Starters Are Significantly More Valuable Than Relievers

The headline is an obvious statement, but I had yet to see an actual number put on the gap between starting and relieving until now. Tom Tango said the following:

The replacement level pitcher as a starter has a .380 win%. Move that starter to relief, and his win% goes up by about .09, or .470 win%. That’s it.

The average starter has a win% of .490 and the average reliever has a win% of .520 (more or less, and by win% I mean based on his pythag component ERA). As you can see, the average reliever is not that much better than the replacement-level pitcher as reliever. That’s why we say relievers are a dime a dozen. So, the average starter is +.11 wins per 9 IP and he uses up two-third of the innings. The average reliever is +.05 wins per 9 IP and he uses up one-third of the innings. If you follow along, the average starter gives you twice the value, per inning, as the reliever, and he gives you twice the innings. That sets the value of the average reliever of 25% of the average starter (1/2 times 1/2). This number goes up a little when you add in the leverage impact of relievers.

When people bring up Joba Chamberlain and suggest he belongs in the bullpen, I frequently explain that starters are significantly more valuable than relievers, such that it makes sense to give him every chance to succeed out of the rotation. Even if Joba is a top reliever and simply an average starter, his value is almost certainly going to be greater taking the ball every five days. Unless he tanks entirely in that role, the “bull in a china shop mentality” and all of that psycho-babble garbage that gets spewed to support moving him to the pen should be viewed as largely irrelevant. The job of the team is to extract as much value as possible from Joba, and having him in the rotation is the best way to do so.

0 thoughts on “Starters Are Significantly More Valuable Than Relievers

  1. I follow the math but I disagree that the conclusion necessarily follows.I think Joba’s optimal utilization would depend on the particular composition of the club he is on, not in relation to some generic replacement level starter or reliever. Suppose in a particular year, Joba were to prove to be an average starter on a team that had 6 starters-including him- who were average or above but was better than any of the relievers on the team, or at a minimum was better than any of the set-up men. In that instance he would be providing no additional value to the team as a starter but would be as a reliever because he is helping them win games they wouldn’t win otherwise, creating the somewhat anomalous situation of potentially having a greater WAR as a starter but a greater value to his particular team as a reliever.
    It is quite clear to me that in 2008 that Joba’s greatest value to the Yankees was as a starter, especially after Wang went down because the starting rotation was real short in quality. However, in 2010 with the starting rotation much more complete, if in fact he is viewed as being no better than tied for 5th as a starter but improves the bullpen, his greatest contribution to this team would be as a reliever.

    P.S.Obviously, this is a short term view not taking into account any subsequent improvement by Joba as a starter nor a year in the future when the Yankees might not have as many starting pitchers his equal or better. But to use projected WAR only without taking into the particular makeup of a team to determine his optimal utilization is an incomplete analysis in my opinion.

    • While I agree with your comment in theory, in practice I think Tango’s analysis was spot on. The Yankees need to decide on a career path for this player. Being that they cant predict what the club’s greatest needs will be down the line, they need to set him up to provide the most value. Furthermore, when building the club for the future, it is easier to build knowing that you have him available as a starter.

      • Agreed but if it turns out that he is an average starter who gets maybe one start in the post-season and a superior reliever then his greatest future value, in my opinion, would be in the bullpen. You can always fill out a rotation with a Jon Garland- type but relievers the quality of Joba 2007 are rare and must be cultivated. We saw countless situations in the past post-season alone where inferior relief pitching led to playoff demise.

        • I couldn’t disagree more. Joba was also dominant as a starter before he hurt his shoulder in Texas in 08. His potential to be a number one starter dwarfs the value that he would have as a reliever.

          If he never regains his full velocity and stuff, then this becomes a debate. Otherwise there is no debate.

          • You’re missing the point . The question is whether is whether or not Joba ,or anyone else for that matter, is more valuable as an AVERAGE starter or an elite reliever. Average starters don’t make a difference for a team like the Yankees which is a playoff team virtually every year; top notch relievers do.By definition, average can be replaced. Obviously, if it turns out that Joba is a top of the rotation starter, that would trump any value he might have out of the bullpen

          • No the point is that Joba demonstrated the potential to be an elite starter before his shoulder injury. He’s been marginal in any role since that injury. If he gets that stuff back, it would be like making Sabathia a reliever. It would make no sense at all. None. If he doesn’t get that stuff back, he becomes a middle reliever. Not even an 8th inning guy.

          • ” Even if Joba is a top reliever and simply an average starter, his value is almost certainly going to be greater taking the ball every five days. ”

            This is the guts of the post and the point Moshe was trying to make which I disagree with.

  2. Good going Moshe, true, true, true!
    How can it be debated anymore. Most of the real fans/players have known this for many years. The news-people have to write something to get people talking about their articles, even if it isn’t true…so be it, I don’t think it is worth discussing…never did.

  3. Amen, Mo. I agree on all counts, but I think he overstates his case here:

    “That’s why we say relievers are a dime a dozen.”

    Anyone who watched Kyle Farnsworth, Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, Luis Vizcaino, LaTroy Hawkins, and the parade of Lefties post-Mike Stanton knows that a bad bullpen can be a huge issue, especially in the post season. Relievers may be a dime a dozen, GOOD ones aren’t and great ones are priceless. A ‘relief ace’ can be extraordinarily valuable.

    Taking his argument a step further, if relievers are a dime a dozen, then Mariano Rivera isn’t all that valuable.

    • I think that the gap in value closes somewhat in the postseason. That said, I think the relievers you refer to, who are good or great each season, are exceedingly rare.

  4. This is very interesting. Extrapolating from the article, if a top of the line starter is worth $25 MM AAV, a top of the line closer is worth $10 MM AAV. That seems right.