Is Pitching a Religion? Conversions in 2013

October 16, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Kenley Jansen (74) pitches the ninth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals in game five of the National League Championship Series baseball game at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

While working on the Winter League report for the L.A. Dodgers, I stumbled on the story of Blake Smith, a minor league outfielder who began a mid-season conversion to pitching during 2013. He’s been down in Australia continuing to work on the transition but it looks like the Dodgers like what they’ve seen from him, enough anyways, to have him continue the project.

Smith, 26, was both a starter and reliever in college and, despite posting solid numbers as a hitter as high as Double-A, has decided to move back to the mound, and did it in the middle of the season this past year. Apparently, Smith and the Dodgers had discussed the conversion during spring training and put off making a final decision until the All-Star break.

Starting in Double-A Chattanooga, Smith hit for a .686 OPS before the break and decided to give pitching a shot. Sent down to High-A Rancho Cucamonga, Smith struggled for a 7.78 ERA and a 1.98 WHIP with 19 walks and 12 strikeouts in 19 2/3 innings of work. Smith has been doing better with his control in the Australian Baseball League. he’s thrown 18 innings with a 2.00 ERA and 10 walks and nine strikeouts.

One of the more successful conversion projects of 2013 has been Justin Jackson, the former 2007 supplemental round draft pick by the Blue Jays. Jackson struggled with the bat in the minors and never hit above .225 at the Double-A level and he decided, along with the Blue Jays, to take a couple of steps back and try to make it as a pitcher. He had been a closer in his senior year of high school before being drafted so toeing the rubber wasn’t necessarily a brand new experience.

Jackson stayed back with the Jays in extended spring training but impressed enough to get sent to Class-A Lansing for early May. I was actually in the press box for Jackson’s first professional appearance on May 4 in Lansing and I interviewed him the following day about his return to game action as a pitcher.

The Blue Jays worked Jackson hard, letting him throw 49 2/3 innings between Lansing and High-A Dunedin (before having him stay in Florida for the fall instructional league). He acquitted himself much better than Smith did, putting up a 3.26 ERA and a 1.73 WHIP with 29 walks and 34 strikeouts. Despite the high walk rate, Jackson did much better control-wise in Dunedin but also saw a drop in his strikeout rate.

After his first season as a pitcher, Jackson has a lot to build on. He throws a 94-95 mph fastball and has a developing slider and changeup. My belief is that his lack of strikeouts in Dunedin came from his unpolished offspeed pitches and I’m sure the Blue Jays are really working with him to get his fastball command first and foremost.

One interesting thing that Jackson told me is that he doesn’t have any fear on the mound because he remembers how hard it is to be a hitter. That thought helps him trust his stuff more and it forces the hitter to barrel up his pitches rather than force him to be perfect.

The Blue Jays also tried to convert outfielder Markus Brisker but that experiment didn’t last long before he was released after getting into six games with the Short-Season A Vancouver Canadians, throwing four and two-thirds innings with 10 walks.

The Dodgers aren’t exactly afraid to convert players, especially since their closer, Kenley Jansen, started his career as a catcher. Pedro Baez, a former third baseman, began his conversion in 2013 and has had very good success so far, making it back to Double-A with a 3.88 ERA, 1.55 WHIP with 23 walks and 55 strikeouts in 58 innings split between High-A Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Chattanooga.

His results were good enough that Baez was added to the Dodgers’ 40-man roster this offseason. Apparently, Sandy Koufax liked what he saw from Baez’s mechanics pre-season and it was said that his throws from third base were clocked as fast as 94 mph. Reports say that, along with the mid-90s fastball, he has a very good curveball and could develop into a legitimate bullpen arm.

Going into 2014, there will be at least one more conversion project on the go. Jeremy Barfield, former outfielder, is going to undergo the process for the Oakland A’s this season and he’s already stoked about it.

The A’s have one successful converted pitcher in their bullpen already with Sean Doolittle and Barfield hopes to do the same but as a lefty. At 6’5″ and with the pedigree of Jesse Barfield‘s cannon outfield arm running in his family, Barfield is a great candidate. According to D.J. Short from Hardball Talk, Barfield was informed about the switch in July and was pulled out of Triple-A to move to the team’s complex in Arizona where he finished the year in the fall instructional league. The A’s director of player development, Keith Lieppman, reports that his fastball hits 93 mph and he also has a splitter and slider to go with it.

Barfield certainly doesn’t lack the confidence to make it on the mound and we’ll follow all of these conversion projects as we head into 2014.