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Yankees Name Phil Hughes as Fifth Starter; Joba to the Pen

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After a horrid spring for Joba Chamberlain in which he posted a whopping 16.20 ERA in only 6.2 innings pitched, Phil Hughes has been named the Yankees' official fifth starter. While names like Sergio Mitre, Alfredo Aceves and the recently released Chad Gaudin were thrown around as candidates for the slot, in reality it was always only a two-horse race. And Phil Hughes has apparently proved himself the thoroughbred as far as starting pitching for the New York Yankees goes.

But did Yankees manager Joe Girardi make the right decision, and what are the repercussions if he didn't? On the surface the answer to the former seems to be a "yes." Chamberlain, after utterly dominating opponents as a sensational reliever in 2007 and parts of 2008, never settled in as a starter. His 4.75 ERA in '09 is troubling enough but his increase in WHIP (1.26 to 1.54) and BB/9 (3.5 to 4.3) and his massive decrease in K/9 (10.6 to 7.6) in one season are strong indicators that Joba isn't equipped for a starting role. Throw in his 167 hits surrendered in 157 1/3 innings (the first time his hits allowed have ever exceeded his innings pitched), and all indicators support the logic of moving Joba back to 'pen where he can dial up his 100 mph fastball, is never forced to see the same hitter twice, and has had his most success.

But Phil Hughes has also consistently struggled as a starter, even while dominating during his own tenure in the setup role. After a solid but truncated 2007 rookie campaign (72 1/3 innings over 13 starts), Hughes was shelled all the way back to AAA in 2008 and proved highly ineffective as a starter once again to open the 2009 season.

While his final stats — an 8-3 record/18 holds/3.03 ERA — look very good, and his 1.16 WHIP, 10 K/9, and 2.9 BB/9 ratios are absolutely stellar, these stats are padded heavily by Hughes' work coming out of the bullpen. In his most embarrassing start of 2009 (and likely of his career), Phil was shelled by the lowly (and eventual last place) Baltimore Orioles on May 9, surrendering eight runs on eight hits in only an inning and a third. While Hughes did have the occasional solid start, he has far from proven himself better than Chamberlain when it comes to starting a ball game, at least in the regular season.

Spring training statistics are always taken with a rougher-than-usual grain of salt by everyone from fans to writers to the coaches and managers themselves. The decision to select Hughes for the role is obviously more based on the Yankees' confidence in their once heralded prospect than on Joba's spring training failures.

Able to maintain his velocity over the course of the entire game (a trait Joba glaringly lacks), Phil mixes his pitches better, locates them more accurately (especially his secondary selections), and has proven more effective facing a lineup the second time through (as shown by his multiple effective multi-inning relief appearances in 2009).

But he has never thrown more 86 innings in a season while Chamberlain has topped 100 innings in his last two campaigns, including 157 1/3 in '09. In choosing Hughes over Chamberlain as their fifth starter, the Yankees will once again ironically find themselves in a "Joba Rules" situation, limiting Phil's pitch counts and innings pitched in an effort to protect a pitcher that is far from "stretched out" as a starter.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the "conclusion" of this fifth starter soap opera that has been syndicating in the Bronx Baseball Universe since early last season. Hughes may be the more attractive and promising pick but if, and essentially when, he hits his proverbial innings "wall," who will the team turn to?

Joba will be in the pen — filling the setup role and prepping to eventually inherit the 40-year-old Mariano Rivera's closer duties — so he will be in no condition to move into the rotation. This leaves Mitre and Aceves to fill in for Hughes, at the very least, as spot starters. These are games that could easily translate directly into losses if the Bombers' offense isn't able to make up the difference in those particular contests. As good as players like Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Jorge Posada are, even they may have a difficult time saving their multi-hit/multi RBI games specifically for those Aceves/Mitre/player-to-be-tossed-in-later starts.

Even if Hughes doubles his 2009 output, hurling 160 innings (which is a stretch at best), that still leaves roughly 130 innings, or about 18 seven-inning starts, in which the Yanks must send a substandard starting pitcher out to the mound. And in a division that is typically decided by no more than five games, fielding sub-par starters in 18 starts can easily translate into 5 to 10 losses and an early end to the Yankees' season. 

