A Role for Dustin McGowan

No matter which way you slice it, it's nice to see him out there. - Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Dustin McGowan used to be more of idea than a pitcher, but now he's healthy and under contract. So where does he fit?

Ever since Dustin McGowan reemerged from the rehab wilderness in 2011 it has been pretty unclear what it is he is going to offer this team. In 2011 he returned to great fanfare as a starter and impressed with his stuff, but not his results (0-2 with a 6.43 ERA and 5.60 FIP in 4 starts). Initially he was almost a novelty act, fans were curious as to what he could do more than anything else. However, as the 2012 season approached people were no longer merely curious about McGowan, they also had expectations.

These expectations did not originate with overly optimistic fans, they came straight from the front office. Just before the 2012 season opened Alex Anthopoulos signed Dustin McGowan to a contract extension worth $ 3 million dollars covering 2013 and 2014 with a club option for $4 million dollars in 2015 (with a $500,000 buyout). At the time the contract garnered mixed reviews. Some favored a wait-and-see approach given McGowan's injury history but there were some supporters as well. It should be noted that Bluebird Banter readers overwhelmingly favored the move.

There were a couple things that likely went into this extension. The first was probably the desire to show some loyalty to Dustin McGowan after everything he had been through. The second thing was the Chris Carpenter factor. The Blue Jays did not want to give up on such a talented arm despite all the injury problems the way they had with Carpenter. After all the time and money they had invested in McGowan it would have been painful to see him go somewhere else and succeed. The most important factor in Anthopoulos's thinking was probably the idea that he could get a fifth starter with upside at a massive discount. Even if McGowan were to only provide 150-200 innings over the course of the contract as a league average type pitcher he would be worth the extension. It was possible he could provide twice that, and, given his miraculously preserved velocity and stuff, the sky was the limit. If McGowan were to get through 2012 as a back of the rotation starter providing some productive innings then Anthopoulos would look like a genius. The fact it would make for an amazing story was just gravy.

Unfortunately, Dustin McGowan provided absolutely no productive innings for the Blue Jays in 2012. He was pulled from a minor league Spring Training start a day before the extension was signed due to a "minor foot injury" which would later be classified as plantar fasciitis. This would then snowball into shoulder issues in a way that never seemed particularly clear. Instead of an inspiring story Blue Jays fans were provided with a familiar one: another lost season for McGowan. This time it stung just a little bit more because expectations had been inflated and the team had just committed to him financially.

At that point it wouldn't have been unreasonable to think that Dustin McGowan was done. He had surfaced briefly in 2011 but he hadn't been particularly effective and he had missed three of the last four years. Going into 2013 McGowan was under contract, so he would try to come back, but there was no reason to expect anything from the man.

Then something extraordinary happened. McGowan did come back. A man who had pitched 21 innings in the previous four years returned to the Blue Jays not only pitched but pitched effectively. Against what I would consider to be pretty heavy odds McGowan returned to the Jays in June and pitched 25.2 innings out of the bullpen with a 2.45 ERA. He did suffer an oblique strain that sidelined him for August and his peripherals show he was a bit lucky to have such a low ERA (3.67 FIP, .236 BABIP) but more important than anything is that he pitched.

Now when it comes to Dustin McGowan the Jays are in a similar place to 2012. They have made a financial commitment to him and he pitched last year so there is reason to expect a contribution from him in 2014. The interesting question that has emerged is what the nature of that contribution will be. The Jays have presented differing positions on the best way to preserve McGowan's fragile shoulder. Initially they posited that McGowan should remain a starter in order for him to maintain a regular schedule. Last year they stuck him in the bullpen in order to cut down on his workload. In 2013 he pitched twice on 0 days rest and with no discernible schedule of any kind, meaning that the Blue Jays completely abandoned their original idea. I have very limited medical training, none if you must know, but it would seem more intuitive to me that he'd have less chance of getting injured again with the more minimal workload a bullpen role provides. Less pitches means less opportunities to get injured. So far, while McGowan himself has made his preference for starting known, there has been no serious indication that the Blue Jays intend to use him as a starter despite the holes in this rotation.

