SweetSpot: Kevin Slowey

Quality sixth starters

May, 20, 2011
When the Cardinals lost Adam Wainwright, they didn’t just lose a reliable Cy Young contender, they were confronted with the challenge almost every team has had to overcome, every year, going back to forever: How do you replace a rotation regular? As it turned out, they had a ready alternative in Kyle McClellan, who became the National League’s first six-game winner on Thursday.

[+] EnlargeKyle McClellan
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesKyle McClellan is 6-1 for the St. Louis Cardinals this season.
At first blush, McClellan’s breakthrough is a straightforward reminder that teams can find useful starting pitchers in the bullpen; the Rangers fished C.J. Wilson out of relief before their pennant-winning 2010 season, after all. But wherever a sixth starter comes from, the larger point is that there isn’t a team in baseball that doesn’t need him. Going back to 1901, just five teams have managed to get through a full season while using five starting pitchers, and three of those clubs played in the first few years during the Deadball Era, when workloads, pitching schedules and offensive levels were very different. Only two ballclubs -- the 1966 Dodgers, and the 2003 Mariners -- have managed the feat of using five starters in the 162-game season. Even then, the Dodgers may not have had the dead ball, but future Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax, Don Sutton and Don Drysdale had the benefit of the high mound, which helped scoring plummet during offense’s little ice age.

That’s the sort of information that ought to depress anybody who might be wondering whether his or her team’s rotation will make it through a full season. No matter how carefully a staff’s workload is managed, even in today’s pitch-count-conscious era, as a group any front five isn’t going to make it through a season without something going awry. Somebody’s going to break down, need additional rest or deserve to be bumped for plain old ineffectiveness.

As a result, any well-run franchise has to lay in reserves if it wants to keep its rotation in working order. With that in mind, beyond McClellan, which sixth men have already had to be plugged in, and have answered the call? Using WAR as a quick way to rank the best starters who have had to step into someone else’s slot, and SIERA to tell us which way their ERAs are probably headed, here’s a rotation’s worth of the best replacements:

* Values not updated through Thursday's action, but I will once those numbers are published.

Zach Britton, Orioles: Britton’s hardly your classic sixth man since the power lefty came into the season as the O’s top pitching prospect. That’s the virtue of an Orioles system stuffed with pitching talent, as Britton’s anticipated arrival inspired Jeremy Guthrie trade rumors. However long it took until Britton was ready, former prospects like Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and Brad Bergesen were going to be pitching for their jobs in the meantime, even after Justin Duchscherer’s regularly scheduled debilitating hip injury. However, after Brian Matusz’s spring training back injury created one more open slot for Britton, the Arrieta/Tillman/Bergesen trio is now locked into a battle to determine who will become the depth chart’s sixth starter du jour, because Britton’s trip up the totem pole looks strictly one way.

Alexi Ogando, Rangers: Calling Ogando even the team’s sixth starter might be a bit generous in terms of his ranking on the depth chart, because between Brandon Webb’s super slo-mo comeback, Neftali Feliz’s job-title drama and Tommy Hunter’s spring injury, even then he was behind lefty Matt Harrison in the queue to get a starting gig. However, between showing improved touch on his slider to neutralize lefties and a four-seam fastball hitters swing through, Ogando has rattled off seven quality starts in eight. Now it looks like he won’t be anyone’s sixth man again any time soon. Harrison has been fine in his slot as well (6-for-8 in quality starts), putting the Rangers in the happy position of being able to take their time with Webb and Hunter while guaranteeing that Feliz’s future will continue to be as the club’s designated saves-generator.

Tyson Ross, Athletics: With Dallas Braden done for the year after surgery on a torn capsule, the A’s ambitions for AL West contention had to fall on somebody else’s shoulder -- it turned out to belong to Ross, a hard-throwing Cal product who spent much of last year in a mop-up middle-innings role. Unfortunately, he left Thursday’s game with a strained oblique, so we’ll see who may have to come out from behind door No. 7 for Oakland.

