The dangers of having starters relieve


When Alfredo Aceves made an emergency start on July 9 in Minnesota, he did so under a strict pitch count, and he quickly reached his 65-pitch limit. For Aceves, it wasn’t a season high. That total came in his season debut when he threw 70 pitches against the Red Sox on May 4. It was, however, a recent high at the time, and he hasn’t approached that figure since early July.

In the three weeks leading up to that start, he threw five and nine pitches on back-to-back days, had two days off and then threw 43 pitches. He enjoyed another two-day rest before throwing 33 pitches. Then he had four full days off and threw five and 35 pitches before a two-day stint on the bench. On July 5, four days prior to his start, he threw 43 pitches.

Since July 9, we’ve heard a lot about Aceves’ various physical ailments. In late July, he spoke of a sore shoulder, and he hasn’t been as effective after the All Star Break as he was before. Many pixels have been burned discussing Aceves’ usage and health, and late last week, Mike looked at how Aceves has had few clunkers that inflate his numbers. As Ace has been outpitching his FIP all season, Mike noted, this period of mediocrity could just be the ever-popular market correction.

After his poor outing against the Red Sox on Sunday, Aceves spoke to reporters about his well-being, and as Peter Abraham reported, Aceves is feeling banged up. “I think my body is adjusting,” he said of relieving.

Aceves had been a starter for his entire Mexican League career and last year with the Yankees. This is the first year he has pitched out of the bullpen, and according to Abraham, Aceves feel it has “taken a physical toll.” After recovering from his sore shoulder, Aceves is now dealing with a sore lower back. “It’s not perfect, but I can pitch,” Aceves said to The Journal-News reporter. “This is my job now. I think I’m going to be fine.”

While the Yankees, on a micro level, need Aceves’ versatile down the stretch, on a macro level, his complaints provide a glimpse into the world of starters-turned-relievers. As Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain have shown, good pitchers make for great relievers. It’s easier for a pitcher to use his best pitches in short stints. He doesn’t have to mix and match to fool hitters during the second or third time through the lineup.

Yet, that transition is not without its risks. For starters used to the physical toll of a five-man rotation — start, ice, rest, throw day, rest, start — life in the bullpen is of a different nature. Pitchers have to prepare to go long but may faced with a five-pitch or nine-pitching outing. They may get the call on consecutive days or on opposite ends of a calendar week.

As the Yankees confront the reality of Phil Hughes in the bullpen and Joba Chamberlain in the starting rotation, the coaches and training staff are well aware of the physical toll of relief work. It’s why they don’t want to put Joba in the bullpen to cap his innings. How they handle Aceves down the stretch should provide a glimpse into how they plan to approach Phil Hughes’ transition back to the rotation next year. Meanwhile, with a seven-game lead and a Magic Number of 32, the Yanks can afford to rest Ace as his physical ailments require. Better now than in October.

Categories : Death by Bullpen


  1. Makavelli says:

    Do you think it depends on the pitcher too? Good perfectly healthy pitchers might have an easier time than a mediocre not-as-healthy pitcher. Or even a mediocre healthy pitcher.

    Maybe we just took his (Aceves) small sample size of success…came to an unfair conclusion…and then he came back down to earth? /Bruney’d

    • jsbrendog says:

      i agree on the SSS thing. people who are clamoring for aceves to be the 5th starter next year because (GASP!!) he had 2-4 great starts in september and now has been dominant in the bullpen are fooled by this. he does not have the stuff to go through lineups 3-5 times a game for 30-40 starts.

      ian kennedy threw 2 great starts in september a few yrs ago and people handed him the 5th starter role. have we learned nothing?

      ace is falling back to earth. BUT, even when back on our planet he is a solid BP arm who can possibly fill in for a spot start if EXTREMELY necessary

      • Chris says:

        Can you name a single 5th starter that does have the stuff to go through a lineup 3 times a game? We need to be realistic with our expectations – you won’t have a rotation with five great pitchers.

        • Can you name a single 5th starter that does have the stuff to go through a lineup 3 times a game?

          Andy Pettitte.

          • Nady Nation says:

            Oh, so if YOU say Pettitte can make it through a lineup 3 times a game, it must be true! I got it now!


          • Chris says:

            He’s a 4th starter.

            • He’d be the 5th starter next year, which is what we’re talking about.

              • Chris says:

                No, he’d be the 4th starter. Hughes would be the 5th starter, and he hasn’t proven that he can go through a major league roster 3-4 time for 30+ starts. Even if Hughes does develop as expected next year, the chances that all 5 starters are healthy and effective for most of the year is very slim.

