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.

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17 comments

  1. Hog

    November 13, 2012 06:00 PM

    I like long relief pitchers, don’t know why always have.

    I don’t like the save, one innings of work where you don’t allow three runs seems a bar set very low. Maybe the save would be better if it was worked out more on the nature of the situation. What I do know is based on bull pen usage getting a save is more important then winning the game.

  2. Jesse

    November 13, 2012 10:07 PM

    Can Vance Worley muster a relief season like Eric Gagne’s?
    Probably not. He doesn’t wear glasses.

    Wait a minute!
    Definitely.

  3. dave

    November 13, 2012 11:26 PM

    Manuel goes through patches where he can hardly manage a standard bullpen. You honestly think he can work out all those numbers to make Worley a DPR?

  4. Michael Baumann

    November 13, 2012 11:34 PM

    Dave-
    Of course not. This is a crazy pipedream hypothetical. We bloggers get bored as hell in the offseason, so reality is a secondary concern.

  5. LTG

    November 14, 2012 12:03 AM

    It is only a crazy pipedream hypothetical if we can’t change how Charlie manages. There must be some nearby possible universe in which Charlie’s counterpart would use Worley as a DPR. And since, as we all know, counterparts in possible worlds are real, counterpart Charlie can be extracted. All we need is an Einstein-Rosen bridge between the our universe and the other possible universe and done. Right? RIGHT?

  6. David D.

    November 14, 2012 08:52 AM

    Would usuing Kendrick as the long man make more sense as he’s already had success with it so far? Just a little better utilization of him being called for?

  7. JM

    November 14, 2012 09:36 AM

    They could run a 6 man rotation with a 3 inning limit. Imagine running Hammels-Halladay-Lee every other day, with pieces like Bastardo and Papelbon to clean up messes or give someone an off-day. While that would be wildly misusing our aces, I do think Jim Tracy is on to something, he just doesn’t have the horses to do it…

  8. Phillie697

    November 14, 2012 11:28 AM

    @JM,

    Sounds good in theory, but you have no idea, and nobody does since it’s never been done before, about the stress a pitcher’s arm might experience if, instead of 6-7 innings every 5 days, pitch 2-3 innings every other day. It DOES happen with some long relievers during parts of a season, but it has never been done the WHOLE season.

  9. Phillie697

    November 14, 2012 11:53 AM

    MB,

    Semi-novel idea (I think I hear about it once or twice a season, but not in as much detail as you’ve written), but there are a couple of things that I want to point out.

    1. Putting aside our current presumptions of a MLB bullpen, all you’re really proposing is giving more innings to a better pitcher than teams are currently doing, and that’s mostly because of the current idiotic phenomenon of middle relievers often being the WORST pitcher on the team. I know the question you posed is “can a reliever win a Cy Young?” So yes, a team employing a DPR could in fact one day produce a reliever who is worthy of Cy Young. The real question is whether that’s desirable.

    2. And that goes into my second point. Contrary to popular belief, early innings in a ball game, like late innings, matters too. If your “starter” gives up 10 runs in the first two innings, what would be the point of a DPR? I know you realize this, that’s why you’re not proposing putting Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels in a DPR role. However, putting aside whether Phillies and/or Giants are uniquely suited to employ a DPR, because under your hypothesis, you still need good starters, a team looking to have a DPR is never going to put their best pitcher in that role. In fact, if you go by strict utility analysis, DPR by definition is your 6th best pitcher, after your five starters (hence why I disagree with putting Worley as DPR; he’s better than Cloyd or Kendrick, so therefore will generate more utility as a starter than as DPR). I don’t know about you, but not many teams are going to have that good of a 6th best pitcher on their team to make a significant difference, and plus such a pitcher would have to be properly trained and conditioned to serve that role, and I don’t know how many teams will direct their minor league teams to focus that much development on the… sixth best pitcher on the team, when they will still be more interested in developing pitchers to be, you know, #1 to #5 best pitcher on the team, i.e. a starter.

    So yes, semi-novel idea, but I don’t know how much utility it has in practice.

  10. Michael Baumann

    November 14, 2012 12:11 PM

    David D.: I’d prefer a swingman role for Kendrick, either shortening the bullpen and being more liberal using him in longer appearances or doing away with the fifth starter and using the long reliever as a spot starter when you don’t get a day off.
    JM: I think this has actually been tried before (if memory serves, Tony La Russa with the Cardinals in the late 90s, though I might be wrong) and it was a disaster.
    Nevertheless, I think it’d be naive to go out there and say that a deviation from current pitcher usage norms would automatically be better (and I tried to toe that line in the post), but at some point it stands to reason that someone will come up with a crazy idea that works.

