I’m a massive Phillippe Aumont fan. I’d like to make an itemized list of reasons why this is so:
- He completely flummoxed Wilson Valdez in his major league debut, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
- He’s enormous. He reminds me of Alain Bernard, the French swimmer Jason Lezak out-touched in the relay in Beijing, and who, more than any other person I’ve ever seen, made me think, “Boy, that guy is enormous.”
- On a related note, he’s a native French-speaker, which tickles me for some reason.
- He looks like the last chance to salvage something from the Second Cliff Lee Trade.
As a result, I’ve been getting all hot and bothered by Aumont recently, all the while trying to downplay the potential impact of his fellow rookie Tyler Cloyd. I couldn’t make a list of reasons why I like Cloyd the way I just did with Aumont, but there’s a very real possibility that while I’m sitting in a corner prattling on and on about Aumont and Justin De Fratus, Cloyd could wind up being the most valuable of the three, even if they all reach their full potential.
People say that starting pitchers are more valuable than relievers in almost all cases. They say this because it’s true. Given the current pattern of reliever usage (one inning per appearance with a particular emphasis on facing same-handed batters), even the best relievers are only going to throw 70-80 innings a year. Jonathan Papelbon, in his first six full seasons in the majors, never threw less than 58 1/3 innings nor more than 69 1/3 innings. Even mediocre starters will throw at least twice, sometimes three or four times as many innings as a closer.
This has multiple consequences: First, in order to have anywhere near a starter’s value, those few innings have to be very good indeed, even when you assume that a closer or top-end setup man will pitch in higher-leverage situations, on the whole, than a starter. It’s possible to extend a reliever’s workload (to, say, 60 appearances and 120 innings or so, entering in high-leverage situations rather than save situations), but the way they’re used now, it’s hard to generate much value in so few innings.
Second, the shorter season for relievers leads to swings in performance that make Medea look like Mr. Rogers. Perhaps the most impressive thing about guys like Papelbon and Mariano Rivera is that they’ve been able to keep up their performance for so long. So even if Aumont overcomes injury, command and makeup concerns to become an effective back-end bullpen guy, there’s no guarantee he’ll remain one.
Not that Cloyd, with his high-80s fastball, is likely to become anything more than a fifth starter, either. But who’s the more valuable commodity going forward?
The simple answer is that starters are more valuable than relievers for two reasons–they pitch more innings and they’re more rare. Very few relief pitchers are born that way. Almost all are failed starters, including Papelbon, Rivera and Aumont. They fail for one or more of a number of reasons, it’s the inability to turn over a lineup, flaky mechanics, the inability to develop more than two pitches, the inability to throw strikes consistently–but they fail. If you put Cole Hamels in the bullpen, where he could throw for max effort, only needed to use his two best pitches and only needed to face hitters once, he’d be by far the best reliever in the game.
So while Cloyd can’t throw in the upper 90s and break off a curve that makes your knees buckle when you watch it on television, Aumont can’t get through a lineup three times without issuing more free passes than the guy who collects the Coke cans at Six Flags. Each can do something the other can’t.
Assuming both reach their full potential, Aumont will probably be more valuable–a good closer is worth about 2 fWAR, but so is a decent No. 4 starter. It’s easy to get excited about the big bullpen arm, but even if Aumont is the Rivera to Papelbon’s Wetteland, he’s probably not going to contribute any more value than, say, Vance Worley.
I’m going to continue talking dirty to myself in pidgin French whenever Aumont takes the mound, but if Cloyd is even marginally better than Kyle Kendrick long-term, he’ll be one worth getting excited about.