Tim Lincecum, Vance Worley and the David Price Role

This season, we’ve seen some interesting debates on pitcher usage to say the least. Which I love, because I’m a massive pitcher usage nerd. I spend quite a bit of my leisure time thinking about ways to use pitchers more efficiently. In addition to being a measure of my having thought this position through, that may also be an indication that I need a hobby or a dog or something.

Anyway, we’ve had three major pitcher use debates in 2012:

  • Can a reliever win the Cy Young? (Or, if we take baseball writer voting silliness out of the equation, can a reliever be the most valuable pitcher in the league?)
  • How do you increase a young starter’s workload gradually without blowing out his arm? (the Strasburg/Medlen/Sale debate)
  • Can a four-man rotation work?

The answers to the second and third questions are far less interesting to me than the first. I’m not an orthopedist, so I can’t tell you how best to manage the workload growth of young starters in general, much less a particular pitcher. I will say two things on that issue: that while it made my stomach turn to see the Nationals lose in the first round of the playoffs without using their best pitcher, if they turn Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg and Lucas Giolito (and, if we’re getting really ambitious, Matt Purke) into reliable front-end starters, I think a unilateral innings deadline might become the norm and not the exception. The second thing is that whoever figures out how to solve this problem first will become the early 1980s New York Islanders of major league baseball while everyone else struggles to catch up.

On the second point, whether a four-man rotation can work, I suspect that it can, but since we’re already bumping up starters from one appearance every seven days (in college and Japan) to once every five (in pro ball), I don’t know that there’s an appetite leaguewide to increase a starter’s workload. I will say that if your pitching staff is as bad as the Rockies’ was, no amount of starting pitchers will save you.

However, this other question, “Can a reliever win the Cy Young?” is far more interesting to me, which is why I spent nearly 400 words beating around the bush before addressing it. That’s a two-part question for me.

1) Can a relief pitcher win (and deserve) the Cy Young in the current pattern of reliever usage? 

Probably not. The question was posed to Rob Neyer the other day on MLB Network and he said (while Dave Cameron went all Dick Cheney and stared hungrily into the camera without blinking) that a closer could deserve the Cy Young if he had an Eric Gagne-like season. I agree in principle that there is a level at which a current closer could perform where he merits consideration, but it might be beyond the scope of what we can currently comprehend.

For instance, that mythical 2003 season for Gagne: 82 1/3 innings pitched (identical to his total in both 2002 and 2004, by the way), a 0.86 FIP. Yes, a ZERO POINT EIGHT SIX FIP, a K/9 rate a rounding error short of 15 and 55 saves in 55 opportunities, for those of you who care about such things. It was a season the likes of which we had never seen from a reliever, the Infinite Jest of closer seasons–a statistical line that doesn’t so much beg you to read it and be awed as it pokes you in the eyes and laughs at you for believing it was real. Which is happening a lot now that Craig Kimbrel seems intent on authoring such a season every year. But for all that, Gagne is credited with a mere 4.5 fWAR, or a little less than Wade Miley got this season.

I’m willing to credit Gagne a little more for pitching in high-leverage situations, but not much more–it’s the same line of logic that people use to include RBI in MVP discussions. But if he’s pitching 80 innings a year, he’d have to almost literally strike out every batter he faced in order to produce as much value as a starter.

2) Can a reliever win (and deserve) the Cy Young ever?

Yes. If you’ve read the title of this post, you can tell where I’m going by now. Back in 2008, the Rays brought up No. 1 pick David Price to serve as a multi-inning reliever down the stretch. Given the Cardinals’ use of Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly out of the bullpen this offseason, that pattern might soon become the norm–bring up your stud starter prospect for 20 appearances and 40 innings after the all-star break.

But the most interesting development of the past month has been Bruce Bochy‘s use of Tim Lincecum. Lincecum, the undisputed ace of the Giants’ 2010 World Series-winning team, is coming off the worst season of his career, but Bochy used him six times this postseason, five in relief. In five relief appearances, all lasting 2 innings or more, Lincecum allowed only five baserunners and one run, while striking out 17 in 13 innings, including taking only 32 pitches to retire all seven batters he faced (five via strikeout) in an explosive outing in Game 1 of the World Series.

