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All The Rage: Failed Starting Pitchers Turned Ace Relievers

"I should try relieving. Or croquet. Or something."
"I should try relieving. Or croquet. Or something."
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Liam Hendriks, dealt to Oakland Friday for Jesse Chavez, is one of the latest examples of a gawdawful starting pitcher who found nirvana in a one-inning role. In Hendriks' case, his fastball sped up 4-6 MPH out of the pen but most pitchers see an increase of around 0.9 MPH, which in and of itself should not explain a transformation from one end of the bell curve to another.

In Hendriks' case the change was as dramatic as can be, not only from a velocity standpoint but also performance. Few SPs boasted as pathetic a body of work as Hendriks, whose ERAs, in five partial seasons as a SP, were 6.17, 5.59, 6.85, 4.66, and 6.08. Now he is, at least for one season, a 97 MPH-firing elite set-up man who walked 11 and struck out 71 in 65 dominant innings (2.92 ERA).

However, Hendriks is far from the only such tale. Former Athletics Trevor Cahill and Joe Blanton have resurrected their careers as top-notch relievers, Brett Cecil parlayed a move to the bullpen into an All-Star selection, and then of course there is gold standard: Wade Davis, whose last starting gig (2013) produced a 5.32 ERA and 169 hits in just 135 IP. Since moving to the bullpen, Davis has allowed all of 71 hits in 139 IP.

There is some bias here. You tend not to hear about those failed SPs who become failed RPs. A slight uptick in velocity is no guarantee, in and of itself, that success is around the corner and flaws such as mediocre command, a lack of secondary pitches, and general inconsistency, can also get exposed out of the bullpen.

For teams aiming to fortify their bullpen, though, failing SPs do appear to be at least a potential gold mine of hidden treasure. For the A's, Drew Pomeranz had a better season as a RP than he had put together as a SP, and in particular emerged at least as a worthy foe to LH batters. So there's another potential success story that may or may not be told.

All of this brings me to Aaron Brooks. Is Brooks a candidate to be more than "pleasant depth in the rotation" as a #6 SP and a "nice long reliever to have in the mix"? Does he have the tools to be better than filler in a short-relief role. On this question I am agnostic, but there is a part of me that thinks there is a chance.

What I saw from Brooks is that in his first two starts he threw a heavy sinker that, at least on the Coliseum gun, registered 93 MPH. With that, excellent control, a plus changeup, and a "show me curve," Brooks dominated the Indians and Astros. Then he started the next portion of his career: the part where he was lit up like a Festivus tree en route to a 6.67 ERA for the season.

Brooks was also throwing his sinker around 89-91 MPH most of the time and it seemed to make a big difference in how batters reacted not only to his fastball but also to his changeup and curve. Is Brooks perhaps a pitcher for whom that slight uptick in velocity could make "all the difference"? When his sinker is coming in at a solid velocity, as well as diving, it is a lot like, well, Trevor-Cahill-the-reliever. "Consistently 93 MPH and diving, with a plus changeup and excellent control" starts to sound like a very successful reliever -- suddenly closer to Ryan Madson than to Andy Sonnanstine.

As a SP I see Brooks as "useful depth" but probably not more. As a one-inning reliever? I'm at least intrigued, and there is a growing body of work to suggest that for failing SPs a move to the bullpen can, in the right circumstances, produce somewhat dramatic results. Is Brooks one of those guys?