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Reliever-Starter Conversions

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Age of a heavy workload or change in workload?

Two summers ago, this website acknowledged what a success Derek Lowe was as a converted reliever. His success inspired my article on reliever-starter and starter-reliever conversions. Last year, his ERA slipped and his K/W slipped even more. This winter, I had Lowe rated towards the bottom of the American League starting pitchers and that’s precisely where he’s been.

 

Lowe’s success was so short-lived that it inspired this rewrite. It seems several other converted relievers’ careers were shortened as well. It is time to see how often these relief-pitcher-to-starting-pitcher conversions work out and why some do and some don’t.

 

Let’s look for some examples to see how often in works out. The pitchers have been grouped by similarity of conversion history.

 

But first! Your pop quiz is: what do the Jeff Fassero, Pedro Martinez, Dustin Hermanson, and Derek Lowe conversions from reliever to starter have in common? The answer is in the third to last paragraph.

 

Derek Lowe’s (R: 6’6”) details are that he was drafted out of high school and spent his 6½ year minor league career as a starter. He started and relieved during his first year and a half in the majors. He then pitched almost completely in relief for the next three years, except for 3 experimental starts during that third year. At 28, he converted to full time starter. His first year was a rousing success. His second year was mediocre according to his ERA, but his K:W indicated something was very wrong. This year his third year, Lowe has been one of the most troubled starters in the majors.

 

Jeff Fassero (L: 6’1”) is a college man who spent over 7 years in the minors. He was a starter for most of them, but a reliever in the 5th and 7th of those seasons. He continued to relieve in the Majors for two and a half seasons before his conversion to starting pitcher. Fassero was 30 at that time, but it should be noted that he only started 15 games that first half season he began starting. He pitched only 21 starts his second year as a starter, due to the strike. This is a pretty good comparison to Lowe. There is only a slight difference in age of conversion (and age professional career began), but the biggest difference is that Fassero was eased into the role far more gradually than Lowe who jumped from 3 starts one year to 32 starts the next. Fassero pitched well as a starter for 5 and 1/2 seasons. Lowe: just one. Fasero’s last two seasons as a starter were not effective. He has managed to hang on as a lefty reliever the last three years, but he'd be out of baseball, now, if he were right-handed.

 

Todd Ritchie (R: 6’3”) a high school draftee spent the first 6½ years of his career as a starter – in the minor leagues. Notably, as a 20 year old, he was allowed to pitch 173 innings. He was only healthy enough the next two years to pitch 63 innings combined. Ritchie spent two and a half years as a reliever struggling between Minnesota and Salt Lake City. Now, 27 years old, the Pirates immediately made Ritchie a full time starting pitcher again. He was pretty good for three seasons. By the time the Pirates ripped off the White Sox by trading him for Kip Wells, he had nothing left. Because of his time in the minors as a starter, Ritchie makes another good conversion comparable to Fassero and Lowe, except they had much more success as relievers.

 

David Wells (L: 6”4”) is certainly no college man and it took him only 4½ years to reach the Majors. Those first three professional seasons were as a starting pitcher. The next two – including his first half season with the Jays, he swung between the pen and the rotation. The following two years he was strictly a reliever. Then, starting at age 27 for the next three seasons, Cito Gaston used Wells in both rolls. Then came his free agency and his signing to play for Sparky Anderson, who gladly put him in the rotation full time. He’s been a very long lasting success, since then. He’s another comparable in this minor league starter to major league reliever to major league starter category, except as with Fassero, he had a more gradual move back into starting than Lowe or Ritchie. You might have noticed the two bigger successes in this study, so far, Fassero and Wells are both lefthanders.

 

The Jays treated Woody Williams (R: 6’0”) similarly as Wells, although, Williams is a university man. He, too, spent his first two pro years as a starter, then spent the next three seasons swinging between the two pitching roles. The next two subsequent seasons pitching mostly in the majors, he was strictly a reliever. He was given four starts in his 3rd major season, then hit the disabled list from that July until late the following July. During that recovery year’s rehab and for the last two months of the major league season, Williams was reborn as a starting pitcher. He had just turned 28. From then on, he’s had a stellar career as a starting pitcher – especially after his trade to LaRussa-Duncan’s St. Louis 6 years after his conversion to starter. Due to the injury, Williams’ indoctrination into starting was more on the gradual side as the other successful conversions Fassero and Wells. As Williams is a right-hander and Wells a left-hander, I don’t think the side of the mound you pitch from has any affect on adapting a switch from relief to starting.

