Joba Revisited

A fist pump does not a setup man make

A year ago, Tim and I finished up a Symposium on whether Joba Chamberlain belonged in the Yankee bullpen (what Tim thought) or in the starting rotation (what I thought). Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it looks like Tim was right. Chamberlain struggled mightily down the stretch last season—in August and September he was 2-4 with a 7.51 ERA—and he has been in the bullpen since Opening Day 2010. Not only that, but he’s been pretty good in that role. Through his first 17 appearances his ERA was 2.16—over two and a half runs lower than his ERA last season. Since then he’s had three bad appearances that have swollen his numbers, but overall Joba has held opponents scoreless in 19 of 25 appearances in 2010.

Having Said That, I’m still not sure I lost the argument. For one, Tim’s central point—that the 2009 Yankees needed Joba more in the bullpen than they did in the rotation—didn’t really pan out. To quote Tim: “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.” Of course, Wang didn’t make the expected comeback, Hughes didn’t “cut it” as a starter, and Joba didn’t move to the bullpen… and 2009 still worked out pretty well for the Yankees.

This was at least partially due to Phil Hughes’ emergence as a dominant eighth-inning guy: In 44 games as a reliever last year, Hughes had a 1.40 ERA and .857 WHIP. I’m not going to pretend that I anticipated that, but I did say that the Yankees could successfully fill the eighth-inning role with someone besides Chamberlain. This was really the crux of the disagreement between Tim and I. Once again, quoting Tim: “I simply don’t agree that it is likelier for any of the myriad of no-name, no-track record relievers to become quality eighth-inning guys than it is for Hughes and Wang to be quality starting pitchers.” Well, I did, and I was right.

Now, just because I don’t think I lost this argument, I’m not saying that I won the argument. After all, I did compare Joba to Roy Halladay, Johan Santana, and Pedro Martinez, which feels a little stupid in retrospect. I’m not nearly as confident as I was this time last year that Chamberlain will one day be a great starter.

For one, the second half of last season did not inspire much confidence. He was erratic and unreliable. Worst of all, he wasn’t at all exciting to watch. He didn’t look like a young ace finding his feet; he looked like a pitcher unsure of himself. He shook off way too many signs from the catcher, nibbled at the corners, and worked high pitch counts.

Unlike pretty much everyone else, though, I haven’t given up on Joba as a starter. After all, a few weeks after our debate, it looked like I was the clear winner: In June and July of 2009, he was 5-1 with a 2.89 ERA.  At the end of July, he had three consecutive starts where he pitched into the seventh allowing no more than one run. And during his atrocious last two months it’s not like Joba was treated like a normal starter: Worried about the number of innings he was throwing, the Yankees started skipping his turn in the rotation, giving him extra rest, and pulling him after three or four innings regardless of his pitch count or effectiveness. It’s not unreasonable to surmise that this kind of erratic, unusual treatment caused much of his declining effectiveness.

Even apart from that, Joba is still only 24 years old. It’s probably a mistake to write-off a 24-year-old kid for two bad months. Phil Hughes, after all, had a rough few months as a starter over 2008-09, and now he has the fourth lowest ERA in the AL and has been arguably the best pitcher on the Yankees this season. The Yankees didn’t let a few years of struggles as a starter and half-a-season as a dominant reliever change their long-term plans for Hughes, and they shouldn’t for Joba.

Of course I am, unfortunately, not in charge of the Yankees, and I don’t think Joe Girardi or Dave Eiland regularly read NPI, so it’s hard to see a scenario in which Chamberlain makes his way into the rotation. If he continues to pitch well as a reliever, then it will only solidify the (false) impression that Joba belongs in the bullpen. If he starts to regularly struggle, then it’s not like the Yankees are going to give a mediocre reliever more innings and a bigger role on the team. Plus, the Yankees have five good starters this season (the biggest question mark, Javier Vazquez, has a 2.77 ERA over the last month). There is always the possibility of injuries, but even then the Yankees would probably go with Sergio Mitre or Chad Gaudin.

Things may change in the off-season. Vazquez is a free agent after this season, and Andy Pettitte has been considering retirement for practically a decade, so the Yankees may be looking for quality starters in 2011. If that’s the case, then they don’t have to look very far, they just have to stop seeing Joba as a reliever.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by james Schneider on June 10, 2010 at 8:20 PM

    Hughes was injured, it doesn’t count

    Reply

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