Heading into a Monday match-up against the Rays on June 8th, the Yankees were 33-23, clinging to a 0.5-game lead in AL East. That night, Phil Hughes made his first bullpen appearance for the Yankees in a win, and since then, the Yankees have been nearly unstoppable. The Yankees are 56-27 since Phil’s bullpen debut, and Hughes has been, by most accounts, the Yanks’ third best pitcher over the last three months.
We know the dominance; we see it as often as the Yanks use Phil. The numbers though are impressive. In 33 relief appearances, Hughes has thrown 41.2 innings with an ERA of 1.08. He has walked just 11 and has struck out 54. His numbers rival those of Mariano Rivera’s, and arguably, only CC Sabathia and Mo have been as valuable on the mound as Phil since mid-June.
While Hughes has helped solidified games at the back end of the bullpen, he’s hardly making a huge impact overall. He has thrown 41.2 innings while the Yankees as a whole have pitched 741.2. Hughes’ contributions, then, have come in just over five percent of all of the Yankee innings over the last three months. They are, in a sense, wasting a weapon in the pen.
At this point in the year, the Yankees do not seem inclined to stretch Hughes out into a starter. As they’re doing with Joba Chamberlain, they could be doing with Hughes. They could have him throw 35 pitches and then 50 an then 65 in an effort to build him up to a playoff starter. The Yankees, though, don’t want to mess with a good thing. In a piece making the rounds today, Rob Neyer, though, urges them to do just that. By switching Joba and Phil Hughes, says Neyer, the Yankees would be perfect for the playoffs.
Chamberlain is the Yankees’ No. 4 starter. Sergio Mitre is the Yankees’ No. 5 starter. Which means the Yankees, as things stand now, have only three reliable starters. And again, you need four of them when the leaves are turning in New England.
I know, I know … Phil Hughes has been so good in the bullpen: 1.11 ERA with an overpowering strikeout-to-walk ratio. Make him a starter again and he’s not going to post numbers anything like those. But to help the Yankees, he doesn’t have to be anywhere near that good; he just has to be measurably better than Chamberlain and Mitre. Particularly if — and I know this is highly speculative — Chamberlain regains his dominant stuff upon returning to a relief role.
Perhaps I’m overreacting to Chamberlain’s recent struggles, and the Yankees are good enough to win the World Series even without a decent fourth starter. But the other day somebody asked me what could keep the Yankees from winning. I didn’t have a good answer, because this is essentially a team without a weakness.
Except one. And with a little creativity, they could probably make it zero.
The problem, as Neyer admits, is Joba. There is no guarantee that he’s going to find the missing five miles-per-hour on his fastball in the pen. There is no guarantee that he’s going to rediscover the ability to attack the strike zone and get hitters out while pitching efficiently out of the pen. In fact, Joba’s recent first-inning struggles would suggest just the opposite.
I’d love to see Hughes in the rotation, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that it just isn’t going to happen. Joba’s struggles are, hopefully, an isolated incident that comes and goes with the season. A.J. Burnett to attest to the ups and downs of pitching.
There is but one rub to this tale of pitching. Jon Heyman tweeted today: “Those of us who think Joba’s a reliever may get our wish in the AL playoffs, when he may join Mo, Hughes in pen.” There are no sources here and no analysis. Rather, Heyman just reports something seemingly for the sake of creating news.
If there’s a modicum of truth in this Tweet though it’s not impossible to see what the Yankees would do. Tonight, Chad Gaudin pitches with Alfredo Aceves ready at the first sign of trouble. Aceves has essentially become Gaudin’s caddy. He has thrown 32 pitches and then 42 pitches in relief of the Yanks’ recently-acquired right-hander. With a long outing tonight, Aceves could easily take a spot in the rotation in five days and work toward a start in the playoffs. Crazier roster machinations have happened.