I’m proud to announce that this is the one millionth post on the internet about Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes! In honor of this occasion, we’re having ribs.
But seriously… I do some driving throughout the day. Not a lot. I’m not a salesman or taxi driver. But I spend some time in my car.
Because of this, I usually wind up listening to sports talk radio. I’ve given up on the FM dial, especially in New York where the radio is flooded with pop music, classic rock and little else. For someone who likes sports and hates popular music, there is little choice.
It’s not easy, though. It’s darn near impossible to be an objective baseball fan while gathering your news from the New York media. News in general is so slanted toward the negative while the pundits make their ratings by expressing what they believe to be the contrary opinion. This usually has the reverse effect when those that actually do gather their news from these sources repeat these contrary opinions at the water cooler the next day.
It’s no wonder why so many people on 660 WFAN in New York call up with so many crazy ideas.
I firmly believe that this rampant contrarian point of view is part of the reason why the baseball writing establishment has had such a difficult time accepting the concept of sabermetrics. It’s not that sabermetrics represents anything bad. Even the most uninformed statistical person would have to concede that the intentions of the people creating some of these new statistics are pure and can therefore assume that they’re not insidiously hiding negative factors into WAR and Win Shares just to stick it to Murray Chase.
In fact, it’s not so much what sabermetrics does that is threatening to the baseball writing establishment, but what it encourages: objective analysis.
Some of the newer statistics can bend your mind a little bit. I won’t deny that. But there has also been an effort to make reading these statistics easier by basing them against the league average. The higher you are above zero or one hundred (depending on your statistic), the better the player has performed. This makes looking at certain numbers pretty easy.
Most writers in the mainstream baseball media don’t care about such things, though. The average Yankee fan isn’t going to call up Mike Francesa at WFAN and and talk about Derek Jeter’s steadily improving UZR over the last few seasons. It’s too much work for Joe Baseballfan and way too much work for Mike Francesa to either store that information in his brain or type fast enough to load FanGraphs and speak confidently on the numbers themselves.
More importantly, it’s difficult to be contrarian when presenting actual evidence. It’s much easier to create a false argument based on hyperbole than it is one rooted in fact. With little actual fact to back up the argument, Joe Baseballfan will get agitated because he disagrees and has a different hyperbolic, unquantifiable reason why, say… Robinson Cano can’t seem to hit in the clutch. In it’s own way, it benefits the mainstream media to be lazy and vague because presenting good evidence would curb discussion that drives ratings and what few newspaper sale there are left.
Rarely has this dysfunctional form of communication ignited a story more than the ongoing saga of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes.
The Yankees entered spring training saying all the right things: nobody has the fifth starter job locked up; everyone has a chance, regardless of their role last year; this is a competition and may the best man win.
That’s all fine. Baseball is a sport, after all, and if nothing else sport is rooted in competition. It should be competition that theoretically brings out the best in an athlete’s performance. The need to work hard and excel at one’s craft should go a long way toward improving that person’s skills and ability.
So yeah, I get why the Yankees have entered the spring with that as their mantra both in the fifth starter’s slot and in left field. The thing is, when it comes to the rotation, I have a hard time believing it.
The Yankees have spent the last two seasons nurturing Joba Chamberlain’s young arm in preparation for a hopefully injury-free career as a starting pitcher. They did this for one reason: they believe Joba has the ability to be a good or, dare I say great, starting pitcher.
Joba’s performance to this point has been a bit confusing. In 2008, after leaving the bullpen to join the rotation, Joba posted an impressive 2.76 ERA in an injury shortened season. In 2009 as a starter, he posted a more pedestrian and below league average 4.78 ERA.
Which is the real Joba? One would hope he’s somewhere in between. Considering the Joba was only 23 last season, we have every reason to believe that he will steadily improve for a couple of seasons barring any type of permanent or lingering arm damage. That’s a reasonable expectation given what we know about how starting pitchers develop.
The Yankees are aware of this, too, which makes the current competition for the fifth starter’s spot a little strange. Surely, the Yankees can’t base the future of both Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain on a bunch of starts in spring training. We do have a track record of what both pitchers have done in the majors so far which is much more indicative of their abilities than 22 innings in Tampa. Joba’s ability to start without limitation this season compared to Hughes’ limited innings would seem to be the deciding factor, especially given the Yankees acquisition of Javier Vazquez in an effort to secure more innings out of their starters.
It would also seem that if Joba were to fail in spring training on such a level as to force his way out of the rotation, it would be questionable whether he could be trusted in the bullpen. He only needs to be good, not great, to get the fifth starters spot. If he can’t be trusted there, he probably can’t be trusted anywhere.
Consider Joba and Hughes’ career numbers in the majors:
(the bold columns are only there to make it easier to read)
Joba has more innings and also a better overall performance but his trend has been upward a bit. Hughes, meanwhile, dealt with a leg injury in 2008 that severely limited his innings and went to the bullpen last season to get more major league experience. Both men are decent pitchers for their ages which means their success in the bullpen should not be a surprise. Both have also exhibited the same pattern, which is pitching very well out of the pen and having more difficulty in the rotation.
That’s to be expected for a young pitcher. The Yankees are not an organization that typically allows a starting pitcher, never mind two, to develop on the major league roster. That makes it difficult to plan a full season of work for both men in 2010.
But there will likely be opportunities for a sixth starter to make a major contribution in 2010. In 2009, five starters outside of the main four combined for 32 starts. In 2008, the Yankees spread 33 starts amongst 7 starters who weren’t considered part of the rotation while Joba, Sidney Ponson and Chien-Ming Wang split 42 starts in the fifth spot. In 2007, the also split 29 starts between eight different starters.
The moral of the story? More likely than not, there will be opportunities for Phil Hughes to pitch in the rotation at the major league level, making this little competition with Joba somewhat unnecessary.
The remaining question: where do you put Hughes in the meantime that he can be stretched out and ready for the rotation when/if that opportunity arises? They can keep him in the pen and try and get him longer outings so that stretching him out could be a relatively quick and painless process. They can make him a long man, possibly as a caddy to Joba should he struggle, but the expected innings would be a gamble. Or, they can send him to the minors and let him start there until needed.
The minors is probably a waste of his arm and the long man option is a minefield of missed opportunities. The best thing is probably for Hughes to start in the pen, hopefully throwing 2+ inning outings as much as he can. If the rotation opened up, he could either make a few short starts with a long reliever as a caddy or go to AAA Scranton for three starts and get himself up to five innings if the need is long term.