It's tough to have a better first crack at starting than Chris Sale has. In 153 innings and 22 starts, the 23-year-old southpaw has an AL-best 4.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, with 150 strikeouts against 36 walks. It was expected he would be very good in this role -- likely the best of the bunch converting from relief to starting in 2012 -- and he's been that and more, ranking as one of the league's top starters.
Sale had less of a track record than Daniel Bard or Neftali Feliz, but he had one thing they didn't: a more varied -- and already realized -- repertoire. Bard had a wicked slider and a mid-to-high-90s heater, but needed to introduce his change-up more often and begin throwing a sinking version of his fastball. Feliz's bag of tricks was similar to Bard's, but Sale already had a change-up in the mix in addition to his slider/fastball combo, and it was a highly effective off-speed pitch, too.
The transition was easier for him because of this polish, among other reasons. It's those other reasons that make Sale stand high above the other two, who have failed in their conversions to starting this year. For Feliz, the culprit was injury, and for Bard, the problem might have simply been that he was no longer the pitcher, never mind starter, that he was expected to be.
Sale, except for one bump in the road that saw him temporarily moved to the bullpen for an appearance, has had health on his side in 2012. Feliz wasn't nearly as lucky. He threw just 42 innings in seven starts, walking nearly five batters per nine in the process, before his season ended under the knife due to a torn ligament in his elbow. He'll miss most of 2013 because of this as well, but was the transition to starting to blame?
Feliz wasn't overworked in his conversion, as he threw just 103 pitches per start in his seven. He reached 119 in his fourth start, but wasn't struggling when he did so, giving up just seven baserunners out of 32 batters faced over eight frames. The Rangers skipped his next start and let him throw an inning in relief to compensate, as well as limited him to 88 pitches a full 10 days later. That might have been enough to get the ball rolling for an injury, but it's important to remember that Feliz exhibited inconsistent command with control issues in 2011, as well: Some part of this injury might already have been set into motion prior to the conversion. The need for Tommy John surgery isn't always displayed in the same ways, with the same pains or struggle: Sometimes it's discomfort that can be pitched through until the elbow finally gives, and other times, the ligament tears on a specific pitch.
Bard might have been dealing with the long-term effects of his past when he attempted to start as well. Bard wasn't hurt, like Feliz, but he has pitched in a way that almost makes you wish he were, just so there would be an obvious solution for getting him right again. Bard posted a 5.24 ERA in his 55 starts, and went from a hurler with a devastating slider with eye-popping swing-and-miss, to one who couldn't find the strike zone with his fastball long enough to unsheathe that weapon.
Five runs and failure to get out of the second in Toronto was the final straw with Bard, as he was demoted to the minors in June. While the initial plan was to continue as a starter, both Bard and the Red Sox decided relief was in his future. Except, now that he was back in the pen, he threw an awful lot like he did as a starter.
Looking further back, though, he also pitched like he did in September, 2011. Bard threw 11 innings last September, an awful book-end to what had otherwise been a spectacular season. His ERA for the month was 10.64, he walked nine batters in those 11 frames, and allowed 40 percent of his inherited runners to score. Prior to September, Bard had been so filthy that just 10 percent of his inherited runners scored. It wasn't just a luck thing, either, as he threw 62 innings with a 2.03 ERA, 497 opponent OPS, and over four times as many punch outs as free passes. It was easy to imagine this as small sample size gone awry, but nearly a year later, it's hard to still believe.
Bard even flashes the same bits of brilliance at Pawtucket now -- he's whiffing a batter per inning -- but has also walked one fewer hitter than he's struck out in his 30 innings there.
The cases of Feliz and Bard don't damn the practice of converting relievers to starting, anymore than the success of Chris Sale justifies the move. Relievers not named Mariano Rivera simply don't throw enough innings to be left that way if there's a belief that they can start instead, and the risk is almost universally worth it because of that. It's just a higher profile failure that has to be dealt with when it doesn't work out, as it hasn't for Bard and Feliz.
Sale isn't the only one to succeed, though. Jeff Samardzija of the Cubs is in his first year as a starter, and while little has gone right for Chicago in 2012, Samardzija has. He's thrown 144 innings in 24 starts, posting a 2.8 K/BB with a strikeout per inning and a 96 ERA+. That's not perfect, but if he can be a league-average, 200 inning contributor in the future, then he has more value in that role than in 70 innings out of the pen. Samardzija has been bounced between starting and relief, with his last starts coming as recently as 2010, but he seemed to find his niche once he was left alone in a role.
It's unknown if the Rangers will attempt to start Feliz again once he recovers (though he did rehab from his initial elbow injury as a starter), but the Red Sox are likely done with the Bard as starter experiment, just as Bard is finished with it. That shouldn't deter other teams from attempting to find their own Sale or Samardzija, though, as the benefits far outweigh the cost when things do go right.