Before I begin explaining the viewpoint captured by the above title, first, I must relay an opinion which I have put forth, repeatedly, throughout the course of this blog’s two-year existence. Essentially, I believe that both Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes should be full-time starters for the New York Yankees. However, given the organization’s recent decision to bolster their rotation through the acquisition of right-hander Javier Vazquez, it is clear that only one of Chamberlain and Hughes will ultimately be awarded the fifth spot in the rotation come the end of spring training. And, while I am certainly in favor of that competition for it encourages both pitchers to work harder than they normally would without it, I do believe that Joba should be the hurler to receive the honor of being labeled the Yankees’ fifth starter (barring a significant injury or an absolutely awful showing in camp). In order to unpack this thought further, the following is Chad Jennings’ (LoHud) take on the starting situation between both Chamberlain and Hughes.
If one of them is going to bump to the bullpen, I prefer moving Chamberlain because his stuff plays up so well as a reliever. Hughes throws a little bit harder when he’s coming out of the bullpen, but it’s not the suddenly electric stuff we’ve seen from Chamberlain. And, frankly, I think Hughes is the better starter of the two. He has the fastball, curveball and cutter, and I believe the changeup will be a quality pitch.
Now, I disagree with Jennings (respectfully, of course) and my contrary position can be explained via this disagreement, as I shall offer a rebuttal to Jennings’ perspective. First, with regards to “moving Chamberlain because his stuff plays up so well as a reliever,” I would argue that this occurs with almost any good starting pitcher that is moved to the bullpen (in most cases, anyway). For instance, assuming that CC Sabathia would also be good out of the bullpen given his tools (e.g., fastball, slider, changeup) does not seem like an ill fated assumption. Phil Hughes is another example, albeit a tangible one, of a starter with good “stuff” being successful after a subsequent bullpen transition. Even Alfredo Aceves’ repertoire “played up well” in relief. Therefore, in terms of the starting five, this is not exactly a substantive reason for choosing Hughes over Joba. Instead, it’s a generic go-to to support Jennings’ view.
Secondly, as to Jennings’ assertion that “Hughes throws a little bit harder when he’s coming out of the bullpen, but it’s not the suddenly electric stuff we’ve seen from Chamberlain,” I would argue that such a statement is inaccurate. As a reliever, Hughes’ fastball — bettered by the move to the ‘pen where it regularly approached 95 mph — was 13.9 runs above average. Conversely, from 2007-9, Joba’s fastball has never been as effective out of the bullpen, according to pitch value data (it’s good, but not that good). Furthering this point is PITCHf/x data, which notes that the swing-and-miss percentage (whiff percentage) on Hughes’ 2009 fastball — 12.7% — in relief was basically double that of Joba’s, as a reliever, from his debut in 2007 up until he transitioned to a starter in June 2008. In addition, Hughes’ fastball this season was actually the fourth best in the American League among relievers. Therefore, I think it’s correct to note that Hughes’ bullpen bolstered heat was extremely “electric” (and considerably fast), as it was a better offering than Joba’s fastball ever was in relief. In reality, while Joba’s fastball was once a solid pitch prior to 2009, his bread and butter, whether working out of the bullpen or working as a starter, has always been his slider, which, over the past three seasons, has been 22.8 runs above average. This leads me to Jennings’ final claim regarding repertoire.
Jennings states that Hughes “has the fastball, curveball and cutter,” while citing the righty’s changeup as developing pitch with potential (it “will be a quality pitch”). While I agree that this diverse array of pitches make him a worthwhile starter, at this point, none of Hughes’ offerings are actually proven outside of his brief bullpen stint in ‘09. Hughes’ fastball was so dominant in relief, mainly because it frequented 95 mph on radar guns. As a starter, from 2007 up until June of this year, when he shifted roles, Hughes’ fastball clocked in at 91 mph. During that time, unassisted by work in the bullpen, the pitch was 2.5 runs below average (+4.4 in ’07, -4.9 in ’08, -3.0 in ’09) and hitters swung at and missed it only 3.6% of the time. Furthermore, none of Hughes’ breaking pitches have had much success against Major League hitters in his short time as a starter. The curveball is the only one that has had some success, albeit the success it has had can be described as minor (only 2 runs above average over three seasons as a starting pitcher). Therefore, when being compared to Joba Chamberlain, merely recalling Hughes’ repertoire does not seem like the best way to prove that he is “the better starter between the two” (and let’s not forget that Joba also has four pitches).
In reality, of the two pitchers and because of the apparent differences in starting velocity, Joba has shown the ability to throw an above average fastball as a starter — in 2008, for instance, the pitch was 1.6 runs above average (it’s not much, but, unlike Hughes, Joba’s velocity lends you to believe it can improve dramatically from there) — though it is his good slider, worth 22.8 runs above average over three seasons, that is of particular importance. While Hughes has yet to demonstrate that he can have success with his breaking balls as a starting pitcher, Joba has already done that and in convincing fashion. Assuming that the Yankees can figure out what truly went wrong with Joba’s fastball this past season, when his average velocity dipped under 93 mph which contributed to him having one of the most ineffective fastballs in all of baseball, the fiery Nebraskan can go into 2010 with at least two effective offerings — both a fastball and a breaking ball — out of the starting rotation. The same, at this point, cannot be said for Phil Hughes.
Well, that’s not fair, you might say. Hughes has not been given much of a chance in the rotation to confirm his starting worth. And, in that, I agree wholeheartedly. Of course, if Hughes is given a full season as a starting pitcher to showcase his exemplary stuff, including a very good cutter — his newest pitch — which ate up bats in relief, then he can definitely prove his repertoire’s effectiveness. However, why not wait until 2011 to provide him with that opportunity? As outlined above, Hughes’ arsenal — his fastball, in particular — was extremely productive when employed in relief and, statistically, the right-hander could be viewed as a more dominant reliever than Joba Chamberlain. Inversely, Joba has a fastball with great potential, and one that is equipped with more oomph when compared to Hughes’ starting cheese, plus, his slider, which is worth 22.8 runs above average and fields a 21.2% whiff rate, is more than serviceable as it is an above average strikeout weapon (Joba has also shown some promise with his curveball, which was average in 2009, according to pitch value data, and which I have not even discussed in this text). As a starter, he has proven himself, albeit to a limited degree, in a way that Phil Hughes simply has not.
Basically, for the upcoming season, when deciding between Chamberlain and Hughes for the team’s rotation, it seems like the Yankees should choose to use the person who has proven himself in that role, even if it is only to a certain degree, and, currently, that person is Joba Chamberlain. The team could then send Phil Hughes back to the bullpen, to a role that he certainly wore well last year. Sure, when compared to Joba, one can definitely argue that Hughes has the inherent ability needed to prove himself the better starter at some point in the future, however, the team is trying to win in 2010 and should avoid risky rotational experiments. Therefore, adopting that which is historically proven — Joba as a starter and Hughes as a (better) reliever — is likely the correct course of action for the Yankees (practicality also has a seat at the table, as one must consider that Joba is not restrained by an innings limit while Hughes is).
Now, to close, I’ll end this post the way I began it—I think both pitchers should be starters in the near future. But, based on some of the data at our disposal, if we are forced to choose only one to start in 2010, I’m going with Joba.
Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images
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