Maurer Should Get Chance to Start in 2015

2020713098 resp 261x300 Maurer Should Get Chance to Start in 2015If you’ve been watching the Mariners over the last month, you’ve probably noticed that Brandon Maurer does a pretty good Craig Kimbrel impression out of the bullpen. In thirteen relief outings, the Newport Beach native has limited hitters to a .156/.206/.203 line while striking out twenty-two in eighteen innings. In that time he’s allowed just four walks and one run, his fastball has touched the upper nineties, and he’s given pitch f/x systems classification problems with his slider. It’s a delicious combination all the way around.

Maurer’s success could actually give the Mariners a tough decision to make before the 2015 season. While the club is justifiably uninterested in removing Maurer from the setup role he’s thriving in at the moment, the right-hander has spent the entirety of his minor league career as a starter, and could be in line for a return to the rotation next season.

The Mariners brass thus faces a difficult choice before 2015: leave Maurer in the back end of the bullpen or give him another chance to start. While it’s tempting to leave a pitcher where he’s having success, especially in the light of his struggles over the first year and a half of his big league career, I’d like to see the Mariners be bold. Given the value that a club can gain from another impact starter, Maurer’s arsenal, and the recent spate of pitchers who have successfully converted from the bullpen to the rotation, the Mariners should try to stretch him out again next season.

First, there should be little argument that a decent starter has more value than all but the very best relievers. John Smoltz’s career provides a quick illustration why.

Smoltz – incidentally, a fantastic example of a pitcher who successfully converted back to the rotation after an extended spell as a reliever – worked out of the bullpen for three full seasons of his career. At his best in 2003, he posted a miniscule 1.12 ERA in a season dominated by hitting, accruing 3.3 bWAR. It was a fantastic campaign, one of the best seasons a relief pitcher posted all decade, but as a starter, Smoltz equaled or topped that WAR figure twelve times. Simply put, Smoltz at his best in the bullpen wasn’t nearly as valuable as he was in the rotation where he could throw more innings. Not every pitcher is as good as Smoltz, obviously, and nobody should expect Maurer to pitch like a hall of famer in either role. It is, however, fair to say that for as good as Maurer has been in relief, he has more upside as a starter.

Recent history aside, Maurer also has all of the ingredients to pitch successfully out of the rotation. Critically, the twenty-four year old has tightened up his slider – it almost looks like a cutter, a pitch that often produces a reverse platoon split – and improved his changeup. Additionally, Maurer has actually pitched better against lefties than righties this season after struggling against them a year ago. It’s a small sample, but it’s encouraging to see that performance line up with improvement in his secondary pitches.

It’s also worth remembering that, while Maurer was disturbingly ineffective as a starter earlier this season, he was fighting a stacked deck. Limited by their schedule and a slew of injuries that shelved four different starters, the Mariners were forced to bring Maurer to the big leagues while he was still recovering from a back injury he suffered in spring training. Maurer was limited to about seventy pitches in his first start– which is almost unheard of in a major league game – and while he pitched well in his first outing in Miami, he struggled from that point onward. As a whole, pitchers tend to fare poorly when they return from injury to soon – you could see that James Paxton was still ironing out kinks his first start back as well – and given Maurer’s limitations, I’m inclined to at least partially excuse his poor numbers as a starter this season.

Finally, the primary reason why I would endorse stretching Maurer out again next season is that there just isn’t that much to lose. If his stuff plays down, or if he struggles against lefties again, or if he just can’t turn the lineup over multiple times – all problems that plagued him as a starter in his first two stints in the rotation – the Mariners can simply drop him back into a relief role.

This year, Maurer was miserable as a starter: he posted an ERA north of seven, averaged less than five innings per start, and allowed fewer than four runs just twice. And yet, less than a month after getting shelled in a start against the Angels, he was back in the big leagues as a dominant reliever. There was no long transition period: he simply started pitching better, and it’s a pattern that can repeat itself should he struggle out of the rotation again next season.

That last point might be controversial. There are a number of analysts who subscribe to the notion that it is best to leave a pitcher where he has experienced success, while others argue that toggling a pitcher between the rotation and bullpen could be dangerous for his effectiveness and health. Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan in particular has expressed that last viewpoint eloquently.