                That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to put together a roster of great pitchers, but the expectations need to be realistic. If you’re patching together the 5th spot in the rotation by June or July, that’s not the end of the world. The problem is when you’re patching together the 3rd spot (like the Sox this year).

                • The semantic difference between the 4th and 5th starters is pretty negligible in this case between Pettitte and Hughes for 2010, just like it was for Pettitte and Joba for 2009

                  Here’s how we can both come to agreement, though: If the back end of our rotation for 2010 is Pettitte and Hughes, then we won’t have a 5th starter, we’ll have two 4th starters. And both of them will have the stuff to turn a lineup over 3 times, but neither of them should be described as the theoretical concept of the 5th starter, so your statement about the paucity of 5th starters who have the stuff to turn a lineup over 3 times is then true.

                  Good compromise?

      • Tony says:

        Yankees 5th starters must have a 7-8 ERA this season, and you’re saying Aceves couldn’t do that?

      • Makavelli says:

        Agreed. He can be a solid bullpen arm…but he’s not going to be a sub 2.00 ERA bullpen arm constantly. He’s going to get beat up in a few stretches. And that’s what we should expect.

        The thing is…you would think they learned enough with the Rasner, Geise, Ponson experiment last year where you shouldn’t expect much more than that from guys like Mitre, Gaudin, Aceves, etc. But then there’s Brett Tomko who was horrible in the pen for us…and has been stellar with Oakland (in his very own small sample size)

  2. Sam says:

    Agreed, I like Ace as a swing-man out of the pen. Starting when he has to, long relieving, setting up Mo, getting out of a tough bases-loaded one out situation. Whatever. He is an extremely valuable part of the bullpen/team and I think the role he’s in is where he is the most valuable.

  3. Chris says:

    It would seem that there is more risk in the transition from reliever to starter than there is in the transition from starter to reliever. I really believe that Aceves this year and Joba last year are the key reasons why Hughes is not in the starting rotation now.

    • You have a point there.

      (The correct answer is thus that Hughes should have never been put in the pen in the first place, since it would consign him to the pen for the rest of the year and thus destroy the starting pitching depth we’d attempted to smartly stockpile, but that ship has sailed.

      The 6th starter in Scranton >>>>>>>>> the 8th inning guy)

      • Chris says:

        The 6th starter in Scranton >>>>>>>>> the 8th inning guy)

        Except that’s not true. Phil Hughes has been very valuable out of the pen this year. In fact, his WAR this year is higher than Joba’s (1.6 to 1.5).

        In general, a lock down reliever of Hughes’ quality is worth roughly as much as the average 4th starter (not considering his future development, which I think was actually helped by improving his confidence).

        • In fact, his WAR this year is higher than Joba’s (1.6 to 1.5).

          But what is his WAR as a reliever only? Half of his innings have been as a starter, and that’s going to contribute a decent chunk towards his season-long WAR.

          Where do you find his WAR as a starter and his WAR as a reliever?

          • Chris says:

            It’s on Fangraphs. They calculate RAR separately for starting and relieving, then add them and convert the total to WAR.

            For Hughes, he breaks down as 14.4 RAR as a reliever and 2.2 RAR as a starter. Joba is 15.2 RAR as a starter. So Joba as a starter has been more valuable than Hughes as a reliever, but that’s not exactly a fair comparison because Hughes was in AAA in April and in the rotation in May. Looking at it slightly differently, Hughes has been worth about 4.8 RAR each month in the bullpen, compared to 2.2 RAR in the rotation. Joba has been worth about 3.1 RAR each month.

            People get way too worked up over the importance of an 8th inning guy, but a lock-down reliever (someone with an ERA under 2) does have significant value – and it doesn’t really matter if he pitches the 8th, 9th or 4th inning.

      • The 6th starter in Scranton >>>>>>>>> the 8th inning guy)

        Disagree. Having a pitcher who can get outs at the Major League level is far more important than having some guy start in Scranton. The issue is whether Phil Hughes’ future was better served as the 2009 set-up guy or as the Yanks’ 5th starter after Wang went down. I have no problems with the Yanks keeping Hughes on the roster, but I don’t think he should have been left in the bullpen.

        • I have no problems with the Yanks keeping Hughes on the roster, but I don’t think he should have been left in the bullpen.

          But that’s the point: If moving him to the pen means he’s gonna stay in the pen for the rest of the year because moving back to the rotation is too stressful on his arm, should he have not moved to the pen ever?

