Successfully transitioning from the bullpen to rotation

Denny Medley-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Examining relief pitchers who made the move from the rotation to the starting rotation and posted excellent numbers along the way

Not everyone is cut out to be a starting pitcher in the big leagues. Many starting pitchers end up as relievers, whether due to an injury or overall ability. Some pitchers start as relievers, but have starter caliber stuff. Many attempt to make the transition. Not everyone succeeds.

In 2010 Chris Sale was drafted by the Chicago White Sox and eventually made it to the major leagues as a reliever. The following season he spent the entire season as a reliever, but was dominant and had a starter quality make-up. Going into the 2012 season the Chicago White Sox had every intention of using Sale in the starting rotation. Sale had a good start to the season, but in May he got moved to the bullpen after experiencing soreness and tightness in his elbow. Shortly after, he returned to the rotation, and continued his dominance.

Just the past season alone there have been some pitchers that didn't make the transition. They are Neftali Feliz and Daniel Bard. After being a solid closer, the Texas Rangers wanted to see if Feliz was a fit out of the rotation. In seven starts he was less then stellar, posting a FIP- of 105. This was largely due to his struggles with walks and home runs.

After three seasons successful seasons in the bullpen the Red Sox wanted to see how Bard would fare as a starter. Like Feliz, he struggled. He ended the season with a 145 ERA- and 147 FIP-. I was curious to see how many successful transitions from reliever to starter have been made though, and that's where our article begins.

I had some guidance from our writers at Beyond the Box Score, but Bill Petti, a former Beyond the Box Score writer, was a huge help. He helped me gather a list of 15 pitchers since 1974 that had a ERA- and FIP- less than or equal to 90 in both year 1 and year 2. Year 1 is when the pitcher was a reliever, and Year 2 was when the pitcher became a starter.

First here is the list of the fifteen pitchers who converted to starters with an ERA- less than or equal to 90 in Year 1 and Year 2.

Year1

Name

ERA- Year1

Reliever IP

K%

Year 2

ERA- Year 2

K% Year 2

1974 Don Carrithers 80 60 12.30% 1975 88 8.70%
1977 Larry Gura 65 62.2 10.30% 1978 72 9.10%
1977 Pete Vuckovich 82 148 19.40% 1978 82 18.20%
1978 Bob Stanley 64 141.2 6.60% 1979 88 6.10%
1978 Ken Forsch 82 133.1 12.60% 1979 88 8.30%
1980 Doug Bird 68 50.2 8.30% 1981 88 11.60%
1982 Joe Price 77 72.2 22.30% 1983 76 14.30%
1982 Storm Davis 87 100.2 16.30% 1983 89 15%
1983 John Butcher 87 123 11.10% 1984 82 8.80%
1986 Bud Black 76 121 13.50% 1987 81 11.70%
1988 Eric King 88 68.2 24.90% 1989 87 10.80%
1989 David Wells 61 86.1 22.20% 1990 80 15.20%
1991 Melido Perez 79 135.2 23.20% 1992 74 21.50%
1991 Bill Swift 48 90.1 13.40% 1992 61 11.80%
1993 Kent Mercker 69 66 20.90% 1994 81 24.80%
1993 David West 71 86.1 23.20% 1994 83 19.30%
1993 Pedro Martinez 68 107 26.80% 1994 81 24.30%
2000 Mark Buehrle 84 51.1 16.40% 2001 73 14.20%
2000 Matt Morris 77 53 15% 2001 74 14.20%
2001 Derek Lowe 78 91.2 20.30% 2002 57 14.90%
2004 John Smoltz 64 81.2 26.30% 2005 73 18.20%
2006 Adam Wainwright 71 75 23.30% 2007 86 15.40%
2009 C.J. Wilson 60 73.2 26% 2010 76 20%
2011 Chris Sale 65 71 27.40% 2012 71

24.90%

One of the first things that I noticed was that strikeouts across the board saw a pretty good decline when pitchers moved to the rotation. The largest decrease goes to Eric King. His strikeout rate went from 24%, and fell all the way down to 10%. Tom Tango gives us a rule called the "rule of 17%". This states that when a reliever switches to the rotation we can expect a 17% decrease in his strikeouts. If we apply that rule to Eric King we should have expected his K% to be around 20%. It ended up at 10%, a number far lower than expected.

Since 2000, we have seen seven pitchers successfully make the transition when using the following parameters. In terms of strikeout rate, Chris Sale and Pedro Martinez fell right around where we expected them too. Sale was expected to be around 22%. Martinez K% should have been around 22.8%. A few guys hardly changed at all. Larry Gura and Bob Stanley are two examples. Some of these guys became some of the best pitchers to play the game., while some of these players fame was short-lived.

This next table is similar, but instead of ERA- we are going to look at FIP-.

Year 1

Name

Reliever IP

FIP-

K%

Year 2

FIP- Year 2

K% Year 2

1975 Doug Bird 105.1 79 18.30% 1976 89 13.20%
1977 Pete Vuckovich 148 83 19.40% 1978 73 18.20%
1978 Bob Stanley 141.2 79 6.60% 1979 79 6.10%
1979 Pete Redfern 80 71 18.70% 1980 87 16%
1980 Mario Soto 190.1 81 23.40% 1981 85 21.10%
1982 Storm Davis 100.2 80 16.30% 1983 86 15%
1982 Danny Darwin 89 88 15.50% 1983 88 15.50%
1984 Andy McGaffigan 69 80 20.20% 1985 65 21.20%
1988 Scott Garrelts 98 85 20.80% 1989 86 15.50%
1989 David Wells 86.1 62 22.20% 1990 84 15.20%
1991 Curt Schilling 75.2 78 21.10% 1992 82 16.40%
1992 Kenny Rogers 70.8 81 20.80% 1993 90 15.80%
1993 Mark Gubicza 104.1 68 16.90% 1994 82 10.50%
1993 Pedro Martinez 107 80 26.80% 1994 77 24.30%
1994 Gil Heredia 75.1 76 19.10% 1995 78 14.50%
1996 Francisco Cordova 99 76 22.90% 1997 87 16.30%
1997 Darren Dreifort 63 86 23.80% 1998 81 22.30%
2000 Matt Morris 53 78 15% 2001 70 20.40%
2001 Derek Lowe 91.2 75 20.30% 2002 75 14.90%
2002 Jeremy Affeldt 77.2 89 19% 2003 80 18.40%
2004 John Smoltz 81.2 61 26.30% 2005 78 18.20%
2006 Adam Wainwright 75 75 23.30% 2007 89 15.40%
2009 C.J. Wilson 73.2 62 26% 2010 80 20%
2011 Chris Sale 71 74 27.40% 2012 75 24.90%

When sorting in terms of FIP- we get a few new names. Some names from the ERA- table are left out. One newcomer is Darren Dreifort. During the 1997 and 1998 seasons he was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. His K% hardly changed, and one interesting thing about his season was his vast difference in his ERA- and FIP-.

As you can see in 1998 his FIP- was 81, but his ERA- was 101. His FIP- was so low because he did an excellent job when it came to the three true outcomes. He limited walks, while keeping home runs to a minimum. Dreifort also did an exceptional job at striking batters out. A few other new names on the list include Jeremy Affeldt, Mark Gubizca, Gil Heredia, and many more.

Switching from the bullpen to the rotation isn't easy, and many have tried and failed. That doesn't mean that it hasn't been successfully done though. If Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling can do it, then it's only a matter of time until we see another future hall of famer make the transition.

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