Going Cheap Pt 2: Where do good players come from?

Yesterday, in part one of this series, I looked at whether you could find cheap bullpen options.  In my review of the best relievers in the 2009 season I found that 35 were cheap additions, while 18 were expensive options.  The important question to ask today is: what is the difference between a cheap option and an expensive option.  You may be quick to say that money, or the cost of acquiring the reliever via trade, is the difference.  You’d be wrong.  The difference between a cheap option and an expensive option in the bullpen comes down to one thing: timing.

Productive bullpen arms don’t just show up in the majors one day making $3-4 M a year.  They all enter the league the same way, either through the draft, or as an international free agent.  They all spend time in the minors, with the rare exception being guys like Takashi Saito or Hideki Okajima.  They all make their debuts as completely unknowns, and eventually work their way up to established relievers.

Just take a look at some of the Pirates’ most effective home grown relievers over the last few years:

-Mike Gonzalez was a 30th round draft pick in 1997, made his debut in 2003, and established himself as a strong bullpen option in 2004 with a 1.25 ERA in 43.1 innings pitched.

-John Grabow was a 3rd round pick in the 1997 draft, made his debut in 2003, and broke out as an elite reliever in 2008 with a 2.84 ERA in 76 innings.

-Matt Capps was taken in the 7th round of the 2002 draft, made a brief debut in 2005, and put up a 3.79 ERA in 80.2 innings in 2006.

-Sean Burnett was a first round pick in the 2000 draft, saw his starting career derailed by injuries in 2004, returned to the majors as a reliever in 2008, and had a breakout season in 2009 with a 3.12 ERA in 57.2 innings.

At one point in time, all four of these pitchers were unknown commodities.  Maybe they had some success in the minors, but no one was saying “let’s give Matt Capps a shot, rather than signing an established reliever”, just like people weren’t relying on Jesse Chavez and Evan Meek to be top options heading in to the 2009 season.

Teams can either pay big money for established relievers, or they can find their own good relievers before they become established, thus spending less for the same production.  It’s not as close in terms of potential success compared to spending $3-4 M on an established reliever, but obviously it can be done.  Otherwise, where are all of these established relievers coming from?

I decided to take a look at the 53 top relievers in 2009 from yesterday’s post to see how they made their way to becoming effective relief options in the majors.  The first thing I did was divide the list up in to two groups.  The first group consisted of pitchers who reached the majors and had immediate success out of the bullpen.  These pitchers didn’t have to have success every year of their career, but they had to show their potential in the first season.  This is kind of like Matt Capps’ career path.  The second group consisted of pitchers who struggled a few years before becoming the strong reliever they are now, kind of like what we saw from John Grabow, who pitched 240 innings with a 4.61 ERA before his breakout year in 2008.

Of the 53 pitchers who qualified as my top relievers with 50 or more innings in 2009, 26 fell in to the first group, having instant success in the majors.  We’ll call this group “The Phenoms”.  The average age of these pitchers in their debut season was 26 years old, although that number is inflated by a year due to Takashi Saito coming over from Japan at the age of 36.  From here I wanted to find some minor league trends for these pitchers, looking at K/9, K/BB, and HR/9 ratios to see if there was any consistent trend with these pitchers.  A quick refresher of my ideal numbers in these categories:

-K/9: 6.0 or greater
-K/BB: 2.0 or greater
-HR/9: 1.0 or less

Of the 26 Phenoms, 13 had 50 or fewer innings in AAA, although one of those guys was Saito, who didn’t record any minor league time.  The pitchers who had more than 50 innings combined for a 7.53 K/9, a 2.64 K/BB, and an 0.83 HR/9.  Of these 13 pitchers, 10 met all three ratio requirements above, although Trevor Hoffman was one strikeout away from meeting the K/BB ratio, so we can say that only two of these pitchers didn’t meet all three requirements.  For the record, those pitchers were Bob Howry (1.51 K/BB in 95 innings), and Darren Oliver (5.57 K/9, 1.37 HR/9 in 171.1 innings).

Looking at the AA numbers, there was a significant difference between the pitchers who spent considerable time in AAA, and the pitchers who made a brief stop at the level before jumping to the majors.  The pitchers with 50+ innings in AAA combined for a 7.29 K/9, a 2.12 K/BB, and a 0.73 HR/9 ratio in AA, which is very similar to their AAA numbers.  Again, a large majority of pitchers met all three ratio requirements, with 10 of 12 achieving this.  The 13th pitcher, Joakim Soria, jumped over AA ball to AAA, before being selected in the Rule 5 draft.  Kiko Calero was also close, but missed his third requirement with a 1.90 K/BB ratio.

The 13 pitchers who had 50 or fewer innings in AAA had much better combined ratios.  Only 12 of these pitchers participated in AA ball, again because of Takashi Saito.  Those 12 pitchers combined for a 8.99 K/9, a 2.61 K/BB, and an 0.71 HR/9, considerably better than the pitchers who needed more time in AAA, mostly due to the strikeouts (which also raises the K/BB ratio).  That could be the reason that these pitchers didn’t need as much time in AAA.