Philip Humber, White Sox: If anyone might seem like a classic example of a fifth-slot aspirant, it might be Humber, a strike-throwing finesse righty in a world that generally doesn’t show them a lot of love. Hop-scotching from the Royals to the A’s to the White Sox via waivers, he was plugged in as a well-traveled temp once Jake Peavy’s ambitious Cactus League campaign to come back was stopped short. Humber has subsequently served notice that he can mix pitches effectively enough to be kept around, as Ozzie Guillen has decided to run with a six-man rotation for the remainder of the month now that Peavy’s back.

Looking at the group, McClellan ranks among but not clearly atop this quintet, and the direction that his SIERA suggests his ERA will be headed is far from promising. Then again, if his performance in the peripheral data -- the information that reflects dominance -- had been great in the first place, he probably wouldn't have been a sixth man. Perhaps what's especially important so far is that McClellan has been durable, and health is a valuable skill, one that Ross might already envy.

And what group of five starting pitchers would be complete without a sixth man ready to potentially step in? My pick would be the Twins’ Kevin Slowey, who only finds himself in the extra man’s predicament because of the Twins’ faith in Nick Blackburn and Brian Duensing, despite Slowey’s stronger recent performance in a rotation and stronger projections (3.93 via PECOTA, 4.33 per ZiPS). But as any of these other former sixth men might be able to say, tomorrow’s opportunity can be found on the other side of today -- and perhaps someone else’s misfortune.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Podcast: Rob Neyer on Slowey, K-Rod

August, 16, 2010
Rob Neyer explains why he agrees with Ron Gardenhire's decision to pull Kevin Slowey during a no-hitter and why the Mets couldn't suspend Francisco Rodriguez for more than two games.

Slowey pitching with new wrist

March, 3, 2010
Sure, Kevin Slowey's ready for a nice comeback this season. Well, except for those two hunks of metal in his wrist. David Dorsey:

    Slowey described his wrist surgery as a reconstruction. He has a scar on the outside part of his wrist that glowed pink after he finished icing it.

    "They had to cut down some tendons and pull out some tissue and bones that were no longer necessary and just kind of floating around in there," Slowey said. "It was about 15 weeks of rehab to get back to full movement."

    Slowey said his wrist feels different. He has two screws in it.

    "You always project yourself to be where you want to be," Slowey said. "I don't know that I'm going to ever feel the same like I did before.

    "But that's OK. You know, I've got two screws in my wrist. So I shouldn't expect to feel like I felt before."


    Known for his pinpoint control, Slowey said he hopes to maintain that following the surgery.

    "At the end of the year, I guess I'll let you know," Slowey said of whether he expects to improve even more in his third full major league season. "I hope that's the case. I hope that things go well. I expect to go out and compete.

    "If things don't go the way I want them to, it won't be because of any lack of preparation or lack of effort."

As Gleeman points out, "Slowey tends to be relatively blunt when interviewed, so hopefully he was painting an overly pessimistic picture of his status, but even late last season there were rumblings about the screws hurting his range of motion. For a pitcher who relies on pinpoint control, that sounds scary."

Slowey doesn't throw hard, and with the exception of his slow curveball there's not much difference between his fastball and his other pitches. He has to pound the edges of the strike zone like the latter-career Greg Maddux. If he can't do that, he can't really pitch.

This isn't merely an academic discussion. The Twins did squeak into the playoffs last year without getting much from Slowey, but I'm not sure they can do that again. Not with Scott Baker and a quartet of question marks in the starting rotation. The Twins won't have a Cy Young candidate and they don't need one. But it would be nice to have more than one starter with 200 innings and a better-than-average ERA.

Twins lose Slowey for season

July, 28, 2009
As Joe Christensen writes, the Twins' postseason chances have just taken a serious blow:
    The list of Twins needs heading into Friday's non-waiver trade deadline grew Monday, when they learned that starting pitcher Kevin Slowey will undergo season-ending surgery on his right wrist.