 

Julian Tavarez (R: 6’2”) began his pro career as a 17 year old Indians singnee starting pitcher in the Dominican League. He started almost exclusively for five years. Except for a couple of starts in his sophomore season, he was a relief pitcher the first five years of his major league career. Tavarez was ineffective that 5th season, so he tried starting for a couple of years. Gradually breaking into it in 2000 at age 27, Tavarez pitched well enough his first two years. In his third year, though, he started getting creamed. Last year, he was back to relieving and seems to be a better reliever for his starting experience. Either that or Tavarez has Dave Duncan to thank or, perhaps, something else.

 

Another Dominican Hipolito Pichardo (R: 6’1”) was, also, a starting pitcher his first five professional seasons. However, he finished his high school before he started his career. Pichardo spent his first three years in the minors, the last two for Kansas City. He then relieved for the next four seaons. Pichardo was consistently mediocre to below average. In his 11th professional season at age 27 going on 28, KC used him again as a starter, but without any improvement. So, he relieved again for the final three years of his career. This is probably a case of no effect.

 

 

The following four pitchers were not pure major league relievers for more than a year, but were not purely starting pitchers in the minors:

 

Ryan Franklin (R: 6;3”) is a college kid who spent eight years in the minors mostly starting. He was purely a reliever his rookie season with the Mariners, then was allowed 12 starts his second year, until he became a full time starter in his third. His 12 major league starts came at age 29. His ERA presently (Aug. 5, 2004) in his fourth season is 5.12. His walks are way up and his strike outs are way down this year. Does he have conversion burn out? Has the league figured him out, or is he just having an off year so far? This may seem like a gradual build to starting, but it wasn’t. Franklin spent too much time in the shorter season minors, getting too many relief assignments instead of starts. He averaged about 155 innings a year from the age of 23-27. Those are reasonable inning counts for a pitcher in his early 20s, not mid 20s. The next two years in the majors Franklin totaled 83 and 121. Suddenly, last year, his first as a full time starter, he jumped to 212. My theory is that Franklin is an example of a guy who didn’t pitch enough in his mid to latter 20s. Instead of building up his workload, it decreased.

 

Dave Burba (R: 6’4”) is in the Ryan Franklin category of long formative stint as a starter-reliever, then a couple years of mainly relief, then, suddenly, becomes a full time starter. Burba fared much better than Franklin in the latter role. Just like Franklin, his complete conversion came at 30, and like Franklin, had his best season that first year as a full time starter. Unlike Franklin, Burba pitched decently for another four years, and, now, he’s converted back to being a decent reliever. I don’t know why he fared so much better than Franklin has so far. Perhaps, bigness helps. Both are tall. Franklin looks like a walking stick and Burba looks like a bear. For what it’s worth, Burba went to a four year university, while it appears Franklin went to a junior college.

 

Paul Abbott (R: 6’3”) had no college at all. His long minor league career as a starting pitcher is cluttered with so many DL stints that he only reach 150 innings only once. He was 21 (172 innings) pitching in the California League (high A). At 27, he became a AAA and occasionally Major League journeyman swinging between starting and relief.  At 29, he had one season for the Padres organization where he never started a game. At age 32, he finally stuck as a reliever/occasional-starter for the Mariners. He did well enough that he was used mainly as a starter the following year. His inning total was 179 and that remains a career high, despite winning an incredible 17 games in 163 innings the following season. The year after that, he was toast. Abbott is a slender guy like Franklin.

