If 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.