Image credit: Corey Knebel (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
In the span of 10 years, major league teams have become leery of college relievers.
As recently as 2008, there were five college relievers drafted in the first round. The idea, which in the end proved misguided, was that college relievers generally had very fresh arms (thanks to modest college workloads) and top-quality stuff. Some would be able to handle a move to the rotation, while the others would be fast-moving relievers.
What teams learned from that reliever binge was that with very few exceptions (Andrew Cashner) the switch from college reliever to pro starter was a leap too far. And the fast-moving relievers didn’t provide the expected impact. Of the five relievers drafted in the first round in 2008, Cashner was the only one to ever play a significant role in the majors, though Josh Fields has seen plenty of work as a low-leverage reliever.
Since then, teams have steadily moved away from drafting college relievers early in the draft. They pick off the best college starters, and the best high school arms and then they circle back to the guys closing out college games. Since the 2008 draft, teams have picked just four college relievers in the first round in the subsequent 11 drafts.
The Nationals chose Stanford closer Drew Storen 10th overall in 2009 and the Dodgers picked Stanford reliever Chris Reed 16th in 2011. Since then Tyler Jay (2015) and Zack Burdi (2016) are the only college relievers to have been picked in the first round.
Storen quickly ascended to become the Nationals’ closer but nearly as quickly saw his career derailed by elbow and shoulder injuries. Reed, Jay and Burdi have made no impact.
Teams have adjusted to the trend. This year, just four college relievers were drafted in the top four rounds.
Teams have learned through trial and error that they aren’t going to spend a high pick on a college reliever. They’ve also learned that rarely do those college relievers move quickly—something that once was seen as a major selling point for the demographic.
The natural question is: Why do so many college relievers falter in pro ball?
In the major leagues, relievers are valued for stuff, reliability and durability. Most teams ignore durability when developing minor league relievers. Yet an ability to pitch frequently, sometimes with no rest days between appearances, is a key factor to major league bullpen viability and longevity.
Among the major league closers who rank in the top 10 in saves as of mid-June, 29 percent of those pitchers’ appearances had come while working a second day in a row. More than half of all appearances had come with either zero days or one day of rest.
Yet when reliever prospects work in the minors, they rarely are asked to pitch on back-to-back days. Even throwing with one day of rest is rare. Generally, a team drafting a college reliever will deploy him using a predictable usage pattern. He will pitch one day, take two or three days off, then pitch again.
Baseball America looked at 10 college relievers who were drafted in the top four rounds this decade. With few exceptions, those relievers worked with more rest in the minors than they would ever see in the major leagues. For those 10 relievers, just five percent of their minor league appearances came on back-to-back days, and just 18 percent of appearances followed one day off. A full 77 percent of appearances came with two or more days of rest.
These pitchers worked on a minor league schedule that bears very little resemblance to a major league usage pattern.
Part of the problem is that teams don’t want to overwork minor league relievers, which they fear may lead to injuries. They also want to make sure that relievers have opportunities for side work to refine their deliveries and pitches.
“I think it’s a really hard problem to solve and account for,” Twins farm director Jeremy Zoll said. “You’re trying to manage workloads, manage rosters and help players’ development. How do you manage game action and non-game action?
“On top of that, even the most successful big league relievers, they don’t come in and take over the closer role. They are a middle reliever or setup guy first. Preparing our players to potentially be prepared for back-to-backs or three-out-of-four-days is a real challenge.
The mechanics of Triple-A roster management is another problem. At just the point where relievers need to be most prepared for their big league roles, the needs of the big league club intervene.
Teams want to make sure that they always have an option (or two or three) ready to call up from Triple-A if the big league bullpen needs reinforcements. So teams have rules preventing multiple 40-man roster relievers from working on the same day. A reliever going back-to-back is unlikely to be ready for a callup over three different nights, because he needs time to recover on that third day. So teams are reluctant to apply a major league-style workload to Triple-A relievers.
And yet that is what they arguably need. When the Tigers drafted Corey Knebel out of Texas in 2013, they immediately put him on a big league type of workload.
Knebel pitched on three of his first four days as a pro. He worked with zero days of rest eight times in his pro debut. He made 14 appearances on back-to-back days in the minors before he reached the majors. The other nine relievers in our sample combined to make just 23 zero-days appearances.
“They threw me into the fire right away. You’ll go back-to-back days. You’ll get used to that,” Knebel said.
Knebel happens to have been one of the most successful college relievers drafted in early rounds this decade, though he currently is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery.
“You get used to throwing tired and knowing how to perform when you’re body is feeling tired,” Knebel said.
Not many highly drafted college relievers have been thrown into the deep end right away like Knebel was.
Maybe that should change.