If it is then safe to assume that Dustin McGowan is a reliever for now, the question remains what his role will be in 2013. Presuming good health (usually a laughable statement when applied to McGowan, but bear with me) McGowan is pretty much a lock to make this bullpen given his the $1.5 million dollars he is owed, his performance last year and the fact he can't be demoted and retained. We have seen in the past that roster management is often of great importance to this front office, especially when it comes to the bullpen. Visions of McGowan going from fireballing starter to fireballing closer like so many before him is unrealistic given that Janssen is entrenched firmly in that role. Steve Delabar and Sergio Santos figure to be the primary set up men from the right side and he is unlikely to unseat either of those stellar relievers. McGowan is a more dynamic arm than one would usually turn to for long relief or mop up duty and the Jays might not want him throwing multiple innings anyway. That leaves one possible defined role for Dustin McGowan in this bullpen: the ROOGY.

Now, when I use the term ROOGY I'm full aware that it is one that people may not understand and one that sounds fairly ridiculous. Two pertinent questions emerge: "What is a ROOGY?" and "Why would McGowan be a good fit as one?"

1.What is a ROOGY?

Literally ROOGY is an acronym that stands for "right-handed one out guy". It is the less familiar version of a LOOGY or "left-handed one out guy" of which there are many in baseball. The "one out" aspect of this term is something of an exaggeration in many cases, what it really means is a reliever who specializes in getting batters of a certain handedness out. As I mentioned before, lefty specialists or LOOGY's are commonplace in baseball. The closest approximation on the Jays roster is probably Brett Cecil who had 21 outings last year of less than three outs and 5 where he faced a single batter. Those numbers are not the numbers of a true left specialist as he was more of a set up man. Guys like Boone Logan (67.2% of outings of less than three outs) or Randy Choate (73.4% of outings of less than three outs) are the purest LOOGY's.

The concept of the ROOGY is lesser known but that doesn't mean it does not exist. In fact, Blue Jays fans are probably subjected to seeing right-handed specialists in action more than most. This team usually puts its two best hitters, Bautista and Encarnacion, next to each other in the order which allows opposing bullpens to throw out their nastiest right-hander in order to cut through the heart of this lineup. It's partly for that reason that I'd like to see Rasmus or Lind hit third between the pair with Bautista hitting second and Encarnacion hitting fourth, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that relief pitchers that are utilized almost exclusively for taming powerful right-handed bats do exist in this league even if they are more obscure than their left handed counterparts. When we think of relievers who specialize in getting out right-handers it's normally guys with funky sidearm or submarine deliveries like Darren O'Day, Chad Bradford, or Joe Smith that come to mind. Octavio Dotel is another guy for who makes his living neutralizing same handed batters, although that is a late career development. You can see in the chart below how these ROOGY's have been used in their careers:

Pitcher

Platoon Advantage %

% of Outings under 1 IP

Chad Bradford

68%

45.6%

Joe Smith

67%

38.5%

Darren O'Day

64%

21.7%

Octavio Dotel

57%

21.5%

It should be noted that Octavio Dotel's numbers here are skewed by his work as a closer or setup man earlier in his career. Since 2008 Dotel has faced between 57% and 70% right-handed batters every year and has had 32.6% of his outings go for less than an inning. Counting outings of less than an inning is not a perfect way to measure when pitchers were brought in just to face particular hitters as it could simply represent meltdowns. However, this list is comprised of four very good relievers who did not melt down with regularity and as such it is at least an approximation. Now that we know what ROOGY's are and how they are used the most important question needs to be asked:

2. What makes Dustin McGowan a ROOGY candidate?

On the surface Dustin McGowan seems like an odd right handed relief specialist type. A former hard throwing starter with a conventional delivery is not the sort of pitcher who normally winds up doing that kind of work. While McGowan does throw a slider (the pitch most likely to be more effective against same handed batters) as his primary breaking ball he has been a four pitch pitcher in the past so wide platoon splits are not what one would expect. However, if we compare his career splits to those of the four specialists listed above his profile is strangely similar:

