Role Call

November 18, 2018
We’re fast approaching Hall of Fame season. By far the strongest candidate who will be debuting on the 2019 ballot is Mariano Rivera. Rivera is expected to be elected immediately, and I would anticipate that he’ll be named on greater than 90% of the ballots.
 
One of the characterizations of Rivera’s career that you hear occasionally is that he was a "failed" starter who became a dominant reliever, but I don’t think that’s a completely accurate assessment. In his rookie season (1995), he started 10 games and relieved in another 9. His 10 starts were a mixed bag, with about half of them decent outings, and the other half rather poor. Regardless, it’s a pretty small sample size, as he only accumulated about 50 innings as a starting pitcher before converting to the bullpen for the rest of his career, first as an outstanding setup reliever to John Wetteland in 1996 (a season in which Rivera finished 3rd in the Cy Young balloting), and then embarking on his remarkable 17-year run as a closer the following year after Wetteland left as a free agent. I’m not sure there’s enough evidence there to conclude that he "failed" as a starter, but, regardless, it was definitely a successful conversion. Regardless of how his time as a starter is characterized, there’s no doubt he enjoyed much greater success as a reliever.
 
So, Mariano Rivera is the inspiration for this article. I was interested in identifying pitchers who began their Major League careers as starting pitchers, but ultimately achieved much greater success after converting full-time to relief.
 
Approach
 
First, a few words about who I’m not looking for. 
 
Even though Mariano Rivera is the inspiration for this article, he’s not exactly what I’m looking for. Rivera only accumulated 50 innings as a starting pitcher over 10 starts. I’m looking for pitchers who were given more of a chance than that to try and establish themselves as a starting pitcher before ultimately switching to relief.
 
Dennis Eckersley had more success as a reliever than a starting pitcher, as he rode to the Hall of Fame primarily on his record as a dominating closer. However, it would be wrong to consider him to be a "failed" starter. Eck was a very good starting pitcher, accumulating nearly 2,500 innings in that role, had a 149-130 record, a 3.71 ERA, made a couple of All-Star games, and finished in the top-10 twice in Cy Young award voting. He wasn’t a Hall of Fame quality type of starter, but he had considerable success in that role before switching to his second life as a star reliever. So, he’s not what I’m looking for either.
 
Goose Gossage emerged as a star reliever with the White Sox in 1975, but then the team attempted to convert him into a starter the next year, and, frankly, it bombed. He was then traded to the Pirates, where he was switched back to the bullpen, and remained there for the rest of his career. He’s not really what I’m looking for either.
 
John Franco was primarily a starting pitcher in the minor leagues, with 55 of his 82 appearances coming as a starter, and he generally struggled at that level. However, he never made a single start in the Majors. I guess you could consider that a "failed" starter, but for the purposes of this article, I’m strictly dealing with pitchers’ Major League records. If a pitcher was primarily a starter in the minors but did not get a trial as a starter at the Major League level, I’m not including him in the analysis. So, Franco and others like him are not what I’m looking for either.
 
OK, so who am I looking for? In general, I’m looking for pitchers who:
  1. Were used first in the Major Leagues as a starting pitcher (perhaps not exclusively, but primarily)
  2. Were given a "decent" amount of time to try and establish themselves in that role (more on what constitutes "decent" later)
  3. Were relatively unsuccessful as a starter
  4. Were then converted to a reliever
  5. Enjoyed much greater success as a reliever than as a starter
  6. Largely remained in that role for the balance of their careers
 
Towards that end, I used the baseball-reference.com Play Index to help me identify pitchers who had significant splits between their roles. The guidelines I used for identifying candidates were:
 
a) Pitchers who had accumulated at least 150 innings pitched in each role, and
b) Pitchers who had an ERA as a reliever at least 2.00 below the ERA he had as a starting pitcher.
 
Review
 
After gathering the data, I identified what I considered to be 10 of the more striking examples of pitchers that fit the pattern listed above (note that some of these are active pitchers, so their splits might not sustain by the time their careers end). 
 
For each pitcher, I’ll display his stat split by role (starter vs. reliever) so that you can see how different their performances were in each role.
 
