Extracting value from leftover starting pitchers

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

A look at six pitchers who will likely be left out of the rotation. Could these arms be optimized in specialized relief roles?

Spring training is the time where clubs are whittling down their rotation options, looking to keep their five best options. Oftentimes, the leftovers are either discarded completely or sent down to the minor leagues. Still, some of the candidates could actually be best utilized in shorter, more specialized stints in the bullpen.

Many fringe starting pitchers are best deployed out of the bullpen, where they can tackle lineups in situations that better fit their skill set. This is not a truly novel idea. The Diamondbacks ran out of room in their rotation last year and opted to stick RHP Josh Collmenter in the bullpen. In 2012, about 50% of the batters Collmenter faced were left-handers, who posted a .347 wOBA. In the entire 2012 season, Collmenter registered a 3.92 FIP. Noticing Collmenter’s significant platoon advantage, the Diamondbacks decided to use Collmenter against left-handers only 39% of the time in 2013. His FIP shrunk to 3.47 as he faced more right-handers, who have managed only a .276 wOBA over his entire career. His value was actually higher in 2013 despite starting 11 fewer games because he was used in a role that better fit his skill, getting right-handers out.

To find some of the best candidates for this role in 2014, I looked at every starting pitcher with an FIP over 4.00 over the past two years, eliminating pitchers who are simply effective against all hitters. I tried to keep it realistic, so I’m going to refrain from suggesting that the Blue Jays make their highest paid pitcher, Mark Buehrle, a LOOGY in spite of what the numbers reflect. The word "specialist" is really only nominal; I don’t endorse anyone becoming a true specialist. Simply put, these are pitchers who would benefit from being used mainly against one type of batter as opposed to the other.

Right-Handed 'Specialists':

Jeremy Hellickson, Tampa Bay Rays RHP

Hellickson had arthroscopic elbow surgery and will likely miss the first 6-8 weeks of the season, by which point the Rays will likely have an impermeable rotation. Hellickson is still a really good pitcher and could carve up right-handed lineups for multiple innings. Over his career, right-handers have posted a .294 wOBA with a .227/.287/.380 triple slash against him.

Bruce Chen, Kansas City Royals LHP

Chen will likely get most of his innings in the rotation due to the Royals’ lack of enough competent starters. However, the 36 year-old southpaw had significant reverse splits in 2013. Righties put up a meager .276 wOBA compared to the .330 wOBA their counterparts managed. If managed correctly, Chen could become a bullpen weapon.

Johan Santana, Baltimore Orioles LHP

Here’s an interesting case. Reports are that Santana’s fastball struggled to touch 81 MPH with his fastball in a tryout camp, so his career is unlikely to continue in the big leagues unless it ticks up. However, if he still has any semblance of the changeup that made him an ace in years past, he could be a force against right-handed hitters. Changeups are often far more effective against opposite side hitters and Santana’s change was near elite before arm injuries stole his left arm. His deal guarantees him $3 million if he makes the 40-man roster, which could be an impediment to any possible shift to the bullpen.

Left-Handed 'Specialists':

James McDonald, Chicago Cubs RHP

If Jake Arrieta’s shoulder heals like it’s supposed to, James McDonald is unlikely to break the Cubs’s rotation out of camp. However, the 29 year-old has plus stuff and has limited left-handed batters to a .239/.335/.386 slash and a .317 wOBA over his career. It’s hard to give up on McDonald as a starter because of the electric stuff, but he could be nasty in short bursts, especially against lefty hitters.

Paul Maholm, Los Angeles Dodgers LHP

One of the best bargains of the winter at $1.5 million, Maholm may actually break camp in the rotation if either Zack Greinke (calf) or Josh Beckett (shoulder) isn’t ready. Once those two and Chad Billingsley (elbow) return, Maholm could be a strong force against same-side hitters. His hard breaking slurve has helped him limit lefties to an anemic .220/.287/.318 line. He could actually become one of the top LOOGYs in the league and still be monumental bargain.

Joe Saunders, Texas Rangers LHP

Saunders was impressively terrible last year, posting a 132 ERA- with Seattle. He has, however, always been tough on same-side hitters, limiting them to a .276 wOBA. His deal guarantees him only $500,000, meaning he would be an attractive piece to fit in the bullpen.

It’s interesting to note that both McDonald and Santana have significant reverse splits. Santana’s come from his killer changeup, a pitch that is conventionally more often deployed against opposite side hitters. McDonald’s advantage likely comes from his mechanics, in which he keeps his front hip closed longer, effectively hiding the ball until his arm at its apex.

As with most drastic position changes, there are numerous drawbacks for converting starters into bullpen arms. For one, it’s a change in both physical and mental regimen. It’s also hard to swallow putting a pitcher with the salary of a starter into a specialized role. Taking Bruce Chen’s $6 million and converting him to a reliever is a risky proposition for the frugal Royals ownership. However, if applied appropriately, this tactic would actually save teams a fair sum of money by taking pitchers who would either be released or demoted and squeezing whatever remaining value out of their arms.

There are always savvy ways for teams to use optimize their pitching staffs. Using leftovers from their rotation as specialized relievers could be quite beneficial for teams. Even signing a few starters off of the scrap heap with extreme splits to minor league deals could be a market inefficiency. For teams looking for cheap ways to improve the bullpen, they may want to look in down their depth chart and at minor league free agents.

***

All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball.

Daniel Schoenfeld is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can can be found on Twitter at @DanielSchoe.

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