How to Develop A Relief Pitcher

In today’s game, the importance of relievers has increased substantially. It may be due to shorter starts by pitchers, or just a change in organization philosophy, but the emphasis on stockpiling dominant relievers is much greater now than at any point in recent baseball history. Relievers used to be shunned in free agency, especially if they weren’t closers, but that’s no longer the case. Just looking back at the past couple of offseasons reveals how much teams now covet these pitchers. The issue is, these relievers are getting increasingly more expensive; even too unaffordable and unreasonable for some teams.

The ideal strategy is ‘develop your relievers, don’t buy them…’ but that’s easier said than done. Relievers are incredibly volatile in the majors, so it’s not a surprise that grooming them in the minor leagues is a tall task. Teams have struggled to build up organizational bullpen depth, which has forced the price of relievers on the market to astronomical heights. The path to a young and controllable bullpen isn’t easy, and just a few teams have managed to perfect the developmental process, namely the Pirates, Cardinals, Yankees, Royals, and Orioles. Not surprisingly, these are the same teams that are considered to have the best bullpens in the major leagues. So, how should a team create a successful reliever prospect? Teams should follow these simple steps.

1.) Do NOT pick relievers high in the draft

This may sound counter-intuitive, but it’s quite possibly the most important takeaway of this article. Selecting relievers at high slots in the amateur draft is, quite simply, not a good idea. I combed through 61 players drafted in rounds one through three of the 2008-2012 drafts that profiled as relievers: often as low-risk and dominant arms who were expected to fly through the minors towards dominance in the big leagues. Of those 61 players, just three of them made a significant impact in the big leagues: Drew Storen, Craig Kimbrel, and Addison Reed. The other 58 each failed to record double digit saves, and 36 of them never made it to the big leagues. The average ERA of the other 22 who did make it to the MLB is 6.49, with a 7.95 K/9. Drafting relievers high in the draft not only yields a shockingly low amount of success stories, but also hurts clubs long term due to wasted picks spent on bullpen busts. That doesn’t mean that the draft is devoid of relief talent, though, which is why teams should…

2.) Prioritize relievers late in the draft

Of the top-50 relievers (by WAR) since 2013, 20 of them were drafted as relievers (another 30 were either starters or international free agents, which we’ll get to later). The 20 taken in the draft with the intention of being bullpen pieces were mostly taken in the later rounds:

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3.) Don’t be afraid of converting failed starters to relievers

Now, this isn’t to say that good relievers only exist in the latter part of the draft— rather that it’s much smarter to use picks later on. There are two reasons for this: it’s a low-risk/high-reward concept and, at this point, quantity is essentially better than quality. If a team misses on a pick in the double digit rounds, it’s not anything that will come back to bite them. If a pick in the first few rounds flames out, it can be a big hit to a franchise. At the same time, while the quality isn’t greater in the back end of the draft, teams can afford to pick a decently sized crop of intriguing arms, and if only 10% of them make the majors, that can be considered a success. As mentioned earlier, developing relievers can be a total crapshoot, so it’s best to take them in low-risk portions of the draft. That doesn’t mean that teams can’t get relievers from high picks, though.

There’s a reason why just 20 of the top-50 relievers were found in the draft—the other 30 came from alternate sources. The first is through failed starters: 22 of the other relief pitchers were drafted at an average of the 3rd round of the draft. More specifically, six were first rounders, four were found in the second and third, and the rest from rounds four through nine. These pitchers started for their club for a couple of years or more, but ultimately were unsuccessful and converted to relievers. This idea may seem to be an obvious one, but often teams are hesitant to give up on their high draft picks. The key, though, is that it isn’t ‘giving up.’

While WAR doesn’t support this argument, it’s likely that pitchers that would be fifth starters or lower on the organizational latter would find much more value as a late-inning reliever. It’s not a given, and it can honestly be a failed experiment at times, but this can often be an extremely rewarding move. For example, see players like Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Wade Davis, Jake McGee, Zach Britton, and Jonathan Papelbon, whose respective careers only took off once going to the bullpen. Teams do need to be smart about this and recognize the arms that are more likely to play up in shorter bursts, but it can save a prospect or fifth starter’s stock. Often, the team’s best reliever is stuck wallowing in a mediocre starting role.

4.) Remember that relief pitching prospects are bad

It seems a bit strange to say this, after writing a whole article on relief pitching prospects, but in reality, they are not good. Prospect bust rates are already incredibly high, but the risk of a relief pitching prospect is significantly greater. There’s a reason why almost no relievers make it to top prospect lists, and why it’s almost impossible to find a top-10 ranking of relief prospects. Almost none of them make it—even the “elite” variety. The best relievers in 2012 were considered, by, to be: Corey Williams, Bruce Rondon, Clayton Schrader, Juan Rodriguez, Kevin Chapman, Donnie Joseph, Lisalverto Bonilla, Stephen Pryor, and Jhan Marinez.

There’s a reason why you don’t recognize these names. They have combined for 0.2 WAR in the big leagues, and this is with the best of the group—Bruce Rondon—contributing 0.4 WAR. Here’s another example: Bleacher report’s “10 MLB Prospects Who Will Be Future Lights-Out Closers” list features only three major leaguers, Vic Black (owner of 0.2 career WAR), the previously-mentioned Bruce Rondon, Carter Capps (who, admittedly, just had a breakout season), and Justin De Fratus (he had a 5.51 ERA last season). This isn’t to criticize Bleacher Report, but instead to point out how rare it is to find a successful relief pitching prospect.

5.) Don’t give up on arms

Relief pitchers are weird. Not only are their career arcs and swings in value weird, but their original origins can often be weird as well. It’s shocking where some of the better relievers in the game come from, and that is something to remember. That’s why some teams have great bullpens—most of their best arms didn’t follow a linear path to the big leagues, and some organizations have learned to stick with players. A special arm will often find a way to shine through, and this is especially true with relief pitchers. Not only have countless failed starters turned into great relievers, but Kenley Jansen, Joe Nathan, Jason Motte, Sean Doolittle, and Pedro Strop initially flopped as positional players. In addition, pitchers like Mark Melancon (who had a 6.20 ERA just three seasons ago) were the least successful players in the bullpen for some time before breaking out. Whether it’s from a failed starter, or a failed position player, or a failed reliever, dominant pitchers can rise from the ashes—a fact that teams should remember.

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