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Many of the relief pitchers you see in the major leagues today are former starting pitchers. These pitchers often either didn’t have the command to start, or only showed high velocity in small spurts, but there’s a variety of different reasons why a pitcher may not work out as a starter. Starting pitching is a valuable commodity, and teams tend to give pitchers every possible shot they can in the rotation before moving them to the bullpen. What happens less frequently though is seeing relievers transition into being starters. This is a bit odd, because it is like working at a company where you can only get demoted (going from starter to reliever), but never promoted (reliever to starter), which doesn’t exactly happen anywhere else in the workforce. Given how much value is lost by misidentifying a potential starting pitching prospect, being more open to “promoting” your relief pitching prospects to starting pitching prospects is something I think teams should be more open to doing. In today’s post, I give a general overview of what I am looking for in a relief pitcher that I think can convert to being a starter, as well as five pitchers in the minor leagues right now that I think deserve a shot to start.

In order to choose relievers who I think have a chance to start, I looked at a mix of quantitative and qualitative factors. First, I looked at relievers who threw at least 50 innings in 2023, which indicates that they have some endurance. I then filtered down to pitchers who recorded a walk rate under 7.5%, which is about an average walk rate for an MLB starter. It’s hard to be a full-time starter without at least average command, so trying to convert a reliever with below average command to a starter seems unlikely (hasn’t stopped the A’s trying to develop Joe Boyle as one). Walk rate can be a bit deceptive at the minor league level, because if a pitcher’s stuff is good enough, they can get a lot of chases against minor league hitters that they wouldn’t get against major league hitters. This artificially boosts their walk numbers, but it’s still a good measure of their general ability to throw strikes. I also looked at pitches thrown per batter faced to get an idea how efficient of a pitcher they are, as well as strikeout rate to get an idea of their stuff plays. We’d expect to see a drop off in stuff from converting from reliever to starter, as you can’t throw max effort anymore, and so having a higher baseline stuff means that a slight drop off doesn’t hurt as much.

From a qualitative perspective, I looked at their pitching motion/delivery and filtered out the pitchers with ultra-aggressive deliveries. As a starter, you can’t throw max effort all of the time, which makes it harder for a max effort pitcher to make the transition from reliever to starter. I also looked at if they had more than two pitches, but that isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Most relievers only need to use two different pitch types in an outing, so not having a third pitch now doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t develop one in the future. Obviously, there are a lot more factors that go into whether or not a pitcher ends up starting or relieving, but I think this general set of guidelines provides a decent framework for deciding who can start or not. In theory, you can build a model to project if a reliever can convert to a starter but given the selection bias of teams generally not willing to let relievers switch back to starters, I didn’t feel that a formal model would be all that useful in this situation.

Sauyrn Lao – RHP – Los Angeles Dodgers (24)

2023 was the first year that Lao pitched after spending the first seven years of his minor league career as a hitter. He flopped at High-A as a 22-year-old in 2022 after putting up pedestrian hitting numbers prior, so the Dodgers put him on the mound, and early signs are positive. He spent the bulk of his time in Single-A, with cups of coffee in High-A and Double-A, and recorded a 31% strikeout rate, a 5% walk rate, and a 3.79 ERA in 57 innings last year coming out of the pen. Lao has a three-pitch mix, headlined by a plus gyro slider — that can be a starter’s arsenal without any tweaks. He sits in the mid-90s with his fastball, with the shape being somewhat inconsistent. At times it will show plenty of carry, at times it will have some cut, and he mixes in a sinker as well. More refinement will be needed with the pitch, but this is his first year pitching and I expect these wrinkles to be ironed out. The changeup is a hard pitch for newer pitchers to grasp, but Lao has a pretty good feel for it already, which is an encouraging sign. It sits in the mid-80s, and has above-average arm side run. Lao has a starter arsenal, and lack of options from a pitch mix perspective isn’t the reason why he wouldn’t work as a starter.

Lao isn’t the most athletic guy on the mound, which hinders his strike throwing ability, but his delivery isn’t so violent that it couldn’t handle a starter’s workload and he still has decent body control. The timeline is a bit tricky, given that he already spent seven years as a hitter, so there is a strong incentive to keep him as a reliever and fast track him through the minors. The Dodgers have one of the strongest player development groups in baseball, so this is definitely a team that can pull it off.

Landon Harper – RHP – Atlanta Braves (23)

Landon Harper was previously at Pear River Community College before transferring to Southern Miss, where he was drafted from in 2022, which may be why he never got a chance to start at Southern Miss. This makes sense as he was listed as an infielder at Pearl River and he recorded a 5.36 BB/9 the year before he transferred, but during his draft year he recorded just a 1.9 BB/9 in 43.2 innings out of the pen. He’s shown the command bump wasn’t just a fluke over the course of the past two years in the Braves system, with a 1.6 BB/9 rate in 2022 the year he was drafted (just 11 innings), and a 1.4 BB/9 rate in 2023 in Single-A. Harper doesn’t have particularly nasty stuff, both his fastball and sweeper are both average pitches, but he has above-average command and a delivery that would work as a starter in the future.

