A switch to the ‘pen can often punch a prospect’s ticket to Major League success. Edwin Diaz was a converted starter who found himself closing games for the Mariners the very year the club decided to make him a reliever. The Astros’ multi-inning bullpen weapon Chris Devenski is another success story of a converted starter doing damage in a converted role. Devenski diminished his pitch arsenal in his first season in the bigs, throwing his fastball and changeup over 75% of the time. That pitch combination proved lethal enough to produce a 2.9 WAR in his rookie season.
At a quick glance, Max Povse fits the bill of a pitcher who could benefit from a conversion to the bullpen. He has a reliable fastball with solid mid-90s velocity and, according to Fangraphs, only one plus secondary offering in his changeup. The Mariners decided to test their luck making Povse a reliever in an effort to catalyze his rise to the major leagues; however, the experiment did not go as planned. Povse ran a 6.43 FIP in just three innings of work before getting sent back down. He managed to strike out slightly fewer than five batters per nine innings, a noticeable downtick from his 7.38 K/9 in AA Arkansas earlier that year.
Obviously Povse’s sample size from his brief appearance in the bigs last year was very small, but he failed to generate whiffs with any of his three pitches. His changeup was his best pitch, inducing ground balls on 50 percent of his balls in play; however, the corresponding 12.5% whiff rate wasn’t enough to pave Povse’s way to a fruitful first stint with the Mariners. Something seems off about Povse’s low strikeout numbers out of the pen for the Mariners. He never was a huge swing and miss guy earlier in his development, only posting one season with a K/9 above 8 prior to coming to Seattle. That said, a switch to the ‘pen almost always comes with an increase in strikeouts for tall, projectable pitchers who throw in the mid-to-upper 90s.
One factor that could have influenced Povse’s success was the timing of his transition. Edwin Diaz, who has enjoyed plenty of MLB success since becoming a reliever, had 10 bullpen outings in AA before being called up to the Mariners. Povse, on the other hand, had only pitched once in relief in Arkansas prior to his Major League debut. He was put on the disabled list immediately following that bullpen appearance and missed over three weeks of action. He would make one more appearance in Arkansas as a starter on June 14th before getting called up a few days later. The lengthy hurler had essentially no experience working in relief before his major league debut. His only appearance out of the ‘pen since rookie ball lasted only a third of an inning before he got hurt, and it was over a month before he toed major league rubber for the first time. Povse was in an incredibly unfamiliar situation facing steeper competition.
Max threw his fastball over 70 percent of the time during his time with the Mariners, and was not particularly effective with that pitch. He tried to work his heater in on righties but left a few out to dry in the middle of the zone.
Oddly enough, as shown above, he was punished more for his inside fastballs than anything. This scouting report of Povse suggests that the flatness of his fastball can lead to hits when left higher in the zone. So even though his inside fastballs thrown in the bigs weren’t always over the plate, the fact that they were thrown in the upper-two thirds of the zone allowed hitters to adjust to the relatively flat pitch and generate solid contact.
Povse’s lack of a true out pitch may have also assisted to his struggles out of the bullpen. His changeup is considered his best pitch, but is successful as a result of the weak contact it produces rather than the bats it misses. Considering also that he tightened his repertoire once becoming a reliever and threw far more fastballs, not having a go-to swing and miss pitch made it difficult for Povse to put batters away.
Povse spent the final month of the season in Tacoma and began his stint there working out of the bullpen. From July 24th, a few days after his final appearance as a Mariner, until August 15th, Povse pitched in relief in five of his six appearances. His struggles continued, producing a 5.90 FIP over that stretch. At that point, the Mariners turned back on their decision to convert Povse into a reliever and moved him back into Tacoma’s rotation.
It took a while for Povse to fully stretch back out into a starter (he pitched less than five innings in each of his last four starts of the season); however, he took to the transition into the rotation nicely. The 6’8” slinger struck out 11 batters in 8.2 innings of work while allowing just three runs over his first two appearances as a reconverted starter. He would close the season with a 4.10 FIP over his final four starts in Tacoma, and carried that momentum into the Arizona Fall League. Povse struck out 8.8 batters per nine innings in Peoria.
Jerry Dipoto admitted to making a mistake with Povse’s attempted transition into the bullpen. The failed experiment resulted in wasted time while developing a player that is now, by default more than anything else, the Mariners’ top pitching prospect. His arsenal, which lacks a true out pitch, experienced negative results to pitch effectiveness. As he’s stretched back out to a starter, Povse will need to retool his pitch distribution from the 70 percent fastball usage we saw with the Mariners to a more even split between his fastball, changeup, and slider. A more even split of the three will keep batters more off balance, as they see three different pitches with different speeds and movements, helping manufacture more whiffs.
Povse is still young, though, not turning 25 until August, and with a starting rotation more or less set in stone due to a couple of pitchers running out of options, Povse won’t be needed at the major league level at the beginning of the season. Spring training will give young master Maxwell Walter the opportunity to ride the momentum of a solid close to AAA and a good performance in the Arizona Fall League. It will also help continue the process of stretching him back out into a starter, where he can continue to develop, presumably at the AAA level to begin the year.