In Search Of A Super Reliever

Robbie
Early this off-season, the Rangers announced that they had told Alexi Ogando that he would be in the starting rotation next season. They followed a similar tactic with Neftali Feliz last off-season. To help the former reliever convert to becoming a starter, give early notification of the intention to allow for the necessary conditioning in the winter to prepare for pitching six, seven, and maybe eight innings as opposed to one, and sometimes two.
Then, in December, Jon Daniels said that depending on if the Rangers acquired another starting pitcher, Robbie Ross could also have a chance at joining the starting rotation. Ross would theoretically be in a competition with Martin Perez and Justin Grimm for the last spot in the rotation, hopefully as a temporary placeholder until Colby Lewis returns from injury mid-season.

I am not thrilled about the idea of Ogando or Ross as starting pitchers. Instead, to maximize the value of these two pitchers, I advocate the Rangers trying to deploy one of them as a super-reliever in the 2013 season.

The super-reliever role is now extinct in baseball over the course of a full season. A super-reliever ideally would pitch 100-120 innings in a season, being brought in three or four times a week, and able to be used for multiple innings. As a point of reference, no pitcher has thrown more than 100 innings in relief since 2006. This type of role would be invaluable in close games when the starting pitcher is unable to reach the seventh or eighth inning and get it to the back of the bullpen. This would be the guy who could pitch the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings when necessary. The value of a super-reliever is not necessarily the quality of the pitcher, but the quantity of the innings pitched.

The type of player needed for a super-reliever role would ideally be one that can succeed as a starter, but has the elasticity and durability to sustain multiple appearances in a week.

In the 2012 playoffs, you saw Tim Lincecum fill this role for the Giants. Lincecum pitched key relief appearances of 2.0, 4.1, 2.0, 2.1, and 2.1 innings in the Giants march to the World Series title. Many on the internet often fantasized about Lincecum thriving as a super-reliever, and finally got to see just what a weapon he could be out of the bullpen.

Would Ogando and/or Ross succeed as a super-reliever? In my opinion, yes.

Both pitchers have had success as a starting pitcher (Ogando in 2011, Ross in the minors), and as a reliever in their careers. Both have shown the ability to pitch multiple innings successfully in relief (Ogando has a career ERA of 1.93 in relief appearances of two innings or greater, Ross of 0.41). Both pitchers have also showed the ability to pitch well with little to no days of rest.

Besides the factors of why Ogando and Ross could or would or should succeed as super-relievers, there is additionally the idea that they would not be successful MLB starting pitchers for long stretches of time.

In his career, Ogando has thrown 96% of his pitches as either fastballs (66%) or sliders (30%). Ross threw 100% of his pitches as fastballs (82%), or sliders (18%). They’re two-pitch pitchers. To be a successful starter for more than a couple of months at a time, a larger arsenal is all but a necessity, in order to give hitters multiple looks throughout a game and make it through a lineup two, three, or four times.

However, as a super-reliever, Ogando and/or Ross would only be facing a lineup one time, possibly two times through each night.

In the 2011 postseason, Ron Washington deployed Ogando as a super-reliever. Ogando appeared in 13 of the Rangers 17 games that postseason. In the first nine of those appearances, he pitched 11 innings, allowing one run on just eight baserunners, and striking out 12. After those nine appearances, though, he tired and became much less effective (right when it really counted). Yet, just because that playoff run didn’t end well for Ogando or the Rangers, doesn’t mean he couldn’t succeed as a super-reliever again. Ogando had pitched a career-high 169 innings during the 2011 regular season as a starting pitcher, and was showing signs in August and September that he was tiring. He simply ran out of gas at the end of a long season for the outfielder-converted-pitcher. Given a fresh start, he could succeed as a super-reliever as he did in those first nine playoff appearances.

Ogando and Ross are also the ideal candidates to convert to a super-reliever role because they are under team control through 2016 and 2017, respectively. There is no market for a super-reliever in the free agent waters — yet. Deploying Ogando and Ross in this manner in 2013 isn’t doing a disservice to the player and damaging any free agent value. It could potentially be doing the opposite, if the experiment was successful.

If the Rangers don’t add another starting pitcher this off-season, it is possible that both Ogando and Ross would truly be needed in the rotation. However, if Perez or Grimm or free agent X or trade target Y were to make the rotation instead of Ross, perhaps any conditioning he had done in the off-season to prepare as a starter would pay off as a super-reliever. Additionally, if all goes well, and Lewis does return in good health in mid-season, Ross and/or Ogando could both have the advantage of being stretched out as starters and relegated to the bullpen to take on the super-reliever role for the back half of the season.

It is a unique role in today’s bullpen construction, and it takes a unique kind of player to carry it out successfully, but the Rangers may have both the opportunity and the player(s) in 2013 to deploy a super-reliever.

“He’s the hero [Texas] deserves, but not the one it needs right now.”

Peter Ellwood is a Senior Staff Writer for Shutdown Inning. You can email him at Peter.Ellwood@shutdowninning.com or reach him on Twitter @FutureGM

Peter Ellwood

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