Braves rookie Alex Wood (58) was pressed into service as a reliever this year less than 12 months after he was drafted. Will keeping him in the bullpen derail his career as a starter? Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
Ben thinks Alex Wood should stay in the bullpen. I think Ben’s wrong.
First we lost Jonny Venters
to TJ surgery then Eric O’Flaherty
joined him in the surgical suite, suddenly our famed sit down, shut up and go home trio was a solo act. The lefties were replaced by a promising sophomore and former closer with an odd delivery that a championship contender was willing to swap even up for Tommy Hanson
and his worn out shoulder. Making things worse our jack of all trades Cristhian Martinez
went down with shoulder issues. That confluence of events led GM Frank Wren to reverse himself and call up Alex Wood
less than a week after saying he didn’t want to disturb Wood’s growth as a starter. Woody’s done remarkably well for a 22 year old with less than a year of minor league games under his belt. He gave the fans a new and successful face to root for so I understand Ben’s desire to keep Alex Wood’s arm in the bullpen
. But unlike Venters or O’Flaherty who were never going to make it as starters and found a home in the bullpen, the 6’4, 215 pound lefty whose delivery is all arms legs and . . umm hip pocket (my dad had a more colorful term) and a heater hovering in the mid 90’s is destined to be a starter Starters need to learn things that major league teams – not named the Cubs, Marlins or Astros – can’t afford to let them learn on the job in the majors where winning every games is the goal. This isn’t primarily a learning environment, this is where players take skills and knowledge they’ve acquired and apply those skills effectively. So Wood can’t be learning to start while in the pen, he has to be a swing man instead of a starter and that hinders his development. Woody has skills to polish and that’s done in the minors. As a reliever he’s replaceable so it makes little sense to keep him in the bullpen in Atlanta instead of starting at Gwinnett.
The Minors Teach The Majors Execute
- “. . .you cannot learn how to get major league hitters out unless you’re getting major league hitters out.”
Well, yes you can actually. The minors are where players learn their craft. For pitchers there’s more to that than learning a new pitch or finding the edges of that 17” irregular pentagon. I’ll focus on just three of these; sequencing pitches, pitching out of trouble, and how to loose.
One then two then three then. . .
Pitch sequencing and a primary subset of that – the out pitch – are a product of the pitcher’s stuff and the catcher’s ability to get him to execute it. Effective sequencing allows a pitcher to get deeper into the game on fewer pitches and keep the bullpen in their seats most nights. The master of pitch sequences was former Brave Greg Maddux
who threw complete games with under a hundred pitches. Wood isn’t Maddux you say? He’s a hard throwing lefty and they don’t do that! Well yes, the good ones do that no matter the era they pitch in; Tom Browning
, Steve Avery
all went deep in games and saved their bullpens just as Cliff Lee
does today. The subset of that – the out pitch – is essential for putting away tough hitters when in a 1-2. 0-2 count. Remember last year when Randall Delgado
would get ahead 0-2 then go 8, 9, or 10 pitches before getting him or too often losing him because he simply didn’t have that pitch? Remember 2011 when Julio Teheran
did the same thing? You’re ruining the bullpen arms fans screamed and experts predicted. It turns out they were right. At bats like that happen to the best pitchers of course but limiting their number keeps a pitcher in the game longer and that is the goal. In the the minors pitcher’s are expected to struggle because that’s where they can make mistakes and figure things out without the pressure to win. In the majors it wears out the bullpen and gets them an early shower.
Pitching out of trouble is essential for a starting pitcher; no matter how good they are they will pitch themselves into trouble every now and then. The good ones find a way to limit damage and get out of trouble without a crooked number appearing on the scoreboard or a call to the pen or both. They learn that in the minors where the goal of the team is not to win their league but to help players find what works then watch as they practice, polish and execute those lessons. When a minor league starter suddenly finds the bases loaded the manager doesn’t go to the pen to save the game. The pitching coach may visit and talk to the pitcher about how he plans to get out of the jamb or remind him what they’ve worked on then the coach and the manager watch to see how the pitcher (and catcher) execute. No matter what happens, after the game they sit down and go over what went right and what went wrong. They polish up the good stuff and work on fixing things between starts and the next start they try out those things in a game. That’s a learning environment. You can’t do that in the majors. Big league teams have a full and hectic schedule, sure you can get in some extra work but that’s time reserved for fine tuning not teaching. Bullpen guys have to be ready to go every day, they can’t waste pitches in a side session. Starters have more time but not much, a throw day between starts and some light work but nothing like the time a minor league team can provide.
