One of my beliefs is that the farm system should be able to create major league relievers from minor league starters, something which seems like it doesn’t happen enough for my tastes. But it’s one thing to have a thought on how things should be; it’s another thing for that thought to be grounded in reality. So, let’s look at MLB relievers and see how many of them were starters in the minors.
It’s tougher to examine this than it might appear at first. A bunch of pitchers make it to the majors as a reliever. But we’re not really interested in a guy who comes up and appears in a dozen or so games. Rather, we want someone who’s a multiple-year contributor. So, our sample is MLB relievers from the 2021-23 seasons, ones who amassed at least 120 IP out of the pen.
And this gives us a healthy sample of 144 pitchers. But while we were able to search for guys who amassed 120 innings in relief, that doesn’t mean these are exclusively relievers. To cite just one example, Ryan Yarbrough has 39 starts and 36 relief appearances in the majors the past three seasons. But with 121.1 IP out of the pen, he meets our minimum requirement.
And it’s at least as tricky to establish how many starts in the minors would qualify a guy as a starter. Initially, my thought was that if a player had 40 starts in the minors, he’d have spent the better parts of two seasons as a starter, which somehow feels significant. Ultimately, the choice was made to just see how many starts all 144 of our relievers made in the minors, leaving it up to you to make the determination. Here’s how it shook out:
25 – 100 or more starts
23 – Between 80-99 starts
15 – Between 60-79 starts
21 – Between 40-59 starts
13 – Between 20-39 starts
11 – Between 10-19 starts
36 – Between 0-9 starts
That works out to exactly 25% of our sample that had fewer than 10 starts in the minors. But even this is not straightforward. Raisel Iglesias made eight starts in the minors. Yet, he only appeared in nine games before making the majors. So, while he’s nowhere near my original thought of 40 starts, what little time he spent in the minors was as a SP.
At the end of the day, there’s no perfect number to use. And at the very least, we have ballpark numbers that 75% of the sample made at least 10 starts in the minors and 58% (84) made at least 40 starts. Lastly, 20 of our pool of 144 relievers made one or no starts in the minors. That’s a shade under 14% of pitchers to amass at least 120 relief innings the past three years to be almost exclusively relievers in the minors.
That last figure is something to keep in mind when thinking about the MLB chances of Paul Gervase (0 starts) and Nate Lavender (1 start) – two relievers in the Mets’ organization who’ve had good results.
It’s a little unwieldy to list here all of the relievers in the sample. If you want to see them, make a request in the comments section to receive an email with the names. But let’s break down a couple of subsections from our sample of 144, based on Mets-related ties:
Drafted/signed by the Mets: Nabil Crismatt, Michael Fulmer, Collin McHugh, Rafael Montero, Paul Sewald
Pitched for Mets: Phil Bickford, Miguel Castro, Edwin Diaz, Jake Diekman (soon!), Brad Hand, Dominic Leone, Aaron Loup, Trevor May, Adam Ottavino, Brooks Raley, David Robertson, Dennis Santana, Chasen Shreve.
Of the five pitchers from our sample to be developed by the Mets, four had at least 81 starts in the minors, with only Sewald having a minimal number of starts with one. All five left the organization before finding success as a relief pitcher elsewhere. So, the problem is not that the Mets’ farm system isn’t producing relievers from minor league starters – it’s that they give up on them or trade them away before it happens.
Now, let’s take this knowledge and use it with the current starting pitchers in the Mets’ organization who’ve made it to Double-A and have received some buzz for being MLB-caliber pitchers. Following their names will be two numbers, the first the number of games they’ve pitched in leagues in this country and the second being their starts:
It would be great if all six of these pitchers made it as starters. But we know that’s not likely to happen. But the good thing is that they’ve all received significant time in the minors as SP, which could help them make it as relievers down the road.
Now for the crystal ball time. Which of the above six pitchers will make it as starters and which will make the switch to the pen? My guess is that Tidwell and Suarez will be starters, with Hamel, Scott and Stuart ultimately being relievers in the majors. The wild card will be Vasil, with the unknown of to what degree the changes identified by the pitching lab end up helping him.