 

One last player in this group: Gil Heredia (R: 6’1” and hefty) is a university grad from Arizona who spent his first three minor league seasons as a starter. Over the next six years as he tried to stick with the Giants or Expos, he became a swing man. Then at 30, the Rangers reduced him to relief only. He stunk. Four teams and two years later, the As brought him back to starting giving him more innings than he ever pitched before. After 6 test starts in the majors, he looked ready for his new role. So, at 33 Gil Heredia gave the As two worthwhile seasons as a starter. Then, at 35, his arm gave out, and we have not seen him in the show since. Heredia’s career was so marginal at his conversion that this modest success should be considered a clear win.

 

 

These two stars relieved their rookie season as they adjusted to the major leagues.

 

Pedro Martinez (R: 5’11”) started pitching professionally for the Dodgers in the Dominican at 16. After three years starting in half-season Rookie Leagues, the Dodgers cut him loose for a full season in which he blazed through the California League, the Texas League, and even the PCL. He had a stint on the DL the next year, but still gave 21 starts for Albuquerque. In his rookie season, the Dodgers broke him in as a reliever. Whether or not they intended to keep him in relief, I don’t know. The following winter at age 22, Martinez was sent to Alou-Kerrigan’s Expos for one Delino DeShields, and the rest is another Hall of Fame history. The Expos treated him with respect. His inning counts for his four years in Montréal: 145, 195, 217, and 241.

 

Another Dominican Summer League teenage graduate Johan Santana (who is actually Venezuelan) should, also, not be regarded as a reliever conversion. He started throughout his four years in the minors until Florida drafted him from the Astros under Rule 5, then traded him to Minnesota for Jared Camp. Who? Exactly. Santana pitched mostly in relief as he was not ready for the majors his rookie season, but he was given 5 starts. He stayed with the Twins the following summer starting more frequently until he hit the DL for the second half of the season. The next year at 23, Santana started 9 games for Edmonton, then 14 starts and 13 relief appearances for Minnesota. Despite his 2.99 ERA and almost 3:1 K:W, the Twins kept him in a swing role one more year last year (18 starts and 27 relief outings). Talk about breaking a guy in slowly!

 

 

The following pitcher started in the minors, just to get innings presumably, while their club seemed intent on their relieving – only to change their minds down the road.

 

Darren Dreifort (R: 6’2”) was a second overall pick out of university. He was on the DL for about half of his first four professional seasons. His 94 appearances for Los Angeles during that time were all in relief. His 29 appearances in their minors (AAA and AA) were all starts. Except for his time on the DL, Dreifort was looking pretty good as a reliever in that fourth year. However, he was strictly a starter for the next three and a half seasons until he hit the DL for another year and a half.  He logged 180 innings in his first year as a starter, but was never better than mediocre. Dreifort has made a comeback as a reliever this year and is pitching well.

 

 

Kelvim Escobar and Pete Munro were both starting pitchers in the Blue Jays’ system who have swung back and forth between starting and relieving so many times, they are a classification unto themselves – and too difficult to analyze, but here it goes:

 

Escobar a Venezuelan (R: 6’1”) started his professional career at 17 in the DSL. The Jays gave him four seasons of starts. He skipped AAA and was thrust immediately into a relief ace role, picking up 14 saves before the end of his first half season. Early the following season, he went on the DL. Despite the time on the DL and despite his success the season before, Escobar was given 20 starts and only 15 relief appearances between Syracuse and Toronto. Escobar continued as a starter for the next year and two-thirds with very disappointing results. He returned to relief. He did get 11 starts the following year, but had a much better season pitching mostly in relief. The next year (2002), the Jays just made Escobar their closer. He did save 38 games, but his ERA was not very good for that role: 4.27. At age 27 early last year, Escobar returned to starting again and has been doing a reasonably fair job of it since. If I owned Escobar, I would be worried that the Jays took too long to return him to starting – or not enough time. He relieved all of 2002, but started almost all of 2003 jumping from 78 innings to 180. The Angels have been proceeding cautiously with Escobar.