Lincecum might be a special case. Keith Law, almost by reflex, has given a complete history of the amateur Lincecum every time he’s mentioned him on either ESPN’s Baseball Today or Joe Posnanski’s podcast, and I’ll relate some of that history here. While at the University of Washington, Lincecum would start on a Friday and come in to close on a Sunday, and because of Lincecum’s stature and the fact that he’d only developed two pitches by the end of his time at Washington, Law originally projected that he’d become a reliever.

Despite Lincecum’s struggles in the regular season, he might be uniquely suited to the David Price Role. Lincecum has typically been a quick recoverer, and his being possessed of multiple out pitches allows him to lock down for multiple innings the way an essentially one-pitch pitcher like Mariano Rivera or Brad Lidge might not. But while Lincecum might be the archetype, he can’t be the only one.

What are the advantages to the David Price Role? Really, Bruce Bochy illustrated all of them during these playoffs by the way he used Lincecum.

  1. It saves the rest of the bullpen. In the Giants’ case, they could go with Lincecum in relief one day, then have the entire bullpen rested for the next day. If the Phillies had such a pitcher, they wouldn’t have to worry about running Phillippe Aumont out there five days in a row, or wearing out Jonathan Papelbon for when they really needed him.
  2. It puts a top pitcher in potential high-leverage middle-inning situations. The Phillies struggled this year because of an unpredictable middle relief corps. Even accepting that save situations are not the highest-leverage, you don’t always want to burn your relief ace in the seventh inning when the game might still be late and close in the ninth.
  3. It gets value out of a failed or failing starter. Not all relievers are fireballing fastball-slider types who can go one inning and one inning only. I can name, off the top of my head, three MLB relief aces who were closers in college: Drew Storen, Addison Reed and Huston Street. There are probably more, but lifelong relievers are the exception. Many of them were fringy starters who came close to contributing in the rotation, but couldn’t hack it, either because of health and makeup concerns, or the inability to develop a third pitch, or the inability to turn a lineup over, or platoon issues, or command/control problems, or stamina problems…so many more things have to go right for a starter than a one-inning reliever that almost everyone who can start does, and almost anyone who does start can pitch out of the bullpen. For example: Eric Gagne, Daniel Bard, Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Madson, Mariano Rivera, Phillippe Aumont, Antonio Bastardo, Jeremy Affeldt, Joel Hanrahan, Rafael Soriano, Brett Myers, Bobby Jenks, Rollie Fingers, Tom Gordon, Robb Nen, Dennis Eckersley and Aroldis Chapman. Among others.
    So why does this work? Well, in addition to hiding some of the above deficiencies, relievers only face a batter once a game, so they only really need  one way to get him out, instead of as many as four. Moreover, because relievers don’t need to throw as many pitches per outing as do starters, they can put a little bit of extra zip on a ball in much the same way a sprinter can go all-out in an entire race, while even a middle distance runner has to pace himself. That zip did wonders for Gagne back in the day, and we saw what it did for Kyle Kendrick this season. The advantage is probably not as great for a multi-inning reliever as it is for a traditional closer, but it still ought to exist.
  4. It opens up the opportunity for a tandem starter. In the NLDS, when Bochy wasn’t getting the best out of Barry Zito in an elimination game (NLDS Game 4) he was able to use George Kontos and Jose Mijares as a bridge to Lincecum, who then threw 4 1/3 innings of one-run relief. Now, Jonathan Papelbon couldn’t do that no matter how much he wanted to, but Lincecum did. A David Price Role pitcher can give you a backup plan (apart from Johnny Wholestaff) if your starter goes completely tits-up in the first couple innings.
  5. More innings from your best reliever. Remember that wear-and-tear on the arm and shoulder happen during warm-up as well. So a pitcher who warms up once to throw 40 pitches in one game will throw many fewer pitches than one who warms up twice to throw 20 pitches in consecutive games, and he’ll have more time to recover between appearances. So whereas Gagne in 2003 pitched 77 times for a total of 82 1/3 innings, you might be able to stretch out a Lincecum to 50 appearances for 100 innings at the bare minimum, probably closer to 120 or maybe even 140 innings.

