. Because if his arm doesn't bounce back quickly, it's tough to have him in the bullpen because he's not available enough," La Russa said. "I think delivery is part of it. You have a delivery that's a lot of leverage. Or you have a guy who really maxes out every throw, you can only throw so many times."
Leo Mazzone, the former pitching coach of the Braves and Orioles, has strong opinions on the best way to develop pitchers and make the proper determination.
"It's based on common sense. I can promise you one thing. It's easier on a pitcher's arm to start than it is to relieve," he said. "So you have to start first and work off of that.
"I don't believe you can develop anybody by pitching them one inning every other day in the Minor Leagues. And also in the Minor Leagues, if you bring a guy in out of the bullpen back-to-back, that's a no-no now. It's mapped out for the relievers now, when you can use them and when you can't. Well, when you get to the big leagues, how are you going to map that out? You may have to use them every day for a while and then not pitch them for a week."
Of course, sometimes the pitcher takes all the guesswork out of it. In an 11-year career, MLB Network analyst Mitch Williams appeared in 619 games, all but three as a reliever.
"I told them I could give them two innings," he used to say. "First two or last two. Their call."
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.