Unless the Yankees plan on rocking out a six-man rotation in 2010, one of Phil Hughes/Joba Chamberlain will not be in the starting rotation. Obviously, this is incredibly unlikely and the Yankees will probably stick to the traditional five man rotation. With six starters–Hughes and Chamberlain, along with Sabathia, Burnett, Petttitte, and the newly acquired Javier Vazquez–there is going to be an odd man out. Who should it be?
Chad Jennings took a stab at answering this question, and he thinks Phil Hughes is the one who should start, while Joba Chamberlain should be shifted into the bullpen.
He touches on the typical reasons: Joba’s velocity plays better as a reliever, he thinks Hughes has more of a starter’s arsenal, and he just thinks that Hughes will be a better starter. I take issue with some of these things.
First, there’s the velocity argument. For some reason, we’ve come to accept that velocity = results and value. Just because a guy throws hard, that doesn’t make him better or more valuable to the team. It’s also quite obvious that velocity is going to bump up when a player hits the bullpen because he doesn’t have to worry about stretching himself for multiple innings, so he can air it out. The other part of this argument that doesn’t really hold up is that Chamberlain saw a bit of a drop in velocity this year. His average FB went from 95.2 MPH in ’08 to 92.5 MPH in ’09. Is this a blip or is it something left over from his mid-2008 shoulder injury? Either way, we’re not consistently seeing high velocity from Chamberlain.
Next, Jennings talks about how Hughes has more pitches. As starters, both pitchers use four pitches. They both feature fastballs, curveballs, and changeups, while Hughes adds a cutter and Chamberlain uses a slider. Both have good fastballs and workable breaking balls, and both need to harness their changeups. When working right, Joba’s slider is simply devastating and Hughes’ cutter is also very strong. The problem is that after pitching so many innings in relief, Hughes didn’t really get to use his other pitches. What we saw from him during his time in the bullpen was mostly a fastball/cutter combination, while the other pitches were generally not used. In 2009, Phil saw a 3.3% drop of use in his curveball and a 4.4% drop of use of his changeup. His secondary pitches will likely be rusty, as opposed to Chamberlain’s, who actually used his secondary pitches more in 2009.
Jennings also argues that Hughes is the better starter, but the career splits beg to differ. The sample sizes are both way too small, but thus far, Chamberlain has been better when starting:
Joba as starter: 221.2 IP, 1.48 WHIP, 4.18 ERA, 2.60 K/BB, .759 OPS against
Phil as starter: 141.1 IP, 1.44 WHIP, 5.22 ERA, 1.90 K/BB, .778 OPS against
While Joba hasn’t been spectacular overall as a starter, he has had more success in starting than Hughes has had.
Chad touches on the innings issue as well, saying that though Chamberlain will not have a limit this season, Hughes’ won’t be all that low because of his previous high of 146. However, it’s worth noting that Hughes pitched that many innings in 2007 and has only been over 100 innings once since then. Right now, I don’t think it’s safe to assume Hughes’ arm is 100% ready to start. While his 2009 saw him throw more innings than Joba did in 2008 before starting in 2009, Chamberlain is much more prepared to start in 2010. While the results weren’t pretty or exactly what we expected, Joba did still healthily make it through 2009 as a starter and the fifth starter’s spot should be his to lose. Despite that, Hughes needs to be a starter.
When the Yankees break camp after Spring Training, Phil Hughes should not, I repeat should not be in the Major League bullpen, setting up for closer Mariano Rivera. Instead, he should be in Scranton-Wilkes Barre building up his arm strength, readying himself to start if there is an injury. While he obviously flourished in that role in 2009, it is better for the long term goals of the Yankees and Hughes that he pitch in Scranton for at least part of 2010. While he will likely crush the competition there, he can at least strengthen his arm and work on his secondary pitches and be ready in case of an injury by a starter, or perhaps even poor performance by Chamberlain. If the Joba isn’t given to Chamberlain and there is a competition that Hughes wins, Chamberlain should start the season in Scranton as well, as the sixth starter, ready to be called up when needed.
While this leaves the Yankees without a concrete “bridge to Mowhere,” it does not cripple the bullpen or weaken the Yankees all that much. David Robertson and Damaso Marte represent a good set-up combination and the step down to them from Phil Hughes–or Joba Chamberlain–is not that big of a step.