Wade Davis
Wade Davis
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
31
32
4.57
88
88
-
513.2
554
261
192
361
1.452
6.3
1.9
3.4
9.7
as Reliever
31
13
2.07
374
-
122
387.0
237
89
146
485
.990
11.3
3.3
3.4
5.5
 
From 2009-2013, Davis was tried primarily a starting pitcher for Tampa Bay and Kansas City in every season except for 2012, when he was deployed as a reliever in all of his 54 appearances that year. As a sign of what was to come, Davis yielded a 2.43 ERA that year, his best season up to that point. 
 
After being returned to a starter’s role for 24 starts in his first season in Kansas City in 2013, the team switched him permanently to a reliever role in September of that year. He relieved in 7 games down the stretch, yielding only 3 hits and 1 run in 10 innings. A star reliever was born, and in the 5 seasons since then, he has a sparkling 2.03 ERA, giving up only 5.5 hits per 9 innings. He has also been a prominent postseason performer, highlighted by his years with the Royals, yielding only 1 earned run over 25 postseason innings with them.
 
Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
12
5
4.60
29
29
-
162.1
150
83
96
95
1.515
5.3
1.0
5.3
8.3
as Reliever
52
29
2.50
758
-
377
761.0
540
211
248
881
1.035
10.4
3.6
2.9
6.4
 
Nathan started 29 games over 2 seasons (1999-2000) with the Giants, and had a 12-5 record as a starter with a little below league-average ERA. He then experienced a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness, spending most of the 2001-2002 seasons in the minors. In 2003, he had a strong season for the Giants as a setup man, going 12-4 with a 2.96 ERA over 79 innings, but that was just the beginning. 
 
After the 2003 season, he was sent to the Twins in a pretty big trade that saw Nathan, Boof Bonser (who represented the most famous reference to "Boof" until Brett Kavanaugh came along), and Francisco Liriano join Minnesota, with the Giants receiving catcher A.J. Pierzynski in return. 
 
Quick sidebar on "Boof". There was a lot of discussion during the Kavanaugh hearings and post-hearings as to what that word means. In Bonser’s case, it was simply a nickname his mom gave him as a baby (he was born in 1981) In a 2006 New York Times article, Bonser was quoted as saying said he never asked his mom what it meant and he did not care to find out, so apparently he never did, even though he ended up legally changing his name to that.
 
Nathan became an instant stud closer, saving nearly 400 games over the next decade for Minnesota, Texas, and Detroit. You don’t often hear his name mentioned when the all-time great closers are mentioned, but he had a very successful run, and he ranks 8th all-time in saves.
 
Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
20
27
5.70
66
66
-
325.0
381
206
182
255
1.732
7.1
1.4
5.0
10.6
as Reliever
29
21
2.56
418
-
53
400.1
256
114
153
598
1.022
13.4
3.9
3.4
5.8
 
Miller has one of the more significant splits that I found, as his ERA as a reliever is more than 3 runs less than that as a starter. 
 
As you probably know, Miller was a very highly regarded prospect, selected with the 6th overall pick in the 2006 by the Tigers. He had one brief season in relief for the Tigers, and then they gave him a 13-start trial in 2007 in which he went 5-5, 5.63. He was then one of the key components in a 6-for-2 trade between the Tigers and Marlins. Among others, Cameron Maybin and Miller were sent to the Marlins in exchange for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. The trade is considered to be one of the more lopsided exchanges in history.
 
Miller continued his struggles over the next 4 seasons, the first 3 with the Marlins, and then one year with the Red Sox, pitching in a starting capacity in about 70% of his appearances, posting a 5.81 ERA over this time frame. He turned the corner in 2012 at age 27, as the Red Sox used him exclusively as a reliever and he turned in a solid season. Continuing in that role as he bounced around to various franchises (Boston, Baltimore, New York, and Cleveland) over 5 seasons, Miller posted a stellar 1.82 ERA and accumulated 51 saves. He has also excelled in the postseason appearing in 4 consecutive postseasons from 2014-2017, posting a miniscule 1.09 ERA over 33 innings, including a streak of not giving up a run covering his first 23 1/3 postseason innings.
 
