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Brett Myers, Reliever: Were We Wrong?

When the news broke in mid-April that the Phillies were moving Brett Myers, their Opening Day starter barely two weeks earlier, to the bullpen, reaction here was unanimously negative. One overwrought commenter wrote the following:

It's mind-boggling how bad an idea this is. It's actually an accomplishment of sorts, a staggering triumph of bad ideas, the Mona Lisa or Cheops Pyramid of bad ideas.

That overwrought commenter? Yo.

In tepid defense of my overreaction, I'll note that part of it was in response to the idea of making Myers a setup man. But considering how long and hard I've railed over the years against the very concept of a "closer," I doubt that I would have been much happier had the team announced Myers would be moving straight into a 9th-inning role.

Granted, we outside the team's executive suites know a little more now than we did at the time: Tom Gordon clearly wasn't long for the active roster, most notably. Of course, we also now know that Freddy Garcia and Jon Lieber, Myers' rotation replacement, weren't much longer off the DL. It's an interesting if unanswerable question whether the Phils would have moved Myers (as opposed to maybe trading for a closer) were they as doubtful about the health of the two vet starters as they evidently were of Gordon.

But we are where we are, and now the issue is whether Myers should stay as the closer in 2008 and beyond. To me, this boils down to a few questions:

  • Is he an exceptionally good closer? Is it likely that he'll be one in the future?
  • What's the difference in value between a great closer and a good starter?
  • Is what he'll be paid acceptable value for a good-to-great closer?
  • What are the implications for his health relieving versus starting?

Let's take them one at a time. I do think Myers is already a well above average closer, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if he ascends to the ranks of the Rivera/Wagner/Hoffman/Gagne-in-his-prime elite. Here are his numbers in the role thus far, compared to the NL closers elected to the 2007 all-star game:

Name ERA Sv/Opp WHIP K/9 HR/9
Myers (as reliever) 2.67 11/12 1.22 13.1 0.3
F. Cordero 3.22 36/42 1.11 11.8 0.2
Fuentes 3.99 20/26 1.2 7.7 1.4
Hoffman 2.09 31/34 0.88 6.3 0.4
Wagner 1.50 29/31 0.96 10.7 0.7
Valverde 2.86 37/43 1.03 10.7 1.1

As a reliever, Myers is averaging a bit better than 13 strikeouts per nine innings, the best of this group and second-best in the league behind Arizona's Juan Cruz.. While strikeouts aren't the end-all be-all for pitchers, they're a pretty good indicator of dominance--and Myers has had quite a few nights out of the bullpen where it looks like the hitters simply have no chance against him.

His home run rate is very low as well--perhaps a fluke of small sample size, perhaps a reflection that with the greater focus of a shorter appearance, he's better able to minimize damage. Home runs allowed are a much a bigger deal for a reliever, obviously, than for a starter. Walk rate is the one indicator in which Myers hasn't looked great statistically, but he's no Mitch Williams; my guess is that too much adrenaline has contributed quite a bit here. In nine appearances since coming off the DL, Myers has allowed just two unintentional walks.

And while this one is mostly subjective, I think his stuff seems better. Myers has shown consistently better fastball velocity since moving to the bullpen, and his curveball has looked sharper. He's not throwing the cut fastball right now--the pitch that elevated him from a mediocre/underperforming starter into a solid #2 who seemed to have ace upside--because of the strain it puts on his teres muscle; next year that could be a third weapon. With a full off-season to prepare for the role, I think he might get even better: to give two examples, converted starters Dennis Eckersley, and Eric Gagne improved from "effective" to "fuhgettabaddit" as they got more comfortable in the role.

Now, the question of whether Myers, or any pitcher, has more value as a shutdown closer or an above-average starter is one that's difficult to figure. I looked at Win Shares and VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) to try and get a rudimentary sense of this, taking data from 2006 for simplicity's sake.

