If you have been following baseball over the past six months, you have probably heard about the bullpen revolution that is underway. As advanced metrics become more entrenched in managerial philosophies, unnecessarily rigid pitching roles are starting to become a thing of the past. For over a century, managers have followed the conventional wisdom that their best pitchers should start because these are ultimately the guys who will pitch the most innings and thus have the most impact on the outcome of the game. There is a reason this line of thinking has such longevity, it makes sense. However, what teams are starting to realize is that it is not just how much your best pitchers throw, but also when. For this reason, teams have increasingly been on the look out for multi-inning relief pitchers who can have a higher volume of innings while also pitching in the game’s most critical junctures. While every team is searching for a dominant multi-inning reliever like the Astros Chris Devenski, the Cubs Mike Montgomery, or the D’Backs Archie Bradley, these special relievers are hard to come by, especially when managers are unwilling to move struggling starters out of their role as starters and into the bullpen where they could thrive. With all of this in mind, I compiled a short list of starting pitchers who are the best candidates for this transition.
Below is a list of starting pitchers who are not being properly utilized and could benefit from a move to the bullpen. The three pitchers listed are the most obvious candidates for this transition, but I have also added some honorable mentions who similarly profile as relievers rather than starting pitchers.
- Shelby Miller (RHP) – Arizona Diamondbacks
To say the Shelby Miller trade was a disaster is an understatement. It literally almost singlehandedly forced the D’Backs to fire their former GM Dave Stewart and totally realign their front office. Not only did the D’Backs give up the top pick in the 2016 draft in Dansby Swanson, they also gave up defensive standout Ender Inciarte. Miller meanwhile has been perhaps the worst pitcher in baseball since putting on a D’Backs uniform. While Shelby has gotten shelled to a tune of a 3-15 record and an ERA hovering around 8.00, perhaps the D’backs could partly salvage this horrendous deal by moving Miller to the bullpen and making him into a multi-inning reliever similar to fellow former starter Archie Bradley.
Perhaps the most obvious reason why the Torey Lovullo should move Shelby Miller to the bullpen is his abysmal showing as a starter so far in Arizona. Not only has Miller put up the kind of numbers that the CPU puts up when you put the setting on “Easy”, he has also shown a concerning tendency to fare worse the second and third time through the lineup. Last season, Miller was actually fairly effective the first time he faced batters in a game, posting a 3.64 ERA in 42.0 IPs. However, hitters quickly adjusted to Miller in their subsequent at-bats, evidenced by the fact that Miller gave up 51 Earned Runs in 58.1 innings against hitters in their second and third ABs against him.
These numbers are staggering, but a quick glance at Miller’s pitch usage leaves us with a pretty good guess about why this trend is occurring. Miller mainly relies on some variation of his fastball, throwing either a four-seamer or a cutter 80.1% of the time throughout his career. His main offspeed pitch, a curveball, he throws 15.1% of the time. Miller can be an above average pitcher when he only has to face a guy once in a game, but he simply does not have enough weapons to keep hitters guessing when he has to face them multiple times.
When you consider this along with Miller’s persistent injury troubles and the D’Backs lackluster bullpen, it seems like a move the bullpen could pay dividends for both the D’Backs and Miller’s career.
2. Joe Ross* (RHP) – Washington Nationals
It is tough for me to truly advocate a move to the bullpen for Joe Ross, because unlike the more established veterans on this list, the Nationals would probably be wise to give him more opportunities as a starter before relegating him to a bullpen role. With that said, Joe Ross checks all the boxes as a guy who would be best suited in a bullpen role. No effective third pitch. Struggles the second and third time through the lineup. Injury history. The list goes on.
Despite these factors, I put Joe Ross on this list with an asterisk because I think the Nationals should only put him in the bullpen temporarily to bolster a patchwork bullpen. Joe Ross features both a sinker and a slider that he can throw with plus velocity early in games. The max velocity for Ross sinker to batters he is facing the first time is 97.73 mph this season, with a max velocity on his slider at 91.1 mph under the same conditions. However, the second and third time through the order, the velocity on both pitches declines considerably and so does his effectiveness. Ross has not thrown a single slider over 90 mph the second time through the lineup or later in the last two seasons. Of course, pitchers fatigue as games wear on, but Ross’s decline in velocity is particularly glaring compared to most pitchers.
With injury concerns are circling Ross, perhaps a temporary move to the bullpen would be a welcome move for a young starter looking to regain his confidence. Add in the fact that the Nationals have baseball’s best record despite having the worst bullpen ERA in the National League and this simple change could help to correct the only flaw on the best team in NL East.
3. Wily Peralta (RHP) – Milwaukee Brewers
With an average fastball velocity of 96.32 mph, Wily Peralta is one of the hardest throwers in the MLB. With an ERA that hasn’t been lower than 4.72 since 2014, he has also been one of the game’s worst starting pitchers in recent years. Unlike the other pitchers on this list, Peralta has been able to maintain his velocity through the third time through the lineup (on the rare occasion that he gets that far into the game), but his lack of an effective third pitch is just as worrisome. While Peralta primarily relies on a fastball/slider combination to retire hitters in their first and second ABs, Peralta often times tries to keep the hitters guessing in their third at-bat by utilizing his changeup more. While I applaud Peralta for being cognizant of the fact that relying on a two-pitch mix is generally too predictable once the hitter has had two at-bats to time these two pitches up, his third weapon has not done him any favors. Since the start of 2015, Peralta has nearly tripled his changeup usage the third time he faces batters compared to his first time through the lineup, but opponents have slugged .539 against the pitch in their 3rd AB, which suggests that he has a tendency to leave his changeup up in the zone far too often. Trying to upset hitters timing is the name of the game, but no hitter alive doesn’t like a changeup that catches too much plate.
Wily Peralta has always had electric stuff, which is probably why the Brewers haven’t given up on him yet. However, unless he is properly placed in the bullpen where he can utilize his high-octane fastball/slider combo, he will continue to be nothing more than a struggling fifth starter constantly on the verge of being demoted or released.
**Vince Velasquez (RHP) – Philadelphia Phillies
**Blake Snell (LHP) – Tampa Bay Rays
Anibal Sanchez (RHP) – Detroit Tigers
Francisco Liriano (LHP) – Toronto Blue Jays
** I believe both of Velasquez and Snell will ultimately end up being high leverage relievers, but they are both very young and unlike Joe Ross, neither of their teams have any incentive to continue giving them opportunities to develop as starters.