Starter? Reliever? How about pitcher?


When it comes to young pitchers, uncertainty abounds. Teams draft pitchers with an idea of their talent level and potential, but neither brings any guarantees once the pitcher begins his professional career. Sometimes the talent doesn’t correlate to the results. When it does, the pitcher then has to face increasing levels of competition until he reaches the majors, the most difficult challenge of anyone’s career. Along the way anything can go wrong, leaving a once promising career in a shambles. Even as teams employ better measures of a player’s true ability level, they cannot erase the uncertainty that comes with pitching prospects — or, as TINSTAPP would say, inexperienced pitchers.

In recent years we’ve seen another level of uncertainty, that of a pitcher’s role. No one embodies this uncertainty like Joba Chamberlain. A 2006 draftee, Chamberlain dominated the minors as a starter in 2007, moving through both A+ and AA levels. He possessed such electric stuff that the Yankees thought they could use Chamberlain at the major league level in 2007. The only hitch was that he’d pitch out of the bullpen. The reasons were twofold. First, the Yankees desperately needed another reliable option to set up Mariano Rivera. Second, finishing the season in the bullpen would keep Chamberlain’s innings in check, a concern for all young pitchers but especially for Chamberlain, who had not only limited professional experience, but only about 210 innings in college.

Chamberlain continued his dominance in the major league bullpen, allowing just one earned run, a solo homer, over 24 innings. It begat one of the winter’s two debates: should Joba be a starter or reliever? The two sides took firm stances. The reliever crowd had seen enough. Joba’s performance over those 24 innings fully convinced them that his proper role was in the bullpen. The starter crowed wanted to see if he could fulfill his top-end starter potential. In that role he’d be more valuable than a relief pitcher, even a top closer. The debate raged in 2008, as Chamberlain started lights out in the pen (though not as lights out as his small 2007 sample) and then pitched well in the rotation.

While the debate over Phil Hughes hasn’t been as heated and didn’t divide the fan base as much, there are still questions as to Hughes’s proper role. For the most part, Hughes has been a mediocre starter in the majors and a lights out setup man. With that visual evidence in place, some think that he’s better suited for the bullpen. Others think that the move to the bullpen was the confidence booster Hughes needed to fulfill his potential as a starter. After all, it was in the bullpen that Hughes started to resemble his scouting report. If he can take that back to the rotation, the Yankees could have the ace they envisioned when they drafted him in 2004.

But why are fans so intent on knowing each pitcher’s role — definitively and right now? Both sides of the debate are guilty of this. The starter side wants to see both Hughes and Joba in the bullpen until they prove they can’t handle it. The reliever side wants to see them put in their proper place as soon as possible, so they can maximize their values. If the Yankees are smart, they’ll ignore the calls to take a side and continue developing both Joba and Hughes as pitchers, rather than as starters or relievers.

There was a time in baseball when pitchers bounced back and forth between the bullpen and rotation. This was based on team need and performance. Earl Weaver is often cited for employing this philosophy. He thought that pitchers should break into majors as relievers, and only move to the rotation when they proved they could handle the bigs and the team needed them in that spot. This meant some bouncing around between the rotation and the bullpen, but that shouldn’t be much of an issue. After all, these guys are pitchers. One of my favorite bits of advice for writers is that writers write. In the same way, pitchers pitch. Forget roles; just pitch.

The idea is older than me, but it seems that teams have put more of an emphasis on roles in recent years. There are a few reasons for this, but neither seems provable or particularly valid to me. First is that bouncing a guy between the rotation and the bullpen can cause injury. That notion was reinforced for the Yankees last August when Joba Chamberlain injured his shoulder after transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation. That, however, represents just one instance of correlation to the theory. There is certainly no causation present, and to my knowledge there isn’t even a study which posits a greater correlation. The idea that pitchers are put at risk to injury when moving between the bullpen and rotation is anecdotal at best, and downright wrong at worst.

The second concern relates to roles themselves. From comments Phil Coke made earlier in the season, the guys in the bullpen prefer having a defined role. That’s fine, but since when do baseball teams make decisions based on the players’ wishes? Again, pitchers pitch. If a guy can’t mentally prepare for any role, then he’s not as versatile as a pitcher who can take the ball whenever called, whether to start the game, as a mop-up man in a blowout, or in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning. But, because teams — or, at least, the Yankees — are so obsessed with roles, we sometimes don’t get to see a pitcher’s true potential.

