Yesterday the Yankees announced their first solution to the good problem. With six starting pitchers for five rotation spots, the Yanks opted to place Chien-Ming Wang back in his rotation spot at the expense of Phil Hughes. The latter will go to the bullpen for the next two weeks while the Yankees make sure Wang is back to his former self. If he is, Hughes heads back to AAA Scranton to get consistent starts and innings. As far as solutions to this problem go, it’s tough to argue against this one.
Since starting pitchers are more valuable than relievers, the Yankees want their five best pitchers in the starting rotation. How they define “best” is clear. First you have established guys, then your reliable vets, then your high ceiling guys. CC and A.J. fit the first descriptor, Wang and Pettitte fit the second. That leaves Joba and Hughes. Chamberlain’s ceiling is probably a bit higher than Hughes’s, but in any case Joba wins on performance this year. So Hughes is the odd man out. But rather than just option him now, they’re holding onto him just in case this solution doesn’t work out. It seems like the smart thing to do, as it 1) keeps Phil around in case the plan doesn’t work out, and 2) holds in back just a little, which is okay given his innings ceiling for the year.
What’s wrong, some might ask, with keeping Hughes in the pen? It’s a weakness, and he could help out. While both statements are true, it doesn’t mean that Hughes is the man to fill that role. He’s young and still has parts of his game which need to develop. This includes working his innings up to over 200. Installing him in the bullpen will only serve to limit his innings beyond what the Yankees have planned for him this season. So while they might get a bump in the short term, they do it at the expense of the long term.
(This isn’t to say that you always sacrifice the short term for the long term. There’s a balance for sure, but I’m not so sure Hughes and Joba are the guys you want on the short term side of that equation.)
The only alternative to the current solution (or one exactly like it) is to place one of those vets in the pen. If that seems unconventional, well, it is. When that vet is a two-time 19-game winner, it’s even less conventional. But, from a baseball standpoint, what if it’s the optimal move? What if your two high ceiling guys are among your five best pitchers. Do you dare move one of the vets to the pen?
Michael Salfino of SNY wonders if Chien-Ming Wang would work in the bullpen. Most fans don’t consider this, because we’re used to seeing Wang start games and go seven, eight strong innings. Clearly, that’s more valuable than a bullpen arm. The only way for it to make sense is if Wang is not among the Yankees five best starters. In any case, it appears he would work well out of the bullpen. This uses work from Harvy Pavlidis and the inimitable Tom Tango, based on a formula by Dan Szymborski. So how does it work for Wang?
My Wang conversion (based on how he’s pitched as a starter for his career) is a 2.89 ERA, 5.71 K/9, and 1.08 WHIP (baserunners per inning). Of course, he’d still be an extreme groundball pitcher. (Note: my conversion formula is based on how a sampling of modern starters turned relievers actually performed through 2006.)
Szymborski says Wang as a reliever would have a 3.09 ERA with 5.4 strikeouts per nine innings and a 1.21 WHIP.
That’s not bad at all. Of course, it’s all theoretical. We can’t expect a computer to definitively predict a player’s performance in a foreign role. I like to think of it as “should be able to.” Wang should be able to attain these marks out of the bullpen. Of course, those numbers are based on his numbers as a starter, and if he can put up his normal starter numbers he’s more valuable in the rotation.
The advantage of having Wang in the pen is that the Yankees are no longer developing him. They can use the starting innings on Joba and Hughes, who both are pitching well at the major league level. Wang can spot start and eventually take over when Joba hits his innings limit (whether he’s shut down or transitioned to the bullpen). In other words, not getting Wang enough innings isn’t a big deal, but not getting Hughes and Joba their innings is.
The point is pretty much moot at this point. The Yankees have moved Wang into the rotation, and I’d be hard pressed to argue that it’s not the best place for him to be. With Andy Pettitte struggling lately (and possibly being injured), the Yanks should certainly be focused on getting their best guys the ball every five days. Who knows; maybe Pettitte hits the DL and comes back in relief. Yes, Andy Pettitte is a starting pitcher, but the Yanks have shown that they’re not reluctant to try different solutions to their good problem.