The concern with Harper is that he really only has two pitches right now. He’ll use his changeup sparingly, and it will flash average on occasion, but presently it’s a well below-average pitch. Since he’s been pushed into the bullpen his entire career, he hasn’t necessarily needed to have a third pitch and that could be causing a delay in the development of that pitch. But Harper is starting with a strong foundation, with just an average changeup, Harper would profile as a #4 starter. I think he is a high probability middle relief arm, which is the safer path for him to take, but giving him a chance to start has the potential to unlock a lot of value and is a realistic path for him.

Zach Agnos – RHP – Colorado Rockies (23)

Agnos was a two-way player at East Carolina, playing shortstop and second base, and then coming in for relief. As a junior, he slashed .330 / .405 / .479 with 7 homers, while throwing 23.1 innings, striking out 19 and walking 7. The Rockies selected him in the 10th round and have opted to use him just as a reliever so far. In 2023, his first full year of pitching, the Rockies kept him in Single-A the entire year, where he threw 52.1 innings out of the pen, recording a 31% strikeout rate against a 6% walk rate, and with a neutral batted ball profile that is important for pitching in Colorado. Agnos threw a fastball, changeup, and slider in college, though so far in the pros he mostly is a two pitch, fastball/slider guy, topping out at 95. As you may expect from someone who was a middle infielder in college, he shows a high level of athleticism on the mound, which contributes to his strike throwing ability.

Going from part time reliever to full-time starter is difficult, and it made sense for the Rockies to utilize him just as a reliever in his first full season as a professional. But now that he’s settled in and to quote farm director Chris Forbes, “He’s very much a pitcher now, versus kind of being, in his mind, a shortstop that pitches,” I think now would be a good time to see if he can convert into a starter. He has the command, the stuff is good enough to be a #5 starter, and while he is undersized at 6’0’’, his delivery isn’t overly max effort to where it only works as a reliever. Given how hard it is for Colorado to attract starting pitching, I think this is a gamble work making, and he could easily be put back into the bullpen if it doesn’t work out.

Carson Skipper – LHP – Colorado Rockies (A+)

I’m going back to the Rockies again for another reliever to starter candidate in Carson Skipper. Skipper, an 11th round draft pick in 2022 out of Auburn, started some games as a freshman, but was moved to the bullpen for the final three years of his collegiate career, has a funky windup, but is able to repeat his delivery and has good command of his pitches. Something I find appealing about Skipper specifically is how north-south his delivery, and arsenal is, which makes him more platoon neutral and gives him the ability to navigate a full lineup, rather than two or three batters. This past year in Single-A, he threw 50.2 innings, with an ERA of 3.20, and a strikeout rate of 30% compared to a walk rate of just 5%. This isn’t a case of a first year increase in walk rate — the 5% walk rate he showed in Single-A matched what he recorded his senior year at Auburn. His stuff isn’t that overpowering, he needs to refine his changeup and his curveball can get loopy at times, but these are issues he will need to figure out to be a big leaguer at all, regardless of if he is a starter or reliever. The Rockies need as much starting pitching help as they can get, and it would be worth it to see if they can stretch Skipper out as a starter.

Nick Merkel – RHP – Milwaukee Brewers (AA)

Merkel is the only guy on this list with full-time starting experience in college. However, it came at NAIA Central Methodist, and so far in professional baseball, he’s not been given an opportunity to start. Part of this stems from the fact that he went undrafted in 2022, and he is also on the older side (25 currently), so there is a sense of urgency. He is a lanky 6’7’’ 255, and guys with his stature tend to have a lot of issues throwing strikes, but that hasn’t been the case so far. He averages roughly 2.5 walks per nine in college, and has maintain that pace so far in pro ball. In High-A during the 2023 season, which is the more age appropriate level that he pitched at, he struck out 26% of batters while walking just 6%, well in line from what you would want to see out of a starting pitching prospect in the minor leagues. Despite his XL frame, Merkel only sits 90-92 with his fastball, which plays up some due to his extension and carry. He has a plus downer slider, though a below-average changeup, and it would need to get better for him to start. Since he did start, it would be nice if he had already developed that third pitch to be above 30 grade, but since he only pitched at the NAIA level, he was able to mow through hitters without needing one so it’s understandable. I think that his ability to throw strikes given his frame, along with a solid fastball/slider arsenal, deserve a look as a starter.

This is just five names that I saw that have a chance to make the difficult transition from reliever to starter, but this isn’t a comprehensive list. Finding starting pitchers is both difficult and lucrative, so when someone shows flashes of starter potential, they should be given that opportunity. The most likely outcome for all of these players is that they end up being relievers, but hopefully this framework is a good starting point for identifying pitchers who can make the switch.

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