One way for teams to avoid building their rotations through free agency is to move relief pitchers to the starting rotation. Few relievers have the repertoire and durability to succeed in the rotation, but teams are understandably tempted by certain promising bullpen arms. After all, starters have the potential to limit the opposition for 180-200 innings, while relievers might pitch 60-70 innings.
The Rangers have successfully converted C.J. Wilson and Alexi Ogando to starting roles under Ron Washington and Mike Maddux in recent years, but some conversions don't work out quite as well. For example, Phil Coke and Kyle McClellan started the 2011 season in the rotation, before returning to relief roles.
Here’s an early season update on four pitchers who jumped from the ‘pen to the rotation this year. None of the pitchers below had started more than three MLB games in a season before 2012 and all of them were big league relievers last year:
- Daniel Bard - Bard's walk rate has spiked, his strikeout rate is down and he's generating fewer ground balls. His average fastball sits in the 93-94 mph range, down from 97.3 mph out of the bullpen, but he continues to generate swings and misses. A dropoff is expected from relievers who move to the rotation, and Bard showed promise against the White Sox last week.
- Neftali Feliz - Feliz's 3.81 ERA is a little deceptive. He has 18 strikeouts against 14 walks, partly because he's generating fewer swings and misses. He has also been lucky on balls in play, as his .194 opponents' BABIP indicates.
- Jeff Samardzija - The strikeouts are up, the walks are down and the peripheral numbers suggest this may well be sustainable. Samardzija's fastball continues to average 94.7 mph and batters are swinging and missing more than ever. So far, Samardzija's conversion has been a major success, especially relative to pre-season expectations. To his credit he has faced the Cardinals -- the NL's top offense -- twice.
- Chris Sale - Sale's transition to the rotation is going smoothly. Though his fastball velocity has dipped to 92.4 mph and his strikeout rate is down, he's limiting walks and averaging more than six innings per start.
Note: Though Lance Lynn, Anthony Bass and Felix Doubront pitched in relief last year, they also started in the minors for an extended period of time, so I don’t consider them converted relievers. Advanced stats via FanGraphs.