Things have been going well for the Yankees lately. Sitting atop the AL East with a 31-22 record, the team has been strong in every facet of the game. Although hampered by injuries, the offense has been lethal. Their .282 team batting average is third in all of baseball, their 82 home runs are second only to the Texas Rangers (by two dingers), and their 285 RBI total is tied for the most in the MLB with, oddly enough, the Tampa Bay Rays. The team has shown both power and patience as an ethos, posting a .359 team OBP that is third in the MLB and a .842 team OPS that is by far the best in baseball, 21 points higher than that of the second place Philadelphia Phillies.
And while the Yankees star-studded pitching staff struggled early in the season, they have since settled in well. CC Sabathia is on his way to another excellent season with his ERA down to a respectable 3.46 and his WHIP at an impressive 1.14. The ERA of A.J. Burnett (4.69) is higher than the team would like but that number is misleading.
Burnett has given up too many runs — mostly due to his 11 surrendered home runs — but otherwise his numbers are good. AJ has given up 67 hits in 71 innings and has walked only 32 batters while striking out 65. Burnett has had some bad luck this season and also some difficulty adjusting to the "quirks" of the new Yankee Stadium, but his numbers show that eventually the ERA should come down and the pitcher should put in one of his typical solid, strikeout-heavy season.
Even the defense — a attribute in which the post-dynasty Yankees have been anemic — has been historically good this year. A Jorge Posada throwing error on Tuesday night ended the streak of 19 errorless games by the New York squad, besting the previous all-time record of 18 set by the 2006 Boston Red Sox. While the outfield possesses no arms of great note – aside from arguably Melky Cabrera — the collective unit has first rate speed, coverage, and instincts. The infield, enormously improved by the addition of first base savant Mark Teixiera, has been air-tight, featuring range and precision — regardless of what the critics claim about Jeter at shortstop.
But even with the machine working at full capacity, firing on all cylinders, manager Joe Girardi faces a decision that will ultimately have a massive impact on his teams' eventual fortunes in 2009. Now that Chien-Ming Wang is healthy what should he do about the starting rotation? While possessing six capable pitchers for five rotation spots is a problem that any manager would seemingly welcome, the decision Girardi will make will undoubtedly be looked at as a direct cause of the Yankees' final standing, whatever that happens to be. The relation of this to Girardi's job status need not be expounded upon.
The front end of the New York rotation is locked solid. Sabathia, Burnett, and Pettitte aren't going anywhere anytime soon. But after those first three spots, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes, and Chien-Ming Wang have all made their case for a spot in the rotation, the obvious problem being that there are only two slots available to the three claimants.
The decision features three arguments: to keep Chamberlain and Hughes in the rotation and leave Wang in the bullpen, based mostly on Wang's bad start, to move Joba to the setup role and feature Wang and Hughes in the rotation, or to move Hughes to the bullpen while pitching Joba and Wang in the starting rotation. All three ideas have their merit, but when examining the statistics it seems clear that one is the most likely to produce the desired results.
The biggest knock on Joba Chamberlain is that he has endurance problems, that he can't go deep into games. Those people who feel Joba would make a better setup man than a starter argue that he would be more effective in short, frequent bursts than pitching in his rotational turn and taxing the bullpen by leaving games early.
The fact that Joba has lasted only seven innings in a game twice this season is definitely a detraction to his usage as a starter, but when considering his statistics when he is in the game, it is hard to justify a move out of the rotation. In 53 innings Joba has a 3.71 ERA (best among Yankee starters), with 51 strikeouts, while allowing only 22 runs on 50 hits. Joba's biggest problem has been his walks (27) which have resulted in the high pitch counts that have shortened his outings. Joba's 4.6 walks per nine innings is one walk higher than his career average while his 1.44 WHIP also looks inflated compared to his 1.244 career WHIP. As his control becomes more refined over the course of the season — as his career statistics indicate it will — these numbers will normalize and his pitch counts will come down, allowing him to go deeper into games. And regardless, having either Wang or Hughes as a very good long man out of the bullpen (if that's what they choose to do) negates the negative effects of Joba's less than stellar endurance.
Chien-Ming Wang, just back off of the disabled list, has been outstanding since his return. Working eight innings out of the bullpen, Wang has a 2.25 ERA with 7 strikeouts to only two walks. His first three-inning appearance was his worst as he allowed two runs on six hits while still displaying good velocity and location. Since then, in five innings, Wang has not allowed a run and has given up only three hits while striking out five. Most importantly, his pitches have been consistently down, and his sinker is dropping hard, sharp, and out of the zone.
