Hughes the Man – Joba Should go to the Pen in 2010

by on March 3, 2010   No Comments

I was recently asked to be a guest blogger on www.doublegsports.com to give my argument on why Phil Hughes should be the 5th starter over Joba Chamberlain.  Here is the article:

The New York Yankees have more money than they know what to do with – if you walked into their locker room, closed your eyes, spun around and pointed your finger, you’d have a 40% chance of landing on a $9+ million dollar salary.

However, in 2010, the Steinbrenner family via GM Brian Cashman pulled some money back from the large pile usually set aside for free agents, opting to fill their holes with “bargin” players in trades for 4th starter Javier Vasquez and center fielder Curtis Granderson, and downgrading at DH from Hidecki Matsui ($13mm) to Nick Johnson ($5.5mm) and in left field from Johnny Damon ($13mm) to Randy Winn ($2mm).

In order to fills the holes left by the Yankees recent (relative) stinginess, they face the decision of continuing to run with either Phil Hughes or Joba Chamberlain as their 5th starter, both of whom have been effective relievers with spotty records as big league starters.  Hughes, who was hampered by injuries in his first two Major League seasons, finally looks ready to be a productive starter for the Yanks and return Joba to where he belongs – the bullpen.

The New York Yankees drafted starting pitcher Joba Chamberlain in the 1st round out of the University of Nebraska in 2006, where he had a rather average junior year as a starting pitcher relative to his high draft status – 6-5, 3.98 ERA, 89 innings in 14 starts, with 102 K and 34 BB.  He signed late that summer and didn’t appear in a game in the Yankees farm system until the beginning of 2007.  He was in the express lane in the minors from the first time he toed the rubber, finding himself in triple-A by the end of July.

Then, with the big club having a need for a set-up guy to Mariano Rivera, the Yanks wanted to get a look at Joba out of the pen.  Chamberlain threw one inning on July 30th, striking out all three batters he faced, hopped back to double-A for one more inning on August 1st, striking out two of three, then back to triple-A for a two-inning stretch on August 4th, striking out five of six.  His minor league bullpen totals – three appearances, four innings, one hit, 12 batters faced, 10 strikeouts.  His fastball was touching 100 mph and his slider was off the charts.  He got his big league call-up and continued his dominance out of the pen, going 2-0 with a 0.38 ERA in 19 appearances and 24 innings, allowing just 12 hits and six walks while striking out 34.

Hughes, on the other hand, was a 1st round draft pick in 2004 out of Foothill High School in Santa Ana, California , and had been groomed professionally for 3+ seasons before getting the call in 2007.  Hughes has career minor league totals of 330 innings in 65 appearances, 62 starts, racking up a 31-8 record, 2.37 ERA, and 367 strikeouts against 80 walks.  In 2007, at just 21 years old, Hughes had a respectable 5-3 record in 13 big leagues starts, throwing 72.2 innings with a 4.46 ERA.  He struck out 58 versus 29 walks and allowed just 64 hits.

In 2008, with Hughes injured, Ian Kennedy getting torched, and Chien-Ming Wang going down for the season, the Yankees were having difficulty getting the ball to Joba and Mariano at the end of games.  That was when the decision was handed down the Joba would gradually be stretched out from starter to reliever, often throwing additional game-speed bullpen sessions after getting removed form the game.  If Yankees had a time machine, there is no doubt he’d go back to 2008 and stop themselves from making the mid-season decision to stretch out Joba Chamberlain from a reliever to a starter.  The result of his decision is clear – they took one of the most dominant set-up men in the game, who appeared just few years of grooming away for seamlessly taking over for Mariano Rivera, to a slightly above average 4th or 5th starter without the minor league innings to be able to handle the full-season workload at the Major League level.  Consequently, Chamberlain spent time on the disabled list in 2008 and came back back with reduced zip on his fastball and explosiveness on his slider, both of which continued to flatted out in 2009.  The evidence is in Joba’s K/9, which has sunk from 12.8 in his relief-exclusive late-season call-up in 2007, to 10.6 in 2008 where he had 12 starts amongst 42 appearances, and all the way down to a suburban 7.6 in 2009.  With his stuff waning, Joba has picked at the corners more as a starter, too, watching his BB/9 rise from 2.3, 3.5, to 4.3 over the same time period.

Like Chamberlain, Hughes benefited from a move to the bullpen in 2009 after getting fully healthy from previous injuries and developing his slider into a more effective cutter to go with his curveball.  Hughes’ cutter is his biggest advantage over Chamberlain for the 5th spot in the 2010 Yankees rotation, because he gives him a pitch to get lefties out, which is vitally important at the new Yankee Stadium (.253 against lefties in 2009 vs. .336 against lefties in 2008).  Word out of Yankees camp is that Hughes is continuing to develop his change-up, but he has barely used it his entire career, only throwing 6.3% and 5.3% as a starter in 2007 and 2008 and reduced that number to 0.6% as a reliever.

Chamberlain, on the other hand, continues to be primarily a two-pitch pitcher despite his move to the starting rotation.  In 2009, when he worked exclusively as a starter, he only threw his change-up 4.7% of the time and his curveball 9.2% of the time, leaving the bulk of his work up to the fastball/slider combo that made him so effective out of the pen in 2007.  Comparatively, teammate CC Sabathia, who has arguably a better fastball than Chamberlain as a starter, throws his change-up 18.2% of the time.  The change-up and/or cutter, as Hughes has adapted, is vital in the arsenal of a starting pitcher because it helps get opposite-handed hitters out.  Starting pitchers who throw two pitches 85-90% of the time just don’t last very long in the big leagues.

My guess is that Cashman and manager Joe Girardi are gun shy to flip-flop the roles of Hughes and Chamberlain again and risk messing with what came of their success in 2009.  However, Chamberlain clearly lacks the durability and conditioning to continue as a starting pitcher.  He is a power pitcher with a power slider and the type of presence and mental mindset necessary for a set-up man and/or closer.  Let’s not forget that Mariano will eventually need to be replaced and Phil Hughes doesn’t have the same kind of fire that we saw out of Joba in 2007.

The answer is clear – Hughes has a more fitting arsenal of pitches for the starting rotation and Joba has a better physical and mental make-up as the current set-up man and future closer of the Yankees.  There shouldn’t even be an argument that despite Hughes’ young age at the time of his MLB debut and his recent injuries, he has more experience and better success as a professional starting pitcher than Chamberlain, who was rushed through the minors in just 18 appearances, 15 of which were starts. The only reason, and I mean only reason, that Hughes won’t end up in the rotation in 2010 is because the Yankees don’t want to draw the media scrutiny of reversing their previous decisions.

Author: Aimee Connors
Categories: Minor League Baseball (MiLB)
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