When it comes to overall value, a starting pitcher is worth far more than a reliever.
In 2015, the Indians’ Cody Allen had the highest fWAR of any relief pitcher in baseball at 2.6. Among the 77 qualified starting pitchers in the league, 44 reached that number. This year, the most valuable reliever has been the Yankees’ Dellin Betances with 2.5 fWAR — 22 starters have already been worth at least that.
Of course, starters pitch far more innings than relievers, which is why they’re more valuable. At the end of the day, a starter will have more to do with his team winning and losing than a reliever will.
For that reason, many relievers are simply failed starters — good enough to pitch at the big-league level, but not to pitch more than a few innings at a time, for whatever reason. Then, there are pitchers whose arms simply couldn’t take the rigors of throwing 100 or more pitches every five days. The latter category is where the Reds’ Raisel Iglesias fits in, at least for now.
The 26-year-old was a reliever in Cuba before signing with the Reds in 2014 and converting to a starting role. He spent the majority of the 2015 season as a starter, dominating major-league hitters in a seven-game stretch from August to September. Many fans were wondering if they were watching the team’s future ace develop right before their eyes.
But then the first sign of trouble emerged: the right-hander was shut down in early September due to shoulder fatigue. Iglesias got a late start in spring training this year in order to build up strength in his right shoulder, in an effort to keep him healthy the entire 2016 season. He was named the Reds’ Opening Day starter and made five solid starts before more issues struck. This time, it was an impingement of his throwing shoulder.
Iglesias missed nearly two months before making his return. He didn’t come back as a starter, however. To protect the health of his talented arm, the Reds decided to move him to the bullpen, where his workload would be far less strenuous.
While the team did leave the door open for using him in the starting rotation again down the road, there was, understandably, much disappointment for Reds fans when this announcement was made. Iglesias had showed so much promise in his 21 career starts, posting a 3.88 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 3.32 xFIP, while striking out more than a batter per inning. The move wasn’t to fill a need in the bullpen, as it was with Aroldis Chapman in 2010; it was simply because Iglesias couldn’t stay healthy.
Even though the side-winding hurler isn’t in an ideal role where he can bring the most value, the Reds may have found the best alternative. Since returning from the disabled list, Iglesias has made 10 relief appearances and has been a truly dangerous weapon. Typically being used in late, high-leverage situations, he has allowed only one run and seven hits in 20 1/3 innings, while striking out a whopping 29.1 percent of the hitters he’s faced — more than 10 per nine innings.
What’s made his dominance even better for the Reds is that in nine of his outings, he has pitched at least two innings, breaking the mold of the traditional one-frame reliever. Iglesias, along with Michael Lorenzen, has not only brought a degree of stability to the bullpen; he has also brought versatility. Bryan Price can deploy him in crucial late-game situations, but doesn’t need to go to another arm the next inning, maximizing Iglesias’ innings and overall value to the club.
In just over 20 innings, Iglesias is already second among Reds relievers in with a 0.4 fWAR (factoring in his five starts, he’s at 0.9 for the season, tied with Anthony DeSclafani for second on the team). At 0.6, only Blake Wood has been more valuable — and he’s pitched more than double the amount of innings Iglesias has.
The ideal role for Iglesias would obviously be in the starting rotation. He certainly showed he belonged there when healthy and could very well do so again in the future. But is serving as a multi-inning, shutdown reliever the next-best thing right now? Thus far, it’s certainly proving to be.