The proper evaluation of Joba Chamberlain

This one is a few weeks old, but highly appropriate to our current discourse. (With thanks to Jamal for the pointer.) At Full Count Pitch, Gary Armida discusses the over-analysis of Joba Chamberlain. Everyone’s guilty of it, from the mainstream media right down to the lowest-trafficked blog. Yes, this includes RAB. The whole article is a good read, but this is the big takeaway:

If he continues to show the Yankees signs of being a good starter, he should be given the opportunity to continue in that role. If he shows he can’t, he should be sent to the bullpen. But, a proper evaluation is all about patience and seeing the big picture.

A proper evaluation involves more than one season, especially when that season wasn’t exactly a full one. Joba did go wire-to-wire, but 1) he faced innings restrictions which changed his schedule in August and September, and 2) his worst performances came when he cross his previous innings threshold. Considering his performances from April through July, and the age at which he performed, he should certainly get another look.

Only 161 pitchers since 1980 managed even 140 innings in their age-23 season. Only 98 of those posted an ERA+ over 100. Joba’s struggles in this early stage of his career are not surprising. He deserves more than just one restricted year to prove his value to the Yankees.

This isn’t to say that he should win the fifth starter battle or that he should never go to the bullpen. Circumstances dictate the situation, and right now the Yankees have two promising young starters vying for one open rotation spot. To relegate Joba to the bullpen permanently, at this stage of his career, would be a mistake. There’s plenty more time for a more thorough evaluation.

Oh, and in case you didn’t see, Joba’s line from today’s intrasquad game: 5 IP, 6 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 1K. The best part was that of his 74 pitches, 48 were strikes.

Succeeding Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte gets some work in during Spring Training. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Since 1994, the New York Yankees have been the cream of baseball’s crop. They reached the playoffs every year except one, won the AL East 11 times, captured seven AL titles and brought home the World Series trophy five times. Yet, throughout the years of success, the Yankees have not done a very good job of developing pitchers internally.

On Gene Michael’s and Bob Watson’s and Brian Cashman‘s various watches, the Yankees’ system has mostly come up barren when it comes to arms. They brought along Mariano Rivera but nearly traded him before realizing what they had. His emergence is generally considered a fortuitous happening, and the Yankees can take some, but not all, credit for him. If George had his druthers, Mariano would have been elsewhere.

Beyond Mo, though, a handful of others made small impacts. Sterling Hitchcock bounced around the league for a bit but wasn’t much more than a below-average left-hander. Ramiro Mendoza, an unsung hero from the late 1990s, served as the team’s long reliever and spot starter with great success. Only Andy Pettitte has turned into something special.

Number 46 was also one of those Yankee pitchers who was nearly traded, but except for three years in the mid-2000s, Pettitte has been a pinstripe stalwart since 1995. Over 12 seasons with the Yanks, he is 192-109 with a 4.02 ERA and a 113 ERA+. In 40 post-season starts, he is 18-9 with a 3.90 ERA, and last year, Andy won the clinching games in the ALDS, ALCS and World Series.

Yet, Pettitte is no longer a young man. The 2010 season will be his age 38 year, and he is clearly feeling the call of retirement. He wants to spend more time with his family, and after spending a few years going through the “will he or won’t he” dance of re-upping with the Yanks, he confidently returned for 2010. Still, this is shaping up to his informal swan song. If Andy Pettitte retires after this year, few will be surprised.

For the Yankees, then, Pettitte’s looming departure underscores the need to find out what the team has in Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. Right now, the only starters the Yanks have under contract for 2011 are A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia. Burnett will be 34, and CC will be pitching in a potential opt-out year. The Yanks could open up the checkbook for a Josh Beckett or Cliff Lee type, but the team can’t spend $80-$100 million on five starting pitchers.

So with Joba and Phil, as much as I don’t like ultimatums, 2010 is the year to see what these two can do. Joba is off of his innings limit but seems to be losing the fifth starter race while Phil Hughes will be entering his second straight season in the majors after some injury-filled developmental years. It is important to remember, too, that Joba will turn 25 later this year and Phil Hughes will turn 24. We demand results now while forgetting their age.

What the Yankees are looking for is an internal low-cost solution, one that can replace Andy Pettitte and maybe another than can replace Javier Vazquez after this year. Can Joba or Phil be pitchers who are 3.5-5.5 wins above replacement? That’s what Pettitte has done for the Yankees over his career, and it’s not a reach to see either or both reaching that range. It is, of course, a matter of patience and a leap of faith for the team to stick with the pitchers, but as the Yanks try to get younger on the field and leaner in the wallet, those who replace Andy Pettitte could be linchpins for years to come.

Yankees return Hoffmann to Dodgers

Via LoHud, the Yankees have returned Rule 5 pick Jamie Hoffmann to the Dodgers. While the team could still send a player to the Dodgers for Hoffmann, based on numerous reports, the Yankees simply do not have a roster spot for him right now. Randy Winn has already made the team, and as George King reported this weekend, the Yankees are planning on taking Marcus Thames, currently signed to a minor league deal, north with them next week. Thames will reportedly play left field when the Yanks face southpaws, but with his suspect abilities in the outfield, I wonder if the team is willing to take that defensive risk two or three times a week.

Spring Training Game Thread: Oh, you again

For what feels like the tenth time this spring, the Yankees will take on the same team they beat in the World Series last year, the Phillies. With the pitching all messed up because of yesterday’s rain out, a bunch of guys already threw an intrasquad game back in Tampa. A.J. Burnett will start against the defending NL Champs, and he’ll be relieved by fifth starter candidate Phil Hughes. Both guys should be good for 75-80 pitches this time around, so chances are they’ll handle today all by themselves.