So to wrap up the first group of the original 53 pitchers, we had two sub groups.  One group sped through AAA, while the other group spent a little more time at the level.  Everyone in this Phenom group had immediate success in the majors.

The second group of the original 53 pitchers struggled in their debut in the majors before eventually emerging as strong relievers.  We’ll call this group “The Procrastinators”.  I was quite surprised at the particular struggles this group saw.  Looking at the time spent in the majors before their breakout season, this group combined for a 6.45 K/9, a 1.54 K/BB, and a 1.22 HR/9.  We’ve seen the Pirates go after a lot of pitchers with similar stat lines.  Hard throwers who have good strikeout numbers, but lack control.

These 27 pitchers averaged about 88 innings before their breakout season, and the average age of that breakout season was 26.  This brings up an interesting question: could it just be that these pitchers were brought up too early?  The pitchers who had immediate success had an average age of 26 in their breakout year (which was their first year).  These pitchers who took some time in the majors to develop also had their breakout season at the age of 26, which means they probably came up earlier than the first group in most cases.  That could be a factor, but I don’t think that’s the main reason these guys struggled.

Going in to this, I expected the Procrastinators to have good ratios all around, but just some poor luck. I was surprised at how many of these pitchers had control problems.  Of the 27 pitchers in this group, only six had a 2.00 K/BB ratio or better before their breakout season.  Five of those six pitchers had a K/9 ratio of 6.0 or better, with the one exception being Todd Coffey, who had a 4.03 K/9 ratio in his first 58 major league innings.

There were 17 pitchers who met the strikeout requirement of a 6.0 K/9 or better.  Home runs were also a problem, as only 9 of the 27 pitchers met the 1.0 or less HR/9 ratio requirement in the time before their breakout season.  

I went in to this expecting to see a lot of pitchers with good K/9, K/BB, and HR/9 ratios before their breakout season, which would essentially chalk their poor ERAs up to bad luck.  Of the 27 pitchers in this group, only one met this requirement, and that was Darren O’Day, who had a 6.02 K/9, a 2.07 K/BB, and a 0.42 HR/9 in 43.1 innings as a Rule 5 pick in 2008.  O’Day posted a 4.57 ERA that year.  In 2009 he pitched 58.2 innings, with an 8.6 K/9, a 3.1 K/BB, and an 0.5 HR/9, putting up a 1.84 ERA.

This leaves some big questions.  Why did the Procrastinators suddenly improve their control?  Did they have control problems all through their career and just magically fix the problem?  Or did they just have some issues adjusting to the majors?  Once again, I looked at the minor league numbers to see if I could find a trend.

Of these 27 pitchers, 15 met all three ratio requirements in their time in AAA.  Only three pitchers failed to meet the 6.0 K/9 requirement.  Eight pitchers failed to meet the K/BB requirement.  Five pitchers failed to meet the HR/9 requirement.  Once again, I wanted to see the breakdown between players who cruised through AAA (50 or fewer innings) and pitchers who spent more time at AAA (more than 50 innings).

There were five pitchers who spent less than 50 innings at the AAA level.  Only one of those five pitchers failed to meet the K/BB ratio requirement of 2.0, and four pitchers met the K/9 requirement.  All five pitchers met the HR/9 requirement.  I found an interesting trend when I looked at some of the other pitchers in the Procrastinators group.  There were 11 pitchers with 200 or more innings in AAA.  Of those 11 pitchers, five failed to put up a 2.0 K/BB ratio or better, and four failed to put up a 1.0 HR/9 or less ratio.  That’s 5/8 pitchers in this group of 27 who didn’t meet the K/BB ratio, and 4/5 pitchers who failed to meet the HR/9 ratio.

The five pitchers who failed to put up an acceptable K/BB ratio all had acceptable ratios across the board in AA, with the exception being Joe Nathan, who didn’t pitch in AA.  The same is true of the four pitchers with poor HR/9 ratios in AAA, as three of those four pitchers had acceptable AA ratios, with the exception being Mike Wuertz, who once again struggled with homers in AA.  While looking closer at these pitchers, I found one common trend: all of these pitchers were full time starting pitchers in the minors, which explains the high inning total.

These were all pitchers with strong strikeout ratios, but struggling with walks and/or homers in the starter role in AAA.  They didn’t have this problem at the lower levels, but started to struggle with their control against better hitting at the AAA level.  The only pitcher who converted to a reliever in the minors from this group was Wuertz.  The first year he pitched in relief his ratios were: 11.3 K/9, 3.9 K/BB, 0.8 HR/9.  That’s up from 6.7 K/9, 2.6 K/BB, and 1.2 HR/9 as a starter in AAA the year before.

That made me go back to the major league stats.  Of the Procrastinators group, only six had acceptable K/BB ratios.  The only common trend in this group of 27 was a strong strikeout ratio.  I wanted to look at the 21 pitchers in this group with a poor K/BB ratio to see if they had been converted from a starter to a reliever.

