Tuesday, July 5, 2011

What's With All the Relievers?

By The Common Man

Bill briefly raised a great point in his post earlier today about the Red Sox and Yankees and their worthy inclusion in the All Star Game, and it’s something The Common Man has been thinking about since Tweeting about it on Sunday. Why in God’s name are so many relievers on the All Star teams?

Relief Pitcher isn’t really a position, it’s a role. It’s the same basic concept as a defensive replacement or a pinch hitter, and we don’t have All Star spots for them. In fact, it would be ridiculous to offer valuable All Star spots to Brooks Conrad or Ryan Sweeney, in spite of their valuable contributions off the bench.

And the vast majority of relief pitchers are just regular pitchers who were not good enough to start. Here are the relievers that have been selected to the All Star Game:

Chris Perez was drafted in the first round as a relief pitcher and has never started a game at any level in the Majors or Minors. However, he has struck out just 5.7 batters/9 innings and has a 20/15 K/BB ratio. He is succeeding solely because he has only allowed 1 HR in 31 innings. This will correct itself shortly. He is on pace to have a fWAR of 0.6.

Since signing as an amateur free agent, Jose Valverde has started one game, in 2004 at Tucson, in his professional career. He is on pace to have an fWAR of 0.4.

Aaron Crow started 29 games last year at Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas, posting a combined 5.73 ERA. He became a fulltime reliever in 2011, and has shown a very strong fastball-slider combo. That said, he’s on pace for a 0.8 fWAR.

Mariano Rivera was groomed as a starter in the minors, getting the nod in at least his final 51 games before joining the Yankees for good in 1995, where he started his first eight contests and had a 5.40 ERA. He was moved to the bullpen soon after, and the rest is history. Mo is on pace for a 2.4 fWAR in 2011.

Brandon League was drafted as a starter in 2001, and started 49 of his first 50 games as a pro. He began to transition to the bullpen in 2004, and made the Majors later that same year because relieving is much easier than starting. This year, he leads the American League in saves, in spite of a 3.28 ERA and mediocre underlying stats that have him on pace for a 1.7 WAR.

Jonny Venters, the great Jonny Venters, started 71 games out of 94 in the minors, including 30 of his final 31. He had a 4.11 ERA across six seasons, and just a 6.6 K/9. In 2010, the Braves promoted him and put him in the bullpen. Since then, he has pitched 134 innings, striking out 147, and posting a 1.81 ERA. He’s on pace to have a WAR of 3.0.

Before making the Majors for good in 2007, National League saves leader Joel Hanrahan started 182 of his first 189 professional games and had a 4.18 ERA. Then he started his first 11 games in the Bigs, and posted a 6.02 ERA. Upon moving to the bullpen permanently in 2008, Hanrahan became an incredibly reliable component and saw his strikeouts jump to 10.4 per 9 innings. He’s on pace to have a 2.3 fWAR.

Heath Bell started two games as a minor leaguer, but otherwise has been used out of the bullpen exclusively since being drafted in the 69th round of the 1997 draft. He’s tied for the NL lead in saves and is on pace to have a 1.5 fWAR in 2011.

Tyler Clippard was drafted in 2003 and used as a starter until 2009. He started 131 of his first 140 minor league appearances, and posted a 5.79 ERA and 6.3 K/9 in 8 starts from 2007-2008 in the Majors. In the three ensuing seasons, he has been used exclusively out of the pen, posted a 2.68 ERA and 238 Ks in 198 innings. He’s on pace to have an fWAR of 1.1.

Brian Wilson was drafted in the 24th round in 2003 and immediately made into a reliever. He has 3 professional starts to his credit, but has otherwise been used exclusively out of the pen. He is on pace to have a 1.1 fWAR.

Of the 10 pitchers coming to the game, six of them failed as starters at the Major League level before being moved to an easier role. And they have been undeniably successful out of the bullpen. But don't you think their clubs would have preferred if they could have stuck as league-average starters or better?  Wouldn't they have contributed far more value to their clubs that way?  And of those pitchers that were used exclusively as relievers as pros, Chris Perez was the only one drafted highly, and Jose Valverde was an amateur free agent. There simply was little to indicate that they had any real promise, or they would have been taken much higher.  Indeed, these pitchers were relegated to these easier duties because they could not handle the rigors of starting in the Major Leagues.

Look, starting is harder than relieving. It’s inherently more difficult to throw three or four pitches 100 times per game than it is to through two pitches 20 times every couple days. And if the All Star Game is designed to showcase the best talent in the Majors, it’s doing a disservice to itself by picking ten relievers. Based on their careers and stats, you could make a valid case for, maybe, four of the pitchers above (TCM would be partial to Rivera, Venters, and Wilson).

The inclusion of these lesser pitchers has several ramifications. First and foremost, better pitchers like CC Sabathia, Tommy Hanson, and Michael Pineda do not receive the kind of showcase that befits their remarkable talents. For another, it limits several pitchers on the All Star rosters to just an inning each. The longest All Star games were 15 innings each, and managers should have more pitchers on hand who are capable of going two or even three innings if need be.

And finally, it has the unintended consequence of further glorifying the role of relief pitcher, and of elevating it beyond the value it actually contributes. After all, we should be able to agree that the number of deserving All Star relievers out there is probably less than number of relievers who are currently in the Hall of Fame (5). But as relievers accumulate All Star appearances, their own stature rises. And thus does Joe Nathan earn $11 million and Matt Capps $7 million for doing work that, even at their best, should be worth no more than $4-5 million to a Major League team, and that any number of failing starters at AAA and AA could do handily.


Kevin S. said...

MLB has gotten ridiculous with putting "roles" into the game, like last year when it told managers to select a true utility player (though how the eff did Ben Zobrist not make the team this year with that in play?) and this year, when Ron Washington was instructed to take an actual second DH instead of allowing vastly superior hitters like Paul Konerko or Mark Teixeira have the role.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

I agree completely. But I also understand what is going on. Winning the All Star Game has become more compelling since the home field advantage of the World Series was added as an incentive. That being the case, those who construct the All Star Teams look now for one-inning pitchers who would be more in their natural environment than making "relievers" out of starters. It's a pragmatic and practical approach to winning the game. Does it suck? Well, yeah, for all the reasons you mention so well in your post. The All Star game is broken currently.

The Common Man said...

Is there really an incentive though to win the game that actually outweighs the desire to get the best players on the team? Since the "this time, it counts" rules started in 2003, there hasn't been a single World Series that has advanced to seven games. The "homefield advantage" hasn't ever come into play, rendering the All Star victories moot.

FC said...

Well at least starters (or great ones) earn much more top dollar than top dollar relievers, so at least the market accurately reflects that a great starter is worth more than a great reliever. Even Mo.