Here’s the lineup…

Gardner, LF
Granderson, CF
Teixeira, 1B
Swisher, RF
Cervelli, C
Pena, SS
Russo, 3B
Nunez, 2B
Pitcher’s Spot

Scheduled Pitchers: A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes. Not sure who else is available if needed.

First pitch is scheduled for 1:05pm ET. Even though it’s a road game, YES will have it for you. If you’re out of market, you’re in luck because ESPN will be broadcasting the game as well. Enjoy.

Photo Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP

2010 Season Preview: Breaking Down Aceves

Photo credit: Tony Dejak/AP

In 2008 the Yankees featured one of the best bullpens in the American League. It got its share of work, racking up 543.1 innings, mostly because of the team’s decimated starting staff. Even still, it led the league in K/9 and K/BB, finished second, by .001, in OBP, and finished third, by .002, in WHIP. Trying to build off that success, the Yankees brought back many of those successful relievers in 2009, including Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Brian Bruney and, to a lesser extent, Jon Albaladejo and Phil Coke. The experiment turned foul pretty quickly, as the group allowed 55 runs, 51 earned, in 71 April innings.

Bruney had been lights out, but hurt his elbow mid-month. Edwar had faced 44 batters and allowed 11 hits, including three home runs, and walked eight. Hitters against him posted a ridiculous .306/.432/.583 line. Veras seemed a bit more snakebitten, a 1.09 WHIP vs. a 5.73 ERA, but he also walked way too many hitters. Albaladejo had allowed seven extra base hits to the 48 batters he faced. Clearly, something had to change in the Yankees’ bullpen, or else the current crew would blow games for the next five months.

It’s easy to cite Phil Hughes‘s move to the bullpen as the reason the unit ended up among the AL’s best in 2009. He was absolutely lights out pitching in relief, allowing just nine runs, eight earned, in 51.1 IP, striking out 65 along the way. Even though his hit total was ridiculously low, 31, he still managed a sterling 1.93 FIP. Yet the bullpen transformation came before Hughes made his move to the eighth inning in July, even before he moved to the bullpen in June. The real change came at the beginning of May, when the Yankees recalled Alfredo Aceves from Scranton.

Through his first two months he helped stabilize the bullpen, allowing just eight runs over 33.1 innings. The runs came in clumps for the most part, two in a 4.1-inning appearance against Boston and three against Texas. Of his 18 appearances in May and June, 13 were scoreless. He allowed just one run three times, twice in completely meaningless situations. He did experience a few hiccups in late July and August, probably related to back soreness. Overall his season went well, though.

Aceves’s soft-tossing style might make his performance seem like smoke and mirrors, but by secondary metrics he performed very well. His FIP sat at 3.75, mostly because he walked so few batters. He still struck out a decent amount, 7.39 per nine innings. His curveball and changeup proved effective swing and miss weapons. His walk and strikeout rates will help him in the future, when opponents will likely improve upon their .260 BABIP against him.

Another area where we might see some regression from Aceves is his home run rate. He allowed 10 home runs in his 84 innings, or 1.07 per nine innings. That might seem high, or average at best, but Aceves accomplished this while allowing a ton of fly balls. Of the 242 fair balls opponents put in play, 116 of them were fly balls, while another 42 were line drives. That led to an 8.6 percent HR/FB ratio, below league average. This is reflected in his xFIP, 4.09. Thankfully, that’s still a quality mark.

In terms of future success, Aceves’s willingness to throw all of his pitches should continue to help him. He threw just 43 percent four-seamers last year, mixing in a cutter, curveball, and changeup for the remaining 57 percent. The cutter appears to be a good straight fastball alternative, as he trades two to three miles per hour for a few inches of break. His curveball is strong, with a deep vertical drop. Lefties seem to have trouble against his changeup. In fact, Aceves performed very well against lefties in 2009, a huge plus if he can continue it in the future.

How do the projection systems see the Yankees’ potential swingman in 2010?

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It looks like most of the projection systems expect Aceves’s hit total to rise, consistent with DIPS theory. We’ve seen it happen to countless relievers. They come on and perform very well in one season by not allowing many hits on balls in play. Then the next year their luck starts evening out, and they’re all the worse for it. Thankfully, Aceves compensates with a low walk rate, though all the systems project that to rise as well. ZiPS is clearly the most pessimistic, forecasting increased home run, hit, and walk rates and a declining strikeout rate.

Given his pitch repertoire, however, I expect Aceves to once again provide a solid option out of the bullpen. Maybe he breaks camp as the fifth starter, though I still doubt it. He’ll probably make a spot start or two during the season as well. Even if his BABIP does rise to the league average, he should still provide quality innings out of the pen. He won’t be as key to the unit’s success as he was last year, but he certainly strengthens the bullpen corps.

The 7th RAB Fantasy Baseball League

Alright, one more league, and this is the last one. I’ll post the sign up info at 6:30pm ET today, so check back then if you haven’t gotten into one of our other leagues.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 22nd, 2010

Record Last Week: 3-3 (26 RS, 27 RA)
Spring Training Record: 8-10 (83 RS, 109 RA)
Schedule This Week: @ Phillies (Mon.), vs. Nationals (Weds.), @ Orioles (Thurs.), vs. Phillies (Fri.), @ Tigers (Sat.), vs. Tigers (Sun.)

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