All too often in baseball, ineffective starters consolidate their arsenal and find a couple miles per hour of velocity on their fastball as they transition to the bullpen full-time. Mariano Rivera did it after making 10 major league starts. Dennis Eckersley spent the first decade of his career as a starter before becoming a dominant closer for the Oakland A’s.
However, it’s not too often that one sees that transition go the other way, with a reliever becoming an effective starting pitcher. In fact, the only notable success story to date might be David Wells, who spent the first three seasons of his career as a reliever.
This is what makes Taylor Garrison unique as he enters his fourth professional season.
Garrison, who turns 25 next month, was a seventh round pick out of Fresno State in 2012. After signing, he was assigned to Short-Season Staten Island and promptly recorded 11 saves and a 2.28 earned run average over the season’s final months.
The next year, he flew through the ranks, dominating Charleston and Tampa while making an appearance with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre along the way. Again, Garrison recorded 11 saves on the season, only this time, the earned run average dipped to 1.73 in 39 games over three levels.
Garrison had all the makings of a late inning reliever who could be fast-tracked to New York as he entered the 2014 season. He would begin the year with Double-A Trenton, where Tony Franklin entrusted him as a late-inning reliever. Ultimately, Garrison thrived in the role.
Despite his dominance out of the bullpen, Garrison intrigued the Yankees for other reasons. His arsenal consisted of four effective options – a deceptive fastball that sits in the low 90s, which is paired with a curveball, slider, and changeup. After all, it’s not very often that a relief pitcher has that many options in their arsenal – especially pitches that can be consistently thrown for strikes.
“As a reliever, you don’t see four pitches too often,” Garrison said during an interview in 2014. “In the past, I’ve had some coordinators and pitching coaches talk to me about eliminating some pitches, but thus far in my career…I’m able to throw them all for strikes.”
That ability to throw four different offerings for strikes had some within the organization wanting to try him at the beginning of games as opposed to at the end. By August, Garrison was back with High-A Tampa, starting every fifth day. Despite not factoring into a decision in five starts, Garrison was just as effective as a starter, posting a 2.37 earned run average and limiting opposing hitters to a .221 average over 19 innings.
Garrison entered spring training this season with a change of scenery around him. Despite being listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds – undersized for most starting pitchers – the right-hander was preparing to spend the entire 2015 campaign as a starter.
“It’s a different transition,” Garrison said. “I’m throwing a lot more pitches per outing, but I like it so far.”
“Guys make decisions based on what they see and how we can help the big league club at some point,” Garrison noted. “I’m just trying to make good pitches and get to the next level.”
Though he hasn’t been overpowering in his first two starts with the Thunder, Garrison has produced some good numbers. He earned his first win as a starting pitcher on Friday night, and has pitched to a 1.93 earned run average over 9 1/3 innings. Just the same, Garrison was not entirely thrilled with his first start at ARM & HAMMER Park.
“It was mediocre from a pitch-making standpoint,” Garrison said of his outing on Friday. “But I competed really well. I did a good job of making good pitches in very tough situations.”
“I left a couple balls up early in the game and was lucky enough to get out of those innings with some good pitches,” Garrison added.
Part of the reason the former Fresno State Bulldogs closer was able to get out of those innings is that he never quite lost the bulldog mentality that many relief pitchers have. When he ran into trouble on Friday night against Portland, Garrison noted that his experience in the bullpen helped him to keep calm and allowed him to best focus on the task at hand – getting out of the jam.
“When those situations arise, it’s either sink or swim,” Garrison said. “You’ve got to make good pitches. It brings out the competitor in everyone.”
“I have a little bit of closing experience,” Garrison added. “That [experience] definitely brings that competitive nature, and not letting those guys score definitely comes from that history.”
Making the transition from reliever to starter may make Garrison an underdog, but as long as he maintains the ability to bear down and get out of tight jams consistently, Garrison will be able to keep himself on the Yankees’ radar for the future.
Follow Dan on Twitter at @danpfeiffer74 for all the latest Yankees minor league news.