Wang is a proven winner, going 54 and 23 in his career with the Yankees, winning 19 games twice in a short career that has, in the last two seasons, been marred with injuries. But Wang is only 29, and if he can stay healthy, he is one of the top-tier starters in the game.
Joe Girardi announced on Wednesday that Chien-Ming Wang will start Thursday against Texas. According to the manager, he feels like Wang has his stuff back stating, "We weren't just going to move him to move him. We had to feel that his stuff was back and watching him these last two times has made us feel that his stuff is back."
So now Phil Hughes will make the switch to the bullpen, apparently serving as the long relief man unless Wang should falter. And after the latter's horrific start, it will be interesting to see how short the leash will be. One bad start by Wang and the rotation could once again find itself in limbo, a scenario of confusion that can be highly detrimental to a team competing in a tight pennant race.
So is Girardi's decision the right one? While there are obviously those who feel that Hughes should remain in the rotation over Wang, there is also a large contingent that feel Joba Chamberlain could be so valuable out of the bullpen that Hughes and Wang should populate the rotation and Joba should
make the move to the pen. Having already examined Joba's obvious value as a starter, it is prudent to closely examine Hughes' own success as a starter this season.
Phil Hughes is a pitcher Yankees fans "want" to succeed. Blessed with dynamic stuff, Hughes is a homegrown talent that seems constantly on the verge of becoming dominate. In his first start of 2009, Hughes shut down the now-first place Detroit Tigers, throwing six shutout innings in which he gave up two hits and struck out six. Later in the season he befuddled the first place Texas Rangers, throwing eight shutout innings and striking out six while allowing only three hits.
But these examples are the exceptions to a season that has been far less impressive. Hughes has given up more hits (37) than innings pitched (34.2) which is never a good sign and his 5.45 ERA is by far the worst in the starting rotation, having allowed 21 earned runs in those 37 innings pitched. Potential aside, Hughes' stats are this bad despite those two standout starts; a relatively damning condemnation of his consistency and viability as a starter.
Most likely Hughes will be used as a long man but this may be a waste of all the exceptional "potential" that has been attached to the 23-year-old Yankee his entire career. What has been suggested for Joba Chamberlain may be just the answer for Phil Hughes. Given his electric fastball, and biting power-curve, Hughes may be the perfect figure to slide into the setup role and solidify the Yankees' bullpen.
Hughes features eight K/9 innings this season, a vital statistic for a reliever who may enter the game with runners on base. Using the same philosophy that once created a shut-down combination of Joba to Rivera and that first constructed the dominating duo of Rivera to Wetteland in the 1996 championship season, the Yankees could once again suffocate their opponents by shortening 2-3 innings off every game.
With injuries to Damaso Marte and Brian Bruney, the Yankees would be well served to give Hughes a chance in the setup role instead of relegating him to typically inconsequential situations as a glorified mop-up man or sending him back down to the minors. While the young arms in the Yankees bullpen have performed well, a pitcher with Hughes' skill and experience would instantly improve the weakest facet. Hughes — already stretched out as a starter, prepared to pitch 100+ innings — could conceivably be used as a "new" hybrid long/short reliever, available in all situations when necessary, serving as a rare bullpen piece unburdened by serious innings limitations.
Playing half of their games in, what appears to be, one of the biggest launching pads in baseball, pitching will be absolutely crucial for the Yankees down the stretch. If Chien-Ming Wang can return to his pre-injury form, his ground ball-inducing sinkers should be tailored perfectly for success in his new home. And while Phil Hughes has consistently been hampered by injuries, when healthy consistency as a starter has been the attribute — for three seasons now — that has eluded him.
Some day Hughes could become a solid starter. But given his abilities, and given the opportunity, he could easily become a dominant and unusually useful reliever. In the short term, he is a quality arm that can handle a volume of innings often, shortening ball games on the way to Mariano. In the long term, he could be a home-grown answer to the question of succession to the role now held by the aging Yankee legend, maybe even bringing back the usage patters of Goose Gossage and Rollie Fingers, when closers often pitched multiple innings.
With Boston only a half-game behind the Yanks and Toronto only two games back in third, it is very clear that the AL East will be a tight division. And even though both Detroit and Texas are comfortably in first place in their respective divisions, there is no doubt that the Angels, Twins, and White Sox will not simply concede the wild card to the East.
Because of this general competitiveness in the American League, and the wide distribution of talent among the teams, the Yankees can ill afford to give Wang many chances to hold onto his spot in the rotation. He must see instant success or the pressure will instantly be on the manager to make a move and right the proverbial ship. Such is the pressure of having "too much talent." Judging by the statistics it seems like Girardi has one half of the equation correct but it remains to be seen if he will use Hughes to save the team from what could ultimately be their downfall, regardless of what he does with the starting rotation