5th Starter or Set-Up Man – Would you rather?


Let’s ask Rafael Perez what he thinks. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The newest member of the Minnesota Twins is Rafael Perez.  Perez had spent his entire 7-year-career with the Cleveland Indians.  At his peak, Perez was a dominant set-up man, capable of posting minuscule ERAs.  In fact, he was nearly elite in 2007 and 2008.  In 2009, things really fell apart.  His walks increased and his strikeouts decreased.  2010 and 2011 were better, but he was not as dominant as he was at his peak.  2012 was a season filled with shoulder issues.  He only threw 7.2 innings and was released after the season.  The Twins signed him to a minor league deal, and then stated that they were going to try to stretch him out as a starter.  I can’t imagine that a 31-year-old with zero career MLB starts has an upside beyond a fifth starter.  So, that got me thinking:  would you rather be a fifth starter or a quality set-up man?

The role of a fifth starter is no different from the role of an ace.  You take the ball, you start the game, and you try to get outs.  The results dictate whether a pitcher is an ace or a fifth starter.  Fifth starters usually have huge holes in their games.  Sometimes they are unable to miss bats, sometimes they can’t find the strike zone and at times they just don’t have good enough stuff.  A good fifth starter is hard to find though.  A good fifth starter gives a team quality innings and stays healthy.  They take the ball every five games and tries their best to keep the team in the game.

The role of a set-up man is to bridge the gap to the closer.  Most times, the set-up man takes the mound in the 8th inning with a lead of three runs or fewer.  They come into delicate situations and have to maintain the lead.  If they fail, the team is in rough shape, with usually only one or two more chances to reclaim the lead.  A good set-up man can get right-handed and left-handed batters out.  In many ways, the true set-up man is just as important as the closer, but gets none of the glory that comes with giant save totals.

Neither role is all that glamorous.  How many players have you read about, boasting of their ability to become a quality set-up man or decent fifth starter?  But, we often hear experts talk of players and prospects and list those roles as their ceilings.  While the roles are not glorious or even roles that players aspire to hold, they do hold great value to teams.  Basically, anyone who can give a team quality innings, regardless of when and where, will contribute positively to a team.

Let’s add some names and stats, shall we?  Last season, David Hernandez was one of the best set-up men in baseball.  He had 25 holds (basically a save, but in the 7th or 8th inning), 98 strikeouts in 68.1 innings, and posted a nice 2.50 ERA.  Chris Capuano served in the fifth starter role for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season.  He was great in that role.  He was 12 and 12, posted a 3.72 ERA and gave the Dodgers 198.1 innings.  Each player had an fWAR of 2.1.

The question here is which type of pitcher you would rather be.  Would you prefer to step in once every five games, get through five or six innings and hopefully keep the game close, or would you prefer to step into a game late, with the game on the line, and try to bridge the gap to the closer?  The choice is yours, please respond in the comments below.