Over the course of each baseball season we see several pitchers who have been toiling in the bullpen become regular members of the starting rotation. Sometimes it is a middle reliever, while other times it will be a closer or set-up man. For bettors these transitions can be challenging. We have come to know the pitcher in a very different role than that of a starter, so we have to figure out how he is going to be able to make that transition. Will he be an effective starter, or an opportunity to find value in betting against him and his team? Here are seven factors to consider when trying to determine what is likely:
What is the timing of the move? – Sometimes a guy moves from the bullpen at the start of the regular season as part of a plan that was put in place over the offseason. Other times the team doesn’t have the luxury of that much planning, and they have to make the change because of immediate need during a season. The longer a change has been in the works, and the more time a pitcher has to prepare and adapt, the better the chances that he will perform well in the short term.
Have they started before in the majors? – Sometimes a pitcher winds up as a reliever because he is more valuable to the team serving in the major league bullpen then he is tuning up his game in the minors as a starter. Managing a baseball team is all about allocating assets as well as you possibly can, so if there isn’t likely to be a spot in the major league rotation quickly other plans will be made. If the guy proves to be useful in the bullpen then he can stay there for a while. If he has started at some point in the past at the major league level, though, then that can be useful in a few ways. For one, if he has started in the past then we have a sense of how he can perform as a starter now. You have to be careful to compensate for any improvement he has shown as a reliever, though, because that can translate into improvement as a starter. If he has started before then you can also feel more confident that he will be comfortable because he knows what to expect.
Have they started before at any level? – It’s very rare that a guy hasn’t been a starter at some level, whether in low minors or college, before they moved to the bullpen. Some starting experience at some level is better than none, so it can be helpful. How recently have they started? How did they perform as a starter? Why did they move to the bullpen?
How did he perform in the bullpen? – This is a pretty solid indicator of what to expect. A good bullpen is incredibly valuable for a team, and harder to find – especially the later inning guys – than most people think. If a guy has performed well in his relief role then he is an important asset to his team. If the team is willing to give up that asset to move him to the rotation then they must have reasonable confidence that he is going to be even more valuable as a starter. If he is a good closer or set-up man who is now starting, for example, then you could have reason to be optimistic. If he was only solid in the bullpen and not stellar, though, then the opportunity cost of the move to the team isn’t nearly as significant.
How do they perform in their second inning? – You can get some sense of how a guy might perform as a starter – especially early on – by how he performed when he was stretched out as a reliever. If he looked just as strong in his second inning and beyond as he did when he was fresh then it would be easier to trust him than if he was only at his best for one inning. You need to be careful here, though – if the guy has had the whole offseason to get ready for the change then he can train for the change, and the impact of it can be minimized.
Why was he in the bullpen? – We have talked about this before, but it’s so important that we’ll look at it specifically. There are many different reasons why a pitcher can end up in the bullpen. It can be simply a matter of numbers – he’s not going to get a chance to start soon, but has major league talent. It could be because he is young and the team wants to bring him along slowly. Maybe the team needs a specific type of reliever and he has the skill set or mentality to provide that. Whatever the reason is you will be well ahead of the crowd if you can get a sense of it, and if you can understand what has changed now.
Will the public care? – There are some moves that get a lot of coverage and attention because the players are high profile. Guys like Neftali Feliz and Joba Chamberlain come to mind in recent years. For each one of those guys, though, there are several that make the move without any attention at all. As with everything in sports betting, the more the public cares about a situation the more strongly they are likely to react, and the more cautious you need to be about the impact of that attention.