Saturday, January 3, 2009

Joba Mania

I'm not talking about the Yanks fans' intense adoration for the prized flamethrower. Every Yankee fan has it to a varying degree. I remember watching clips of his relief appearances at AAA on YouTube before he made his MLB debut and everyone still thought his name was pronounced "Joe-Bah". He's the type of talent a team brings up once every 5 or 10 years, and he receives love and loyalty from the fans that it will take the two double-initialed free agents a long time to attain. The kid has a near 100mph fastball and pinpoint control, with a slider that hitters can't identify until their hands are passing their belt buckle. He strikes out about 11 guys per every 9 innings and he probably hates Youkilis more than we do! He's got it all. And the adulation is well deserved.

Rather, I'm talking about the amazing effect the "starter vs. reliever" debate has on people, and the crazy things it makes them say. Exhibit A, Justin Sablich of the NYTimes Bats Blog:
Chamberlain in the bullpen would most likely make each starting pitcher better by shortening his starts. Fans concerned about Sabathia burning out in September or Burnett breaking down over the long haul could rest a little easier.
Over the course of an entire season, how many innings is Joba going to save Sabathia or Burnett from throwing? Joba's not available every day, and every time a starter takes the mound, he's not handing over a close game to the bullpen in the 7th inning. Looking through Burnett's game logs from last year on B-R, I counted 16 out of 31 starts where he pitched 6 or more innings in a game decided by 3 or fewer runs. It's obviously a rough calculation, and I'm being generous to his argument by including both wins (10) and losses (6).

Even if you assume Joba is available for every one of those starts, is Joe Girardi really going to leave a starter on the mound for an extra inning each of those starts because Jose Veras or Damaso Marte is coming in, instead of Joba Chamberlain? I would say the length of a starting pitcher's outing has a lot more to do with the performance of that starting pitcher than the options the manager has in the bullpen.

Anyway, lets just say that in those 16 starts, Joba saves Burnett 1/3 of an inning half of the time and 2/3 of an inning half of the time. That amounts to a grand total of 8 innings. Does anyone think that 8 or even 10-12 innings are going to make the difference between Burnett "breaking down" or not?

As I'm sure you can tell by now, I think Joba should be a starter. I was on the fence when they originally made the shift last year, but after seeing him be more efficient with his pitches and still look downright dominant as a starter, most of the questions I had were answered. I think boils down to the concept of VORP (value over replacement player).

When you take Joba out of the rotation, he gets replaced by (Hughes/Kennedy/Aceves). When you take him out of the bullpen, his innings are replaced by Veras, Marte, Brain Bruney, Edwar Ramirez, Phil Coke and possibly some AAA call ups like Mark Melancon all of whom are competent relievers. Looking at it that way, I think you have to conclude that the Yanks have a lot more to lose by filling that empty rotation spot with a (or a series of) giant question mark(s) than shifting their bullpen back an inning.

The great thing about this debate is that there is no wrong way to use Joba. There might be a "less right" way, but there is certainly no horribly, obviously wrong decision. In all likelihood, you are getting valuable innings from an awesome pitcher. Health, like with all pitchers, is the main issue. Maybe he would have gotten injured even if they left him in the bullpen last year. Or perhaps his body type and pitching style are more suited to the "fewer innings but more outings" demands relief pitching. There's only one way to find out, and in choosing between two uncertainties, I'll take the one with higher potential value.