Symposium: Joba to the ‘Pen

John, John, John. I’ll start with a concession: Yes, starting pitchers are more important than relief pitchers. We’re not breaking any new ground here with that vague and general idea. But that’s not at the heart of the Joba Debate. Instead, the first critical question here is: Is a good starting pitcher more important than a great relief pitcher?

Because Joba Chamberlain isn’t the same pitcher across those two roles. With the help of Baseball Reference (really a great tool; maybe you should use it sometime), we learn the following:

Chamberlain as starter: 6-2, 3.19 ERA in 22 GS, 118 2/3 IP
Chamberlain as reliever: 3-2, 1.53 ERA in 49 G, 59 IP

If someone is good at something, yes, we want them to do it more. If someone is good at something and gets worse as he continues to do it, well, you reach a point of diminishing returns. I think we can both agree that, as a reliever, Chamberlain is more intimidating, more dominating, more evocative, and straight-up better than he is as a starter, especially right now.

This is the essence of my argument. I agree with you that, long-term, Joba Chamberlain will be more valuable as a starting pitcher than a reliever. I expect him to become a very good, perhaps even great, starter—a guy who can win 18 games a season and have around a 3.00 ERA.

But right now he is not that guy. Right now, he is an above-average starter and a great reliever. Right now, the Yankees have five adequate starting pitchers, in CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Andy Pettitte, Phil Hughes, and Chien-Ming Wang. (Please note that the entirety of the Joba Debate has been framed under the assumption that Hughes and Wang will be, at the least, serviceable sub-5.00 ERA starters. If Hughes doesn’t ultimately cut it or Wang doesn’t make the expected comeback, the debate is largely moot.)

On the other hand, the Yankees do not have a reliable eighth-inning guy. In fact, with apologies to Phil Coke, the Yankees don’t have an eighth-inning guy, period. And while what is best for Chamberlain might be for him to remain a starter in the long-term, what is best for the Yankees this season is for him to be the eighth-inning guy. (Additionally, let’s face it: When the playoffs roll around, which role do you foresee Chamberlain filling? Is he starting Game 3 over Burnett or Pettitte, or is he pitching the eighth? We both know the answer is the latter.)

Other problems with your argument: First off, throwing 200+ innings a season is becoming an increasingly rare thing. Only 34 pitchers did it in Major League Baseball last season, and going off of his career average of 5 1/3 innings per start, Chamberlain won’t be one of them all that soon. (Your counterargument will no doubt be that Chamberlain was babied as a starter last year, rarely going deep into games. This would be a legitimate argument if he weren’t averaging the exact same 5 1/3 innings per start this season.)

Based on his career averages, it seems more reasonable to say Chamberlain will pitch roughly 170 innings as a starter, compared to roughly 80 as a reliever. That’s a little more than twice as many innings at a little less than half the effectiveness (see the ERAs). Some would call this a dead heat.

The set-up man is not, at least by my definition, a “middle reliever.” Middle relievers, to me, are guys without defined roles. Chamberlain, then, is not a middle reliever.

The 1996 Atlanta Braves’ bullpen was not bad. It had an ERA of 3.72. And Mark Wohlers, the closer who saved 39 games that season with a 3.03 ERA and allowed the Leyritz homer, certainly wasn’t a middle-of-the-road middle reliever.

I would also argue that late relief—and not middle relief—is what is overrated; in fact, you essentially make my argument for me.  The big, memorable, highlight-reel moments come against late relievers. Just look at your own memory of Leyritz against Wohlers. (Or a memory that might stand out to most Arizona Diamondbacks’ fans.)

In summation: You argue that starting pitchers are more important than relievers. This is true. You do not argue that Joba Chamberlain as a starter is more important than Joba Chamberlain as a reliever, which is at best debatable. You say you argue that middle relievers are overrated. This seems irrelevant to the discussion, especially since Joba Chamberlain is not a middle reliever and you frame your middle-reliever argument with an example of poor late relief.

John S: Wrong on the ’96 Braves’ bullpen, wrong on Joba Chamberlain.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by James Schneider on June 4, 2009 at 7:17 PM

    Hey Tim. John was saying how I “don’t have to comment every time he posts something,” so I decided to comment on yours(he has lost my commenting privileges).

    Reply

  2. […] who haven’t been following, John first argued Joba Chamberlain belonged in the rotation, I countered that it was a smarter move for the Yankees to move him to the bullpen, John disagreed, and now I disagree with him […]

    Reply

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