Mailbag: How is a pitcher's role defined?

Mailbag: How is a pitcher's role defined?

As a UK-based baseball and Mets fan since 1980, I understand a little about baseball and I'm getting very good with the abbreviations. But I have a simple question: Why are some pitchers starters, relievers, setup men or closers?

I understand why pitching changes are made, but not what it is that makes pitchers who they are. Why, for example, many years ago was Tom Glavine not turned into a reliever, and why didn't Billy Wagner become a starter?
-- Peter W., Weybridge, UK

All sorts of factors go into a pitcher's assignment: the quality and number of pitches (curve, slider, changeup, split-fingered fastball, sinker, et al), how he throws effectively, his control, arm strength, stamina, ability to recover, his preference on occasion -- though not in the case of Aaron Heilman -- his limitations and, in some instances, the need of his Minor League team or the long-term need of the parent club.

The case of Dave Righetti brought several elements into play. Righetti came up as a starter and had success -- a 33-22 record and a no-hitter in three seasons with the Yankees. When closer Rich Gossage left the Yankees following the 1983 season, the club saw Righetti as his successor based largely on his tendency to lose effectiveness as he pitched deeper into his starts. The Yankees' study revealed Righetti's ERA as a starter was quite low in the first three innings, and then grew significantly and progressively higher in the subsequent innings.

Or: A pitcher who can't control a third pitch but whose best and second-best pitches are above average probably will be tried in the bullpen, because relievers typically are two-pitch pitchers and they are able to compete because the pitches they do throw are so effective. Few starters get by with two pitches -- Dwight Gooden's devastating fastball and curve being an exception in 1984-85. Glavine, too, was an exception until the summer of 2005 when he added a curve to his fastball and changeup to give the hitter something else to think about. He had prospered for years because of his extraordinary command and ability to "stretch" the strike zone -- i.e., establish an outside corner pitch as a strike and throw pitches off the plate and hope that the batter -- and the home-plate umpire -- sees them as strikes.

Gossage was converted to a reliever because his fastball was well beyond ordinary and his slider complemented the fastball. Plus, he had no third pitch.

Or: Some pitchers with closer stuff lack closer courage. The difference between the eighth and ninth innings is considerable. Some who flourish as setup men are unsuccessful as closers; some become Mariano Rivera.

Or: A pitcher who recovers quickly might be used as a reliever to take advantage of his availability more often than once every five days. Some pitchers are more likely to retain their command of the pitch more regularly than once every five days.

Or: A pitcher may become particularly adept at striking out hitters in critical instances. Managers prefer power pitchers late in games to reduce -- they hope -- the amount of contact.

In most cases, more than one factor comes into play.

During the NLCS, Paul Lo Duca blamed Guillermo Mota for giving up the triple to Scott Spiezio in the seventh inning of Game 2. Lo Duca called for a fastball and Mota threw a changeup. Given Mota's history of holding grudges, i.e. Mike Piazza, I wonder if he and Lo Duca might have an issue to settle.
-- Tony F., North Hollywood, Calif.

I sense that teammates have more of an issue with a poorly conceived pitch than a statement of truth.

Lo Duca called for a changeup after Spiezio, a renowned fastball hitter, had missed two and crushed a fastball foul, and the Mets catcher didn't offer the information. He responded to a reporter's question.

Also, what grudge did Mota have? He hit Piazza the first and second times.

How awesome would it be if, in April, the Mets' starting rotation was Glavine, Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Orlando Hernandez and fill in the blank: John Maine, Oliver Perez, Alay Soler, Dave Williams, Steve Trachsel or Mike Pelfrey?
-- Matthew B., Warwick, N.Y.

If awesome is the word, then it would have been a lot more awesome in 1998, though your blank-filler would have been a tad green. Moreover, Martinez won't be available until August, if then.

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Long shot or not, after the Mets didn't sign Barry Zito, did trading Lastings Milledge for Johan Santana become a possibility? I can't see a straight-up trade. But it is a possibility, right?
-- John, D., Preston, Conn.

It's a long shot, John. No chance.

Though I'm glad that general manager Omar Minaya didn't hit the panic button and spend even crazier money than the Giants on Zito and I can't blame anyone for not hitting the Daisuke Matsuzaka posting number, I'm uncomfortable with the host of potential arms in the rotation. With the Scott Schoeneweis and Jorge Sosa signings, plus the returns of Duaner Sanchez and Juan Padilla and the "Ambiorix Burgos Project," the bullpen is looking awfully crowded. Do you have any thoughts about Heilman getting another shot at a starting slot?
-- Dan O., Changsha, Hunan, China

It as all but a certainty that the club won't ease the overcrowdedness in the bullpen by reassigning Heilman to the rotation.

Why don't the Mets consider using Heilman as a starting pitcher? He wants to be a starter and has been a successful and consistent setup man. Why not give him the opportunity to be a starting pitcher? The Mets may have a 15- to 20-game winner without having to pay a fortune.
-- Bob K., Montvale, N.J.

Even after the Mets are confident of the return of Sanchez, they will have a need for Heilman in the bullpen. They believe he is a greater asset pitching three of four times a week rather than once every fifth day, and they're inclined to think his abilities as a setup man are greater than his abilities as a starter.

That Heilman prefers to start has little bearing. I wanted to be a disc jockey in 1957 and don't have that job.

Do you sense that a Mets trade is brewing? It seems unlikely that they will go to camp with this staff and the question marks that still exist. Would Dontrelle Willis become available if the Mets offered Milledge and Heilman? Or if they upped the ante and made it Milledge, Heilman and Pelfrey, would Roy Oswalt become available?
-- Martin G., Copague, N.Y.

And the answers to your three questions are: Perhaps, no and not a chance.

Why have the Mets not re-signed Victor Zambrano? He has had electric stuff, but no control in his career so far. Now that he's had surgery, is he or is he not a good and inexpensive risk?
-- Jimmy S., Albertson, N.Y.

A risk? No question. A good risk? Is there such a thing as an inexpensive risk? I think you answered your question with "no control in his career so far." Unless his torn ligament was replaced by one from Bret Saberhagen, Zambrano's control is not likely to improve because of surgery at age 31.

I was just curious about the status of Cliff Floyd.
-- Joey M., Brooklyn, N.Y.

He remains a free agent.

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.