The average number of Win Shares for the 31st through 60th best starting pitchers in MLB was 11.9. (Myers himself earned 11 Win Shares for 2006 as a starter.) The top 10 closers in the game averaged 14.6 Win Shares last season; Jonathan Papelbon, the Red Sox relief ace, paced all relievers with 18. Only seven starters (Santana, Webb, Arroyo, Halladay, Oswalt, Carpenter, and Zambrano) had more, which suggests that a great closer can be as or more valuable than even a well above-average starter.

VORP, on the other hand, seems to give starting pitchers a greater advantage over relievers. For 2006, the highest-valued reliever is Papelbon (38.6), who at #37 comes in behind Myers himself (#28, 40.7). Overall, the average VORP of starters 1-60 who pitched at least 160 IP, 2006 is 39.2. The average VORP of starters 31-60 is 28.8, and the average VORP of the ten most valuable closers (Papelbon, Ryan, Rivera, Nathan, Saito, Francisco Rodriguez, Putz, Wagner, Hoffman and Wainwright) was 32.0. That's close enough, in terms of comparing the roles.

Then again, there are the questions of whether Myers might have emerged as a true ace, which is unquestionably more valuable than even the best closer, and the non-quantifiable value of going into every 9th-inning lead with great confidence the game is in the bag. Increasingly, though, I get the sense that Myers wants to be a reliever. Granted, for what he's being paid, his preference isn't the only consideration. But that extra enthusiasm could make the difference between being good at one job and great at another.

On salary, he's going to make $8.5 million in 2008, and $12 million in 2009 (which would have been his first free-agent year). The latter salary probably would make Myers the most expensive closer in MLB. Billy Wagner's contract calls for him to earn the same $10.5 million in '09 that he'll have made for the first three seasons of the deal. (It's this fourth year that probably moved Wagner to choose New York over Philadelphia; Pat Gillick offered three years.) Wagner and Mariano Rivera share the title of Highest-Paid Closer this year, as they did last season. B.J. Ryan, the currently injured Toronto closer who signed an eye-popping 5-year, $47 million deal before 2006, will earn $10 million in 2009.

It's possible that, say, Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez will be making in the neighborhood of $12 million by then; he's getting $7 million this year in his second arbitration-eligible season. Whether with the Angels or someone else--it's unclear to me when Rodriguez reaches free agency--he's going to be absurdly rich, so long as he stays healthy and effective next year. But if it's not him, it probably will be Myers.

That leaves the health question. To be honest, I don't know how to address that one. Pitchers have made the switch in both directions out of (at least ostensible) conviction that one role or the other would be easier on their arms: Smoltz from starting to relieving in 2001, and Jonathan Papelbon from relieving back to starting this past spring--though that move proved temporary. Myers wasn't switched to the bullpen out of concern for his health; they did it as a triage measure and because they seemed to have sufficient rotation depth. Some have made much of the fact that this then-26 year-old, who had never suffered an injury as a starter, went on the shelf for two months just a month after moving to the `pen. But this might have been entirely unrelated, or a short-term result of the change in routine and preparation. Myers pitched a lot of innings at ages 22-26; he wasn't Carlos Zambrano (much less Mark Prior) in terms of abuse suffered, but he did rank 12th in Baseball Prospectus' Pitcher Abuse Points for 2006.

To sum up, I think the answer to the question of whether it was wise to move Myers to the bullpen depends on what timeframe you're talking about. For this year, it's made some sense--though one can argue that the team would be better off having kept him in the rotation and finding another answer for the bullpen, he's pitched well in the role and evidently has the potential to be really dominant. For next year, assuming he stays in the bullpen, it's likely to work out even better: with a full off-season to prepare, Myers easily could make the 2008 all-star team. Beyond that, who knows: in 2009, he'd likely be the highest-paid closer in the game, and you have to figure he'll want a raise after that, with the Phils or another club. But at the least, our--my--initial predictions of total disaster seem to have been overstated.