 

Munro (R: 6’3”) spent some time in college. He started his pro career at 20 in a short season league as a starter in the Red Sox organization. His first year as a reliever came when he reached the Blue Jays fours years later. He failed as a reliever. He was returned to starting, hit the DL, then traded to the Rangers. The Rangers tried turning him into a reliever again, but he still made 8 starts with Oklahoma. Finally, he signed with the Astros. They seemed to know what to do with him as he had a good first year getting a call-up as a starter mid-season and pitching well. It didn’t last. That year was followed with a disappointing one spent mainly in the bullpen. His season this year has been split between Houston and Rochester. Munro’s inning counts were pretty consistently in the 140s until his year in the Rangers system in which he pitched only 89. Then his first and best year with the Astros gave him 175 innings. That’s not as much of a jump as Escobar’s. It might not have had any impact, but he did pitch worse the following year. Both Munro and Escobar were 27 during their most recent returns to starting.

 

 

These two pitchers switched from starting to relief early in their minor league career, then switched back to starting later:

 

Ron Villone (L: 6’3”) graduated from the highly respected University of Massachusetts and was selected in the first round. He didn’t pitch professionally until the following season in which he had 27 A+ and AA starts for 146 innings. Villone went on the DL early the next season and came back a relief pitcher where he remained for 5½ seasons pitching for 5 different organizations in and out of the majors. The Reds switched him to starter, where he had some success initially, but that eventually wore off. He has never lasted an entire season as a starter. That first year of conversion at age 29, he pitched a career high of 172 innings. That was a big jump from a pitcher who typically pitched only 60 innings a year. His performance went well downward the following couple of seasons. Still, he’s managed to continue in and out the majors as a starter-reliever for the last six years.

 

College graduate John Halama (L: 6’5”) is a unique case of a pitcher converting into a reliever his second season – his first full season – as a professional. He had one terrific year, then returned to starting. Both the Mariners and As have used him as a swing man. It may be a bit of a stretch to call Halama’s career a case of a reliever-starter conversion.

 

 

The following are more undeniable conversions, because they started off as relievers in the minor leagues.

 

Kenny Rogers (L: 6’1””) is most decidedly a long term success. He proves it is possible. The only qualifying note, though, is that he did have 70 starts in the minors and majors before his full conversion. That makes his case just a little fuzzy. It appears he relieved in two professional games in the Rangers’ system before he finished high school. Then he had 6 starts and 9 relief outings his first short-seasoned Rookie League. Rogers had only 8 starts during his first two full seasons, while relieving 71 times. Seemingly stalled in the high As, Rogers was switched to starting the next year. Although, he was promoted at some point to AA, his first attempts at starting on a regular basis did not go well. In fact, he landed on the DL. Rogers went back to mostly relieving in his 5th year in the minors, and then tried starting again in his 6th season. He blew away the Florida State League, but wasn’t so impressive in AA. Suddenly, Rogers blossomed in his 7th professional season (not counting the two school age appearances). He stayed with the Texas Rangers and had a fine season pitching exclusively in relief. He followed that up with a nearly identical season as a sophomore. Rogers tried starting again in his third major league season, but he only lasted 9 starts and blew his ERA up to 5.44. The next year he pitched 81 games in relief and had an ERA almost the same as his first two seasons: about 3.00. Finally, at age 28, he switched to starting one more time and blossomed. Two-thousand-four is Kenny Roger’s 12th season as a full time starting pitcher in the major leagues. It almost blows my argument that sudden switches don’t work. However, 81 relief appearances can be as taxing as pitching 200+ innings. (I remember reading a Bill James article on the predictable downfall of relievers with pitch in 75 games for the first time.) Also, Rogers wasn’t asked to pitched more than 210 innings until 6th year as a starter.

 

Dustin Hermanson (R: 6’2”) was a university relief ace who continued to relieve in his first three professional seasons. Although, he pitched well in the PCL, he didn’t pitch well for San Diego. So, the Expos got a hold of the 24 year old Hermanson for a secondbaseman named Quilvio Veras. Alou-Kerrigan immediately made him a starter and gave him the Pedro Martinez treatment. They started him off with 158 innings his first year, 187 the second, then 216 the third. That was the limit of Hermanson’s durability and the most he ever pitched. The Expos had him one more year (and used him to close a few games, too), then the Cardinals got a good year out of him. However, the hot potato exploded in the Red Sox’ hands 6 years past his conversion. Hermanson had two years of misery until his comeback with the Alou Giants this year.

