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From Eckersley to Clippard, relief pitchers tend to be made, not born
Question of the Day
Mariano Rivera will retire after this season as perhaps the finest closer in baseball history. With a dozen All-Star appearances and more than 630 saves, he is as much a certainty for the Hall of Fame as a player can get.
He began his career as a starter. That's right, the game's best closer started 10 games during his first season with the New York Yankees in 1995.
With the possible exception of the Washington Nationals' Drew Storen, no one really grows up wanting to be a relief pitcher.
Storen, the anomaly, never made a start in two seasons at Stanford and hasn't made one in the Nationals organization. The other six relievers on the Nationals' current roster all have starting experience, including closer Rafael Soriano. Storen, it seems, is part of a very, very small minority.
Starting, Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said, "always has been the Cadillac job in the big leagues. Everyone wants to do it. That's where most of the glory is and, if you can be a good starter, that's what you want."
But you can't always get what you want. Someone has to pitch in relief.
There are approximately 210 relief pitchers in the major leagues and to call all of them failed starters wouldn't be accurate. Sure, some of them fit into that category. Relievers are made in other ways, too. Some of it is a decision made by management. A player's stuff would work better in the bullpen. Some of it is by circumstance. And some of it is, quite frankly, an accident.
The Nationals as they are currently constructed have at least one who fits into each category.
Tyler Clippard was converted because the bullpen better suited his style. Tough to argue with the results. Craig Stammen pitched well enough to earn a spot on the team, but there was no room in the rotation. To the bullpen he went, and there he blossomed. Ian Krol faced an innings limit as he came back from an injury suffered in the minor leagues. He went to the bullpen to conserve those innings and the results have been staggering.
None was necessarily a failure as a starter. All have been very successful as a reliever.
"Those guys," McCatty said, "have fit in extremely well in the roles we have put them."
Clippard, 28, started six games for the Yankees in 2007 and two for the Nationals in 2008 after an offseason trade. He posted a 4-2 record. But he also had a problem staying in games. He ran up high pitch counts. Even as a reliever, his innings often aren't clean even though he's mostly been effective. In 2007, he only went more than five innings once and that was just for six. In one five-inning game, he threw 98 pitches.
He was called back to the Nationals in June 2009 and he's been a bullpen fixture since. He was the winner of the All-Star game in 2011. He had 32 saves last season. He was 6-1 with a 2.34 earned run average through 82 games this season.
Yeah, relieving suits Clippard.
"As a starter, I wanted to strike guys out. I felt like having a strikeout per inning was an important stat," Clippard said. "What happened when I did that, I wasn't able to go deep into games.
"Now that I'm a reliever, I can go in there and throw the wagon at them as far as my stuff and pitch the way I want to pitch."
Letting his stuff fly without worrying about pitch counts was the easy part. Adjusting to the pace was another matter, something most converted relievers deal with at first. A starter can map out much of his season in advance, knowing when he is going to pitch and who he is going to face. A reliever could get the call every night. Or get the call to warm up and not pitch. Clippard joked that relievers' contracts should include incentive clauses for the number of times they are asked to warm up but not pitch.
"That was the hardest thing to get used to, sitting down there 5-6 innings with the anticipation of going into a game," he said. "You finally get up, you get warmed up, you throw one inning and it is over. Man, that's it? Now that I've done it a while, those nervous feelings have subsided. There's definitely a different mindset for the bullpen, for sure."
Dennis Eckersley, one of the few to enjoy sustained success as a starter and a reliever, said those who can handle the "adrenaline rush" of the pace of the bullpen can be better than people imagined. That pretty much sums up Clippard.
"You never know how they're going to take that rush," Eckersley said. "It's almost like there's more confidence. A lot of guys surprise themselves. They can handle that rush and they can do stuff you can't believe you could do. They get some confidence and everybody's like, 'What happened?'"
Stammen, 29, wasn't really in the Nats' plans for 2012. He'd made 19 starts in each of 2009 and 2010 with an ERA above five both seasons, though he pitched with large bone chips in his right elbow for part of that time. He had his moments, such as a 3-0 victory over the Yankees in New York in 2009, but the Nationals were overflowing with starting pitching last spring. Even John Lannan, twice an Opening Day starter, was squeezed out as the team had Stephen Strasburg returning from Tommy John surgery and Gio Gonzalez acquired in a trade as part of an upgraded rotation.