College teams, who play at most four games a week during the regular season, already largely employ a multi-inning relief ace. These pitchers come in whenever the game is close and relatively late, and they stay in until it’s over. Having a top-notch pitcher to come in and defend a lead for 2 or 3 innings, or to hold serve when your team is tied or down by one or two runs, is a massive tactical and even psychological weapon. The problem is keeping to a disciplined plan. Here’s how South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner used relief ace Matt Price during the 2011 College World Series:

  1. June 19, vs. Texas A&M: entered game with game tied 4-4, bases empty, 1 out, top 9. 2/3 IP, W, K, 10 pitches.
  2. June 21, vs. Virginia: entered game up 7-1, bases empty, 2 out, bottom 9. 1/3 IP, 3 pitches. So far, so good.
  3. June 24, vs. Virginia: entered game up 2-1, runner on second, 1 out, top 8. 5 2/3 IP, W, BS, 5 K, 5 BB, 7H, 95 pitches.
  4. June 27, vs. Florida: entered game up 2-1, bases empty, 0 out, bottom 11. 1 IP, SV, H, K, 16 pitches.
  5. June 28, vs. Florida: entered game up 4-2, runner on first, 2 out, top 8. 1 1/2 IP, SV, K, 15 pitches.

I did enjoy how Tanner was entirely unafraid to use his best reliever in important situations, save rule or no (notice that in addition to his save, Price picked up two wins in five games). But what you’ve got to do is resist the temptation to use a multi-inning reliever when, say, you’re up six runs in the ninth inning. And resist the temptation to let him throw 95 pitches on two days’ rest, then throw him again on two days’ rest after that. But by sticking to some sort of schedule, I believe it to be possible to stretch out one reliever, particularly one with a starter’s stamina, to throw 140 innings.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that a good starter throws six or seven innings every fifth game, for a total of around 210 innings. A closer throws one inning every other day, for about 80 innings. A David Price Reliever might throw two innings every third day, or three innings every fourth day, or, in the case of the most rubber-armed and efficient pitchers, perhaps three innings every third day. Could a reliever qualify for the ERA title? Maybe, under this usage pattern. And depending on the distribution of appearances, such a pitcher might appear in 60 games, earning a win or a save or otherwise significantly altering the late-inning win probability in 40 or more of those games. If someone put up…well, not Eric Gagne numbers but good closer numbers (10+ K/9, 4+ K/BB, decent ground ball ratio) in 140 innings, most of them high-leverage? I could see a clear path to the Cy Young in such a scenario.

So while it looks unlikely that even the Giants, with not only an ideal candidate in Lincecum but social capital to spend having won two titles in three years, will employ such a reliever, it doesn’t make it a bad idea. As Lincecum proved over this past postseason, the benefits of having a dominant multi-inning reliever are considerable. A team with a spare starter might reap considerable benefits from employing not only a traditional closer but a David Price Role pitcher as well.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the Phillies are just such a team. If Roy Halladay and Vance Worley come back healthy, the Phillies will have, at worst, two legitimate No. 1 starters in Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, a top-notch No. 2 in Halladay, a solid back-end guy in Vance Worley, and two candidates for the fifth starter’s spot in Kyle Kendrick and Tyler Cloyd. If Kendrick has actually turned into a legitimate starter rather than the fringy swingman he’s been since 2008, maybe the Phillies can get away with giving Cloyd 25 starts or so.

Which frees up Worley for the David Price Role. Worley, when healthy, sits around 90-91 mph with his fastball. Maybe that goes up a couple miles an hour if he’s pacing himself for 50 pitches instead of 95 or 100. Maybe he can pare down his arsenal to his best two or three pitches and get away with more of that voodoo disappearing two-seamer malarkey if he only has to go through the lineup once. With the Phillies, potentially, having considerable starting pitching depth, moving Worley to the bullpen in this role would be a risk, but one they’d be well-positioned to take, and one with potentially season-altering upside.

All of this is based on idle speculation and pretty much zero empirical backup, and unlike most of the other lunatic things I propose here (hit Carlos Ruiz leadoff, punt third base entirely in 2013, grind Michael Martinez‘s bones to make my bread, and so on) I’m not sure that I’d have the balls to pull the trigger on this one if I were Ruben Amaro. All innovation does not represent progress, but neither does all orthodoxy represent wisdom. Given Lincecum’s success this postseason, converting Worley to the David Price Role is at least a conversation worth having.