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Tigers ponder pros and cons of moving Fulmer, Greene to pen

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Tigers pitcher Michael Fulmer warms up Sunday in Lakeland.

Lakeland, Fla. – Everybody in baseball, it seems, is looking to find or even create a Wade Davis-type pitcher for the back end of their bullpen.

And why not? The Royals decision to move Davis’ power arm out of the starting rotation and into a relief role had a profound impact on the club’s success the last two years. They turned an inconsistent starter into a shutdown late-innings reliever.

The Tigers have two young starting pitchers who could make a similar transition this year – right-handers Shane Greene and No. 1 prospect Michael Fulmer. The difference here is, Davis made the switch after being in the big leagues for five years. Greene and Fulmer are still in their development stage.

The concern is whether moving them to the pen will stunt their overall development, especially for Fulmer, who still projects to be a top of the rotation starter.

“In terms of development, initially, for young pitchers, you want them to start,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “You want them to get a third and fourth pitch. You want them to learn how to use their pitches effectively, how to locate pitches and just in general become more experienced.

“But at the Major League level, where it’s not about developing but about winning, I think it can be very beneficial for a pitcher (to transition to reliever).”

Ausmus cited two reasons.

“Usually he will get a tick up in velocity on the fastball (because the outings are shorter),” he said. “And two, he will only need his best off-speed pitch, unless he’s a long reliever. But generally that will eliminate their third and fourth pitches that aren’t as effective and he has more trouble throwing for strikes.

“Now he can just throw his two best pitches and he doesn’t have to go through the lineup multiple times and his velocity ticks up. From that aspect you will see guys who were starting become really good relievers. And Wade Davis is the perfect example of that.”

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This wouldn’t even have been a discussion 10 years ago. If a pitcher projected to be a top of the rotation starter, there would be no thought of moving him to the bullpen. But the Royals’ success in shortening games with three elite relievers to pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings has brought a change of philosophy.

“I wouldn’t call it a trend,” Ausmus said. “There are a couple of organizations that are doing that.”

Statistics show that batting averages against a starting pitcher increase significantly the third and fourth time through the order, and the sabermetrics community strongly supports limiting starting pitchers to six innings for that reason.

Ausmus isn’t buying it.

“I am always worried about the third time through the lineup, but I wouldn’t say there is a general rule,” he said. “Other than being aware of the third time through the order, there are no plans to (limit starters to six innings).

“They like to talk about it but you better have some bullpen depth in the minor leagues if you are going to do that. Because you are going to have some guys with sore arms if your bullpen has to eat up three innings every night.”

Twitter @cmccosky