Image credit: Brad Hand (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C.—The best relievers in Major League Baseball are often starters in the minor leagues.
At the 2018 All-Star Game, that trend is on full display.
Eleven relievers were named All-Stars this season. Two were relievers in the minors (Craig Kimbrel, Joe Jimenez), two converted from being position players (Kenley Jansen, Sean Doolittle), and the other seven all began as starters— Josh Hader, Edwin Diaz, Aroldis Chapman, Brad Hand, Jeremy Jeffress, Blake Treinen and Felipe Vazquez.
All seven started at least up through Double-A, and all ranked as notable prospects as starters at one point.
So, why do former starters rather than lifelong relievers make up the majority of the best bullpen arms in the game today? The players themselves have different theories.
“I really think just working on my secondary pitches as a starter was the biggest thing,” said Hader, who ranked as BA’s No. 1 lefthanded pitching prospect entering 2017. “Because as a starter you need those three pitches to keep hitters off balance. Having all those pitches in the bullpen, it gives you an advantage.”
Said Hand: “Just maybe more repetition. In the minor leagues we’re pitching more innings so we’re getting more work than guys that have been relievers the whole time that are only pitching 70 innings a year, where starters in the minors are pitching 140. It’s more repetition, more practice.”
The trend of former starters making the best relievers goes beyond just the All-Stars. Of the 20 relievers with the lowest ERAs this season (min. 20 appearances), 16 were starters initially.
That includes Treinen, Jeffress and Chapman among the top 10.
“I think (starting) just gives you experience,” Treinen said. “Like you face more batters, figure out what your strengths are, how you’re going to pitch certain guys, different types of hitters…. I think maybe being a starter in the minors helped me figure out a few things in my game, how I’m going to attack or how to be more consistent in the zone or to help set different pitches up. Being a starter I think helps me be more resilient than anything.”
The transition isn’t always an easy one. For many starters, being moved to the bullpen can cause a bit of an identity crisis.
“As a starter, when you get moved to the bullpen it feels like a demotion,” said Ross Stripling, who began as a starter, was moved to the bullpen last year but regained a rotation spot this season. “So then you gotta really get motivated to stay in the big leagues because you feel like you’re one move away from finding yourself back in Triple-A and out of the big leagues. So another big thing is the motivation factor of it, of just doing everything you can to get better and change and adapt and keep your job.”
One thing the players insisted is not the case is that relieving is easier than starting. In their minds it’s an equal challenge, just a different kind of one.
“In the minors I used to throw seven, eight innings,” Vazquez said. “Now you just have to throw one, but it has to be the best inning of the whole probably game. It’s just way different, coming from a starter to a closer.”
Regardless, former starters around baseball have made the transition look easy. By and large, with every passing year, it’s converted minor league starters making up the top echelon of major league relief pitchers.
“I think it’s more so accepting yourself as a pitcher and not setting yourself as a role,” Hader said. “Because when you go you think about it you have to get those guys out whether it’s the start of the game or middle of the game or end of the game. Me personally, I try to keep it simple and stick to what I know, and that’s pitching.”