We know that starters are more valuable and harder to come by than relievers. Starters pitch more innings than their bullpen compadres and must face a lineup multiple times. Because of these factors, starters often have a different skillset than relievers.
When evaluating whether a pitcher should be a starter or reliever, I like to look at three major factors, though I acknowledge there are other things to consider. My big three are as follows:
- Raw stuff
A pitcher who struggles with any of these three areas can find himself in the bullpen. Those with the stuff may not be able to command it. Pitchers with good command but only two worthwhile pitches may become too predictable to work through a lineup two or three times. Starters who get chronically injured end up in the bullpen because their arms can’t handle 175+ innings.
That brings us to Brandon Finnegan. After losing most of 2017 to injury, Finnegan arrived to Spring Training with a starting pitching spot locked up. Yes, Bryan Price (remember him?) framed it differently, suggesting that Finnegan merely had a leg up on the competition. But even with Amir Garrett pushing the issue and Finnegan struggling with injury and performance (8 hits and 2 walks in 5.1 innings), the Reds handed Finnegan a rotation spot.
What gave the Reds such confidence in Finnegan? Presumably, it was a solid 12-start stretch at the end of 2016 where Finnegan posted a 2.93 ERA. Quite impressive. Since then, the Reds have insisted through their actions that Finnegan is a cut above the other young starters competing for rotation spots.
However, an ERA over a relatively small span can be deceiving. For example, Michael Lorenzen’s had a 3.38 ERA through his first ten starts in the Major Leagues. He was keeping runs off the board but was he pitching well? The more predictive statistics would suggest no.
Lorenzen was striking out only 14.8% of batters and walking an alarming 12.5% in that span. His SIERA, maybe the best predictor of future ERA, was 5.38. It was only a matter of time before things went south. Lorenzen’s ERA over his next ten starts was 8.32, even as the metrics improved some.
The lesson? ERA doesn’t mean everything, at least when it comes to future performance. Finnegan had a 2.93 ERA in the second half of 2012, and his strikeout rate improved drastically from the first half as he developed a nasty changeup. He also lowered his SIERA from 5.39 to 4.25; no doubt, Finnegan improved quite a bit and showed he has the stuff to be a starter.
That still leaves two important factors to consider, and both of those look less rosy for Finnegan.
While his BB% improved from the first half in 2016, it was still 10.6%, which would have been the third worst BB% in all of baseball over a full season, with 10.7% being the worst. It’s hard to walk that many people and maintain success. Finnegan also let up 11 homeruns in those 13 starts.
Overall, Finnegan posted the worst BB% (11.4%) of any qualified starting pitcher in 2016.
Two things can simultaneously be true about Finnegan’s second half in 2016: his stuff improved dramatically as he developed his changeup, and his control problems remained a red flag to his long-term starting chances.
It’s early, but Finnegan has struggled mightily with command to begin the season. He has nine walks in 12.1 innings and only ten strikeouts. He’s let up 18 hits.
We can’t discount the fact that Finnegan hasn’t pitched much in the last year and that he might be rusty. Also, young pitchers improve their control/command all the time. Finnegan just turned 25, so he has time to figure it out.
But another major concern with Finnegan starting long term is his health. In 2017, a year after throwing more professional innings than he ever had, he injured the same muscle twice. He had a slight setback in Spring Training this year.
Those injuries do not disqualify him from starting, even if they are troublesome. My biggest fear is that Finnegan’s herky jerky mechanics led to such injuries and that they will continue to do so. His max effort delivery looks more in line with a lefty reliever than a starter, and if it causes health problems, it doesn’t matter how much Finnegan’s command improves.
We’ve seen some awkward and concerning deliveries work out in the past. Chris Sale is a good example. So, I think it unwise to discount Finnegan solely on the basis of his strained-looking mechanics; I can’t ignore it either.
By my big three test, Finnegan remains a major question mark as to whether he should start or work out of the pen. He has the stuff, but until he shows he can command those pitches and stay healthy, Finnegan should not get the benefit of the doubt over other young pitchers.
I’m not ready to give up on Finnegan pitching 175+ innings, but he should be in the same group as Tyler Mahle, Sal Romano, Amir Garrett, and Robert Stephenson and not a cut above. His second half in 2016 was encouraging; it was not entirely clarifying.