SweetSpot: Jimmy Key
April, 11, 2011
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireSo far, so good: Alexi Ogando hasn't allowed a run in his first two starts.Alexi Ogando made his second start for the Rangers on Monday afternoon. Ogando spent his rookie season pitching out of the bullpen (and most of his minor league career as well), but late in spring training the Rangers made the unusual move of trying Ogando into the rotation after deciding to keep Neftali Feliz as the team’s closer.
It’s not a move you see very often. Most relievers are in the bullpen for a reason, primarily because they don’t have the stamina to last in the rotation, weren’t able to develop the control or deep arsenal of pitches need to start, or lacked the big fastball managers like to see in a starter. Ogando certainly has the fastball needed, but we’ll see how he develops on the other fronts.
I like the move and Ogando threw seven scoreless innings against the Tigers, allowing just two hits and walk. Why not take a power arm and see what happens? Kudos to the Rangers brass for taking a risk that really isn't much of a risk. If it doesn't work out, just move him back to the bullpen.
Here are a few reliever-to-starter transitions from major league history. (This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, but these seem to be the most significant ones, not including many who may have pitched in relief as rookies, such as Mark Buehrle.) Many of these guys started in the minor leagues, although they all spent most of their early days in the majors in the bullpen.
David Wells – Wells was a second-round pick by the Blue Jays but took six years to reach the majors and he spent his first three seasons in the bullpen, making just two starts. Part of that was there just wasn’t room. The 1989 Blue Jays, who won the AL East, had a rotation of Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key, John Cerutti, Mike Flanagan and Todd Sottlemyre, all of whom posted ERAs less than 4.00. Wells excelled as a setup guy, with a 2.40 ERA over 86 innings. He got his shot the next year, but even then the Jays never fully entrusted a rotation slot to him as he spent three years alternating starting and relieving, helping the Jays win two World Series, before signing with Detroit as a free agent and becoming a starter the rest of his career.
Derek Lowe – Lowe started nine games as a rookie with Seattle before getting traded to Boston. From 1998 through 2001, he appeared in 278 games (he did make 13 starts), proving himself as one of the AL’s most durable relievers. Grady Little replaced Jimy Williams as manager in 2002 and made Lowe a starter and he won 21 games his first season in the rotation.
Charlie Hough – It was a long road to the rotation for the knuckleballer. He started in the low minors but switched to relief in Triple-A with the Dodgers in the early ‘70s. He spent three years there before finally getting a regular job in the major league bullpen. He spent seven seasons there, once pitching 142 innings in relief, but other than 14 starts in 1979, remained stereotyped as a reliever. In 1980, he started out poorly and the Rangers purchased him. In Texas, he languished for two seasons in a mop-up role. Finally, at the end of the 1981 season, he was given a chance to start, won his final four games and became a starter in 1982. He was 34 years old, but would last until 1994, making 417 starts and winning 163 games in that span.
Wilbur Wood – Before Hough, there was Wilbur Wood. Considering Wood’s successful conversion, it’s amazing it took so long before Hough got a rotation shot. Wood first reached the majors when he was 19, although he didn’t exclusively use the knuckleball. He pitched periodically for the Red Sox and then Pirates for five years but never established himself. The White Sox acquired him and Hoyt Wilhelm advised Wood to stick with the knuckler. He spent four seasons as a workhorse reliever, leading the AL three years in a row in games pitched, before joining the rotation in 1971. Over the next five seasons, he started 42, 49, 48, 42 and 43 games, averaging 336 innings per season and winning 106 games.
Kenny Rogers – A 39th-round pick out of high school by the Rangers, Rogers started 56 of 169 games in the minors but spent most of his first four years in the majors as a reliever. Like Lowe, it took a new manager to view him as a starter. Kevin Kennedy took over in 1993, put him in the rotation and he last 16 more seasons.
Jeff Fassero – Like Rogers, Fassero was a low-round pick (22nd) and never a top prospect. Originally drafted by St. Louis, he didn’t reach the majors with Montreal until he was 28. Exclusively a reliever his first two-and-a-half seasons, he joined the rotation in July 1993 and was a very good starter for five more seasons with the Expos and Mariners, later returning to the bullpen.
Omar Daal – Daal had been a reliever for five seasons -- and not a very good one -- with the Dodgers, Expos and Blue Jays when Arizona selected him in the expansion draft and made him a starter. He posted a 2.88 ERA in 1998, won 16 games in 1999 and then was part of the booty that landed Curt Schilling from the Phillies.
Danny Darwin – Darwin was undrafted by the Rangers but took just three seasons to the reach the majors. He spent two years primarily relieving, started in 1981, returned to the bullpen in 1982 and then was back in the rotation in 1983. He’d win 171 games in the majors.
Dave Stewart – Stewart reached the majors with the Dodgers as a hard-throwing reliever in 1981, and while they did give him 14 starts in 1982, they eventually returned him to the bullpen. Traded to Texas, he bombed out of their rotation and was traded to Philadelphia, where he was released. The A’s signed him and he won 20 games in four straight seasons.
Jimmy Key – A third-round draft pick of the Blue Jays out of Clemson in 1982, Key reached the majors in 1984, appearing in 63 games in relief. Despite underwhelming numbers (44/32 SO/BB ratio, 1.65 WHIP), Bobby Cox put him in the rotation in 1985 and he’d finish his career with 186 wins and a 3.51 ERA.
Goose Gossage – Here’s a famous one that didn’t stick. Gossage had led the AL with 26 saves with the White Sox in 1975, pitching 141 innings of dominating relief. Paul Richards replaced Chuck Tanner as manager in 1976 and Richards was an old-school guy from a different era and thought your best pitchers should start. Gossage went 9-17 as a starter, striking out just five more batters than the year before despite pitching 82 more innings. He was traded to Pittsburgh for the 1977 season and never started again.
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