 

Mac Suzuki (R: 6’3”) was initially a reliever as a 17 year old Japanese import playing for independent American teams. The Mariners bought the 18 year-old’s contract and kept him in relief mostly in relief his first two seasons in their organization. However, most of those two years were actually spent on the DL. At 20, the Mariners’ AA team made him a starter. Later that year, AAA Tacoma returned Suzuki to relief. He stayed mostly in the pen the following year, but a year later age 22, Suzuki mostly started. Even the Mariners called him up and gave him 5 starts. He did not fare well. He was even worse with his 4 starts and 12 relief shots staying with the Mariners until he was traded to the Mets, who let him go to the Royals on waivers.  Suzuki continued to mix starts and relief for the balance of 1999. The following season, Suzuki had his best year pitching 29 starts, 189 innings, and a 4.35 ERA. He struggled the next two seasons before returning to his homeland at age 27. Suzuki had good stuff, but he never learned how to pitch against major leaguers. His good season was more of a fluke than something he was too worn out to reproduce.

 

Victor Zambrano (R: 6’0”) signed as a teenager with the Yankees in ’93, but didn’t pitch a second game in the minor leagues until 1997 as a 21 year old in the Devil Rays’ Rookie League. Except for two starts the following season and four the next, Zambrano’s was slotted for relief during his first 5 professional seasons. He did pitch nicely for the Rays after his call-up in that 5th season. They gave Zambrano 11 starts the next year at age 26 raising his inning total from 82 to 128. That would be a reasonable increase. The following year last year Zambrano pitched 29 starts and 192 innings. That may have been pushing it for a career reliever. He had a great spring and got off to an excellent start, but he ended up with a 4.21 ERA and a terrible 106:88 K:BB. This year has been about the same (4.52 ERA). Zambrano may escape health problems from his conversion, but, first, he needs to establish himself as a legitimate major league pitcher.

 

David Bush (R: 6’2”) relieved all four years for his university. He continued to relieve the rest of the summer after his graduation and drafting. He totaled 96 innings that summer. The Blue Jays turned him into a starter for his first full year of professional baseball at age 23. He did an excellent job at both the A+ and AA levels totaling 158 innings. So far this year, he’s done a good job at the AAA and Major League levels. It is way too soon to say he is a long-term success. His inning count is already 135 (Aug. 8). I would start to worry if it goes over 180.

 

Korean Byung-Hyun Kim (R: 5’11” – another source says 5’9”) started pitching in America at age 20, blazing his was to the Diamondbacks midseason his first year. A year later he became Arizona’s closer. A year and a half later he was a play-offs hero. Then came his best year yet, posting 36 saves and a 2.04 ERA. That’s when Arizona had the great idea to make Kim a starting pitcher. So, the 23 year old Kim was given 3 trial starts in Tuscan, then 7 starts with the big club fashioning a respectable 3.56 ERA. However, he was traded to the Red Sox. Boston let him start 5 more games and let him relieve 44 as their closer. His inning total climbed from 84 to 140. He was worn out and not available in the post season except for one ugly outing. The following year, this year, the Red Sox planned on Kim resuming his starting role, but this entire season has been a write-off. After spending a couple months on the DL, Kim is still in Pawtucket trying to get his velocity back. Perhaps, Kim is too short to convert to starting pitcher? I am not joking. I believe you will find taller pitchers generally have longer careers. Compare Denny McLain with Steve Carlton, for example.

 

Danny Graves (R: 5’11”) is another short Asian (Vietnam) reliever whose conversion to starting can be counted as a failure. The similarities pretty well end there. Graves is a university guy who didn’t starting pitching professionally until 21 (turning 22 that August). Graves was reliever for 8 years. Six of those years have been in the majors. His only major league start came in that eighth year. He had four of them. Then next year at age 29 (2003) Graves got his chance to start and had his worse season in 6 years. This year he hasn’t started one game, and I’m sure both the Reds and Graves are happier for it.

