I enjoy The Will Leitch Experience podcast (though I usually skip the episodes involving sports I don't care follow, i.e., pretty much everything other than baseball). Last week he had three consecutive appearances by Joe Sheehan, whose newsletter I strongly recommend. Joe previewed the 2014 season for all 30 teams. When discussing the Cardinals, he and Will talked about plans to move young pitcher Carlos Martinez from the bullpen to the rotation.
Joe mentioned that giving a young pitcher experience in the bullpen to prepare him for a starting role has become rarer in baseball due to the predominance of one-inning specialists. In 1965, the Baltimore Orioles had 19-year-old pitcher Jim Palmer in 27 games: six as a starter and 21 as a reliever. In those relief appearances, he pitched 56 innings, an average of exactly two and two thirds innings per relief appearance. That workload helped prepare Palmer for a Hall of Fame career as a starter.
Since the speaker here was Joe Sheehan, one of the top analysts in the game, the purpose of this Reality Check is not to determine whether Sheehan's assessment is correct. It is. The question is, how right is he?
I looked at five-year periods of baseball beginning in 1965, Palmer's rookie year. I used Baseball Reference's Play Index (invaluable research tool) to count the number of seasons in which a pitcher younger than 25 had at least 15 relief appearances of at least two innings. These appearances, we could reasonable conclude, are better than a shorter stint at preparing a young pitcher's arm for the rigors of starting. Here are the results. In the table, "# Seasons" means the number of seasons within the date range in which a pitcher younger than 25 had at least 15 relief appearances of at least two innings:
Years # Seasons Prominent example
1965-69 30 Ferguson Jenkins, 25, 1966
1970-74 59 Bill Lee, 24, 1971
1975-79 60 Jack Morris, 18, 1978
1980-84 39 Rick Sutcliffe, 16, 1980
1985-89 38 Chuck Finley, 16, 1987
1990-94 15 Pedro Martinez, 31, 1993
1995-99 15 Chan Ho Park, 15, 1996
2000-04 13 Johan Santana, 18, 2000
2005-09 5 Brandon McCarthy, 18, 2000
2010-14 2 still waiting
Source: Baseball Reference Play Index.
As you can see, over the past 50 years, there have been several cases of Hall of Fame and All Star-caliber starting pitchers who have begun their career pitching long relief. As the bullpen has evolved into a series of one-inning specialists, Sheehan's right: it's become hard for a relievers to develop the arm strength to move into the starting rotation. We may be looking a future with fewer stars starting out in relief like Ferguson Jenkins and Pedro Martinez and more promising youngsters who break when they try to move out of a short-outing relief role like Joba Chamberlain and Neftali Feliz.