Ugh. Ugh. Ugh. Do we really have to “revive” the Joba Chamberlain debate, as Justin Sablich attempted to do yesterday on The Times’ Bats blog? Is there nothing better to talk about during the first few days of January than something that should have been put to bed ages ago?
Since the answer to my rhetorical question is clearly “no,” let’s dispose of this attempt to put a potential ace into some overblown 8th inning role. The italicized parts are from Sablich’s blog post, linked above. The regular text is my response.
Despite his game-shortening ability as Mariano Rivera’s setup man, Chamberlain was converted to a starter for part of the 2008 season before tendinitis in his throwing shoulder sent him to the disabled list and eventually back to the bullpen.
So before we even get to the meat of the argument, already it’s distorting the issue. Chamberlain was not “converted to a starter” in 2008. He had been a starter his entire career and was converted into a reliever in 2007 because he was running up against his innings limit. He simply returned to the role in which the Yanks envisioned him when they drafted him.
Now with a revamped rotation for the 2009 season, a case can be made for keeping Chamberlain in the setup role. The Yankees simply do not need Chamberlain in the rotation the way they did last season.
Any starting rotation with Joba Chamberlain is better than any without him. He’s a far superior pitcher to Andy Pettitte at this point in their respective careers, and he has so far been a more effective Major League starter than Phil Hughes. We could even make the case that he’s better than Chien-Ming Wang and A.J. Burnett as well. The Yankees are far better putting a pitcher of Chamberlain’s caliber in the rotation than they are burning him in the pen.
Chamberlain in the bullpen would most likely make each starting pitcher better by shortening his starts. Fans concerned about Sabathia burning out in September or Burnett breaking down over the long haul could rest a little easier. A Chamberlain bridge would also make life easier for Rivera, who turned 39 in November and may not be able to crank out a two-inning save with as much ease as in the past.
You know what else would help shorten starts? Having CC Sabathia in the bullpen.
Seriously, though, the Yankees pen is not a problem. The bullpen had a 3.79 ERA last year and led the AL in strike outs. They can use Damaso Marte and Brian Bruney to shorten games and have a plethora of other options that can spell Mariano Rivera when necessary. Considering that around 25 percent of a set-up man’s appearances come in close situations with the tying run on base or at the plate, the value of a nearly perfect set-up man is diminished even further. This is just a psychological “we would feel better with Joba in the bullpen” argument with little support to back it up.
In addition to keeping others healthy, Chamberlain could be healthier by remaining a reliever. There’s no questioning his effectiveness as a starter. His numbers as a starter last season (2.75 ERA and 10.3 K/9) were almost identical to his stats as a reliever (2.31 ERA and 11.1 K/9). But his shoulder injury came about as a starter, and fewer innings could only help him keep his shoulder strong.
Except relievers are generally less healthy than starters. Ask Eric Gagne, ask Tom Gordon. The general consensus in baseball is that it’s far easier to monitor a pitcher’s workload if he’s starting every five days than if he is relieving on an erratic schedule.
A popular argument for having Chamberlain start is that you should not waste a player with such ability as a reliever because the more innings he can pitch the better. Wouldn’t you rather have 230 innings of Chamberlain rather than 90?
The problem with that argument is that you can say the same thing about Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon or a number of other great relievers. Are the Red Sox wasting Papelbon’s talent by limiting his innings and not converting him back to a starter?
I wish people would stop comparing Papelbon to Chamberlain. It’s just not an apt comparison. Papelbon was a B/B+ starting prospect with two good pitches. Joba has long been an A/A+ starting prospect with four good pitches. The Red Sox tried to use Papelbon in the rotation, and that plan did not work out. In other words, he — much like Mariano Rivera — is a failed starter. Chamberlain has a long way to go before anyone considers him a failed starter, and as Sablich points out not two paragraphs before this claim, Joba actually enjoyed great success as a starter until his shoulder flared up.
If the Yankees used Chamberlain to shorten games to six innings, is that really a waste of talent? It sounds more like an incredible advantage to me.
Again, not an “incredible” advantage. In 1996, when the Yanks used Rivera to shorten games, he made 61 appearances. Of those, 15 were with the game tied or the Yanks up by one run. So that means that in 75 percent of his appearances, Rivera was protecting a lead of at least two runs or holding a deficit. As I said already, the Yankees would basically be sacrificing Joba in the rotation for around 20 innings of actual “clutch” pitching. It’s just not worth it.
In the end, in a few years, the Yankees may wind up putting Chamberlain in the pen, but that won’t happen until and unless he can’t handle the rigors of throwing 200 innings a season. We’re a long way from that point, and this debate is just a tired old rehash of things that should have been settled long ago. The Yankees are far better off with Joba Chamberlain making 30+ starts a year, and it shouldn’t even be called a debate anymore.