Miami Marlins starting pitcher Tom Koehler has some games where he looks electric, leaving hitters baffled and frustrated. He has other games where batters make him look confused, leaving him frustrated in himself. Some games, he puts the two together, starting off excellently, often times perfectly, through the first few innings before falling victim to a big inning later in the game.
Koehler has been a solid, mostly dependable starter for the Marlins since his rookie season of 2013, compiling a 26-35 record along with a 4.10 ERA. He won a career-high 11 games in 2015 and has thrown over 187 innings the two previous seasons. His best season so far was 2014, when he posted 10 wins and a 3.81 ERA over 191.1 innings pitched. He has appeared in 29 or more games every full season he has been with the Marlins and has made 63 starts in the past two years.
Despite his overall solid numbers, there are times when Koehler looks like an ace and times when he looks completely overmatched, often during the same start. Marlins fans have come to dread the fourth inning of games that Koehler starts. A look at his 2015 splits shows why.
In the first inning, Koehler allows a .211 batting average to opposing hitters. In the second, it goes up a bit to .222. It comes back down in the third (thanks, pitchers) to .214. And then the wheels come off. In the fourth inning of games he starts, Tom Koehler allows a .338 batting average and a .396 on-base percentage. He settles down a bit in the fifth, dropping to .288, and really hits a groove in the sixth (thanks again, pitchers) at .200. He loses it again in the seventh though, allowing a .342 average. Because of his mid-game struggles, Koehler only made it into the seventh inning in 13 of his starts and into the eighth only twice. He did not pitch a single ninth inning in the 2015 season.
Compiling things a bit more, Koehler’s ERA in the first threeinnings is a solid 3.29. That jumps to an enormous 4.95 for innings four through six. All pitchers have something called a Time Through the Order Penalty (TTOP). Basically, the more a batter sees a pitcher, the more success the batter is likely to have. The hitter can pick up patterns, see if the pitcher is tipping his pitches, and just overall feel more comfortable in the batter’s box. Just as we’ve all heard announcers say that a long at-bat favors the hitter, multiple at-bats in the same game favor the hitter as well.
Many Sabermetrically-minded writers have clamored for starters to never be allowed to face a batting order for a third time, but in practice this is a difficult idea to work with. A few teams have tried “piggybacking” starters so that one pitches the first few innings, and then another comes in before actually going to the bullpen arms, but it has not gained much traction.
So Koehler’s TTOP? Pretty significant, as the above innings-numbers imply. The first time Koehler faces a lineup in a start, they post a .211/.285/.341 slash line, good for a 78 OPS+ (100 is average, the lower the better). The second time through, they all become sluggers, posting a line of .285/.350/.472 and a 124 OPS+. It dips a bit the third time through, coming in at .272/.367/.405, good for a 105 OPS+. Tom Koehler is a very effective pitcher the first time a batter sees him. Tom Koehler is not very effective at all the second time a batter sees him. Sound like there’s a place for a guy like that?
Tom Koehler would, in theory, make an excellent closer. The MLB leader in saves for 2015 with 51 was Pittsburgh Pirates closer Mark Melancon. When Melancon faced a batter the first time in a game, he allowed a .207/.250/.291 line; better than Koehler, but not a huge gap. We can also assume that if Koehler came in for one inning, he could throw harder and exert more energy into each pitch knowing he would not need to worry about his stamina.
Now, of course, this is all assuming many things. First, it is assuming that Koehler would do well pitching on consecutive days. As mostly a starter in his career, he is used to a regular routine with plenty of rest. While he has pitched as a reliever in his career, he hasn’t truly been in that role since 2013 and even then was more of a long man and not a daily contributor.
Another factor that may throw a wrench in these gears are Koehler’s leverage numbers. He excels in low-leverage situations, allowing only a .700 OPS. In situations labeled as medium leverage, he does fairly well, allowing a .713 OPS. Once the pressure is on though, Koehler folds and coughs up an OPS of .897. Closers will face many more high-leverage situations and may need to come in on consecutive days, but will almost never face a batting order a second time through.
The Marlins and Koehler would need to decide if the positives of converting him into a late-inning reliever outweigh the negatives of losing him from the rotation. For 2016, the Marlins rotation is fairly thin behind ace Jose Fernandez (if they keep him), so the Marlins could certainly use another solid season from Koehler there. The bullpen is actually fairly well stocked, with closer A.J. Ramos and elite set up man Carter Capps forming a solid two-headed attack. Rookies Kyle Barraclough and Brian Ellington showed some promising signs in 2015 as well, so the Fish don’t really need as much help there.
In an ideal world, Koehler would excel as a closer or a late-inning setup man. In the real world, however, the Marlins will need him in the rotation and will hope that he is able to work through his fourth inning issue. If Koehler is able to replicate the success he has in the first three innings throughout a start, he can be a solid number-two starter behind true ace Jose Fernandez. If his times through the order issues continue, perhaps a move to the bullpen would be beneficial not only to Koehler but also to the team. He has been miscast in his past moves to the bullpen as a long reliever and mop-up guy. If he does indeed move into the bullpen again, Koehler should be put into the role where he is likely to excel: a one inning, late game bridge to the excellent arms waiting in the eighth and ninth.