 

Ben Ford (R: 6’7”) a high school pick was a relief pitcher for the first six years of his professional career. In his fifth year, Ford was sent to the Diamondbacks’ organization, then returned to the Yankees for that 6th year. Finally, in Ford’s seventh year at age 24, the Yankees gave him a shot at the big time. His record shows two starts and two relief appearances – and that’s it! I don’t know if he was injured or what. The Cubs get him for their AAA team the next year and have Ford start mostly. He reached 142 innings in his first real season as a starting pitcher after a year of 11 innings and a year of 70 innings before then. That conversion year was followed last year by a year of relieving and starting (9 starts) for Milwaukee’s AAA team. This year in the Majors he posted a big ugly 7.20 ERA before going on the DL with shoulder tendinitis. Returning to Indianapolis, his ERA is even worse. You could say this conversion was a big failure, however, Ford’s best year was last year – the year immediately after his conversion. He must have learned a good deal about pitching in those 142 innings.

 

Remember Willie Blair (R: 6’1”)? He doesn’t go that far back and gave the Tigers one very good season after his third conversion from relief to starting. The Blue Jays had him first as a reliever signing him early out of university. At the AA level two years later age 22, Blair was given 9 starts. At AAA, Blair had 17 starts. The next four seasons with four different organizations Blair was up and down from the majors and minors and swinging back and forth between starting and relieving. Finally, in his second year with Colorado, the Rockies kept him in the pen. That didn’t last. Next year, Blair with the Padres started 12 games during the season.  However, the Padres returned Blair to full time relief the next year. It seems Blair was now established as a journeyman reliever/emergency starter. At age 31, the next journey was to Detroit. Including two starts in the minors, the Tigers gave Blair nearly a full season of starting: 29 starts and 192 innings. He went 16-8 and had a 4.17 in Tiger Stadium. His 90:46 K:BB numbers indicated he was not really a solid no. 2 or 3 starter, but a worthy 5th starter option.  Now, a free agent, Blair tested the NL with Arizona and struggled. Mid-season he was trade to the Mets and sent back to the bullpen. Trading Joe Randa to get that old Blair magic back was a major mistake for the Tigers. Blair seemed spent giving up 6.85 Earned Runs per 9 innings – and he pitched 134 innings. Blair did come back one more year with middling effectiveness. Blair may or may not have worn himself out in his one good year, but it was certainly worth it. Pitchers his level do not get many chances.

 

So? How does this compare to a random bunch of pitchers from the same era who were given a chance to be starters and were developed as starters all the way? I haven’t done such a control analysis here. That would be another project. However, using my considerable experience and perceptions, I would say, there doesn’t appear to be much difference.

 

All pitchers have their unique story. No two pitchers on this list were very close in year-to-year changes in their workloads. Perhaps, the changes are less abrupt with career starters, but they are all different. It is still my theory that most all starting pitchers need to be brought along slowly, but I admit the evidence presented here, so far, is too scant so far to say with certainty. Indeed, if career starters haven’t done any better than converted relievers, then that would go against my theory. However, if 22 year-old pitchers who go from 150 innings to 175 innings to 200 innings to 220 innings do better than 24 year-old pitchers who jump from 150 to 220 in one year, then my theory holds. 

 

It seems once a pitcher is 20, it good to somewhat gradually build his arm up and give him some experience by having him start in the minors. Once he makes the majors, it is OK to have a year’s break doing mop-up relief and getting to understand the major leagues, then resume the build up towards full time starting. In fact, that might be the ideal scenario for most pitchers. If a pitcher spends too many years relieving, he takes a big risk, if he suddenly switches to starting . . . Also, it might pay to be beefy and, at least, 6’0”.

 

Answer to the trivia question: Joe Kerrigan was the pitching coach.

 

I wish to thank Medea’s Child who asked me in his Scoresheet talk group http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/mcscoresheet/ whether the switch works better for power pitchers or control pitchers, lefties or righties, a certain age of change, and where the change was made (majors or minors). I pulled up all the conversions I could find in the last 12 years, but there weren’t enough examples to answer those questions. 1993 was used as the starting point, because it seemed to me Fassero and Rogers started the trend.

 

Also, thanks the other mcscoresheet members, particularly Ken Warren, for the enlightened discussion of this issue.  Their comments inspired this research essay.

 

John Carter