Because the nature of pitching is so volatile, it’s tough to define a pitcher’s role early in his career. Obviously, starters provide more value than relievers, but what if a pitcher is better suited to late-inning relief work? That raises the further question of whether the pitcher should be put in his best possible role, or in the role that provides the team with the most overall value. In the case of unnecessarily pigeonholing relievers, we might not get to see where a pitcher thrives, because he’s kept from that role. So instead of setting a player’s role, perhaps teams should be more flexible — and train their pitchers to be more flexible as well.

Pitchers pitch, and not all pitchers are the same. Those are two key ideas in the starter vs. reliever debate. Good starters provide more value than top relievers, but some pitchers are better suited to relief work. The results should bear that out. The best way, then, to determine a pitcher’s fate is to try him out in all types of roles while keeping his ultimate rule undetermined. Over time, a pitcher’s performance should indicate the answer. If more teams employed this philosophy, maybe we wouldn’t get totally moronic, whiney columns from national baseball writers who have nothing better to write about. But more importantly, we’d see pitchers defining their own roles, rather than having the team define the role for them.

Categories : Pitching


  1. Bo says:

    You know for guys who harp constantly about why everyone talks about this you sure seem to have a lot of posts about the subject.

  2. Andy in Sunny Daytona says:

    Amen to everything you wrote. Earl Weaver has a man ahead of his time. But now in baseball, GM’s are too afraid (rightfully so) to mess with the status quo. They have to worry more about arbitration clocks more than developing quality Major League pitchers.

  3. Tank the Frank says:

    Yet another worthless article on the Joba debate. Until this gem:

    “I certainly hope not,” Hughes said. “In the offseason, there’s not much to really talk about, so I’m sure it’ll come up a little bit. It’s good that fans and media don’t have a say, because it might never die.”

    Great stuff from Hughes! I love it. That’s what gets me up in the morning. The media can keep churning out this garbage and the fans can roar over it until they’re blue in the face, but it doesn’t make one goddamn bit of difference.

    And that’s awesome.

  4. Joey H says:

    I’m sort of buying into the Joba/bullpen thing. However, Hughes is the guy I want starting next year. Absolutely, 150%. Hey, why not have both pitch out of the rotation?

  5. TJ says:

    I’d like to see Joba and Phil both in the rotation next year.

    Sabbathia, Burnett, Pettitte, Joba, Hughes sounds great.

  6. A.D. says:

    That’s fine, but since when do baseball teams make decisions based on the players’ wishes?

    When it makes the players more effective, if having roles & knowing when a platoon player is going to rest & start is able to make them more mentally ready, and thus more effective, teams will do it.

    • Joey H says:

      Joba’s agent will be going crazy if he’s a permanent fixture in the bullpen.

    • Salty Buggah says:

      But that makes them less valuable, no? If you tell Coke he’s coming in only in mop-up role, he’ll be good there but wasted. If you tell him he’s a LOOGY, he’ll be good but again his value wont be maximized. It depends on the situation. You cant predict baseball and you never know whats going to happen so you must be prepared for anything. And if not, you’re probably not ready to be valuable for the team.

      • A.D. says:

        Depends on how narrow the definition is, per Coke’s comments earlier it seemed at the time more that people wanted to know if they were coming in for 3 innings if a start was going bad, or if they’re a 7th inning or later guy in a tight game, that should be pretty reasonable to define for the majority of games.

        • Salty Buggah says:

          Well, back then our pen was kinda struggling. He was struggling too but then got it going and wasnt used in mopup situations. Besides that month long period, the pen has been good and we haven’t needed any drastic assignments.

          Also, I dont think Coke was ever going to be asked to go 3 innings. 2 maybe but thats not much. Anyway, I think Coke should have been able to do whatever was asked of him.

          • A.D. says:

            I agree he should of, and probably should shut his mouth for the media, especially given that it was an issue with needing all hands on deck.

            But I also agree that having & knowing a role >>> not knowing.

            • Salty Buggah says:

              I agree that it probably helps knowing a role but dont expect it to be specific. For example, all Coke needs to know is that he may be coming in close games to face tough lefties. Thats all. Expect those situations, be prepared to do other things like mopup.

              It wasnt like Gaudin. He had a legitimate complain. He didnt know when he was going to pitch. He didnt know if he would be starting or relieving. Coke is a complete reliever. All he needs to know is that he should be ready to be called on no matter what because you know never know whats going to happen in a given baseball game.

  7. gc says:

    Thanks for calling the Passan article out for what it really is. Nonsense. I read that article when it was first posted and wanted to send an email comment, wrote one out, and then deleted it. He’s not worth the effort. Like the Francesa’s of the world, he will think what he wants about this whole topic, logic be damned. He makes it sound like the Yankees have been yo-yoing Joba back and forth between the rotation and bullpen all year long. Not true. They’ve been remarkably consistent this season in what they defined his role to be. Which leads to the second point. He makes it sound as if Joba is the first starter in baseball history to ever be put in the bullpen for the playoffs. Again, ridiculous. I can remember in 2000 when David Cone, just two years removed from being a 20 game winner, was put in the bullpen for the playoffs, and he actually got a pretty big out in the Subway Series (Piazza on a pop-up, IIRC). Yet as we all know, David Cone is a starting pitch-ahh!!!