Zach Britton
Zach Britton
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
18
17
4.86
46
46
-
250.0
270
135
111
165
1.524
5.9
1.5
4.0
9.7
as Reliever
13
5
1.79
285
-
142
291.2
208
58
94
281
1.035
8.7
3.0
2.9
6.4
 
Similar to Miller, Britton’s split features a reliever ERA that is more than 3 runs lower than his ERA as a starting pitcher. Britton started 46 games for the Orioles from 2011-2013 before being converted to a full-time reliever in 2014. He was an instant smash in that role, saving 37 games with a 1.65 ERA in 2014. Over a 3-year period from 2014-2016, he saved 120 games with a 1.38 ERA, surely one of the more successful 3-year closer runs that you’ll find. 
 
Darren Oliver
Darren Oliver
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
82
77
5.13
229
229
-
1,303.1
1,488
743
518
747
1.539
5.2
1.4
3.6
10.3
as Reliever
36
21
3.19
537
-
7
612.1
549
217
202
512
1.226
7.5
2.5
3.0
8.1
 
I "cheated" just a bit on Oliver as he didn’t quite make the 2.00 ERA gap that I was looking for, but he was right on the borderline (1.94 difference), and he was such an intriguing case that I decided to include him. 
 
Oliver has, by far, the most starting experience of any of the players featured here. Although Oliver did spend most of his first couple of seasons as a reliever, from 1996-2002 (his age 25-32 seasons) he was the starting pitcher in 211 of his 217 appearances. He had a winning record at 76-74, but with a bulky 5.13 ERA .
 
He turned the corner in 2006, finding renewed life as a solid reliever.   Over the final 8 seasons of his career, he only made 1 more start, and posted a strong 2.95 ERA over that span. And, if it seems to you like you saw him a lot during those years, you’re not imagining anything, as he was a bit of a postseason fixture. From 2006-2011, he appeared in the postseason every year – 1 with the Mets, 3 with the Angels, and 2 with the Rangers (both times going to the World Series).
 
Arthur Rhodes
Arthur Rhodes
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
18
22
5.81
61
61
-
322.0
336
208
173
253
1.581
7.1
1.5
4.8
9.4
as Reliever
69
48
3.43
839
-
33
865.2
697
330
343
899
1.201
9.3
2.6
3.6
7.3
 
Rhodes was essentially a contemporary of Oliver’s, although Rhodes spent much less time as a starting pitcher and much more time as a reliever than Oliver did. Rhodes pitched from 1991-2011, Oliver from 1993-2013. 
 
Rhodes served primarily as a starting pitcher over his first 5 seasons with the Orioles, and then essentially converted to a full-time reliever by 1996 (his age 26 season). He was on some notable teams, including the 2001 Seattle Mariners squad that won 116 regular season games, as well as the 2011 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals.
 
Eric Gagne
Eric Gagne
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
10
13
4.68
48
48
-
265.1
254
138
113
226
1.383
7.7
2.0
3.8
8.6
as Reliever
23
13
2.62
354
-
187
378.1
264
110
113
492
.996
11.7
4.4
2.7
6.3
 
Earlier, I mentioned Zach Britton’s great 3-year run. Gagne’s run from 2002-2004 has to rate right up there as well, as he posted a 1.79 ERA and saved an amazing 152 games over that span, including taking home a Cy Young award. Of course, we later learned that he was identified as an HGH user, casting a bit of a cloud over his success. Nevertheless, he remains one of the more notable starter-to-reliever conversions, even though his success was brief.
 
Ted Abernathy
Ted Abernathy
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
6
21
6.10
34
34
-
175.2
208
119
108
106
1.799
5.4
1.0
5.5
10.7
as Reliever
57
48
2.98
647
-
149
970.2
802
321
484
659
1.325
6.1
1.4
4.5
7.4
 
A fascinating pitcher, Abernathy changed his pitching style roughly 35 times in his career. OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. Abernathy started as a traditional overhand thrower in high school, but subsequent injuries forced him to change to a three quarter motion, then sidearm, and finally into a submarine style pitcher.
 
Abernathy was not used exclusively in one role or the other early in his career. In his first 3 seasons (1955-1957) he made 71 appearances, 34 as a starter and the other 37 as a reliever, and he was pretty bad in both roles (6.10 ERA as a starter, 5.80 as a reliever). He also has a big gap in his Major League service time, as he only appeared in 2 games in the Majors from 1958-1962. By the time 1963 rolled around, Abernathy was a 30 year old with a career record of 8-22 and a 6.22 ERA.
 
