Mediocre Starter vs Late Inning Reliever Discussion Thread

After acquiring Yu Darvish, the Rangers have seven legitimate candidates for the starting rotation in Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Neftali Feliz, Alexei Ogando and Scott Feldman. They also added two top starting pitching prospects, Martin Perez and Neil Ramirez, to their 40 man roster this winter making them potential candidates for the 8th and 9th spots on the depth chart. And if all that wasn't enough (I imagine the limes guy with JD's face and the caption, "Why can't I hold all these starting pitchers?") the Rangers have been linked to Roy Oswalt as a potential candidate to join this already crowded group.

The discussions around potentially moving one of the young arms back to the bullpen made me realize that I think I would rather see a pitcher that I thought might have a ceiling as a mediocre starter become a late inning reliever if I thought he could be elite in that role. This prompted me to take a look at the last 10 years and start classifying starters and relievers to see how many pitchers fall in each bucket and what some of their attributes look like.

I counted any season in the Starter category if they had at least 20 games started or 90 IP as a starter. Relievers had to have had at least 40 IP as a reliever in a season. From there I used their fWAR for the season to put them into one of five tiers.

Starters Num Pct Age IP WAR ERA FIP K% BB% HR% SwStr%
1. 5.5 or greater 88 6.33% 28.9 225.8 6.7 2.92 2.99 22.9% 5.8% 1.9% 10.6%
2. 4.0 to 5.5 164 11.79% 28.3 207.9 4.7 3.55 3.57 19.4% 6.9% 2.1% 9.5%
3. 2.5 to 4.0 353 25.38% 28.1 187.7 3.2 3.95 3.98 17.6% 7.3% 2.5% 8.8%
4. 1.0 to 2.5 488 35.08% 28.3 161.2 1.8 4.51 4.50 15.4% 8.1% 2.8% 7.9%
5. Less than 1.0 298 21.42% 28.3 139.1 0.4 5.16 5.18 13.6% 8.8% 3.5% 7.4%
Totals 1391 100.00% 28.3 172.8 2.5 4.20 4.22 16.8% 7.6% 2.7% 8.5%

Relivers Num Pct Age IP WAR ERA FIP K% BB% HR% SwStr%
1. 2.0 or greater 94 5.40% 29.5 77.6 2.6 2.29 2.43 28.9% 7.3% 1.3% 13.1%
2. 1.5 to 2.0 101 5.80% 29.3 74.4 1.8 2.79 3.01 24.3% 7.8% 1.7% 11.9%
3. 1.0 to 1.5 226 12.99% 29.8 70.0 1.3 3.08 3.25 21.9% 8.0% 1.7% 10.7%
4. 0.5 to 1.0 381 21.90% 29.6 65.6 0.8 3.48 3.72 20.0% 9.0% 1.9% 10.0%
5. Less than 0.5 938 53.91% 29.8 59.6 0.0 4.35 4.63 17.2% 9.9% 2.9% 9.3%
Totals 1740 100.00% 29.7 64.1 0.6 3.73 3.98 19.6% 9.1% 2.3% 10.1%

Using these standards, the past 10 years has produced 421 seasons of a reliever with at least 1.0 WAR and 605 seasons of a starter with at least 2.5 WAR. If you go by WAR alone to determine value, a 2.5 WAR starter would seem more valuable than a 1.0 WAR reliever, but a 1.0 WAR reliever is more scarce and that scarcity is magnified as you increase to 1.5 or 2.0 WAR seasons for a reliever. Part of the challenge in evaluating the value of a reliever is properly accounting for the higher leverage of late inning situations. Even though relievers pitch less innings, their impact to the actual win loss record of a club may be more meaningful than WAR currently indicates (a known discussion point among advanced metric enthusiasts).

Another element of information is the pitch profile of the different tiers of starters and relievers in terms of velocity and pitch selection.

Starters FBv FB% CT% SL% CB% CH% KN% SF%
1. 5.5 or greater 92.06 58.1% 5.4% 11.9% 12.1% 10.3% 0.0% 2.2%
2. 4.0 to 5.5 91.23 60.8% 3.3% 12.1% 11.0% 10.7% 0.0% 2.1%
3. 2.5 to 4.0 90.43 59.8% 3.1% 12.4% 10.8% 11.5% 1.2% 1.3%
4. 1.0 to 2.5 89.53 59.3% 3.0% 12.7% 10.0% 12.5% 1.2% 1.3%
5. Less than 1.0 89.26 60.2% 2.9% 12.3% 10.7% 12.4% 0.5% 1.0%
Totals 90.16 59.7% 3.2% 12.4% 10.6% 11.8% 0.8% 1.4%

Relivers FBv FB% CT% SL% CB% CH% KN% SF%
1. 2.0 or greater 93.42 64.2% 6.0% 19.5% 4.6% 4.3% 0.0% 1.3%
2. 1.5 to 2.0 92.46 65.2% 2.5% 17.9% 5.1% 7.9% 0.0% 1.4%
3. 1.0 to 1.5 91.56 64.3% 1.8% 17.9% 6.4% 7.9% 0.0% 1.7%
4. 0.5 to 1.0 91.65 64.1% 1.8% 18.2% 6.4% 7.4% 0.0% 2.2%
5. Less than 0.5 91.01 62.9% 2.3% 17.9% 6.1% 9.0% 0.2% 1.7%
Totals 91.48 63.6% 2.4% 18.1% 6.0% 8.1% 0.1% 1.8%

These numbers show the increased use of fastball/slider combination among relievers compared to starters and their use of more diverse secondary pitches. Though I think it's important to note, the difference between a potential starter and reliever is more than just their ability to throw certain pitches. Each pitchers mechanics and body type has an impact on their durability and ability to manage a starter's workload as well.

For the discussion:

1) Assuming the need for starters and late inning relievers is equal for your team's pitching staff and which capacity would you rather use a pitcher with a 2.5 to 3.0 WAR ceiling as a starter and a 1.5 to 2.0 ceiling as a reliever?

2) When trying to determine the value of a reliever versus a starter, what elements do you consider and give priority?

3) What is your ideal usage of the Rangers batch of young potential starters: Holland, Harrison, Feliz and Ogando?

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