When Blake Beavan makes his next appearance as a Mariner, it will be his first coming out of the bullpen. Beavan, who has 43 starts under his belt as a member of Seattle's rotation, was shifted to relief work last Friday after Eric Wedge determined newcomer Aaron Harang was ready to contribute as a starter. Harang, acquired on Thursday from Colorado, slides into Beavan's place in the rotation and will pitch Tuesday.
The big surprise isn't that Beavan has been moved to the bullpen, but rather that he lasted so long in the rotation. He's posted a 4.53/4.74/4.79 pitcher-slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP) in his career thus far, mediocre numbers that amount to less than 1 career fWAR over those 43 starts. Additionally, the Texan's 3.98 strike outs per nine innings ranks last in all of baseball among starters since the beginning of 2011. Few pitchers allow hitters to put the ball in play as much as Beavan does, a dangerous approach that leaves him little margin for error and few recent comparables.
The high contact-low ground ball skill set is a loser: it's simply too hard for pitchers who allow a lot of fly balls -- and with them, a number of home runs -- to succeed without also striking out their share of batters, even if they have good control. To illustrate my point, I compiled a list (with a lot of help from Baseball-Reference) of recent pitchers who share Beavan's defining traits, namely an inability to prevent homers coupled with low strike out and walk totals.
Finding precise statistical comparisons to Beavan is actually rather difficult, at least among modern hurlers. Very few flyball pitchers consistently avoid walks and pitch to contact without quickly getting drilled back to the minor leagues (see Vasquez, Anthony) in a hurry. In fact, Beavan is one of only three full time starters in the last 30 years to begin his career with a SO/9 ratio under 4.5, a BB/9 figure under 2, and a HR/9 rate higher than 1 in at least two years of work. He may be a boring pitcher to watch, but at least he's historically dull in his own way.
Since three isn't much of a sample, I relaxed a few parameters a bit to get a broader idea of how pitchers who enter the league with Beavan's skill set fared at the outset of their careers. The following table includes all pitchers in the last 25 years who, in their first three big league seasons, started at least 60% of their games and threw at least 200 innings while maintaining a SO/9 ratio and a BB/9 rate no higher than 5.0 and 2.50, respectively. Finally, I also only included pitchers who posted a HR/9 above 1.0 over that timeframe. All of these arms can be described as 'pitch to contact' starters, even if most aren't quite as dedicated to the craft as Beavan.
Not surprisingly, starters with this skill set haven't performed all that well. We all know that pitch to contact arms generally don't thrive for too long unless they're extreme groundballers. The next question to ask then is how these players performed going forward: in other words, is there anything predictive in this skill set that suggests pitchers simply need to acclimate to the league before they begin having success?
In short, not really. This next table shows the number of appearances, starts, and the ERA+ each of the preceding pitchers earned over the next three seasons. I've tossed Beavan, Tomlin, Porcello, and Alvarez out of the sample because they just finished their first three seasons, as well as Hillman, who played only three years in the big leagues before spending several seasons in Japan. The rest:
None of those pitchers started consistently over the three years after the first sample: Anderson and Litsch shuttled between Triple-A and the majors while the others either found themselves in the bullpen or out of baseball. In general, their underlying skill set didn't change much. Hendrickson and Litsch boosted their strike out and walk totals a bit, but not significantly, and neither really saw his performance improve much anyways. This is just the latest piece of evidence to show that it's very difficult to take the ball every fifth day in the major leagues and that it's nearly impossible to stand out in that role without an ability to generate grounders or miss bats.
While this wasn't a terribly rigorous examination, the results above also indicate that it's difficult for a pitch to contact guy to re-invent himself. We've seen a hundred pitchers in St. Louis and San Francisco learn a cutter or a sinker and post a career season under the tutelage of Dave Duncan or Dave Righetti, but they're the exception, not the rule. It's just really difficult for a pitcher who has demonstrated the absence of an ability to generate grounders or whiffs over a number of years to suddenly develop one of those skills.*
* In an interesting case study, former Royals starter Brian Bannister consciously tried to re-make himself mid-career. Bannister, who was oft-noted for his intelligence while playing in Kansas City, made the self-determination that his 3.87 ERA in 2007 was fluky. It was a classic case of a low BABIP and fortunate sequencing deflating an ERA and Bannister determined that a repeat performance was unlikely. He decided to alter his approach, choosing to pitch up in the zone and trade a few ground balls and walks for more strike outs.
It sort of worked: he did increase his SO/9 all the way from 4.20 to 5.57 in 2008, and he did it without permitting significantly more free passes. Unfortunately, he didn't have the stuff to get away with living up in the zone, and both his home run rate and BABIP surged. Bannister posted significantly worse ERA and FIP ratios in 2008 and he never quite re-captured his 2007 form.
All of this gives Beavan's demotion to the bullpen an air of finality. He will probably start a game for the Mariners again at some point -- he's one injury away from returning to the rotation as early as tomorrow -- but something intangible changed when the M's opted to keep Harang and Brandon Maurer in the rotation at Beavan's expense. It was an acknowledgement that he has neither the present skills nor the upside to warrant a place in the team's current starting five, a sign that implicitly suggests he won't have much of an opportunity to win his spot back.
Wedge's comments to the media about the move indicate as much. Speaking on Friday, the skipper said Beavan "needs to continue to improve. Sometimes when you move a guy to the bullpen, they get a different look and a different feel. Maybe that helps him..." Ultimately, there are too many talented arms in the Mariner system for a guy who's been barely above replacement level in 40+ career starts to get any more extended chances. Barring an enormous adjustment, Beavan is probably a reliever or a swing-man going forward.
I hope this doesn't come across as gloomy, even for Beavan fans. Just about every reliever in the major leagues wound up in the bullpen after struggling as a starter, and obviously, many of those guys are in the midst of successful careers. If Beavan's raw stuff ticks up a notch as a reliever -- as is the case for many pitchers -- he could be quite useful as a strike throwing arm with a mid-90's fastball and the durability to throw multiple innings. He'll initially be used as a long reliever, but given time, he will have an opportunity to earn higher leverage work.
If Beavan has a lengthy big league career ahead of him, it will probably happen in the bullpen. He doesn't project to be anything more than a No. 5 starter, and at this point, it's increasingly unlikely that he carves out a career in the rotation. Hopefully he takes well to relief work, quickly. It's the best outcome for both the team and the player.