From that point forward, however, Abernathy found his groove, going 55-47, a 2.77 ERA, and 149 saves over the balance of his career. He struggled with control during his entire career (4.6 BB/9) but he proved difficult for opposing batters to hit. He led the league 3 times in games pitched during the 1960’s, and led the league twice in saves, including his outstanding 1967 season with the Reds when he saved 28 and posted a stellar 1.27 ERA over 106 1/3 innings
 
Scott Downs
Scott Downs
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
12
14
5.35
50
50
-
247.1
306
147
97
175
1.629
6.4
1.8
3.5
11.1
as Reliever
26
26
2.68
569
-
27
504.0
423
150
182
400
1.200
7.1
2.2
3.3
7.6
 
Over his first several seasons, Downs was used primarily as a starting pitcher, and was pretty ineffective in that role. The turning point was in 2006 with Toronto in his age 30 season, where he made 5 starts with a 9.39 ERA, but made 54 relief appearances with a 2.77 ERA. He never started another game in his career. 
 
From 2007-2014, he made 502 relief appearances with a solid 2.57 ERA. Similar to a couple of the other lefty pitchers mentioned earlier (Oliver and Rhodes), Downs was never a star and generally was not used in a lot of save situations, but he was an effective pitcher in his role (primarily with the Blue Jays and the Angels) .
 
Octavio Dotel
Octavio Dotel
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
9
9
5.61
34
34
-
191.0
189
119
99
188
1.508
8.9
1.9
4.7
8.9
as Reliever
50
41
3.32
724
-
109
760.0
576
280
313
955
1.170
11.3
3.1
3.7
6.8
 
Dotel began his Major League career in 1999 with the Mets, who shipped him and Roger Cedeno in the offseason to the Astros in exchange for a couple of pretty big names at the time, Derek Bell and Mike Hampton. Dotel made 30 starts over his first 2 seasons, but his 2000 season was split between starting and relieving. He switched to the bullpen midway through 2000, serving as the primary closer after Billy Wagner went down with an injury. He wasn’t spectacular in relief that year (4.24 ERA) but he did save 16 games in Wagner’s absence.
 
From that point on, he only made 4 more starts, his final one coming in 2001 at age 27. Dotel was one of baseball’s great vagabonds, ultimately pitching for 13 different franchises. He spent 5 years with the Astros, but never more than 2 seasons for any other franchise, and he was generally a pretty effective pitcher, difficult to hit (6.8 H/9 innings as a reliever), and struck out more than 11 batters per 9 innings in a relief role.
 
