Sunday, September 25, 2005

The Pursuit of Hector

Remember that nonsensical line from Bill Clinton's second inaugural address? You know the one: "Nothing big ever came from being small." Everyone near where I was standing shrugged at that one, too.

The line didn't tangle up Hector Carrasco, though. Why, if his quote in
Rocket Bill's Sunday notes column is any indication, Hector's taken the big guy's words to heart:

Last Thursday, Carrasco made his third consecutive start and shut out the Giants for 5 2/3 innings. He struck out a career-high eight batters and walked four. As a starter, he has given up two runs in 15 2/3 innings (1.15 ERA) and struck out 17. He has taken a liking to his new role, and
would like to be strictly a starter next season.

Carrasco, exhibiting some rather "big-thinking," also noted this preference
in a story by Barry Svrluga on Friday. In that article, St. Barry reported that Randy St. Claire has introduced a changeup into Carrasco's arsenal, and this addition was cited as a key to Carrasco's success. The article referenced a "conundrum the Nationals find themselves in now" concerning Carrasco's future with the team (assuming he's indeed coming back). Carrasco, of course, wants to be known as a starter; Frank Robinson seemed to envision a swing-man.

Carrasco turns 36 next month and has appeared in 560 career games; over the years, he's made all of four starts, including his last three outstanding appearances. Let's imagine that, pursuant with his hopes and dreams, Carrasco successfully transitions to starting pitching next season. I offer that this accomplishment would be almost unprecedented in the history of Major League Baseball.

Here's the all-time leaders in career appearances (Nos. 1-100); this list starts at 647 appearances. And here's the active leaders; this list starts at 588 career appearances, which nearly brings us to Carrasco.

Has there ever been a pitcher who has done what Carrasco seeks to do? That is, has anyone transitioned from career reliever to starting pitcher well into his thirties and with at least 500-600 career appearances under his belt? Unless I'm missing someone, I see only one:

Craig Lefferts.

Entering the 1992 season, Lefferts was 34 years old and had appeared in 582 career games. He owned five career starts (just like Carrasco, as of tomorrow evening), and those five were a really, really long time ago---back in his rookie season of 1983. For much of his career, Lefferts had been your typical No. 1 lefty reliever/fireman, back before the emergence of
the lovable LOOGY. After debuting with the Cubs in '83, he spent the better part of the next decade shuttling between San Diego and San Francisco. He was a key member of two World Series (losers') bullpens (Pads in '84, Giants in '89) and sported a work product good for an ERA+ around the 110s. Based upon my recollection of a subset of Giants' fandom back then (relatives in the Bay Area whom I'd visit in the summers), Lefferts was regarded as decent but not reliable.

In '91, Lefferts had his worst season. Though he matched his career high with 23 saves, Lefferts posted then-career worsts in ERA (3.91) and ERA+ (97). It wasn't an excruciatingly horrid season, but back in those pre-offensive explosion days a near-four ERA from your bullpen ace just wouldn't do. (Come to think of it, such performance wouldn't even do in these days.)

Lefferts, who started those aforementioned five games as a guy in his mid-20s nearly a decade earlier, converted to a rotation starter in 1992. I seem to recall the move was long-discussed, though I could be making that up. At any rate, Lefferts was purely a starter for both the Padres (27 starts) and, during a failed stretch run, the Orioles (five starts). The results, on the whole, were so-so (98 ERA+).

The salient point is that I'm not sure this had ever happened before in the history of the major leagues. I could be missing someone, but I don't think I am.

Should Carrasco get his wish of claiming a starting role---and should he actually keep the spot---he'd follow in Lefferts' legacy, but Carrasco's feat would almost inarguably represent a more extreme conversion. First of all, though he owned only those five starts long ago, Lefferts was actually treated as a starter in those outings; twice, he pitched at least seven innings, and in one of those games he pitched into the eighth. Carrasco,
as previously noted, made his starting debut in 2000 on a short and strictly emergency basis; late this season, he's building stamina, but I don't see him going "starter's innings" in his final two shots before the end of the year.

Beyond that, Carrasco is a year or two older than Lefferts was, and he is a "modern" reliever---whereas Lefferts was a "1980s" reliever. The long and short of that is Carrasco's average appearance historically has been much shorter than Lefferts' average appearance, he routinely would go two or three batters longer. That might not mean much when we're talking about starting pitching, but it does indicate that Lefferts was used to being stretched out longer.

