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.