Here’s the same data provided before, but presented in a single table for all 10 pitchers, for easier viewing:
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Wade Davis
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
31
32
4.57
88
88
-
513.2
554
261
192
361
1.452
6.3
1.9
3.4
9.7
as Reliever
31
13
2.07
374
-
122
387.0
237
89
146
485
.990
11.3
3.3
3.4
5.5
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Joe Nathan
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
12
5
4.60
29
29
-
162.1
150
83
96
95
1.515
5.3
1.0
5.3
8.3
as Reliever
52
29
2.50
758
-
377
761.0
540
211
248
881
1.035
10.4
3.6
2.9
6.4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Andrew Miller
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
20
27
5.70
66
66
-
325.0
381
206
182
255
1.732
7.1
1.4
5.0
10.6
as Reliever
29
21
2.56
418
-
53
400.1
256
114
153
598
1.022
13.4
3.9
3.4
5.8
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Zach Britton
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
18
17
4.86
46
46
-
250.0
270
135
111
165
1.524
5.9
1.5
4.0
9.7
as Reliever
13
5
1.79
285
-
142
291.2
208
58
94
281
1.035
8.7
3.0
2.9
6.4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Darren Oliver
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
82
77
5.13
229
229
-
1,303.1
1,488
743
518
747
1.539
5.2
1.4
3.6
10.3
as Reliever
36
21
3.19
537
-
7
612.1
549
217
202
512
1.226
7.5
2.5
3.0
8.1
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Arthur Rhodes
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
18
22
5.81
61
61
-
322.0
336
208
173
253
1.581
7.1
1.5
4.8
9.4
as Reliever
69
48
3.43
839
-
33
865.2
697
330
343
899
1.201
9.3
2.6
3.6
7.3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Eric Gagne
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
10
13
4.68
48
48
-
265.1
254
138
113
226
1.383
7.7
2.0
3.8
8.6
as Reliever
23
13
2.62
354
-
187
378.1
264
110
113
492
.996
11.7
4.4
2.7
6.3
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Ted Abernathy
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
6
21
6.10
34
34
-
175.2
208
119
108
106
1.799
5.4
1.0
5.5
10.7
as Reliever
57
48
2.98
647
-
149
970.2
802
321
484
659
1.325
6.1
1.4
4.5
7.4
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Scott Downs
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
12
14
5.35
50
50
-
247.1
306
147
97
175
1.629
6.4
1.8
3.5
11.1
as Reliever
26
26
2.68
569
-
27
504.0
423
150
182
400
1.200
7.1
2.2
3.3
7.6
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Octavio Dotel
W
L
ERA
G
GS
SV
IP
H
ER
BB
SO
WHIP
SO9
SO/W
BB/9
H/9
as Starter
9
9
5.61
34
34
-
191.0
189
119
99
188
1.508
8.9
1.9
4.7
8.9
as Reliever
50
41
3.32
724
-
109
760.0
576
280
313
955
1.170
11.3
3.1
3.7
6.8
 
Thanks for reading,
 
Dan
 
 

COMMENTS (16 Comments, most recent shown first)

MarisFan61
(the obligatory typo: Should be "realized how you had put it.")
9:16 PM Nov 23rd
 
MarisFan61
Dan: That's the kind of distinction I woulda thought only I would try to make!

(I realized how you had put.)

I wouldn't say the decision to try him as a starter bombed, but I'd definitely say that the assessment of him that the White Sox evidently made as a result of that season was a bomb.

(Especially considering that they also included Terry Forster in the deal and missed out on the rest of his lifetime .397 batting average.) :-)
9:15 PM Nov 23rd
 
DMBBHF
Thoughtclaw,

Mesa's a good candidate, but his ERA split was 5.07 as a starter and 3.95 as a reliever, which was only about half of the gap I was looking for to make the list.

Hi Maris,

What I was commenting on with Gossage was not so much that he bombed, but that "it" bombed, meaning the decision to start him. Presumably it was Paul Richards that pushed for it. I'm characterizing it as a "bomb" decision because you've got a 23-year old closer coming off a spectacular year, leading the league in saves, sub-2.00 ERA, and striking out over 8 per 9 innings (which was pretty good back then), and you turn him into a starter. Yes, they got another 80 innings out of him, but at what cost? His K rate plummeted, and I would argue he was a lot less valuable. I agree with you it wasn't that bad of a performance by Gossage himself....I think he did OK. It's more a case of characterizing the decision as having bombed. I don't think it was proper usage of the player's talent.

Thanks,
Dan
8:09 AM Nov 23rd
 
thoughtclaw
The first person I thought of was Jose Mesa, but I think he may have held on too long to make this list. His first few seasons as a reliever were outstanding, though.
9:39 PM Nov 21st
 
MarisFan61
I don't agree it's right to say either that Gossage "bombed" (as you put it, and I don't blame you because I guess that's the conventional wisdom).

First of all, his ERA+ was 91, which, while not Cy Young material, isn't awful.
BTW, what's the average ERA+ for STARTING pitchers??
Actually I didn't have to wonder too long, because I realized that we can infer a very close approximation from the split data on baseball-ref.com.
For the A.L. that year, looking at the average ERA for starters and for relievers, and taking into account their ratio of innings pitched (and leaving out the math -- trust me folks) :-) .....for that league and that year, the ERA for starters was just about exactly 2.5% higher than the overall average ERA.
So, even adjusting for that (if we feel like it, and for the current purpose, I do), his ERA+ still doesn't become admirable.
But it becomes 93, which, y'know, is certainly respectable.

And, considering that it was his first year in this totally different role, already that's not half bad.
Plus, looking further, I'd say it's unfair to give him anything worse than an incomplete and a very strong "OK."