In sum, I think Lefferts (for one season, as it were) did something that had never been done before; Carrasco, if he does likewise, would also in a sense be doing something unprecedented.


Rightly or wrongly, it is impossible to consider Carrasco's unexpected career twist without thinking about
Chuck McElroy. Those who followed the Orioles in recent seasons probably remember a couple of startling appearances by McElroy in late September 2000: in two unexpected starts, McElroy allowed one run in 11 innings---against two playoff teams, at that! (Oakland and New York, if you're keeping score.)

McElroy was installed as the O's fifth starter out of the box in '01, and he was legitimately used that way. Five of McElroy's first six '01 appearances were as a starter (the one exception was a blow-out loss to Detroit in which he recorded two outs); however, McElroy pitched horridly in all but the first start, and the experiment ended.

McElroy, almost 33 when he made those two late-season starts in 2000, is perhaps more comparable to Carrasco than Lefferts was. He had no previous starting experience (to say nothing of not having pitched into the eighth as a starter, as Lefferts had), and his past usage was similar to Carrasco's.


All of this is not to say that Carrasco can't transition into successful (and healthy) starting pitcher, but it is to say that it's not particularly likely. In other words, the Nats should not bank of it. Fortunately, St. Barry's article portrays Carrasco's wish as a rather singular one.

Robinson's apparent vision of Carrasco as a swing-man---or, as Bill James once called it, a "staff stabilizer": a guy who can start and relieve as necessary---is perhaps more realistic. Again, it's not something that has a whole lot of basis in the history of baseball; in fact, such a late-career change, even of this lesser magnitude, would be of essentially the same precedential value. Armed with both opportunity and his new changeup, however, maybe Carrasco can do this. Even 100-110 innings of swing work would be a boon.

Nevertheless, I find myself skeptical with Carrasco. Too much could happen between now and next season. That includes contractual considerations (recall Carrasco was a lowly non-roster invitee and figures to make guaranteed money somewhere), but it also accounts for the tweaks and tears 36 year-olds invariably receive. Who's to say he doesn't experience tightness in his shoulder or elbow next spring? That would scuttle plans of extending him out rather quickly.

The question remains, though, whether the answer to the question "Why hasn't Hector Carrasco started previously?" is Opportunity or Skill. (Or maybe the first follows the second? That was my original position, a week or two ago.) I confess he's doing marvelous work in demonstrating the former to be the case and---perhaps in a more limited basis next year---there's no reason beyond skepiticism or speculation why he can't keep on answering the question in the same way.

Good research!

I'm sure opportunity and skill combined. Once a player gets typecast, he's set in a role. Ask Rick Short about that.

The only time they're allowed to shift roles, especially when they're around as long as Hector is, is because of desparation. In this case, if it wasn't for Bodes' incompetence, Hector would still be relieving.

That being said, it's also skill. Hector has never had a season like this one. It's basically a career year. The Barry story gives us an idea why, though. He's learned a new skill, the changeup.

So Carrasco, who has primarily been a fastball/splitter pitcher, has learned an offspeed pitch to compliment that, giving him at least two effective pitches, and one pitch that's good enough to keep the hitter off balance.

One of the reasons that failed starters make such good relievers is that you only usually need two effective pitches to relieve.

If Carrasco's third pitch develops, there's no reason he coudln't be effective in the reverse role in certain spots.

I wouldn't pencil him in as a Cy Young winner, but if you need a spot start, or a reliever to give you three innings out of the pen, he could be the guy.
I don't doubt that nearly as much as I did two weeks ago. :-)

Nevertheless, I'm not sure Rick Short is a good analogy. He's a pretty good player who got stuck in the minors, although he probably could have helped in the big leagues in previous years. That's not rare; there's a whole Ken Phelps All-Star Team to demonstrate that these guys exist. :-)

A better analogy might be Short spending his entire career as a mediocre second baseman and then instanteously switching to CF. He might have had the skill all along, but he never exhibited it. And he never got a chance to along the way, because he'd be a tremendously unlikely guy just to make the effort worth one try.

Of course, Carrasco's new changeup might change things---like adding a "fast tendon" in Short's knees or something. ;-)
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