Last week I wrote about Astros reliever Chris Devenski, who is being deployed out of the Houston bullpen as a long reliever. Devenski is putting up some incredible numbers, including a 21:1 strikeout to walk rate over 11 innings. There are plenty of teams on the fringes of contention (those projected for wins in the lower to mid 80s) who might wish to follow the Astros model.
I asked my colleagues at Beyond the Box Score for some ideas and suggestions on who in their mind might be a good 100- to 120-inning reliever. We discussed relievers who were at the top of the bullpen innings list (like Brad Hand) and others who have a wicked arsenal and are shutdown relievers in the late innings (like Dellin Betances). Unsurprisingly, there was quite a bit of overlap with the poll Ben Lindbergh took this offseason, when he asked beat writers a similar question.
In our own internal discussion and suggestions, we quickly delved into the question of how you distinguish a great reliever from a potentially great longman. It’s not an easy question to answer.
The following list and analysis is not meant to be exhaustive, but could be beneficial for teams who have the appetite to try something new (or retry something old).
Go ahead, try it out
Joe Kelly, Red Sox
Kelly came up as a starter with the Cardinals, and is no stranger to going multiple innings. He has thrown 96 or more innings in four of his six full seasons in the majors, but has found himself in the bullpen anyway. He does not have much of a platoon split (.259/.340/.407 vs. RHB and .262/.332/.386 vs. LHB) and the numbers do not collapse when he faces the order the second time.
Although Kelly joined the St. Louis rotation with a four-pitch mix, he limited the use of his sinkerball in 2016 and scrapped it entirely so far in 2017. Likewise, he threw his change half as much in 2016 compared to 2016, and not at all so far in 2017.
As a reliever, Kelly’s 2.46 ERA, 3.41 FIP, and 21.8 percent strikeout rate are much better than his numbers as a starter. Kelly’s biggest flaw is his wildness. He walks 6-7 percent of batters in relief, which is still better than the near 10 percent walk rate as a starter. That being the case, it makes sense for Kelly to start innings without runners on base.
The Red Sox are innovative enough to try Kelly out as a longman. It’s doubtful he’ll ever be a 20:2 K:BB guy like Devenski, but he can’t start (and the Red Sox don’t need him to start) and he’s a hazard when coming in with men on base.
Brad Brach, Orioles
Brach’s three-pitch repertoire makes him well-suited to go multiple innings and potentially turnover a lineup twice. He gets a ton of swings and misses off both his change and four seamer, and can utilize his slider as well. While lefties hit better against Brach, it’s still a pretty poor .234/.329/.360 slash line for his career. For a player who strikes out nearly over 30 percent of the RHB he faces (and over 21 percent of LHB), the lefty damage likely would be limited.
The biggest challenge for Brach would be stretching him out for 100+ innings in a season. Brach has never reached the 80 innings pitched mark in any season, either at the MLB or MiLB level. He has not had the opportunity to go through the order more than once in any appearance.
Ross Stripling, Dodgers
My colleague Ryan Romano discussed Stripling’s potential in his “Three Relievers to Watch” piece (which you should absolutely read), but the highlights are that he threw 100 combined innings across 14 starts and eight relief appearances. His four-pitch mix of a four seamer supplemented by a slider, curve, and change means he can focus on one or maximum two offspeed offerings to go with his fastball. Despite being right handed, Stripling so far in his career has had a tougher time getting right handed batters out. In fact, everything including his strikeout rate, ERA, FIP, and contact type are all better versus lefties than righties. Over time, reverse platoon splits generally work themselves out, and it will be worth keeping an eye on Stripling to see if he can lower his career .319 wOBA against righties (compared to .268 against opposite-handed hitters).
The Dodgers are a prime contender to try Stripling in a multi inning relief role as they’ve made it pretty clear he won’t be spot-starting for Rich Hill. In 8.2 innings so far this season, he has given up only one run and has a 13:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks
Since he came up to the Bigs, Archie Bradley was expected to be part of the DBacks rotation. This year, however, they moved him to the bullpen. Last season Bradley threw a career high 141.2 slightly above average innings. He ended the season with a modest 1.8 fWAR, despite a 5.02 ERA.
Bradley has the repertoire to churn lineups more than once, but he had a difficult time each and every time through the order last season. He primarily relied on his fastball (68 percent of the time) but only generated a 13 percent whiff rate. With his struggles as a starter, perhaps Arizona can get the most ouf him in the bullpen, while still having him pitch close to a starter's workload of innings.
Andrew Miller, Indians
Although Andrew Miller seemingly brought to the world the idea that a ‘closer’ can be used in multiple innings, it’s more than likely he’s used in a traditional closer’s role for much of the year though he’s fully capable of pitching 100-120 innings.. Throughout last year’s playoffs, Miller’s versatility was on display during the grandest of stages. He threw 19 innings in ten games primarily relying on his slider and fastball.
Brad Hand, Padres
The Padres are not contending, but could have a trade asset in their bullpen that could yield a decent trade windfall come July. Although Hand has three solid pitches, his career platoon-split against righties likely would not cut it as a swingman. Hand’s career against slash line against RHB is .261/.345/.434, meaning every righthanded batter is essentially an above average hitter against him. If San Diego does deal him at the deadline, it will likely be as a lefty specialist.
Hand had an excellent 2016 campaign, and his numbers against RHB did improve. He nearly doubled his total strikeout rate and more than halved his ERA, but home runs and walks against righthanded batters still plagued him as he allowed 21 walks and 7 home runs in only 53.1 innings.
Trevor Rosenthal, Cardinals
Let’s be honest, this will never happen so long as Mike Matheny is the manager, but Rosenthal would not be at the top of my list. Rosenthal is a predominantly a fourseam pitcher, and while he did throw his curveball a bunch when he first came up, and he supplemented a changeup in recent years, he barely touches his secondary stuff now.