When the Blue Jays selected Joe Biagini in the Rule 5 Draft last offseason, he had made just two relief appearances in his entire career. Both came in 2012, when he was in low-A ball playing for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. Biagini was a starter, through and through. Yet the Blue Jays took Biagini with the clear purpose of using him as a reliever in 2016. Picks from the Rule 5 Draft rarely work out, but choosing Joe Biagini certainly did. He was a mainstay at the back of the bullpen and posted a 3.06 ERA and 3.69 DRA over 67.2 innings. His success, while intriguing, isn’t the most interesting thing about Biagini’s 2016 season. Instead it’s that he was successful as a “starter in a reliever’s uniform,” a phrase which my colleague Joshua Howsam coined back in September.
It didn’t start that way: Joe Biagini began the season throwing one of his fastball or curveball 94 percent of the time. However, by the time playoff baseball rolled around in October Biagini was mixing between four pitches on a fairly consistent basis: fastball, changeup, curveball, slider. That’s a starter’s repertoire.
As we’ve found already this Spring, the Blue Jays appear to believe in Joe Biagini’s potential as a starter. MLB.com’s Gregor Chisolm notes that the Jays told him to “prepare for both roles,” referring to the possibility that he could pitch out of the rotation at some point in 2017. Doing so would likely require that Biagini start the season at AAA Buffalo, where he would get stretched out and reacquaint himself to a starting role. In turn, that would make for a Biagini-less bullpen.
Some are concerned by this prospect, but there are three compelling reasons why the start-liever should just be a starter – at least for the time being.
Joe Biagini Has a Starter’s Repertoire
As we’ve already noted, Biagini isn’t a typical reliever. Not only has he spent almost all of his time in the minors in the rotation, but he has a very usable four pitch mix. To draw some comparisons, I used the method that Jeff Sullivan utilized to generate and point out Marcus Stroman’s absurd set of pitch comps.
The slider is one of Joe Biagini’s two big out pitches, but with a whiff rate of 23 percent, it’s definitely the more effective of the two.
Top Comps: Tyler Yates, Matt Harvey
Comp Rating: 1.2
You’ve probably never heard of Tyler Yates and there’s good reason for that. He was a journeyman reliever for the Mets, Braves, and Pirates. His slider was glorious, but his command was not. Matt Harvey on the other hand has one of the nastier sliders in the league.
GIF via FanGraphs
Joe Biagini’s slider is similarly speedy with an average velocity above 90 MPH (7th highest in the PITCHf/x era) and has nasty late bite. At 4.97 inches, the degree to which it fights gravity is also particularly notable (17th highest in the PITCHf/x era), mimicking the Harvey slider above.
While high in velocity, Joe Biagini’s fastball isn’t an out pitch, but instead a set-up for his secondary offerings. This was borne out in the results as it had a relatively average eight percent whiff rate.
Top Comp: Jim Johnson
Comp Rating: 0.4
It’s not an outstanding comp at the outset, but a comparison to Jim Johnson makes sense. Johnson similarly throws a relatively straight four-seam fastball with a lot of velocity. In Johnson’s case, he uses the four seam as an occasional alternative to the sinker that dominates his arsenal. As a starter Biagini would do the same for his slider.
The changeup is often what differentiates a potential starter and a pitcher destined for a relief role. Interestingly enough, while Biagini throws a solid changeup now, it wasn’t a large part of his pitch mix up until the end of the season. Up until the end of August changeups comprised less than five percent of Joe Biagini’s pitches. However, in September and October he used it almost twice as much and it had a comparable amount of whiffs to his wipeout slider.
Top Comp: Andrew Cashner
Comp Rating: 0.4
Cashner had a great changeup when he first dominated with the Padres, but this is a less than inspiring comp.
When the Blue Jays acquired Joe Biagini, he came to them as a fastball/changeup/curveball pitcher, with the curveball being his main out pitch. As was noted above, that changed in 2016, with Biagini establishing his slider as a true menace.
Top Comp: Scot Shields
Comp Rating: 0.3
The switch to the slider is probably for the best; though Scot Shields carved out a nice career as a reliever using a just a fastball/curveball combo, by the time the PITCHf/x era came around he was a shadow of his former self.
The Blue Jays Have Relief Depth
Even if you take out Joe Biagini, the Blue Jays have three potential set up men in Jason Grilli, J.P. Howell, and Joe Smith. Only Grilli is close to a guarantee at back of the bullpen, but there are reasons to believe that Howell and Smith could be formidable. Between 2012 and 2015, Howell and Smith had the 12th and 29th best ERAs among qualified relievers.
Beyond them, the Blue Jays have 11 options to fill four spots in Aaron Loup, Glenn Sparkman, Mat Latos, Gavin Floyd, Ryan Tepera, Bo Schultz, Danny Barnes, Dominic Leone, Matt Dermody, Chris Smith, and recent podcast guest, Mike Bolsinger. Of that group, five had a K/9 of over 10 in the minors in 2016 (Barnes, Bolsinger, Leone, Smith, and Sparkman). Then, there are others have had previous success, be it in the rotation or in the bullpen (Bolsinger, Loup, Latos, and Floyd).
With relievers, it’s important to remember that any player with promise can be successful over a small sample, which is what a relief season amounts to. As a result, if you can’t get the quality at the top end of the relief market then quantity is often a better strategy. If the Blue Jays hit on one of the high strikeout relievers, then they could have a 2017 Joe Biagini.
It’s Easier to Go One Way Than the Other
Converting a reliever to a starting role takes time. The pitcher not only needs to build up arm strength, but they’ll often need to adjust their approach. This is why we don’t see many relief to starter switches in the middle of the season (outside of spot starts). However, there’s plenty time in Spring Training. Joe Biagini can start building up to a starter’s work load now and be ready for the AAA rotation. Then if something goes awry in the bullpen, it’s easier to convert him back to a reliever. There could be a strategic adjustment, but there’s less ramp up time.
Joe Biagini was a starter in the minors. He developed a full four-pitch repertoire in 2016. He has an out pitch that one could reasonably compare to that of Matt Harvey. There are options to replace him in the bullpen in the near term. In other words, the Blue Jays shouldn’t be asking themselves ‘why’ try Biagini as a starter, but ‘why not.’
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