His first start was fabulous: complete game win, 3 hits, 2 walks, 9 K's, 1 run.
Then, I don't know what happened (and not going to look into it, less interested in doing more research than in just continuing to look at the game log and pretending that I can be smart from it) ....he didn't start again for over 2 weeks. They used him in relief 4 days after that 1st start, he didn't do well, then when he next appeared, he pitched 8 innings with numbers that look good except that he gave up 5 runs and lost, and I know that matters, but hey -- 8 innings, 7 hits, 2 walks, 9 K's, just 1 HR -- sabermetrically that looks like a good outing.
His next start again was terrific, except for 2 unearned runs (none earned), and he lost.

I won't go down all the games, for your sake as well as mine :-) .....but, he had lots of terrific games.
As of June 24, he had a 2.77 ERA through 110 2/3 innings; W-L just 5-6, but....y'know.

He was much less good the rest of the year -- 5.08 ERA in 113 1/3 innings, W-L 4-11, but still with several excellent games, interspersed throughout.

I don't call that "bombing" at all, or anything close to failing.
It was a darn good 1st year as a starter. He hit a wall in late June and struggled thereafter. Nowadays if that happened, presumably they'd look at how they handled him rather than figuring he just belonged back in the bullpen.
I don't mean it was bad to put him back there, all things considered, as it turned out. Just saying. :-)
7:19 PM Nov 20th
 
MarisFan61
(sorry, typo as usual: should be something like "and heard it was him pitching")
12:56 PM Nov 20th
 
MarisFan61
I agree completely about Mariano Rivera. Vehemently, in fact. :-)

The idea that he was a failed starter is ignorant.

What it was, (amplifying what you said) was that he wasn't "consistent" enough in those starts that he had when he first came up and usually didn't get past the 5th inning -- but a few of his starts were mighty good, one was spectacular, and to me he was always impressive -- I'd even say, "signature significant-ly" impressive.
During that time of his as a starter, he inspired me to do a thing I've never done over any other new player: One time, driving along in the country, when I turned on the radio in the middle of a game and heard he who was pitching, I pulled over and stopped to listen. I had come to feel he was amazing.

I remember that year (1995) very well, for two reasons: Mariano coming up (and what happened with him in the post-season; more below), and that the ALDS was for me the most depressing and upsetting Yankee loss ever, in part because of what happened with Mariano. But, back to the main subject: As I see it, the reason he was a reliever was that first of all maybe Buck Showalter gave up on him as a starter too soon that year and for whatever reason didn't believe in him enough in general, and then he was so spectacular as a reliever, in a set-up role with John Wetteland as the closer, and then was the logical candidate to replace Wetteland as the closer when Wetteland didn't come back the next year, that the Yanks never looked back and to reconsider him for a starting role, which I'd say made sense.

In that year of '95, after he was used only spottily in relief in September despite doing well, he did terrifically in the ALDS (against Seattle). When it came to Game 5, with Cone starting, the talk was that Rivera would be the first guy out of the bullpen. I figured it meant that it would be Cone, then Rivera the rest of the way.

Recognizing that there's always more involved than we can know, the lore nowadays is that Showalter handled the pitching weirdly in that game. First of all, everybody feels sure (and I sure did at the time, although with that disclaimer) that he left Cone in way too long, certainly at least a couple of batters too long at the minimum. Cone was up to more than 140 pitches, which was an awful lot even then. It was the bottom of the 8th, Yanks leading 4-2 going into the inning. With 1 out, Griffey makes it 4-3 with a HR. Well now it's obvious Cone has to come out. He doesn't. After a 2nd out, there's a walk, and a single. Then another walk, to the great Alex Diaz -- now based loaded.
Then another walk, to the great Doug Strange, walking in a run. Now the game is tied.
Finally Cone gets taken out, Rivera comes in, strikes out Mike Blowers to end the damage.
Bottom of the 9th, game still tied, Rivera gives up a leadoff single to Vince Coleman (who I didn't remember was on that team). Joey Cora sacrifices. Then an intentional walk to Griffey. With Edgar and A-Rod coming up, Showalter takes Rivera out.

