Starter-Reliever Conversions
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May 4 - April 10,  2002

Cory Watson, who runs Scoresheet Canada, stated in our latest results: Like thousands of other fantasy team owners, I spent my Sunday morning wondering why I didn`t pick Derek Lowe in this year`s draft.  I thought the normal trend was to turn a starter into a dominant reliever/closer, such as the A`s did with Dennis Eckersley.  But Lowe is doing the opposite, switching from a closer to a starter, and seems to be having great success at it so far.

Dennis Eckersley was converted into a reliever 15 years ago. Since then we`ve actually had more a little more success with conversions going the other way. Note that Joe Kerrigan had a lot to do with most of them (besides Lowe): Jeff Fassaro, David Wells, Kenny Rogers, Dustin Hermanson, and, oh yes, Pedro Martinez! All of these pitchers were clearly established as relievers, but had more success as starters. Hermanson was not really established in the majors as a reliever, but he was a reliever throughout university and the minor leagues. Wells` transition was the most gradual. After two years of pure relief, he swung back and forth between starting and relieving for the next three seasons.

Who have we had going the other way since the Eck? John Candelaria? I wouldn`t call his last three seasons of a long career a conversion to relief. It was more of a gentle setting out to pasture. Mike Morgan`s switch to relief at the age of 40 would, of course, be the same. Rick Aguilera? OK, that`s one, but he only had two mediocre seasons as a starter. Tom Gordon. That`s two, but it lasted only a year and a half. Greg Swindell? He was well established as a starter, but was floundering there when he was switched to relief. But that`s three. Isringhausen? He never had a full season as a major league starter. After his arm operations, he had to re-establish himself. He had no success afterwards as a starter, so I don`t think it is fair to count him. Latroy Hawkins? His three years as a major league starter ended up with a 6.16 ERA, but if we count Hermanson, then we have to count Hawkins. John Smoltz? Maybe. Give him some time, yet. His career has been Candelaria-ish with so much DL time lately, but, at least, he is being used more prominently as a closer, and I am guessing will last longer. He certainly won`t last long enough to say he had more success as a reliever, but enough success that I`ll count him as the fifth successful conversion since the Eck. Eric Gagne? Perhaps, we have another here, but it is too soon to call it a success. Kevin Escobar? I do not count him as ever establishing himself as a starter. He came up as a reliever. His only full season as a starter resulted in an ERA of 5.74. Mark Buehrle was only a reliever for a couple months after his call-up in `90, before he returned to starting in `91.

In conclusion, switching pitching roles at the major league level is fairly uncommon. Since the 90s, we have had less than a dozen major successes pitchers switching roles. That`s about one a year. The reasons for switching seem obvious and common enough that I`m surprised it doesn`t occur more often. Furthermore, I couldn`t come across any examples of where it was tried and completely failed. (That might be partly a function of the way failures in baseball disappear, while successes remain.) Relievers become starters once they`ve built up their stamina and pitch repertoire to handle the extra workload and face the same batters a second, third, or even fourth time in a game. Some teams might just wish to preserve a young star pitcher`s tenderer arm by gently breaking him in the bullpen. Starters become relievers after they struggle as a starter - especially if show a pattern of getting knocked around the 2nd or 3rd time they face a line-up, or because their arms become too fragile to start due to age and injuries. This explains why the quality of success going from reliever to starter is greater than the other way around. It is because relievers become starters when they are improving. Starters generally become relievers as a last grasp to hang on to their careers.