Baseball’s Active One-Start Relievers

By way of Baseball-Reference’s invaluable Play Index, one learns that there are 39 active pitchers who have started precisely one game in the majors. Most of them have very little big-league experience. Most of them, in addition to their lone start, have recorded a few innings out of the pen during over the course of their one or two years in the bigs. Of the 39 total, 17 have made fewer than 10 appearances in the show.

There’s second group of pitchers whose major-league resumes are slightly more impressive. The members of this group have made the one start but have also worked as a full-time reliever for a season or two. This group of 15 pitchers has recorded more than 30, but fewer than 100, major-league innings.

Finally, there’s a more interesting group of seven pitchers who’ve made a lone big-league start and yet thrown more than 100 innings in their careers. This is their story.

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Gonzalez Germen (144.0 career innings)

Rockies’ reliever Gonzalez Germen has recorded 144 innings over the course of 129 games from 2013 to 2016. The righty spent two uninspiring seasons with the Mets before a brief stint with the Cubs in early 2015. During the 2015 season, he joined the Rockies, allowing fewer runs┬ásince the move. No one would argue he’s been particularly good in Colorado, but in roughly the same number of innings and batters before Colorado and since joining the Rockies, he’s cut his ERA- from 128 to 97 (even as his FIP has gone in the opposite direction).

Germen was asked to start his first game with the Rockies, but not because the Rockies thought he was a starter. The previous night, a rain delay had forced the Rockies to call on the scheduled-starter, David Hale, in relief, leaving the club without a starter for the Friday night game. The Rockies called up Germen and Aaron Laffey to provide innings and Walt Weiss joked that he flipped a coin to decide which would start. Germen got the assignment and pitching three innings, despite having not started at any level since 2012. He allowed two baserunners and no runs, striking out one.

Alex Wilson (199.0 career innings)

Tigers righty Alex Wilson started plenty of games during his early days in the minors, but he had moved almost exclusively to the pen once he made it to Triple-A in 2012. The Red Sox flipped him to the Tigers in the Rick PorcelloYoenis Cespedes deal. He was solid in his 44 appearances in Boston, but has become a critical piece of the Tigers’ middle and late innings over the last two seasons, recording 144 innings with a 62 ERA- and 85 FIP-.

Like Germen, Wilson’s start was of the “break glass in case of emergency” variety. Alfredo Simon had been scheduled to start in Oakland but had to leave the team due to a family medical emergency. The Tigers announced they were calling Kyle Ryan up to replace Simon on the roster, but the club wasn’t sure when he would arrive. Manager Brad Ausmus tapped Wilson to make the start because he wanted someone who was stretched out enough to handle a couple innings. Wilson allowed one baserunner and no runs before handing the game to Ryan in the fouth.

Sam Dyson (199.1 career innings)

You probably remember Sam Dyson from the 2015 ALDS or as the author of a very strong 2016 season. You might not remember his two relief appearances with Toronto in 2012 and then two-and-a-half years in Miami. His star has certainly risen since joining the Rangers halfway through the 2015 season.

Before becoming a critical back-end reliever, Dyson got a shot to start for the Marlins in 2013. Mike Redmond noted that Dyson had done a good job out of the pen and the club wanted to see what he could do as a starter. It didn’t go well. He allowed six hits and four walks en route to seven runs in 2.2 innings. In a lede that seems to have anticipated this very article, Mike Wisniewski wrote for the Associated Press that “Sam Dyson will never forget his first start. He hopes his next one will last a little longer.” The jury is still out, as Dyson has yet to be asked to start another game.

Dellin Betances (254.2 career innings)

Dellin Betances has been one of the best relievers in baseball over the last three seasons, but he actually started a game in his second major-league appearance way back in 2011. Betances pitched a shaky two-thirds of an inning in relief in his MLB debut, walking four and allowing two runs, but the Yankees called on him to start six days later.

In the back of your mind, this Betances start might seem familiar to you. He allowed three base-runners and no runs over two innings, but that start is probably most memorable for what happened after he left the game. You see, it was the last day of the 2011 season. Down by a bunch, the Rays scored six in the eighth, one in the ninth, and eventually won on an Evan Longoria walk-off home run that would send Tampa Bay to the postseason instead of the Red Sox. So the next time you want to slightly annoy your companions with useless fun facts, remind them that Betances’ only MLB start came three years before he was an established reliever during one of the most memorable nights in recent MLB history.

Jeurys Familia (256.0 career innings)

The next name on the list is Mets’ closer Jeurys Familia. Like Betances, he was asked to make one start during his first season before going on to establish himself as one of the better relievers in the game. It went just about how you might expect a Jeurys Familia start to go. He threw four innings and allowed no runs, but managed to walk six batters while striking out three. He made nine appearances in 2013 and then became a key piece of the Mets bullpen starting in 2014.

Jim Johnson (584.2 career innings)

Jim Johnson’s story is the one that makes for a good headline. Jim Johnson only starter also marked his debut in the majors. It was a disaster. As a minor leaguer, Johnson had worked almost exclusively as a starter. He got his big chance against the White Sox in July of 2006. The Sox jumped all over him, scoring eight runs on nine hits and a walk over three innings. He registered zero strikeouts. To make it even more interesting, 19 of the 24 balls put in play were in the air rather than on the ground. Johnson’s name is common enough that I even checked to make sure it was the same Jim Johnson.

Johnson made a two-inning relief appearance in 2007 and then became a mainstay starting in 2008. He had a good run with the Orioles through 2013, stumbled for a couple of years with a few teams, and then had another good season in 2016. Despite his long record, Johnson is actually only entering his age-34 season and has a deal with Atlanta for 2017 and 2018. The contract should give him a good chance to catch the “active” leader.

Matt Thornton (662.2 career innings)

I used “active” in quotation marks in the previous section because Matt Thornton is technically active using the Play Index filter but announced his retirement back in November. Thornton ranks 15th all time in innings pitched among pitchers with exactly one career start, in case you’re looking for a reference point. Ron Perranoski leads the way with 1174.2 innings.

Thornton started his third major-league game, tossing five innings and allowing three runs against the White Sox back in 2004. He walked seven and struck out four. He then went on to pitch in 745 more games without ever going back to the mound to start a game. From 2006 to 2012, he was extremely effective, but by that point he had a well-defined role.

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So as you can see, Johnson is set to be the king of this list as soon as Thornton rolls over into inactive status when the 2017 starts. He leads Familia and Betances by a substantial margin and should be able to add to his inning total for the next couple of seasons. Johnson is unlikely to start at any point going forward, so the odds of him falling off the list due to a second start is essentially zero, but there is always a chance a pitcher who currently has zero starts could get a spot start and push him from the top spot. Seven pitches have recorded more innings than Johnson and no career starts: Jonathan Broxton, Joel Peralta, Chad Qualls, Fernando Rodney, Francisco Rodriguez, Huston Street, and Brad Ziegler. None are obvious candidates for a 2017 start, but anything could happen if a scheduled starter goes down late.

We hoped you liked reading Baseball’s Active One-Start Relievers by Neil Weinberg!

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Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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scotman144
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scotman144

You made me remember that night of the Evan Longoria homer and the denied Red Sox playoff berth that came from it….yet this Sox fan still enjoyed the read. Good work.

Boring nobody cares about your fantasy team story:

I owned Jim Johnson in a waaaay too-deep dynasty league with farm rosters and remember actually tracking/anticipating his MLB debut…..disappointing to say the least!