Revisiting The Four Bullpen-To-Rotation Conversions

KANSAS CITY, MO -Chris Sale #49 of the Chicago White Sox pitches against the Kansas City Royals in the first inning at Kauffman Stadium. The Royals won 6-3. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Four pitchers made the jump from reliever to starter this year. How are they doing?

There are certain things that will always get a good response on the Internet. Dogs wearing Star Wars costumes. Anything tangentially related to The Wire. Pictures of that attractive actress from that show that nerds like. And there's nothing more popular in the Internet baseball world than a hard-throwing reliever making the transition to the starting rotation. It's always a good idea. The idea is this:

  • A good starter is more valuable than a good reliever because a good starter throws more innings.
  • Therefore, it's always a good idea to convert a reliever to a starting pitcher.

There are exceptions, of course, like guys with funky platoon splits, or pitchers with only two pitches. But if a reliever has an assortment of different pitches, and he can handle getting both lefties and righties out, the call for him to start will always be met with open Internet arms.

Alas, not all relievers are created equal. Earlier in the year, we took a look at three relievers making the transition from the bullpen to the rotation, and it's time to check back in with them.

The Good

Chris Sale hasn't been good, he's been great. Otherworldly. Superlative. But we're going with a Sergio Leone theme, so he goes under good. He does everything well -- throws strikes, gets strikeouts, and limits home runs. Pitchers who are 23 aren't supposed to do that. Relievers who make the conversion to the rotation aren't supposed to do that right away. Sale's doing it all. He's thrown 110 innings, striking out 102 and walking 25, and he leads the American League in ERA.

Sale had stats that indicated plus-control in college, but he pitched at Florida Gulf Coast University. A list of pitchers from FGCU who have pitched well in the majors: Chris Sale. The FGCU Eagles played a three-game series this year against University of South Carolina Upstate, which you've only heard of if you're Mayor of Upstate South Carolina, and FGCU lost the series. You can't be sure how college stats accumulated against mid-level competition will translate.

When Sale got to the majors -- after only 11 games, mind you -- he didn't have magic control. It wasn't bad, but he walked over three hitters for every nine innings, which you'd expect from a young pitcher just out of college. But now he has preternatural command, and he's using it to abuse hitters the first, second, and third time through the order. I can't get enough video of him, even if it means listening to Hawk Harrelson. Fun to watch.

He's been dealing with some elbow tenderness, though. Take a look at the picture for this post. Try to formulate a theory as to how that can be.

The Bad

Neftali Feliz wasn't bad in the sense that he couldn't get hitters out. But the outcome was bad: Feliz hasn't pitched since May 18 because of a tender elbow. In his last start, he walked five hitters in 4 ⅔ innings while throwing 101 pitches -- a recurring theme for Feliz early in the season. He had trouble getting out of the fifth inning under 100 pitches, and eventually his elbow stormed out after a fight and went to a bar.

That isn't to say that Feliz wouldn't have been hurt if he stayed in the bullpen, but the conventional wisdom suggests that starting is harder on an arm. I'm not sure if that's true -- relievers get hurt quite a bit, too -- but at the very least, a starting pitcher is going to throw more pitches, about three times as many as the typical closer.

For now, the Rangers are worried enough about the conversion to consider moving Feliz back to the bullpen, and the whole situation is muddled enough to inspire headlines like this:

Feliz, likely to return to bullpen when healthy, still considers himself a starter

The Ugly

I used to have a running gag where I'd do a good/bad/ugly theme, and when I got to the ugly part, I'd simply write "Randy Johnson." It was funny because he did not meet the typical societal standards for attractiveness!

But Daniel Bard's season has been so ugly, it would be disrespectful to put it in the same category as Randy Johnson riding Willie McGee like a pony through the set where they're filming Cocoon: Nude!. Bard's season has been uglier. Don't insult that other scenario like that.

Bard's season started ugly in the majors, with a 6.1 walks-per-nine-innings mark as a starter. The Red Sox gave up on the conversion and sent Bard down to the minors to get him back in the bullpen groove. Since then:

2012 AAA 8.31 17.1 16 2 14 18

That's as a reliever. Bard couldn't throw strikes as a starter in the minors. The Red Sox retooled his delivery and put him in the bullpen, and he flourished. But after the conversion to a starting pitcher, it's like all of the good work over the last three years has been undone. The Red Sox had a good setup man. They wanted a good starting pitcher. They'll get neither, at least in the short term.

The Heck, Not Sure Yet

Jeff Samardzija has a stellar strikeout rate. He could stand to cut down on his walks, but he's not horrifically wild. He's allowed a home run for every nine innings he's pitched, which is exactly the league average. Yet the ERA is 4.57, which is well below average in the current pitcher-friendly context.

Of course he's the hardest reliever-to-starter to figure out. He's just about the hardest pitcher in baseball to figure out.

Conclusions? Heck, I don't know. Chris Sale is good, Neftali Feliz might still be good, Daniel Bard is lost, and Jeff Samardzija is a weirdo. So the next time someone on the Internet suggests a reliever-to-starter conversion, remember all of the possible outcomes. There were four conversions made prior to the 2012 season. All of them went in wildly different directions. Ain't that just like baseball?

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