In a recent newsletter titled “How to Break Pitchers,” Sheehan raised a few points worth addressing. Bearing failed rotation-bullpen-rotation projects like Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz, and Brandon Morrow in mind, Sheehan writes: “If a team decides it needs a high-leverage reliever and wants to burn a possibly very good starting pitcher to get one, that may be a bad move but it’s not a dangerous one… Once you make the move, though, you have to stick with it. Moving a starting prospect who has had success in the one-inning role back to the rotation tends to be disastrous for everyone involved.” At the risk of sounding cantankerous, I disagree.

Sheehan’s reasoning boils down to two points rolled into one argument: because the roles of ‘starter’ and ‘reliever’ are so divergent in 2014’s Major League Baseball, he believes that it’s dangerous to shift pitchers back and forth between roles, because the variance in usage both stresses the arm and prevents a pitcher from ever assimilating to one role. Without conducting any kind of extensive study, he lists several pitchers who have failed to go back and forth between the rotation and bullpen as evidence. The problem with that line of reasoning is twofold: one, it’s not an exhaustive list, and two, there are actually a decent number of exceptions to his argument.

Take Jeff Samardzija: the former Notre Dame standout bounced between the bullpen and the rotation for years at the beginning of his career before emerging as an effective reliever in 2011. After a strong spring training in 2012 the Cubs elected to give Samardzija one more chance in the rotation: he’s posted 8.1 fWAR since, blossoming into a bona fide No. 2 starter this year.

Phil Hughes will probably never fulfill the promise that once made him a top five prospect, but if he sustains the gains he’s made in his first season in the Twin Cities, he too represents another example of a young pitcher who transitioned from starting to relieving and back to starting. Given a fresh start and a home ballpark that doesn’t play to his biggest weakness – lefty pull power – Hughes is thriving, posting a 2.68 FIP in Minnesota with a microscopic 0.69 walk rate.

The best example though is Chris Sale. The White Sox wanted to get instant value from Sale, a starter in college, and the club shifted the southpaw to the bullpen immediately after drafting him in 2010. He worked as an effective reliever through 2011 before the White Sox converted him back to the rotation. Since then, one injury scare and a head-scratching two week sojourn to the closer role aside, Sale has been dynamite for Chicago. He’s produced 14 fWAR since the start of 2012 and has my vote as the best pitcher in the American League, non-Felix division.

With all of that in mind, I think the Mariners would be best served giving Maurer another chance to start. While he’s a great reliever at the moment, he probably isn’t this good in relief long term. The Mariners boast a deep bullpen, can replace his innings without losing too much value, and might be in line to benefit if Maurer can pitch like a no. 3 starter, as he was billed coming up through the Mariners system. Maurer has all of the weapons to become that kind of pitcher, and given the recent success teams have had transitioning starters from the bullpen to the rotation, it’s a gamble that could pay huge dividends for Seattle.

 

Written by Brendan Gawlowski

Author, Prospect Insider
Brendan Gawlowski has been writing about the Mariners since 2010.

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21 comments on “Maurer Should Get Chance to Start in 2015

  1. rightwingrick says:

    And I especially wouldn’t touch Maurer because we have plenty of talented young depth at starting pitching, including Paxton, Elias, Walker, and Erasmo Ramirez (not to mention Felix Hernandez, who is only 28, and Iwakuma, probably the most nationally under-rated starter in all of baseball). Not sure what will happen with Young in 2015, but he’s sure earned a rotation spot somewhere.

  2. rightwingrick says:

    Maurer has seemed to have found his role, and he is absolutely dominant in it. He is aggressive, powerful, successful, and seems to pick the entire team (and fans) up in his fierce and focused appearances out of the pen. Rarely do you see that level of intensity….and when you do, it’s probably pretty silly to fool with it (or trade it). I do think we can trade some bullpen pieces if we need to, but I wouldn’t touch Maurer in that process.

  3. dnc says:

    Everyone knew starters were way more valuable than relievers long before WAR came around, Ed.

  4. Tyler Carmont says:

    Within the context of 6 IP vs. 1 IP, a starter is more valuable than a reliever. Also the relative frequency of finding an effective reliever is higher than finding an effective starter. But I do see your point and agree that the M’s should play Maurer in whatever role he has the most success in. And if they feel the return they’d get from trading him would be more valuable than his contributions to the team, they should make that move.

  5. Edman says:

    I find the “value to the team” comments a little silly. Value to the team is winning, period. The idea that it’s “more valuable” to the team to improve the trading stock of each player, assumes that all you are is a developmental ground for future trades. Wins and losses are what count, not how much you win in a trade. That’s one aspect of the team, but not its ultimate goal.

