On July 24, 2016, the St. Louis Cardinals were desperate for a starting pitcher. There were injuries, there was short notice, and thus the Cardinals could not be picky with which pitcher they would send to the Busch Stadium mound for a Sunday night tilt against the powerful Los Angeles Dodgers. Rather than Alex Reyes, the Cardinals’ top prospect (then and now) who would debut in the big leagues a couple weeks later, the Cardinals went with Mike Mayers.
Entering the game, Mayers was 8-2 with a 2.62 earned-run average in time spent on the season in Springfield and Memphis. Mayers wasn’t old (24) and he wasn’t without some semblance of prospect pedigree (he was a third round pick in 2013 out of the University of Mississippi), but Mayers was the unexciting pitcher. Compared to Alex Reyes or Luke Weaver, who would make their debuts within the month, there was not much hype surrounding Mike Mayers’s MLB debut.
The debut, as it turns out, was memorable, though not in a “Michael Wacha has a perfect game going into the fifth inning” way. More in a “literally the worst debut in Cardinals history” way. At least by Game Score, it was—Mayers went 1 1⁄3 innings and allowed nine runs, all of them earned. In his defense, there was a bit of bad luck involved, but an outing in which a pitcher faces 14 batters, allows eight hits, two of which were home runs, and two walks is a poor performance, no matter how much one rationalizes the difficulty of the circumstances or the opponent.
If you want to relive a contemporary account of the game, for some reason, here is the Viva El Birdos recap of it. It was easily the scariest thing ever associated with the name “Michael M(a)yers”.
Fairly or not, the perception of Mike Mayers has been colored by the first impression most fans got of him. Granted, his numbers in six MLB relief appearances since his disastrous debut have only been better by the impossibly low standards of now-nonexistent expectations (his relief ERA is 13.50 and his relief FIP is 8.81, in 8 2⁄3 total innings), but Mayers has always been working from behind. The most memorable image of his MLB career was a complete disaster.
But 2016-2017 Mike Mayers is an entity of the past. Those ten abysmal innings are in the rear-view mirror. 2018 Mike Mayers is taking flight (orbit?) in Jupiter, Florida, and he is ready to dominate the world.
The now-reliever threw seven innings in his first three outings of Spring Training and allowed just two hits and zero walks. Most shockingly, Mayers struck out nine batters. Sure, these stats can be chalked up to a microscopic sampling of exhibition innings (though is this really that much sillier than extrapolating a player’s future value on the basis of ten career innings?), but Mayers has also looked downright filthy. His velocity has reached 99 in Spring Training games, and while the reliability of these particular radar guns is somewhat dubious, he was also reaching 98 MPH in 2017 appearances. Derrick Goold has reported that Mayers, formerly the embodiment of system depth, is laying a serious claim to a role in the Major League bullpen.
There is variability in Mayers’s potential outcomes. He may not, and probably won’t, make the Opening Day roster. He could wind up as essentially a layman, a replacement level-ish bullpen arm who lives for inheriting four run leads in the eighth inning and never enters games with higher leverage. But believing Mayers could turn into something great is backed up with ample precedent.
The starter-to-reliever transition is a time-honored tradition. Sometimes it comes from pitchers who began their careers as excellent starting pitchers, such as Dennis Eckersley or post-Tommy John surgery John Smoltz. Sometimes it comes after a young starter struggles and turns into an elite-level closer, such as Mariano Rivera or Eric Gagne.
In recent years, it has become even more commonplace, which makes sense given the increased priority on amassing a star-studded bullpen and fewer innings being allocated to the starting rotation. Tampa Bay Rays closer Alex Colome, who led baseball with 47 saves last season, was a starter throughout his minor league career and started nineteen games at the MLB level before becoming a full-time reliever in 2016. Roberto Osuna, who accumulated 39 saves with the Toronto Blue Jays, made zero relief appearances as a minor leaguer from 2012 through 2014 before entering Toronto’s bullpen starting in 2015.
The upper reaches of elite MLB closers are filled with former starting pitchers. Aroldis Chapman was an acclaimed starter in the Cuban National Series, but after he struggled as a AAA starter, the Cincinnati Reds converted him to reliever and never looked back. Following two consecutive sub-replacement level seasons in 2010 and 2011 while used primarily as a starter, Andrew Miller went to the bullpen full-time and became a resounding success, including when given extended outings in the 2016 postseason for the Cleveland Indians. Wade Davis, who signed a $52 million contract in an off-season characterized by free agents getting relative peanuts, started the first 64 games of his MLB career with the Tampa Bay Rays before being moved to the bullpen...and then when the Kansas City Royals acquired him, they tried him again in the rotation, for 24 games in 2013 before he turned into a dominant reliever.
Even keeping things local, the all-time saves leader for the St. Louis Cardinals, Jason Isringhausen, began his career as a New York Mets starting pitcher. Hyper-successful 2010s reliever Trevor Rosenthal was a starter in the minors before coming up to the MLB bullpen in 2012 and never leaving. Of the eight relievers currently atop the Cardinals’ depth chart (Mayers isn’t among them), three began their MLB careers as starting pitchers (Tyler Lyons, Brett Cecil, Bud Norris), and a fourth (Matt Bowman) was a starter throughout the minors.
Mike Mayers’s path to the big-league bullpen, while not assured, is hardly an uncommon one. Not everybody turns into Wade Davis, but enough do that the dream of Mike Mayers: Relief Ace is closer to optimistic goal than it is to utter delusion. While there are many outrageous dreams one can have about the 2018 St. Louis Cardinals, a failed starter becoming a strong reliever isn’t one of them.