The Royals haven’t gotten much of a return on their 2 year, $9 million investment in Kyle Farnsworth so far. Rather than proving to be a relief ace to stabilize the bullpen, he’s continued to be his enigmatic self, with the results never living up to the raw stuff behind them.
Now, the Royals are going to try something a bit different – give him a shot at starting. He’ll come to camp in the mix for the 5th starter’s job, as pitching coach Bob McClure wants to see how he’ll adjust to using his arsenal in longer outings. Reliever to starter conversions generally don’t go very well, as most bullpen guys are there for a reason, but I like this idea, and I think there’s a decent chance it may work.
The main difference in ability between a starter and most middle relievers is the ability to get opposite handed hitters out. A huge majority of relief guys are some sort of specialist, often throwing a fastball/slider mix that is dominant against their same handed hitters but with nothing to offer batters from the other side. They get selectively used by their managers to enhance their strengths and limit their weaknesses, and can be effective in that role, but they would simply be exposed if they were not able to face a majority of hitters from the same side that they throw.
Farnsworth is not that type of reliever. Here are his career L/R splits:
vs RHB: 3.43 BB/9, 9.45 K/9, 41% GB%, 3.68 xFIP
vs LHB: 4.63 BB/9, 10.41 K/9, 36% GB%, 3.89 xFIP
His strikeout rate is actually higher against left-handed hitters, which is unusual for a power righty. He’s still better against RHBs, as the strikeouts don’t offset the higher walk and lower groundball rates, but the difference isn’t huge. He’s not the type of pitcher who is going to fall apart when the opposing manager stacks the line-up with left-handed bats.
There’s also reasons to be encouraged that he may have learned something last year. As McClure notes in the linked article, they got him to start throwing both a two-seam and a four-seam fastball last year, and it significantly changed his pitch mix.
BIS classified the new pitch as a cutter, but it doesn’t really matter too much whether it’s a two-seam or cut fastball – it’s certainly a departure from what he’d been doing previously. For most of his career, he threw ~70% four seam fastballs and 30% sliders. Last year, he threw 50% four seam fastballs, 20% sliders, and 30% cutter/two-seamer.
This new wrinkle paid dividends. He’d been an extreme flyball guy most of his career, which was one of the driving causes behind his home run problems. With his new lower velocity fastball, he posted a 46% GB% in 2009, drastically reducing his long ball issues. Thanks to the limiting of his biggest problem, he posted a 3.10 xFIP, his lowest since 2005.
In a lot of ways, Farnsworth is reminiscent of Ryan Dempster, another power reliever with command problems who flourished with a move to the rotation. It’s not wise to expect that kind of outcome, but there are reasons to believe that Farnsworth could find success in the conversion. The stuff is good enough, especially with his new pitch mix, and it’s certainly worth the experiment.
The Royals take a lot of crap from us, but I’ll applaud them for recognizing an opportunity here. Farnsworth could justify his contract, and then some, if this works.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.