          If the only options are pitching in the pen immediately or going to back Scranton to stay on a starter’s rhythm and wait to see if Wang is good to go for the rest of the year, isn’t it more prudent to keep Hughes starting?

          Because on June 1st when Hughes went to the pen, Wang was still a gigantic question mark.

  4. A.D. says:

    Makes sense that the most used reliever is also the most banged up. If he’s banged up, rest him/DL him and let Melancon take his innings.

    • jsbrendog says:

      no way i want melancon in high leverage innings until he proves he can throw strikes consistently

      • I don’t know that A.D. was saying that Melancon should take the high-leverage innings that Aceves throws, just saying that the total number of innings that Aceves would be throwing would go to Melancon while Aceves is out.

        Every time someone leaves the pen and someone new comes in, assume that the newcomer enters at the back of the pecking order and the holdovers move down a spot.

        • A.D. says:

          Exactly, I didn’t mean exactly the same role, but more in general the overall innings Aceves soaks up.

          Obviously this would still mean someone less trusted at this point such as Robertson, Burney, Marte, or Coke would be moving into that role, but better to have healthy guys pitching then an unhealthy Aceves, who hasn’t shown to always be effective.

      • Aceves’ recent usage hasn’t been in high-leverage situations.

    • Bo says:

      Melancon has to be able to actually throw strikes before he gets those innings.

      What is wrong with actually earning high leverage innings??

      • Here’s how Melancon did in his last stint with the Yanks when he was up from early July through mid August.

        5 Games, 8 IP, 5 H, 2 ER, 1 BB, 5 KK. 66 percent of his pitches were strikes. As an absurd comparison, Mariano Rivera has thrown 67 percent of his pitches this year for strikes.

        This isn’t to say that Melancon should inherit the high leverage innings, but he’s better than you think.

      • A.D. says:

        Per my & TSJC post above its not the literal same innings, its the innings out of the pen overall, someone else would have to step up for Aceves innings

  5. Makavelli says:

    Is El Duque available? LOL

  6. Bo says:

    Finally realizing that the spot start ruined Aceves. I hope this will end the clamoring for Hughes to spot start to “get innings”

  7. C Bleak says:

    The conclusion is that Aceves is a guy that pitched most of his career in the Mexican league and it’s completely within the realm of possibility that coming close to a full year through the league he might not be someone who pitches to a 2.5 era. Is it that hard to believe that maybe he just isn’t that good?

    • This seems to make a little bit of sense.

    • Makavelli says:

      Been saying this for years…but a lot of people who preach about “small sample sizes” sometimes turn the other cheek when it comes to certain players on our team with ridiculously small sample sizes…

      Kennedy, Aceves, Bruney, Mitre…(just kidding)

  8. Sweet Dick Willie says:

    start, ice, rest, throw day, rest, start


  9. Tank Foster says:

    I think this is a great blog entry. It brings up the whole question of what, specifically, causes stress to pitchers. Right now, the world is focused on pitch counts, and some of the more sophisticated analyses (“Pitcher abuse points”) attempt to put pitch counts in the context of frequency of use, etc.

    While I think tracking pitch counts and frequency of use is important, I think one thing that gets overlooked in pitching analyses is the intensity of the effort. If you look at pitchers from 80-100 years ago, who would pitch 300 innings per season, start and complete both games of a double header, etc., it doesn’t take much thought to conclude that the degree of effort required of these pitchers must have been considerably less than it is today.

    Probably, even in the Babe Ruth era, there weren’t more than 3-4 batters in any order who were a serious threat to hit homeruns, and so pitchers could just throw batting practice fastballs down the middle and hope for the best.

    The reason pitchers can’t complete games today is that they have to work very hard on nearly every batter, and more and more batters are tuned into pitch counts and have learned to be patient, foul off pitches, and essentially tax the pitchers more.

    It’s a perfect storm against pitching right now: Smaller ballparks, probably smaller strike zone, perhaps livelier ball, thin-handled, light bats, no use of dirty or scuffed balls, no tolerance for throwing at batters to back them off the plate, legalized “body armor” for batters, more physically fit, stronger athletes throughout the batting order, the DH, the lowered mound, thirty teams, each needing 12-13 pitchers, more than doubling the number of pitchers and diluting the talent pool relative to, say, the 1960s…

    Unless things are done to tip the scale a bit back towards the pitcher, we’re going to see more and more problems with pitchers, injuries, etc.