Against Right-Handed Batters

Pitcher

AVG

OBP

SLG

BB%

K%

wOBA

Darren O'Day

.196

.268

.290

6.4%

23.5

.252

Octavio Dotel

.189

.256

.336

7.0%

33.6%

.259

Chad Bradford

.243

.284

.304

3.8%

15.6%

.262

Dustin McGowan

.228

.299

.308

7.7%

19.7%

.274

Joe Smith

.215

.298

.307

9.0%

19.6%

.274

It's somewhat bewildering how similar McGowan and Smith have been in terms of their effectiveness against right-handed batters when you consider their stylistic differences. As impressive as the numbers above are they don't quite hold up against left-handed batters.

Against Left-Handed Batters

Pitcher

AVG

OBP

SLG

BB%

K%

wOBA

Dustin McGowan

.267

.356

.465

11.4%

18.4%

.357

Chad Bradford

.302

.408

.435

12.4%

11.2%

.355

Octavio Dotel

.233

.345

.419

13.2%

23.8%

.330

Darren O'Day

.246

.302

.434

19.6%

5.9%

.314

Joe Smith

.245

.346

.371

11.7%

19.4%

.314

McGowan has gotten pretty badly beaten up by lefties over his career, although it is worth mentioning that the vast majority of McGowan's numbers displayed in both these charts came while starting, which is objectively more difficult to do than relieving. If he had been a reliever his entire career he might have better lines against both righties and lefties although there is no reason to believe that would factor into closing his platoon split.

That does bring up the point that most of the numbers McGowan accumulated came quite a long time ago. While I do acknowledge that he may be something of a different pitcher now there isn't enough data to say much definitively. For what it's worth here are his splits from 2013:

Vs.

AVG

OBP

SLG

BB%

K%

wOBA

BABIP

FIP

xFIP

Lefties

.188

.278

.396

11.1%

14.8%

.298

.184

5.38

5.04

Righties

.192

.300

.250

10.0%

30.0%

.253

.294

2.17

3.47

I added the additional columns to make it clear that the only thing keeping these two lines remotely close was a strangely deflated BABIP against LHB that couldn't possibly be sustainable. Once again the sample size is nothing, but there isn't much in those numbers to dispel the notion that McGowan is excellent against RHB and poor against LHB.

The idea of a reliever that specializes in taking out big time right handed bats isn't one that we hear about often but it's one that makes perfect sense. The AL East is filled with big right-handed bats like Evan Longoria, Adam Jones and Dustin Pedroia who deserve the extra attention. Of the four right handers who are mortal locks to make this bullpen (Janssen, Delabar, McGowan and Santos) McGowan is the best candidate for the ROOGY role. Janssen is the closer. Delabar is the setup man and has reverse platoon splits. Santos has minimal platoon splits and is most valuable as a "fireman" coming in for the crucial strikeouts. The idea of using a former 1st round pick with a golden arm in a niche bullpen role seems like a bit of a waste somehow. It feels like a move that completely gives up on the romantic notions of what Dustin McGowan could be. That's probably for the best. It's about time the romance ended anyway. At this point McGowan is just another pitcher the Blue Jays employ. While one might have imagined him locking down a spot in the rotation with a measly $1.5 million dollar price tag when his extension was signed, it is now time for some less naïve thinking. The Blue Jays need to maximize McGowan's value by placing him in a role in which he is most likely to succeed. Slotting a player into a minor role that actively minimizes their workload isn't usually what you do with a pitcher with unbelievable upside. It is what you do with a fragile soon-to-be 32 year old pitcher with massive platoon splits though. No one ever imagined Dustin McGowan as the next Darren O'Day or Joe Smith, but then again no one ever imagined he would get so badly injured, or that he'd be able to return. Nothing about Dustin McGowan's career has really gone according to plan, so it's time to go off-book. "Dustin McGowan: ROOGY" isn't anyone's idea of a fairy tale ending to this story, but it just might work.

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