College : : Story
Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The starter vs. closer great debate

David Rawnsley        
David Rawnsley is the Director of Scouting for Perfect Game USA and can be reached at

PREMIUM: Closer power rankings based on prospects/performance

The “Starter vs. Closer” quandary has been one that I’ve paid plenty of attention to over the past two decades. It’s my personal opinion that scouts, especially inexperienced ones, tend to slot a college or high-school pitcher as one or the other much too quickly at too young an age.

My first issue with this unsettled debate is there generally is one closer in any major-league team’s bullpen but five or six relievers, often with variable roles. To say that a pitcher is a “starter” or a “closer” means ignoring roughly half the pitching staff.

I respect those scouts who will talk about a pitcher as a middle-reliever type or a potential left-handed specialist, then back up that opinion with some intelligent thought to justify it. Scouts often seem to think they are demeaning a pitching prospect too much if they don’t designate him as one or the other.

The second factor that I don’t think scouts consider strongly enough is the effect that a professional coaching staff can have on players once they leave high school or college. Many times the perceived problem they have with a pitcher is a complex or violent delivery, or the lack of a third (or even second) quality pitch. That’s precisely what an experienced upper-level coach can improve by working seven days a week over an extended 8-9 month period.

That kind of coaching scenario often doesn’t exist at levels below professional baseball.

Over the years, I’ve somewhat sarcastically remarked to many scouts, “Doesn’t your organization have minor league coaches?” There are areas where a hitting or pitching prospect can’t improve on, even through hard work and great coaching, but a diligent scout must attempt to be knowledgeable about those areas where a prospect’s faults can be improved, and those areas where they can’t.

When I worked as an assistant scouting director with the Houston Astros from 1989-1997, we were fortunate to draft two pitchers who became top-level closers -- one of them a potential Hall of Famer. Both Todd Jones (27th pick, 1989) and Billy Wagner (12th pick, 1993) were selected with the intent they would pitch in the major leagues as relievers.

Their respective development paths, from the time they were drafted until they reached the big leagues, were discussed extensively by the Astros scouting and development staffs. It was decided that both would be used as starters in the minor leagues initially to build up experience, command and secondary pitches.

Wagner didn’t relieve even once in two-plus years in the minor leagues, then went on to pitch in 853 games in the majors, all in relief. Jones started his first three minor league seasons and made only one start in 982 big-league appearances. Wagner pitched his last game in 2010, Jones in 2008.

From the standpoint of body type and raw stuff, both pitchers fit today’s mould of prototypical reliever. Wagner was a 5-foot-9 lefty with upper-90s velocity and the 6-foot-3 Jones was a mid-90s thrower with limited command, but great life on his pitches. In hindsight, both were very well served by making 60 or so minor-league starts to gain the repetitions needed and improve their pitches, delivery and command.

Allan Simpson and Kendall Rogers, two of my associates at Perfect Game, have identified some of the top closers in the college game -- both from a potential and performance standpoint. Allan’s challenge was to judge which college pitchers might eventually become the best closers at the pro level, regardless if they are currently being used in that role.

Here are five pitchers from Allan’s accompanying “closer list” that I might take issue with, and respectfully request that scouts not rush to judgment on and profile them already as relievers. It includes his top two, Washington State left-hander Adam Conley and Texas A&M right-hander -- both of whom are being used as starters this year.

John Stilson, rhp, Texas A&M

When I saw Stilson pitch last year as a sophomore, “reliever” rang out to me that day as loudly as his 94-98 mph fastball. But Texas-based scouts have told me that he has toned down his delivery as a starter this spring and that although his curveball is definitely his third pitch, it’s now a future-average major league offering. In addition, Stilson is a superior athlete who should continue to be able to make adjustments to his delivery. It’s wise to never forget about athletic ability in the equation; it’s better to be able to repeat a complicated delivery than to not be able to repeat a simple delivery.

Adam Conley, lhp, Washington State
I like to employ the formula of Command + Endurance + Three Pitches when evaluating a potential reliever and starter. Conley appears to have all three assets, especially command and endurance, even if his delivery worries some scouts.

Kyle Winkler, rhp, Texas Christian
The same formula that applies to Conley applies to Winkler, who has developed a very nice changeup to go with his fastball/slider combination. Winkler also has proven to be one of the most durable and consistent amateur pitchers around over the last five years, including his last two years in high school, so there should be no questions there.

Anthony DeSclafani, rhp, Florida
I looked up DeSclafani’s reports/notes from multiple Perfect Game events he attended while at a New Jersey high school and they all indicate a future starter, in contrast to his role this spring as Florida’s closer. He’s not a true plus-fastball guy, but does throw both a 2-seamer and 4-seamer from an extended mid-three-quarters release point with feel and effectiveness.

A.J. Vanegas, rhp, Stanford
Vanegas was one of the most mature high-school pitchers in the country last year when factoring his ability to mix three pitches with intent and location. He’s strong and smart, and is just serving his time in the pen as a highly-regarded freshman until a starting slot opens up in the Cardinal rotation.

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