    • Sweet Dick Willie says:

      And after striking out, batters of yesteryear didn’t have the option of watching video to see if they could pick up some nuance in the pitcher’s delivery that they could exploit in their next AB.

    • Probably, even in the Babe Ruth era, there weren’t more than 3-4 batters in any order who were a serious threat to hit homeruns, and so pitchers could just throw batting practice fastballs down the middle and hope for the best.

      Yeah, but on the flipside, pitchers today can throw inside on guys without living in fear of getting stabbed in retaliation.

      Ty Cobb

    • Tank Foster says:

      Nirvana for me would be to have little to no reduction in overall offense, but significantly fewer homers and walks. Yeah, mathematically, that’s a pretty tall order…but the homers and the walks are what kill the pitchers. High offense is good because the exciting part of baseball is scoring runs.

      “Chicks love the long ball” but maybe that’s because they’ve never seen any other kind of offense. Offense where there are lots of guys on base, lots of balls in play and base hits, with runners running bases and fielders forced to throw the ball around and make plays…that to me is the most fun thing to watch in baseball. We don’t seem to see it as much. It happens, but it’s mainly an on-base/homer game now.

      • The phenomenon that was Babe Ruth disagrees with your second paragraph.

        Baseball was a great game before Ruth came along and started hitting homers like candy. The game then altered itself to maximize the importance of the home run hitter because the fans loved it and it made money. The sport has never looked back. In fact, the popularity of baseball has waned whenever homers have decreased and has returned when the homers returned.

        • Tank Foster says:

          How do you substantiate your claim that the popularity of baseball has waned when homers have decreased, and vice versa?

          And to pick a nit, the Ruth phenomenon does not disagree with my second paragraph. I wrote “to me,” in describing what I find fun in baseball. I wasn’t saying that this type of offense was more popular with fans in general.

          I was implying that it might, however; since there is nobody alive who has really seen the type of baseball with lots of offense and fewer homers.

          I’m not suggesting 1911, with the homerun king hitting 12. I’m suggesting something closer to 1970s/80s era baseball, when homeruns were about 20% less than today (guessing….), but there were many different types of offensive players, including lots of slap hitters, stolen bases, high average, line drive hitters with less homer power (Al Oliver, George Brett for much of his career).

          It’s all tied in with walks, too. The patient hitters, more walks, s l o w e r g a m e s……

          Baseball’s popularity today shouldn’t be attributed solely to the homerun explosion. I think it could be just as much a byproduct of the economic explosion of the 1990s, which made possible newer, nicer ballparks that fans are more likely to want to visit. It’s entirely possible that had these new parks been built as pitcher-friendly, rather than hitter friendly (as most of them are), we would STILL have seen the surge in popularity.

          We also have to remember that baseball is still a very regional game. Outside of NY, St. Louis, LA, Chicago, and Philadelphia, the game is not really very popular, or is at least a distant second to football. Looking at overall attendance and revenue figures and concluding that all is well might be short-sighted. The game, as it is played today (long, often boring tedious games with multiple pitcher changes, etc.), is not a great television sport. Games which moved faster and had lots more ‘action,’ might be able to attract more interest on TV than the current form does.

      • Chris says:

        Bigger stadiums would help.

        That would reduce home runs, and put more of a premium on outfield speed (to cover the larger fields). The three outcome hitters, like Dunn, who generally get a BB, K, or HR would be reduced because the best outcome would be much less likely.

        • Steeve says:

          I’m being picky since i know your overall point, but Dunn was the worst example you could have given. He is the last hitter who would be affected by bigger stadiums(Ask Chien Ming Wang).

  10. DreDog says:

    We need a new thread to discuss Rosenthal’s latest Yankee news.

  11. Dexception32 says:

    I’m confused, besides the fact Aceves had to come back to earth a bit, why are we ignoring that he’s been banged up since they asked him to try and stretch out, this is less an issue of the bullpen eating up a starter, than it is the dangerous back and forth game one has advocated for with the like of Joba and Hughes in the same season. I don’t think the stretching out concept can be reduced to the simplistic levels I’ve seen on here, its a bad idea period. Hughes is most definitely a starter, but I’d much rather he have an offseason to prepare for such.

  12. A.D. says:

    Might just be Joba switched for Bruney/Robertson

  13. 2005 – .266/.330/.414 (96+)
    2006 – .275/.388/.594 (150+)
    2007 – .276/.353/.525 (126+)
    2008 – .284/.376/.500 (125+)
    2009 – .336/.425/.527 (150+)

    You’re half right.

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