Starting this article feels a bit like trying to explain something to your parents that you've been avoiding for a long time.
In an off season marked by front office turn over and not much else, the potential move of ace reliever Daniel Bard to the starting rotation has been the most controversial among discussion points that would make a '50s sitcom look like a another Kevin Costner golf movie [author's note: this was the most vile, contemptible, and disgusting thing that came to mind].
Moving Bard to the rotation has been panned by several well known and highly respected writers including Rany Jazayerli at Grantland and Cliff Corcoran at SI.com. It's not been the most popular idea in the comments section here, either. It wouldn't surprise me if somewhere out there existed a small stuffed doll with "Matt Kory" written on it in sharpie and a butter knife in its back.
Yet, despite a pain in my neck that I just can't seem to shake, I'm in favor of it. I have reasons for thinking this way, of course, just as the above mentioned articles had reasons to be against it. There is nothing wrong with friendly disagreement though, so let's talk, OTM. Let's lay this out. I'll tell you why I think moving Bard to the rotation, or at least trying it out, is a good idea. You tell me why you agree or disagree in the comments. OK? OK.
Let's have at it!
(After the jump, of course.)The value of a decent starter is much greater than that of a good reliever.
In the abstract, I'm in favor of moves like this. Whether we're talking Red Sox, Astros, Braves, or whatever, moving players where they can provide the most value to the team is a strong idea. That's what it's all about, right? Teams have to maximize the value (i.e. runs, hits, defense, etc.) they get from their players. If Daniel Bard, or Alexi Ogando, or Lance Berkman, or whomever can give his team a better chance to win more games by doing something different I'm all for it.
The Red Sox have a roster with three starting pitchers that we'd like to see get the ball. After that it's Carlos Silva or Aaron Cook. Fine human beings, I'm sure, and fine for sixth/seventh starter types (good for that, actually) but I think we'd all admit there is a bit of room for improvement there.
At the same time, the team has an abundance of relievers. The additions of Mark Melacon and Andrew Bailey along with a potentially healthy Bobby Jenks (I said potentially!!!) give the Red Sox legitimate end of the game options. I wouldn't call it an embarrassment of riches exactly, but it sure isn't a bad group by any stretch. With Daniel Bard it's even stronger of course, but they could sure survive without Bard. So why not take from a strength and give to a weakness?
The bonus is that Bard can provide more value to the Red Sox in a starter's role. Because starters pitch so much more often than relievers do, they have that opportunity to impact the team's season on a greater scale. After all, relievers are uniformly failed starting pitchers. Every major league reliever has at some point in his baseball career started. But, that doesn't go both ways as good starting pitchers don’t get moved to the bullpen. Not ever. Think about it for a second and the reason becomes fairly obvious. It isn’t about the value of the first or third inning over the ninth, or bunk about mental strength or intensity. It’s simply about quantity. A good starting pitcher will throw 200 or more innings whereas a reliever isn’t likely to break 80. The lack of innings severely limits the impact a reliever can have. For a reliever to be as valuable as a starter, you have to believe that the 8th and 9th innings are always at least three times more valuable than every other inning. And that just isn’t the case.
For example, look at Fan Graphs fWAR stat (Wins Above Replacement; you can read more about it here). In a nutshell, they calculate the number of wins a player, any player, provides to their team over what a freely available AAA-quality fill-in would. To give you some context, last season Roy Halladay threw 233 innings of 2.35 ERA ball. That (with all the peripheral stats, the ballpark, the run environment, and a bunch of other things calculated in) equates to 8.2 fWAR, the highest of any pitcher in baseball.
To find the first reliever on the list of highest fWAR from last season, you have to scroll down to 42nd on the list where Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel sits with 3.2. Why are the best relievers so far down the list? fWAR is a cumulative stat like RBIs or Hits. The more you play the more you (can) get. Because relievers don't play nearly as much as starters, they simply can’t be as valuable. In effect, their usage doesn't allow them to be.
Moving Daniel Bard to the rotation (or at least giving it the old college try) gives one of the better pitchers on the team a chance to have a greater impact on the club's fortunes. That's a good thing.
It's worked in the recent past.
A few examples:
- Alexi Ogando of the Rangers started only three of 59 games in the minor leagues but the Rangers converted him to starting last season anyway. He started 29 games, accumulating 3.6 fWAR.
T.C.J. Wilson had been a reliever with the Texas Rangers for parts of five seasons before the team converted him to the rotation. In 2010, his first year starting, he accumulated a very good 4.6 fWAR and last season he beat that with 5.9. Before starting, Wilson’s entire five-year career had been worth 3.3 fWAR. In one season as a starter he was more valuable to the Rangers than in his five seasons in relief. Sure, part of that is because Wilson pitched well as a starter and was only mediocre out of the bullpen, but it illustrates the point that relievers simply can’t provide the value that starters can.
- It doesn't always work though. The Tigers tried to convert Phil Coke from relieving to starting but had to move Coke back to the bullpen mid season. But, even by pitching well enough to lose his spot in the rotation, Coke threw 108 innings and was worth 2.0 fWAR on the season (both starting and relieving). That was more than he’d been worth over his three-year career to that point.
So it can work and it has worked. It has also failed, but even that failure wasn't awful. Coke provided value to the Tigers by holding down a rotation spot for some portion of the season, then he re-converted back to the bullpen and did... well, he was still Phil Coke, put it that way.
Daniel Bard, Pitcher
This is the part where things get a bit complicated and subjective. I'm not telling tales out of school when I say the Red Sox front office should analyze the markets for starters and relievers, their roster, their future roster, and their salary situation both now and in coming years. They should combine that information with scouting reports on Bard. Can he master more than two pitches effectively enough to succeed multiple times through the order? Is he an abnormally large injury risk? Does he have the mentality to start? Is he enthusiastic about a change in roles? All these questions and countless more are thrown into a cauldron from which the team makes a decision.
Personally, when looking at Bard the pitcher, where he's come from, his journey through the minors, and how he's pitched at the major league level, I see a guy who could succeed in a starting role. But I don't know that. You might disagree, but you can't be certain either. As Jason Wojciechowski recently reminded us at Baseball Prospectus, saying we don't know isn't a bad thing. That is, unless we do know, but are just refusing to say.
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So that's where I stand, OTM. It's good to try new things, it's good to maximize assets, it's good to strengthen up weak parts of the roster by taking from stronger parts where the hit is less likely to be felt. It's worked in the past. I have confidence that if it doesn't work or the make-up of the roster changes drastically between now and Opening Day or what have you, this front office is smart enough to realize it and make the proper alterations in course.
Register your vote and let me know what you think in the comments.