Catching Up With The Converted Starting Pitchers

TORONTO, CANADA - Daniel Bard #51 of the Boston Red Sox delivers a pitch during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays. (Photo by Brad White/Getty Images)

Chris Sale, Neftali Feliz, and Daniel Bard were all late-inning relievers last year. How are they doing as starting pitchers this year?

You might be fascinated with minor-league position players who are turned into relievers, like Kenley Jansen. You might be fascinated with pitchers turned into position players, like Brian Bogusevic, Rick Ankiel, or Adam Loewen. I happen to be fascinated with relievers who get turned into starters.

Also, baseball. I'm fascinated with baseball. It seems like a neat sport that will grow on me.

The reliever-to-starter gambit is less common than you think. Jonah Keri found 12 different examples in the last decade-plus. Some of the pitchers were prospects who came up as starters, and who started in the bullpen, but were always likely to return to the rotation. Jonathan Sanchez, for example.

C.J. Wilson is the best and most recent example of a reliever who had late-inning success before a successful conversion. Before Wilson, the success stories were guys like John Smoltz and Ryan Dempster, pitchers who moved from the rotation to the bullpen back to the rotation. The list of unsuccessful conversions contains Braden Looper and Danny Graves.

There are three -- three! -- relievers making the conversion this year. But they aren't just guys who threw a few innings out of the back of the bullpen -- they were important, high-leverage relievers last year. They've each made a start this season, so let's check in ...

Daniel Bard
Bard might have been the most impressive start of all three. He also had the worst box score. Peter Abraham helps explain how those can both be true:

Daniel Bard produced 18 swings and misses by the Blue Jays tonight. To put that in perspective, only one Red Sox starter had more all of last season. That was Josh Beckett, who got 20 against the Orioles in September.

Bard gave up five runs in five innings, but he also allowed several ground-ball hits -- the most by any pitcher this season -- and two of the runs scored after Bard was out of the game.

Neftali Feliz
Feliz gave up four hits and two walks to the Mariners, shutting them out for seven innings. That's probably more impressive than Bard's start, though early research (not, repeat, not peer-reviewed yet) suggests that the Mariners might not have a potent offense. Even more impressive than the results, though, might be how Feliz achieved them.

According to PITCH/fx, Feliz threw a changeup less than two percent of the time last year, and some of those might have been sliders that were mistakenly classified as changes. In his start against the Mariners on Tuesday night, he threw 25 change-ups out of 108 pitches, with 19 of them strikes. Over the winter, he met with a guy who knows a little something about change-ups:

Feliz and (Pedro) Martinez are scheduled to meet again before Feliz arrives in Surprise so that Martinez can watch him throw and work on pitches. Feliz stressed that his slider and changeup have to be more consistent if he's going to succeed as a starter and Martinez, who had an excellent changeup, can certainly help with that.

One outing does not a Pedro make. But the early results -- and the fact that Feliz was willing to use the changeup so extensively -- were encouraging.

Chris Sale
Sale might be the least-known of the three. All he's done is strike out 111 batters in 94 career innings. The former first-round pick threw ten innings in the minors after being drafted 13th overall in the 2010 draft, and his first professional start was impressive: 6⅔ innings, five strikeouts, two walks, and one run. If you've never seen him pitch before, it's worth watching him pitch. Warning: Hawk Harrelson. You can see how Sale could be tough to hit. Great stuff, funky delivery.

So everyone gets a ribbon! Gold stars for everyone! After three starts, we can declare that every conversion was completely successful, except for the whole "giving up runs" thing with Bard. There will surely be some advance scouting and league-wide adjustments before long, so there isn't too much to make of this. But maybe this is the new successful rage in baseball that other teams will emulate.

Stay tuned for my next article on how the Phillies should convert Jonathan Papelbon to help their beleaguered rotation.

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