    The Twins were focusing their trade efforts primarily on relievers and middle infielders, though even before getting the Slowey news, they inquired about Toronto's Roy Halladay and Seattle's Jarrod Washburn.

    Halladay did not include the Twins on his list of teams for which he would waive his no-trade clause, according to a person familiar with the talks. And though the Twins came close to a deal for Washburn last August, they aren't optimistic this time.


    Rookie Anthony Swarzak is now entrenched in a rotation that includes Glen Perkins, Scott Baker, Francisco Liriano and Nick Blackburn. Perkins, for one, has mentioned shoulder concerns, and if the Twins need another starter, their best options reside in their bullpen, with R.A. Dickey, Bobby Keppel and Brian Duensing.

    Slowey, 25, went 10-3 with a 4.86 ERA this season and has been on the disabled list since July 4. He had been trying to rehab the injury but had another setback Friday.

Slowey's ERA isn't anything special, but he's got the best strikeout-to-walk ratio in the rotation. He will be missed. Swarzak, his replacement, has a fine ERA but doesn't seem to have the skills to support it. Not yet, anyway. Meanwhile, Liriano keeps getting roughed up; when he's not walking guys, he's giving up home runs.

It's too early for the Twins to give up. They're only three games out of first place, they're trailing two teams (Detroit and Chicago) that have plenty of issues of their own, and any club featuring Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer has a puncher's chance. But considering the Twins' huge holes in the middle of the infield, the outfield and now in the rotation, you wonder how long the center can hold.

Greinke's Cy Young competition

June, 18, 2009
From a few days ago, George Bretherton on the AL's best pitchers:
    Who says it's a two-horse race for this season's American League Cy Young Award?
    Kansas City's Zack Greinke (8 wins, 1.72 E.R.A.) and Toronto's Roy Halladay (10 wins, 2.53 E.R.A.) deserve front-runner status, but indications are that the field for the A.L. award will be crowded.

    Three other starters -- Detroit's Edwin Jackson, Anaheim's Jered Weaver and Seattle's Erik Bedard -- have E.R.A.'s under 2.50, and could make a summer charge.

    From off the pace, Detroit's Justin Verlander (9.00 E.R.A. after four starts) and Boston's Josh Beckett (7.22 E.R.A. after five starts) are moving into contention. Verlander (7-0, 1.10 E.R.A. since April 27) was so good in Wednesday's 2-1 complete-game win over the White Sox that Chicago's John Danks raved about Verlander's "almost PlayStation stuff."
Remember when Zack Greinke was obviously the best pitcher in the universe? Players do have a tendency to regress to their mean, though. After Wednesday night's game, Greinke's ERA is 1.96 (and it would be 2.05 if not for an exceptionally questionable scoring decision). After allowing two or fewer runs in each of his first 10 starts, Greinke has given up four, seven, three and six runs in his last four starts.

Overall, Greinke's still got the best numbers in the American League. But if we consider recent trends (though not so much) and less-recent history (much), we have to figure that Verlander and Halladay -- assuming he comes back quickly from his injury -- will be in the mix, and I wouldn't discount the chances of Felix Hernandez or Beckett, either (not to mention dark horses like Kevin Slowey, who's got nine wins already).

Greinke hasn't pitched all that bad in his recent starts. He's just been a little less lucky and a little less sharp -- last night he somehow managed to walk Chris Young twice -- and he's gotten little support from his relatively untalented teammates. He is among the best pitchers in the league, but I now consider him a real underdog for the Cy Young, if only because he's not likely to get much run support the rest of the way.

Meanwhile, in the National League, Tim Lincecum's making a serious bid to win his second straight award, though he too will have to cope with lousy run support from his mates. If that doesn't work out, Chad Billingsley's a solid candidate. And then there's Dan Haren and Javier Vazquez, both enjoying brilliant seasons but with only nine wins between them.