    What’s valuable to the team, how best Maurer can be used to create wins.

    WAR has changed the way players are preceived, and sometimes, not for the good of the team.

  6. maqman says:

    Maurer is still a young man and things could click for him as a starter yet, or they could just as well not. That’s the value of spring training, to sort out everyone’s roles for the coming season. If it turns out he and/or The Bartender do have what it takes to fit in the rotation their value to the team increases, if they can’t do it then they can stay in the bullpen. Nothing ventured, nothing gained applies.

  7. Jerry says:

    The rationale for most of these posts is that a good starter is worth more than a great reliever. That’s true most of the time. However, there is one problem in this case: Maurer has not had any success as a starter, and there is VERY compelling evidence that he just doesn’t have the skill set to succeed as a starter.

    Starting and relieving aren’t interchangeable roles. Some pitchers don’t have the repertoire or stamina to start, and their stuff jumps up a notch in relief. Some starters done have good enough stuff to be relievers.

    If you’ve watched Maurer in both roles, it’s pretty clear that he is that former type of player: his stuff is WAAAAY better as a reliever. And he’s been really shitty as a starter, both in the bug leagues and in the minors.

    With Maurer, it might not be about maximizing his value as a starter. He probably won’t ever be good in that role. His track record pretty clearly shows that. It might not ruin him to give it a third try, but it’s likely to result in bad starts and less bullpen depth, and – worst case scenario – a Brandon Morrow storyline.

  8. maqman says:

    A starter is more valuable than a reliever, just look at their contracts. I think they should try out both Maurer and The Bartender is spring training a see what they produce. You don’t know until you try it and see what happens. Pitching depth is crucial to contending teams, just ask the Yankees or Dodgers. You need a five man rotation and three good backup starters in AAA or you have to be real lucky. The Mariners have been lucky this season so far given the lost starts from Paxton, Walker, Kuma and Hultzen. I wouldn’t want to count on finding a guy like Young released just when you need him or a AA chucker shining in the Arizona sun next year. Resigning Kuma and Young should be a priority after this season ends. Both are entitled to big raises but they are better deals than guys like Scherzer. One, if not two, of Paxton, Walker or Hultzen may well turn out to be busts, Young may move on, Kuma could choose to test the free agent waters, anyone can get injured at any time. We need all the starters we can keep, sign or create if we want to continue to improve. Not seeing if we have already got some usable rotation pieces sitting in the bullpen is just bad practice baseball.

  9. Paul Martin says:

    Ok, just got off the phone with Jack and Lloyd. Here is the plan: Maurer is finishing the year in the bullpen where he is a key cog in our playoff push this year. Next spring Lloyd is going to give him a shot to compete for the 5th starter spot. Jack is still bringing in other players to compete for that spot. Lloyd is not counting on him to make the rotation, if it happens great, but the offseason plan doesn’t hinge on it. If he doesn’t make it, back to relief pitching my friend!

  10. Tyler Carmont says:

    Sorry, but hedging any bets or future considerations on Hultzen is a mistake at this point. No offence to him, and he has the talent for sure, but it’s not easy for guys to miss as much time as he has — especially developmental years — and get right back to it. I’m always optimistic with players, but I’m not holding my breath that Hultzen will add much to the starting pitching depth within the next year.

  11. Paul says:

    The author’s view is one dimensional, looking at current stats and physical success but ignoring Maurer’s head. Even Maurer’s said he likes relieving because he doesn’t have to think. Smolts is a faulty comparison: lots of success as a starter, moved to the pen well into his career to meet a big void in an otherwise very successful team – never had a problem with confidence. Maurer is the opposite. Leave him where he’s successful, at least until he get’s mentally old enough to own unshakeable confidence.

  12. Ripperlv says:

    Mauer is just too good with too much potential not to try as a starter again. He’s young, let him mature into the role. When he’s ready, he’s ready. If it doesn’t work he can always be a reliever. But with his stuff, if you don’t give him another shot, then you should be shot.

  13. Jerry says:

    I disagree.

    The problem with this idea:

    -Maurer’s stuff is MUCH better as a reliever. Most starters add a bit of velocity when they only pitch one inning. But Maurer’s repertoire is WAAAY better from the pen. He looks like a completely different guy in that role.

