Closers Never Leave The Bullpen

Last week, I offered some reasons why the Diamondbacks may prefer to keep Archie Bradley away from closing duties. I’ve been snagging value shares of Brad Boxberger and Yoshihisa Hirano just in case.

One of my strongest arguments was Arizona’s starting pitcher shortage. Although their top five is a talented group, they have no depth. Bradley is probably the sixth best starter in the system. Further, they’ll need to replace Patrick Corbin next offseason. Bradley is an apparent fit for the job. However, once a pitcher becomes a successful closer, it’s very rare for them to return to starting.

To test my theory, I took all pitchers from the last 10 seasons and filtered for those with five or more saves. Of those, 65 pitchers also made starts. Eighteen made five or fewer starts. We can dismiss them out of hand. Trust me, it was a batch of players like Hong-Chih Kuo, Wilton Lopez, and Edward Mujica. I didn’t throw away anybody important.

Next, I dropped just about everybody who is a current premium reliever – basically everybody unlikely to ever start again. Wade Davis and Brandon Morrow stick on the list due to their unique history. Say goodbye to Tommy Hunter, Brett Cecil, David Phelps, Andrew Miller, Daniel Hudson, Zach Britton, Glen Perkins, Brad Hand, Tony Cingrani, Raisel Iglesias, Brandon Maurer, Alex Colome… well you get the point.

I’m down to 27 names, and we have more cuts to make. Players like Phil Coke, Joba Chamberlain, Daniel Bard, and Mitchell Boggs. We’re now down to 14 names. I’ve sorted them into three buckets.

Qualified, But Not In A Good Way
Alfredo Simon 775 255 93 19
Carlos Villanueva 830.2 407 64 10
Franklin Morales 450.2 297 39 11
Kyle McClellan 387.1 268 17 6

It’s fun to remember these guys in the sense that they used to exist around the periphery of fantasy baseball consciousness. Simon had an incredibly unlikely peak from 2012 through 2014 during which he was twice a good reliever and once a good starter. FIP hated him.

Villanueva was a kind of forebear to the modern multi-inning relief ace. He’d make five or ten starts while also mixing in some medium and high leverage relief. Morales was a bad starter, then a mostly bad reliever, then a bad starter again. McClellan was a decent reliever, made 17 lousy starts in 2011, then rapidly disappeared.

Couldn’t Hack It As A Starter
Bud Norris 1163.2 291 188 19
Juan Nicasio 629.2 269 82 7
Sean Marshall 386.1 351 16 16
Yusmeiro Petit 545 228 48 6
Alfredo Aceves 380.1 204 15 29
Wade Davis 835.1 393 88 79

Davis is obviously the biggest name on this list. He was a starter for the Rays until they discovered he was MUCH better in the bullpen. Then the Wil Myers trade briefly restored him to the rotation. It didn’t take. Now he’s a rich reliever. Nicasio has a similar story with a LOT less success.

Marshall and Aceves bounced back and forth between starting and relieving early in their careers. Marshall eventually settled in as a fantastic but injury prone fireman. Aceves was always inconsistent. Norris and Petit are swingmen who mostly work out of the bullpen.

I’m not sure why Neftali Feliz got left out of this category. I must have accidentally deleted him. I already made the table, and he’s not important. Moving on to the guys who matter…

Chris @#$%ing Sale And Friends
Chris Sale 1324.1 260 180 12
C.J. Wilson 1269.2 310 186 38
Brandon Morrow 765 239 113 18
Brett Myers 787 189 109 19

Really, this was always a one-man list. Sale is the success story for closer-turned-starter pitchers. His first 79 appearances came as a reliever – a role in which he thrived. Notably, he recorded saves in only 15 percent of his relief appearances. The White Sox wisely prevented him from becoming entrenched in the role. He permanently transitioned to the rotation in 2012. Someday in the semi-distant future, we may see Sale the Reliever return.

If Sale is the best case scenario, Wilson is at least a pretty good alternative. He was a lot better than you remember. At least, he was a lot better than I remember.

He kicked off his major league career with 234 mostly effective relief appearances. Again, notice he notched saves in only 16 percent of those appearances. The year he was the primary closer was also the year he posted a 6.02 ERA. Wilson concluded his career with 186 consecutive starts. He never returned to the bullpen.

Myers was probably worse than you remember. He discovered a joy for closing in 2007 while recovering from injury. Thereafter, he was an indifferent starter for the remainder of a surprisingly long career. He bounced back to the bullpen a couple times, including 70 appearances in 2012 – his final season as a major leaguer.

We probably know the end of Morrow’s story even though it’s ongoing. He kind of fits in the Wade Davis category, except injuries were the main reason he couldn’t hack it as a starter. The stuff was good enough, and he toiled at making it work for the better part of a decade. Now he’s back in the closer role for the first time since losing the Mariners’ job in 2009.

Parting Thoughts

Before you go wishing for Bradley or your favorite prospect (Alex Reyes?) to spend some time as a closer, consider recent history. Pitchers like Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Papelbon probably could have been starters with an extra season or two of development. The same goes for current closers like Roberto Osuna and Edwin Diaz. The bullpen is a sticky place. Even the pitchers who did bounce from the ninth inning to the rotation mostly failed. If the Diamondbacks puts Bradley in the closer role, he’s unlikely to ever start again.

You can follow me on twitter @BaseballATeam

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If you lower it from 5 saves to 3, you do get a player like Wainwright added in.