I was shocked. Mo had last pitched 2 days before, thrown 13 pitches. Of course who knows how he would have done against Edgar and A-Rod. A starter, Jack McDowell, came in and got them out, did well in the 10th too before sucking in the 11th and losing it. But as far as a fan who had become a big Rivera fan could tell, there wasn't any reason to have taken him out, and even less reason to have left Cone in so long but that's separate.....
12:54 PM Nov 20th
 
wilbur
I find the latter part of Ted Abernathy's career interesting. He pitched great for the Cubs in 1965 (84 games, 2.57 ERA), but started poorly in 1966 and Leo Durocher traded him to Atlanta for … a washed-up Lee Thomas. After 1966 he was selected by the Reds in the Rule 5 draft.

He was lights-out great in 1967 (70 G, 1.27 ERA) and very good in 1968 (78 G and 2.46 ERA). The Reds then traded him back to the Cubs for … Clarence Jones, Bill Plummer and a minor leaguer.

He pitched well for the Cubs in 1969 (58 Games 3.18 ERA) but Leo didn't trust him and would not use him in leverage situations, wearing out Phil Regan in the process. He started 1970 for the Cubs, pitched well on the rare occasions he was given the chance (2.00 ERA) but the Cubs traded him to the Cardinals for … Phil Gagliano. The Cubs were not stacked with bullpen arms; in fact they likely did not win the NL East because of a complete lack of an effective bullpen.

He pitched briefly but creditably for the Cardinals (2.95 ERA), who traded him to the Royals for … Chris Zachary. He pitched very well for the Royals from 1970 through 1972 (144 games, 2.31 ERA) but never pitched again in the majors.

I can't think of another player who performed so well and repeatedly got traded for … well, not much.
10:15 AM Nov 20th
 
DMBBHF
Thanks for all the comments, guys.

Astros34 - Yes, Hawkins is a good call-out. He should have been included. I overlooked him.

Regarding the others mentioned.......

Gordon did have a more favorable split as a reliever, but his gap wasn't huge.....he had a 4.40 ERA as a starter, 3.29 as a reliever. I was primarily focusing on pitchers that had at least a 2.000 difference.

Matusz qualifies, but his career was pretty short, so I didn't include him in the final rundown.

Duke does have a favorable split as a reliever (3.31 vs. 4.61 as a starter), but it's a lot smaller than the others.

Bruce - it's an interesting question, and I saw you started a thread on it. I don't have a real good answer......it'll be interesting to see what everyone posts.

The bad reliever/good starter is an interesting thing to ponder.....I'll have to take a look at that.

Thanks,
Dan

Thanks,
Dan

1:04 AM Nov 20th
 
arnewcs
Eckersley had a very good overall record as a starter, but his conversion to a reliever was the result of his struggles with the Cubs in the mid-80s, as I remember that story. Eck did start for the A's twice in 1987. His path with Oakland, from starter to setup guy to closer, was similar to Rivera's with the Yankees.
3:26 PM Nov 19th
 
evanecurb
Hi Dan,

Nice article. I enjoyed it. Could you post the full list? I don't expect you to know the answer to the following, and I recognized this is not the topic of your article, but I do think it's an interesting question: How much more effective as a relief pitcher should a starting pitcher be before his value is greater as a reliever? Obviously, a pitcher who is replacement level as a starter but above average as a reliever should be switched. But less obviously, what about a starter who is average to a little below average? How much above average does he need to be as a reliever before it makes more sense to use him in relief?
9:09 AM Nov 19th
 
those
Zach Duke could probably go on this list as well.
8:32 AM Nov 19th
 
astros34
Latroy Hawkins isn’t here? 6.11 ERA over 98 starts, 3.32 as a reliever for many many years after.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/players/split.fcgi?id=hawkila01&year=Career&t=p


8:17 AM Nov 19th
 
those
Daniel, would Brian Matusz qualify for your list?


7:48 AM Nov 19th
 
bbbilbo
I'd like to see the opposite: Pitchers who failed as relievers but became good starters. If there are any.
6:52 AM Nov 19th
 
shthar
I expected to see Tom 'Flash' Gordon on here, maybe he was too good as a starter.
4:05 AM Nov 19th
 
 
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