Understanding McClellan, reliever only

Last year the St Louis Cardinals entered spring training with Kyle McClellan‘s role unsettled.  He wanted to be a starter but had spent his first years working high-leverage innings late in games.  With the loss of Adam Wainwright to Tommy John surgery, McClellan was thrust full-time into the rotation.

This year the Cardinals enter spring training with McClellan’s role settled, but his presence in the bullpen uncertain.  Now faced with the possible  loss of Chris Carpenter for at least a few starts,  McClellan, who has 17 major league starts to his name  . . . never came up as a potential replacement.  Lance Lynn is on track to fill in, as needed, for Carpenter.

What – what?  Why did that happen?

McClellan has major league experience out of the rotation, something Lynn doesn’t yet possess.  By all outward appearances Kyle was pretty good before he hurt his hip.  McClellan posted a 6-2 record in his starts prior to May 30, spent 15 days on the DL, then posted a 1-4 record prior to being sent back to the bullpen for the remainder of the season.

Doesn’t seem like enough to disqualify him from this year’s discussion.  If his hip is sound he should be able to return to his pre-injury form.  So why was he left out?  Let’s look a little deeper.

From his first start until the injury, opponents hit .250/.307/.404 against him with a .257 average on balls in play.  After he returned from the hip injury, opponents hit .272/.322/.426 against him with a .285 BABIP in games he started.  That’s not far off from what he was allowing prior to the injury; worse, but consistent.  As a reliever, he gave up a .264/.341/.496 line and a .269 BABIP.  His numbers got worse as the season progressed regardless of how he was employed.

Here’s what I found interesting.  According to Fangraphs, during his hot period as a starter he was worth exactly 0.1 WAR. In May, his last full month as a starter, he was worth -0.1 WAR.  Yes, WAR uses FIP to evaluate pitchers, FIP heavily penalizes home runs, and McClellan gave up a lot of those last season (8 of his 21 surrendered in those two months).  Nevertheless, isn’t it interesting he was exactly replacement level as a starter the first two months of 2011*?

Maybe the reason St Louis decided to go with Lynn, despite a belief he is more valuable long-term out of the bullpen, is his higher ceiling.  Don’t forget Lynn was the Cardinals minor-league pitcher of the year in 2009 as a starter.  McClellan’s spectacularly average performance while starting last season makes the selection of Lynn to be this year’s spot starter more understandable.

*for the record, in June and July he posted a 0.0 WAR.

Mike Metzger is a freelance writer based out of San Diego.  He also blogs about the Padres.  Follow him on Twitter.

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