Learning to lose is the hardest thing for most of these guys to do. They are there because they were the best everywhere they played and while they may have lost now and then, they won a lot more often than they lost. That’s all changed when they put on a professional uniform. Young pitchers lose, how they handle it is important. Teams that challenge for titles can’t allow them to learn to lose at the big league level, that’s what minor league teams are designed for.
Examining Model Cases
Ben gave us a few examples of pitchers he says learned their craft in the bullpen rather than in the minors. He asserts that these men were better because they were uses as relievers; Johan Santana
, Francisco Liriano
, David Wells
, Pedro Martinez
, Chad Billingsley
, Kevin Appier
, Chan Ho Park
, Tom Gordon
, Mike Remlinger
, Octavio Dotel
Eric Gagme and Ugueth Urbina
. Examining this shows they don’t support his point, ALL of those named had lots of minor league experience before they reached the majors. They were put in the bullpen when they arrived not because the team believed it would make them better starters but because they were needed there or in Santana’s case the first year as a rule V guy he had to stay in majors and since he hadn’t figured out how to start effectively and consistently he was in the pen.
- Appier had 500
- Park 200 ML innings plus two years on the Korean National Baseball team that won silver medals in Asian baseball Championship and Summer Universiade (Olympic).
- Gordon had 318 ML innings
- Remlinger had cups of coffee between 91 and 96 but didn’t stay in the majors until 96 by that time he had 890 ML innings
- Dotel had 559 innings
- Gagne had 421 ML innings and was used exclusively as a starter his two years (one relief game) and for 24 of his 33 appearances in his third year. He threw 151 2/3 innings that year but only 14 1/3 in relief
- Urbina have 500 Ml innings
- Liriano had 480 Ml innings
- Santana had 299 ML innings
- Billingsley Had 405 ML innings
- Wells had 507 ML innings
- Martinez had 300 Ml innings
The basis for the success of these pitchers was built with hundreds of innings in the baseball university known as the minor leagues, not being used as swing men in the bullpen.
I don’t dispute that there are pitchers who come to the majors with less experience and have fine careers. These men are exceptions – special talents – not the rule. You can likely search and find individuals that came up with out a deep resume in the minor leagues and were successful – Chris Sale for instance had only 10 innings and worked out of the pen until last season – but most will have 275 innings or more; Matt Moore is similar and has 497. The reason is clear, they want the pitcher to prove he can be a starter by starting and producing results consistently and they don’t want the major league club to suffer the losses in the interim. I love Woody’s potential but he hasn’t yet shown signs of being that special guy.
The best pitching development systems produce consistently good pitchers so let’s look at three. In many peoples opinion the best pitching development program belongs to Tampa Bay. I found one arm that came to the majors with less than 200 innings; David Price. (See my previous note about special guys). The Cardinals have a well respected development program and of their current crop of young guns only Trevor Rosenthal has less than 300 (282) ML innings while Shelby Miller 383. The Oakland Athletics young rotation was credited for the team’s success last season and this. A.J. Griffin has 289 ML innings, none of the rest have less than 380 ML innings, two have 500+. It seems obvious that the best pitching development organizations keep their starters in the minors until they’ve proven they know how to pitch, because when they do call them up they pitch consistently well.
That’s A Wrap
As a tall left hander who brings a nice level of heat along with a developing breaking ball and change up, Alex Wood
has the chance to be a middle to top of the rotation starter for many years. However his delivery has lots of moving parts he needs refine and learn to control over a long tiring season while throwing 150 innings or so. He hasn’t yet learned to pitch -not throw – all the time and reverts to just trying to muscle up, throw harder and blow it by hitters when he’s tiring.. He did that when he couldn’t finish off the last batter he faced in his last outing. I know it was 3 innings but he’s a starter, three innings is less than half his day’s work. Muscling up is the reaction of an inexperienced pitcher and he must be allowed to work that out in a less stressful environment. Those things are best done in the minor leagues. As a lefty reliever he’s replaceable, there are at least six left handed relievers available and more coming as teams fall out of the race.
I’d rather see Wood go back to the minors and learn how to pitch effectively as a starter than continue to use him in a pennant race that is bound to tighten up, stress the bullpen and force his use more than is healthy for his surgically repaired left elbow.