Should the Tampa Bay Rays Make Alex Torres A Starting Pitcher?
By Robbie Knopf
It broke earlier today that the Rays are going to leave lefty Alex Torres in the bullpen even with David Price and Alex Cobb both on the disabled list. That decision seems a little curious at first glance. Torres worked as a starter at Triple-A and pitched very effectively in 9 starts, managing a 3.52 ERA and a 61-21 strikeout to walk ratio in 46 innings pitched. In his first seven outings before his first big league call-up took him off his routine, his ERA was just 2.37 and his strikeout to walk ratio was 49-14 in 38 IP. And in a long relief role in the major leagues, Torres has been only better. In 9 appearances and 18.1 innings, he has yet to allow a run, allowing just 4 hits and 5 walks while striking out 24. Yes, he has managed nearly three times as many strikeouts as baserunners. But isn’t he being wasted when he could be doing something more?
Torres has played an important role saving the Rays bullpen when starters have left early, but he simply isn’t appearing in any big spots. Torres’ aLI (average leverage index) on the season has been just 0.40, meaning that the average pressure in his appearances has been 60% below average. In just one of Torres’ appearances, his first, was his aLI average or above. The Rays know how good Torres is and are beginning to work Torres into a bigger role in their bullpen. Torres has never made appearances on back-to-back days and the Rays are exploring using Torres more often. His stuff is electric, giving him a chance to be a late-inning reliever and maybe a closer down the line. But couldn’t be Torres be more valuable as a starting pitcher in this time of turmoil?
The obvious reason why the Rays are keeping Torres in the bullpen is just how good he has been. Torres has been absolutely unhittable in his current role, and why should the Rays push their luck and ruin a good thing? But an equally important piece of the puzzle is how Torres has achieved his success: his pitches. Here’s a look at Torres’ arsenal using the Pitch F/X data from Brooks Baseball in my original display.
On the graph, the two lines to look at are the blue line and the green line, Torres’ fastball and changeup. They look the same out of Torres’ hand but there is a nearly 9 MPH difference between them and the changeup has given hitters fits with excellent late downward action. The keys for Torres’ success have been excellent command of his pitches, leading to a great 57.1% groundball rate, and that changeup, which has forced swings-and-misses over a quarter of the time that he has thrown it, double the league average and well above-average among relievers. He has thrown it with tremendous success against both righty and lefty hitters and no one has been able to do anything with it. Torres’ changeup has emerged as a real weapon, maybe even good enough to rival Jeremy Hellickson‘s changeup and Alex Cobb’s split-change for the best on the Rays staff. If you look in the key, you can see that Torres has relied on his changeup quite heavily, using it for 38% of his pitches. That isn’t a problem–Cobb threw his change 34% of the time before he got hurt and Hellickson is at 29%. The real issue lies with his cutter.
In his fastball and changeup, Torres has found himself two excellent pitches. His cutter, though, has been lost in the shuffle. He just has not been able to mix it into his repertoire, and while that makes sense–his fastball and changeup have been so overbearing–that’s not something that would work as a starting pitcher. Torres’ cutter has featured sharp break but not much depth, and it has been a very inconsistent pitch for him. It’s worth nothing that while Pitch F/X calls the pitch a cutter, it’s really supposed to be a slider and it just hasn’t looked like one so far. Using his third pitch only sparingly has worked out fine for Torres at Triple-A and in big league relief, but as a starter he would either be forced to use it more than he’s comfortable with or limit the effectiveness of his other pitches. Torres will continue to work on his breaking ball and maybe with more improvement a starting role will emerge as a more attractive option. But with Torres’ ability to start right now in question, why would you possibly move him from the bullpen?
As Alex Torres continues to dominate hitters out of the bullpen, it’s only natural to wonder whether he could do something more. Over the coming days and weeks, the Rays will hope to make that happen–but through using him in higher-pressure bullpen spots and not by using him as a starting pitcher. Torres is doing something remarkable right now out of the bullpen. What’s the point of ending that when his ability to start games effectively is far from a certainty and other options are available? Let’s just appreciate how unbelievable Torres has been and look forward to seeing what he can do out of the Rays bullpen the rest of the season.