Yesterday, Matt argued that should he lose the battle for the 5th starter spot to Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes should be sent to Triple-A to start and build innings, instead of throwing out of the major league bullpen. I believe very strongly that Matt is wrong, and that the loser of the Joba/Phil battle should not be in Triple-A.
Phil Hughes is one hell of a pitcher. He was a top prospect, he played an important part in a World Series team, and is still only going to be 24 years old in 2010. He was arguably the Yankees best reliever last season. However, starters are more valuable than relievers. An ideal world would allow both Phil and Joba to start, keeping them at maximum value. However, we don’t live in an ideal world: the Yankees weren’t comfortable allowing them both to start, so they went out and traded for Javier Vazquez. I think that this move reveals to us a few points about Phil that the Yankees seem to be aware of.
He’s had starting issues. I’ve been following Phil Hughes since he was drafted, and blogging about him since soon after. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard about the Yankees plans to help Phil develop a third pitch. In 2006, they had an elaborate scheme set up to teach him a changeup. It didn’t work. They tried bringing back his slider, but he didn’t have the feel for it that he has for a curveball. Before this season, they gave him a cutter. It worked fine, but didn’t function as a third pitch. I’m waiting for someone to suggest that he throws a screwball. Phil Hughes has had tremendous difficulty developing a third pitch that he has the command, control, and confidence to throw. To put some numbers to it: Phil has a 5.22 ERA as a starter in 22 starts over 3 seasons. While not a huge sample, its obvious that he has consistently struggled.
Phil Hughes could theoretically become A.J. Burnett, who functions off just a fastball and a curveball. His curve is certainly very good. But Phil doesn’t have the fastball that Burnett does, and he has had trouble walking people when they lay off the curve. The formula as a starter was pretty standard: Phil loses some control, batters stop hitting curve, Phil can only get strikes off the fastball, and then a batter hits a 500 foot home run. Phil definitely has the talent to potentially overcome these issues, but there still remains a high degree of uncertainty.
This is different from the Joba Chamberlain debate. We know that Joba Chamberlain can start and pitch very well – his 2008 run as a starter was just as dominant as his time in relief, and his pre-debut starting record in the minor leagues in 2007 was just as dominant as his time in the bullpen. Stupid writers at the New York Post think that Joba becomes a superhero only out of the bullpen, but we know better. He’s got four good pitches, good command when he’s on his game, and plenty of velocity. Joba was out of sync (both starting and in the bullpen) in 2009, but he has a chance to change that.
Matt knows that Hughes would be a very positive addition to the 2010 Yankees. He’s not arguing that he’s not. But he is arguing that the Yankees should roll the dice to see if Phil Hughes can learn how to leverage his pitching skills as a starter. This makes a lot of sense when you’re talking about a 21 year old phenom who just entered the majors. But Hughes is about to enter his 4th major league season. There is a point where you can’t learn any more, or at least that learning has diminishing returns. We know that Hughes has the skills to be a very good relief pitcher.
He’d be useful as a depth starter. Strongly disagree. Yes, Phil Hughes would be a better 6th starter than Chad Gaudin. Still, Chad Gaudin isn’t too bad, and neither are Zach McAllister and Ivan Nova. The Yankees have pretty good pitching depth at the upper levels (and pretty healthy pitchers in the majors), and don’t need to further stock the surplus. Furthermore, as Matt points out, the Yankees still have the option of stretching Hughes out and doing a Joba if they need a starter for more than just a few spot outings.
His value in those few outings is much less than his value in 70-80 leveraged innings. With the Red Sox rearmed and the 2009 Yankees relying on some outlying performances, the team needs every win that they can get during the regular season.
Hughes is ready to contribute, so he should. A conversion to starting can take place at a later time in his career – look at Adam Wainwright. But the Yankees can’t afford to sit back and hold on to their cards. Its important to remember that Phil Hughes is not Joba Chamberlain, and the same arguments absolutely do not apply. Mariano Rivera was a starting pitcher when he came up. The Yankees realized that he didn’t have the skills to pitch 6 inning games. So they converted him to the bullpen, and the rest of history. I’d love to have seen Mo learn a curveball and go all Pedro Martinez on the league, but that wasn’t going to happen. If the Yankees aren’t ready to commit to Phil being a MLB starter the beginning of the season, they shouldn’t take a key piece out of their roster to nurture the faint hope that one day he might be.