    -Maurer’s biggest issue as a starter is that he falls apart after a few innings. Look at his splits. After about 30 pitches, he gets killed. I don’t know if it’s a stamina problem or an issue with his pitch repertoire, but he isn’t effective after the first few innings.

    Some pitchers are just much better suited to a relief role. I think Maurer might be one of those guys. If he could pitch the same way as a starter as he does as a reliever – or at least something close to that level – awesome. As everyone knows, a decent starter is worth more than a very good reliever. But I think there is compelling evidence in this case that Maurer is just way better in a relief role. This isn’t uncommon. Most good ML relievers follow this path.

    It’s not as simple as great reliever = good starter. Maurer seems like a guy who is just way better suited to a bullpen role. Unless the Ms can identify some reason why Maurer struggles so much in late innings, and develop a plan to fix that problem – messing with him is a mistake.

    Maurer is REALLY good in the pen. He could take over for Rodney in a year (or sooner, given that latters volatility) and give us a very good, cheap closer. That valuable.

    The Ms have three good starters now in Felix, Kuma, and Elias. Paxton and Walker are both unproven and have trouble staying healthy, but both have a lot of talent. And I can’t help but think that the Ms could get Chris Young and Kuma resigned for reasonable amounts. If they added one more starter to that mix in the offseason – Brett Anderson would be perfect – they’ll be set. Or, they could take a shot at Scherzer or Lester. Given their interest in David Price, I’m wondering if they might take a shot at Lester. The point is, the Ms aren’t hurting for starters. Why mess with a guy who has struggled significantly as a starter, then finally settled into a bullpen role?

  14. bookbook says:

    I’d contend the best example of a starter successfully relieving then successfully converting to starting at the Major League level isn’t really Chris Sale, but rather Pedro Martinez. He was initially converted to relief mostly because teams were worried he wouldn’t have the stamina to start IIRC.

  15. bookbook says:

    Starting him may be the right thing to do, but I’d be shocked if this Mariners team does that. They can look at Josh Bard and Joba Chamberlain, and see some risk to messing with something that’s working.

    Lloyd would rather start Bartender anyway.

  16. Ripperlv says:

    Mauer has the stuff and he’s building the confidence, which is all he needs. He’s going to be a top of the rotation starter.

  17. Marinermutt says:

    We are not deep in pitching. Where did that come from. We don’t know if Young will be back. Elias has pitched well for the most part but he is more of a back end starter. And really Walker and Paxton have a lot to prove still. Yes they have talent, but they have to show that talent in Seattle first. Iwakuma will be in his last year of his contract, so who knows if next year will be his last in Seattle. No guarantees he stays. Hultzen, Diaz, Sanchez are even more unknowns that Walker and Paxton.

    A average to good starter is much more important in my view than a setup man. Even a lights out setup man. And there are closers always on the market. Look how many were out there as free agents last year.

    Try starting him in spring training. We don’t know what his problem as a starter was. You are guessing at best that it is all in his head. Maybe it has just clicked for him. The M’s will never know unless they try him back in the starters role next spring.

  18. Edman says:

    Oops……never mind, I misread the title.

    Maurer’s problem is that he overthinks as a starter. He may even hold back, to preserve his arm for 100 pitches. Seattle is deep in pitching. He has the stuff to be a drop-dead closer. Rodney isn’t gonna be here forever.

  19. Edman says:

    Yes, let’s go out and screw with something that’s working. ~sigh~ Why mess with him for one start? Let him be successful for a while. He’s more valuable in the bullpen, right now.

  20. Jess says:

    And isn’t Hultzen starting to throw? I think you treat Maurer as a starter in spring training and see how he performs. Maybe even send him out for winter ball as a starter. But if the team has a hole or place in the bullpen, you absolutely use him as a reliever. Otherwise, he starts in AAA and hopefully maximizes his trade value.

  21. bookbook says:

    I’d say there’s less than a 10% chance that the M’s stretch him out next year.

    Yes, the bullpen is deep, but Maurer’s arguably close to the top of the heap.

    The rotation, with Felix, Iwakuma, Elias, Paxton, Walker, and Landazuri, Sanchez, Diaz, working their way up (along with Chris Young on a presumably team-friendly deal) is pretty deep as well.

    For a team that has struggled to develop much of its top talent, a non-top prospect who is experiencing major league success… they’ll leave that alone.

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