Out of those 21 pitchers, 14 were full time starters in the minors, and didn’t have success in the majors until they converted to full time relievers.  Two were full time starters in the minors, and have only been relievers in the majors, but took a year to reach their potential.  That leaves five pitchers who have been full time relievers, and struggled in their first major league attempts.  Some of the notable starters-turned-relievers:

Phil Hughes - Starter in the minors, with a 3.90 K/BB ratio at AAA.  Has a 7.1 K/9 and a 1.9 K/BB in 141.1 innings as a starter in the majors.  Switched to the bullpen in 2009 and put up a 11.4 K/9 and a 5.0 K/BB in 51.1 innings as a reliever.

Mike Wuertz - Was a starter in AAA in 2002 and 2003.  Converted to relief in 2004, where he posted the strong numbers mentioned above at the AAA level, but put up a 4.34 ERA, a 9.3 K/9, and a 1.76 K/BB ratio in 29 major league innings.  Looking closer, he made the major league bullpen out of Spring Training, put up a 6.75 ERA in 17.1 innings until the first week of July, with a 6.2 K/9 and a 1.2 K/BB. After time in the minors he returned to the majors as a September call-up and posted a 0.77 ERA in 11.2 innings, with a 13.9 K/9 and a 2.6 K/BB ratio.

Mariano Rivera - One of the best closers of all time was a full time starter in the minors, with a 4.4 K/9 and a 2.3 K/BB ratio in AAA.  Rivera made 10 starts in his 19 appearances his rookie season in the majors in 1995, posting a 5.51 ERA in 67 innings, with a 6.9 K/9 and a 1.7 K/BB.  He converted full time to relief the next season and the rest is history.

C.J. Wilson - Was a full time starter in the minors before his first promotion.  Was a starter in his first major league season, making six starts in 24 appearances.  He pitched 48 innings with a 5.6 K/9 and a 1.67 K/BB.  After switching over to relief he pitched 26.1 innings with a 6.5 K/9, a 1.9 K/BB, and a 2.73 ERA.  In his career as a reliever, Wilson has a 2.08 K/BB ratio.

LaTroy Hawkins - Hawkins was a starting pitcher his first five seasons in the majors.  He converted to relief in 2000 at the age of 27.  In his career he has a 6.11 ERA, a 5.2 K/9, and a 1.6 K/BB ratio in 518.1 innings as a starter.  He has a 3.29 ERA, a 6.6 K/9, and a 2.4 K/BB ratio in 679 innings as a reliever.

Jon Rauch - Was a full time starter in AAA, with a 7.6 K/9 and a 2.8 K/BB.  Was a starter in his first two seasons in the majors, before switching to relief in 2005.  His career line in the majors as a starter includes a 5.29 ERA, a 5.7 K/9, and a 1.5 K/BB ratio in 47.2 innings.  As a reliever he has a 3.59 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, and a 2.7 K/BB ratio in 363.1 innings.

Joel Hanrahan - Hanrahan was a full time starter in the minors, and was a starter in his first year in the majors, with a 6.00 ERA, a 7.6 K/9, and a 1.13 K/BB ratio in 51 innings.  He converted to relief in 2008 and has posted a 10.0 K/9, a 2.17 K/BB, and a 0.7 HR/9 ratio in 148.1 innings over the last two seasons.

Joe Nathan - Nathan was a full time starter in the minors, and came up as a starter for San Francisco in 1999 at the age of 24.  He combined for a 5.6 K/9 and a 1.06 K/BB in his first two years as a starter, pitching 183.2 innings.  The Giants converted Nathan to relief in 2003 and saw him put up a 9.5 K/9, a 2.52 K/BB, and a 0.8 HR/9, but traded him to Minnesota the next year, along with Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser, for A.J. Pierzynski.  Nathan hasn’t stopped putting up those strong numbers out of the bullpen.

Arthur Rhodes - Rhodes was a starting pitcher back when baseball was first invented, but eventually became the games first ever reliever.  In his career as a starter he had a 5.81 ERA, a 7.1 K/9, and a 1.5 K/BB in 322 innings.  In his career as a reliever he has a 3.46 ERA, a 9.6 K/9, and a 2.6 K/BB in over a million innings.

In conclusion, there seem to be two trends emerging here.  The first trend is relief pitching with strong K/9, K/BB, and HR/9 ratios in the minors, and by strong I mean above 7.5, 2.25, and below 0.8.  The other route would be to find a starter with a strong K/9 ratio, and convert him to relief.  My theory here would be that this starter has a good fastball, which leads to a high strikeout ratio, but poor secondary pitches, which leads to increased walks and poor results as a starter.  By switching to the bullpen, the star

ter can focus on the fastball and his best secondary pitch, thus improving his control.

Tomorrow I’ll wrap this series up by looking at the players in the Pirates’ system, as well as the current free agent options, in order to find:

-Players in the system who could help the 2010 bullpen
-Evaluation of players the Pirates have signed this off-season
-Free agents who could be cheap additions to the 2010 bullpen

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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