  11. topherstarr

    November 14, 2012 12:52 PM

    Manuel’s managing aside, the Vance Worley could be a good candidate for this. Someone pointed out during the season that Worley consistently ran in to trouble his third time through the lineup. If he could condition himself for the schedule you suggested, he could succeed in that role – maybe not as a Cy Young candidate, but as a valuable pitcher.

  12. topherstarr

    November 14, 2012 12:53 PM

    Manuel’s managing aside, Vance Worley could be a good candidate for this. Someone pointed out during the season that Worley consistently ran in to trouble his third time through the lineup. If he could condition himself for the schedule you suggested, he could succeed in that role – maybe not as a Cy Young candidate, but as a valuable pitcher.

  13. Phillie697

    November 14, 2012 01:14 PM

    @topherstarr,

    That argument only holds water if the incremental improvement in quality to Worley by making him a DPR as opposed to a starter is significantly greater than the incremental improvement in quality in, say, making either Kendrick or Cloyd the DPR, and there is no evidence that is true. Otherwise, you’re just sacrificing more of Worley for no discernable improvement of our chance to win more games, just so you can say to yourself that DPR is a good idea. Heck, if that’s your goal, to prove that DPR is a good idea, put Cliff Lee in that role and I guarantee you the DPR will look like a fantastic idea.

  14. topherstarr

    November 15, 2012 08:50 AM

    @Phillie697

    My precise argument is that there is evidence that Worley struggles as he goes deeper into games, so he is better suited to pitch in situations that limit the number of times he has to go through the lineup. If you’re going to have to pull him in the fourth or fifth every start anyway, condition him for role that only forces him to pitch a few innings at a time. Kendrick, by contrast, is worst in the first two innings.

    Inning by inning splits are a rough way of looking at it, but Worley’s ERA and SO/BB goes from 2.48 and 3.00 in the first three innings to 6.02 and 1.88 in innings 4-6. Kendrick’s ERA in innings 1-3 was 4.86 (and it was 6.84 in the first two innings) and 2.90 in innings 4-6 with his SO/BB jumping from 2.22 to 3.00.

    So if I assume part of using pitchers more efficiently is matching role to ability, I think there is evidence that Worley’s skills would be better utilized in the mythical DPR than as a starter who can’t get out of the fourth inning on a regular basis.

  15. joecatz

    November 15, 2012 09:07 AM

    Michael,

    Here’s the piece I did on Worley that topher is referring to at the good phight. www.thegoodphight.com/2012/7/21/3174275/catz-corner-should-the-phillies-be-shopping-vance-worley

    If you go deeper into the statistics and break out JUST first time through the order he’s insanely good. But he is and always will be a 2 time through guy based on his stuff, and he’s shaky as hell after the 5th inning. I love the idea of making him the Price guy, but I like the idea of trading him more.

  16. Phillie697

    November 15, 2012 03:13 PM

    @topherstarr,

    Actually, your stats suggest the opposite to me. Unless you think there is some magical difference between pitching in innings 1-3 vs innings 4-6, it appears to me that Kendrick needs to warm up before he is truly effective, which goes AGAINST him starting. As I stated earlier, contrary to popular belief, early innings matter too. Having Kendrick start effectively means there would be no need to have Worley as a DPR; we could be down too many runs by then.

    If Worley truly has a problem pitching deep into games, nothing you’ve cited suggest that Kendrick is the answer either; in fact we would be worse off moving Worley out of the rotation and putting in Kendrick, since we’re liable for getting the crappy Kendrick and having the good Worley sitting in the bullpen picking his nose.

  17. Joecatz

    November 15, 2012 08:58 PM

    Kendrick’s K/bb ratio as a starter last year was 2.76/1 it was 1/1 as a reliever

    Kendrick’s k/bb ratio by pitch count

    1-25: 1.61
    26-50: 2.42
    51-75: 2.6
    75-100: 5.6

    He’s a starter. He gets BETTER as he goes on.

    Worleyin relation:

    1-25: 2.0
    25-50: 5.0
    50-75: 1.18
    75-100: 2.13

    Tat means he dominates the bottom of the order first time through the lineup. That’s it.

    He’s not gonna be an effective starter much longer, and expect him to get shelled A LOT in the 6th inning in 2013

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