A series of five relief appearances after a September 2011 callup from the minor leagues showed maybe there was another role for Stammen. He pitched well during the spring last year. This time, Lannan was sent to the minors. Stammen had a new home — in the bullpen. He's 11-4 as a reliever and his ERA has been below three every season. During one game last year, he struck out six Phillies in two innings. Earlier this year, he threw four perfect innings after Strasburg had to leave with an injury.
"With the amount of knowledge and experience I've gotten, I feel like I've gotten better every year," Stammen said. "If I was starting every one of those years, do I think I would be much better? Yes. But I've found a niche in the bullpen where I have some value to the team and I've been pitching well.
"I don't think I'm going to leave that role."
Starting had its mental challenges, Stammen noted, just as relieving does. It goes back to his point about experience and natural development. Maybe he would have found similar success as a starter by now. That he found it in the bullpen, though, is fine with him. Being a major-league reliever beats being a minor-league starter.
"The physical aspect has very little to do with it," Stammen said. "It is all about the mental side, being able to manage the ups and downs of a baseball game, of a season. I know when I was starting, it was always hard for me to string good outings together. As I've gotten older, I've learned how to manage those ups and downs and stay on an even keel."
Krol, 22, has found the more unpredictable life of a reliever much to his liking. He had a 12-14 record in the minors, mostly as a starter. This season has been his first as a full-time reliever and the numbers have been staggering. He posted a 0.69 ERA in 21 innings at Double-A Harrisburg. The Nationals called him up June 4 and he's been just as impressive. The first hitter he faced got a hit. It was the only hit he gave up in his first 8 2/3 innings. He walked one and struck out 12 in that span. The only left-hander of the three, he's still in awe of being in the majors so soon even as his performance says otherwise.
"All in all," Krol said, "it has been working out great. I was a starter my whole career. I definitely grew up trying to be a starter. When I look at the bigger picture, relieving works best for me.
"Maybe it is more my mentality. As a starter, everything is planned out. I never had planned, don't really plan out my days. This fits me a lot better. Phone call, my name's called, it's time to go."
And go he has. He's a lot like Clippard in that his repertoire works better for shorter periods.
"It was tough for me to focus for 6-7 innings," Krol said, "and face the lineup three times. It is a lot easier for me to focus for one inning, going out there and give it all I have instead of maybe keeping some in reserve."
Some guys can start and relieve successfully. They're rare. Eckersley had 12 or more victories each of the first six seasons of his career. He transitioned to the bullpen after 12 years, at 32 years old, and essentially enjoyed a second career. Now an MLB analyst for TBS, Eckersley finished his career with 197 victories and 390 saves. He was the Cy Young Award winner and AL Most Valuable Player in 1992. He made the All-Star team twice as a starter and four times as a reliever.
John Smoltz is another who had success as a starter and in the pen. Tom Gordon made three All-Star teams as a reliever after starting for much of his early career. He did both jobs for several seasons. He made 25 starts and saved 11 games for Boston in 1997.
"For me, it was a rejuvenation," Eckersley said. "I only had to go 1-2 innings or whatever. My fastball not necessarily came back, but it was OK 1-2 innings. It was a blessing."
Even as he saw how it worked for him, Eckersley said thoughts of starting again were never far away.
"It's a macho thing," he said. "Even at the end of that first year [relieving], it came up. Do you want to start again? I was thinking I could still do that. How dumb is that? If you can't start, it's like you've given up.
"But nowadays? Relieving isn't such a bad thing. You get into getting ready every day. You feel like you're an everyday player. For me, it made me feel younger. I felt like I was 20 again."
That said, and despite their success in the pen, Clippard and Stammen still reserve a part of their brain for the notion they may start again. Stammen, while happy with his current job, said he'd be "eternally grateful for the chance." Clippard said, "The competitor in me still thinks I can do it."
Krol? He said he can't predict the future. In his head, he's made the switch.
"I enjoy being a reliever, 100 percent. Totally," he said. "A lot better than being a starter."
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About the Author
Washington Times sports editor Mike Harris has more than 30 years experience in the business as a reporter, columnist and manager. He’s covered a wide variety of events including two Olympics, horse racing, auto racing, professional and college sports. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow the section on Twitter @WashTimesSports.
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