Reliever-to-Starter Conversions Update

After all the controversy over the last week over Sale between moved from the rotation to the bullpen and back, I thought I would take a look at some of the reliever to starter conversions this year and how they have been doing thus far.

Chris Sale:

Chris Sale, the White Sox’s 23 year old left-hander, pitched out of the bullpen in 2010 and 2011 amassing 94.1 innings in this role. During his stint in the bullpen, Sale struck out 111 batters while walking only 37 for an ERA of 2.58. While in the bullpen Sale also struck out 10.6 batters per nine innings while walking 3.5 batters per nine for a SO/BB ratio of 3.00. He was definitely one of the best White Sox relievers in 2010 and 2011.

So far in the rotation Sale has been pretty good as well. So far this year Sale has started 6 games over 38.0 innings. His ERA is 3.08. Compared to his time in the bullpen, his SO/9 rate has decreased to 7.8, but his BB/9 rate has also decreased 2.6 keeping his SO/BB ratio at 3.00 so far this season. There was some concern before and during the season regarding Sale’s ability to stay healthy as a starter given what some view as a violent delivery to home plate. For this reason, Sale missed a start and appeared once out of the bullpen when he blew the 2-inning save opportunity at Cleveland on May 8. He started once since then going 5 innings while striking out three batters, walking two, and giving up 3 earned runs.

Sale will be monitored closely to see if any tenderness or soreness returns. GM Kenny Williams and pitching coach Don Cooper have stated that they won’t hesitate to skip a start or remove Sale from the rotation completely if they have concerns about his health going forward.

Daniel Bard:

Bard, the 26 year old Red Sox right-hander, is also transitioning from being a pretty dominant reliever to the rotation. Bard has been just about league average in his new role this season with an ERA+ of 99. His ERA is 4.30 over six starts and 37.2 innings. Some things that are a bit concerning about Bards peripherals this season compared to his previous years in the bullpen are his SO/9 and BB/9 rates. This year Bard has struck out 5.5 batters per nine innings while walking 4.8 batters per nine. These numbers are not good especially when you compare them to his career numbers of 9.1 SO/9 and 3.7 BB/9. Additionally, his ground ball rate has decreased 7.8% to 44.9%.

Although it is to be expected out of the bullpen, each of Bard’s three pitches has decreased in velocity. His fastball averaged 97.2 mph in 2011 but only is averaging 93.6 mph this year. His slider is also down about 3mph from 2011. Additionally, Bard is throwing more off-speed pitches than he had previously in the bullpen. His changeup usage has jumped from 7.4% in 2011 to 11.3% in 2012 of his total pitches thrown. This is to allow him to be able to retire opposite-handed hitters, but it could also be a result of his fastball being valued negatively this season. This is the first time in his major league career that his fastball has had a negative run value. Both his slider and changeup are rated positively.

One troubling statistics for Bard this year is that he has given up at least 4 earned runs in three of his six starts this year. Even so, It is probably too early to concerned about Bard’s transition to the rotation but it will be interesting to see how his unimpressive peripherals so far this season contribute to his effectiveness over the rest of the year. He is one to keep a close eye on.

Neftali Feliz:

The 24 year old Rangers right-hander has started off pretty well this season. He has given up more than 3 runs only once in six starts and one relief appearance this year. Feliz sports a 3.32 ERA over 38.0 innings pitched, while striking out 31 batters and walking 18. Feliz’s ERA is very respectable, however, he is getting lucky thus far as his FIP is 4.54 and his BABIP is an unsustainable .206. Feliz has had some issue with the long ball as well this season. For his career, Feliz has given up a home run on 6.5% of the fly balls hit off him. However, this year that number has jumped to 10% while his groundball rate, while still around his career average, is only 36.3%. This is not conducive to long term success in a ballpark like Rangers Ballpark at Arlington given that it is a home run hitter’s dream.

Feliz’s strike out rate is also down to 7.34 SO/9 compared to a career rate of 8.75 SO/9. His walk rate is also a bit worse than his career numbers as well. He has been walking 4.26 batters per nine innings this season compared to 3.32 BB/9 for his career. The combination of his decrease strikeouts, increased walks, and increased rate of home runs leads me to believe that he will have some problems with multi-run homers as the season progresses.

One last concern that I have about Feliz is his pitch selection. Out of the bullpen Feliz pretty much was a fastball-curveball guy. He threw his fastball 79.8% of the time and his curveball 11.1% of the time. He also threw his slider and changeup 4.8% and 4.2% of the time respectively. This season, he has completely changed his pitching philosophy and now uses his fastball in combination with his slider and changeup most of the time. This season he has thrown his fastball 63.5% of the time while throwing his slider and changeup 17.0% and 14.8% of the time respectively. He has only thrown the curveball 4.7% of the time. Although it is difficult to say if this change in pitch selection will have lasting effects on his ability to start successfully, it raises some interesting questions as he seems to be straying away from what had made him a very successful pitcher thus far in his career.

Jeff Samardzija:

Something has really clicked this year for Samardzija. Prior to 2011 the Cubs’ 27 year old right-hander was pretty unsuccessful coming out of the bullpen. Most of his issue stemmed from very poor command which lead to very low SO/9 rates and very high BB/9 rates. He has completely turned this trend around this year. He has struck out 9.27 batters per nine innings while walking only 2.89 but about 1 batter per nine better than his career rates. Additionally, he is keeping the ball on the ground at a much higher rate (49.6% compared to 42.1% for his career) than in the past. Samardzija currently has an ERA of just 2.89 and a FIP of 2.53 over 43.2 innings. This would seem to suggest that Samardzija is actually getting unlucky, which can be confirmed by his slightly above average BABIP of .302.

Epstein and company look like genius’s for this move as Samardzija has given up 1 earned run of fewer in five of his seven starts this season. He has also struck out at least 6 batters in five of his seven starts. This all comes without any noticeable decrease in his pitch velocities, which is pretty incredible given that fastball sits in the mid-90s and touches the high-90s occasionally. I’ll be keeping an eye on Jeff throughout the season as it appears he may have ace-quality stuff, which is not something that Cubs fans have been able to say often about any pitchers in the starting rotation over the past few years (excluding Matt Garza who has been fantastic as well this year).

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