    In the post-season, you put your personnel in the best position for them to perform well to give the team the best chance to win. It doesn’t mean Joba can’t ever be a starter again, or that because he was inconsistent in that role this year, he will always be inconsistent in that role. It’s just part of the development of a young talented pitcher. Putting Joba in the pen for the post-season puts another power arm in the bullpen capable of getting an out or three. And it keeps things manageable for next season when he will be back in the starting rotation. One year older, one more year of innings of major league experience under his belt, and hopefully one year more physically and mentally mature to handle the challenges of the major league arena.

  8. ROBTEN says:

    The problem with developing them as pitchers is that in a post-La Russa era of bullpen management, the roles have become so narrowly defined (“starter,” “7th inning guy,” “8th inning guy,” “closer,” etc.) as to negatively limit a pitcher’s development.

    As one who did not want to see Hughes relegated solely to the bullpen this year, the problem is that the “eighth-inning” role has meant less opportunity to develop his secondary pitches. As such, while he is gaining “experience” getting major league hitters out, it is coming at the expense of the possibility of learning how to get hitters out a second and third time. As we have seen, he is throwing less of his secondary pitches now that he is coming out of the bullpen.

    Part of the problem with young pitchers is consistency, and so if you narrow their role to one inning, then yes they can develop what might be called “relative” consistency, but at the potential cost of “absolute” consistency. That is, they can get three hitters out with little pitch variation–essentially becoming 1-2 pitch pitchers–but potentially limit their ability in the future to get the same hitter out multiple times–by having 2-3 pitches they can locate and throw for strikes.

    The main issue should be the skill set that the pitcher possesses. What, for example, sets Joba and Hughes apart from D-Rob is that they possess the tools to get hitters out multiple times. That they have excelled in the bullpen is because they are good pitchers, not because they have any special “disposition” for the bullpen.

    By having their relievers throw multiple innings in the minors, it seems like the Yankees have developed a Weaver-lite strategy in developing young pitchers who are headed for the bullpen.

    But, if there has been anything frustrating about this year–and, to be clear, there has been very little to be frustrated about–it has been watching Hughes come into the game for only one inning or less and wondering what it means for his future development.

  9. Mike Pop says:

    Joba’s numbers as a starter aren’t that bad at all. Sure, has the problems with control but most young starters do.

    I can’t wait to see him next year. Really am looking forward to it.

  10. Steve S says:

    The only thing I find troubling in this whole debate/ development process is the velocity changes. I was under the impression that a starting pitcher goes out there and throws max effort. It seems like Phil and Joba have been instructed or believe that when they start they cant throw at their max velocity all the time. I always thought telling pitchers to hold back is how you get them hurt. I plead ignorance on this and its not meant to be criticism. I am really wondering why we saw scouting reports from the minors where these kids were throwing 95 and 97 respectively, into the 6th and 7th inning and now all of a sudden they sit at 93 throughout the whole game and every once in a while crank it up. I mean the only explanation to me is the organization is telling them to do it. Is that the best development process? It worries me a little. I always thought that velocity was founded in the repetition of motion and generating power through the legs (as Timmy Lincecum).

    • Mike Pop says:

      Hmm. Good post.

      • Steve S says:

        Thanks. And in response to Joe. The reason I worry about the role is because I have the belief that starters generally have prolonged careers in comparison to relievers. I am worried that any prolonged period in the bullpen could damage them.

  11. yankeegirl49 says:

    “but since when do baseball teams make decisions based on the players’ wishes? Again, pitchers pitch”

    Um…since Molina was in the game 2 lineup?

  12. “The idea is older than me, but it seems that teams have put more of an emphasis on roles in recent years. There are a few reasons for this, but neither seems provable or particularly valid to me. First is that bouncing a guy between the rotation and the bullpen can cause injury. That notion was reinforced for the Yankees last August when Joba Chamberlain injured his shoulder after transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation. That, however, represents just one instance of correlation to the theory. There is certainly no proof of causation present, and to To my knowledge there isn’t proof of causation present or even a study which posits a greater correlation. The Proof of the accuracy of the idea that pitchers are put at risk to injury when moving between the bullpen and rotation is currently, seemingly, anecdotal at best, and anecdotal and downright wrong at worst.”

    (More fair’d?)

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