New York will essentially be running a six-man rotation unless they intend to take the Dusty Baker approach and turn Hughes into the next Shawn Estes, Kerry Wood, or even more tragic, Mark Fidrych (okay, that one wasn't Dusty but you get the drift).

It is a gamble the Yankees must weigh heavily. Do the wins that Phil Hughes will add as a starter in 2010 and beyond — combined with Joba 's contributions in the bullpen — outweigh what the Yankees will be forced to compensate for in the 2010 season with Hughes' inevitably limited workload and Joba not logging his own victories in the rotation? It may take two to three years to know for sure, but Phil Hughes' effectiveness in 2010 — joining a rotation loaded with a ridiculous amount of talent — will either bring heaping praise or brutal scrutiny from the internal and public forces that influence and operate among the vast Yankee universe down upon Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman.

And the decision will without a doubt have ramifications on the ultimate direction and success of the Yankees for years to come. If Hughes and Chamberlain fail, ownership will undoubtedly remind Cashman that these two players were at the foundation of his internal rebuilding strategy that convinced the team to pass on free agents like Johan Santana. But as risky or unstable as the Yankees' fifth starter decision may seem to be, with the success of both pitchers in their time as setup men, it seems inevitable that at the very least the Yankees will find proficiency in that role this season and have a dominant closer for many years to come, even post-Rivera.

And if the Hughes experiment goes awry, history and logic indicate that the Yankees may take a small respite from that "internal development strategy" and bring in a fifth starter midseason to shore things up for the stretch run. But with so much faith and confidence placed in Phil Hughes — the Yankees rarely have shown this level of patience with a prospect —  his success could not only provide New York with another favorable shot at a World Series Championship but it will validate Cashman's philosophy and prevent the Yankees' from returning to their old, reckless spending and and self-destructive habits. (What's Kevin Brown up to these days? Boxing brick walls?)

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About Anthony Tobis

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Well, yeah, someone else other than Hughes will have to make some starts. But here’s the thing: every team has a fifth starter like that.

    Look at the Red Sox question marks: Dice-K and Clay Buchholz? Tim Wakefield is still alive?

    The Rays are going to rely on rookie Wade Davis at the end of the rotation. Who else can they turn to? Sonnanstine’s not cutting it anymore.

    So you make a great point, but it’s a zero sum debate. The fifth starter debate is not as implosive as it may seem. Especially when the Yankees might have the best No. 4 starter in the game.

  • Tony

    I guess the debate is this. Every team does have 5th starter issues definitely. That’s why I’ve always argued teams should go to 3 to 4 man rotations, limiting pitchers to 100 pitches an outing to prevent injuries (the medical science backs this up).

    That being said, the Yankees choosing Hughes essentially forces them into a 6 starter situation because Hughes physically can’t go 200 innings. While Wakefield may not be a guaranteed win, he is at the very least an innings eater.

    Going with Aceves or especially Mitre is as a “6th” starter is a lot worse that what most of the teams are running out as their 5th starter.

    The debate is whether Hughes is better enough than Joba as a starter to make up for the fact that he won’t make as many starts. Where has you could have someone of Joba’s skill level (even if its below Hughes) pitch 200 innings in a traditional 5 man rotation, now you’ve got a possibly incremental and unproven improvement in skill in 5th spot but a huge drop off when Hughes isn’t pitching.

    You’ve got 1458 (we’ll use 1134 for a seven inning start) innings in a season. Divide that by a 5 man rotation and each pitcher would put in 226.8 innings. Obviously this number would be less with spot starts, but the point is still there. With Joba, you can reasonably expect 180 innings this season (if his progression continued as a starter, leaving 46.8 innings or roughly 6 7-inning starts to spot start.

    With Hughes, even 150 innings will be pushing it. leaving roughly 10 starts to spot starters (the data in the article used a 9-inning model). That’s still a difference of 4 games that could easily decide to the division. I’m not saying its the right or wrong move, its just a trade off that could prove costly, especially if Hughes doesn’t get the job done.

    But in a sense you are correct because the Yankees won last season without a true 5th starter. As I said before, I think the spot is a waste and teams should go back to 3-4 man rotations. Medical evidence shows it is the volume of pitches thrown after the arms physical threshold (usually 100 pitches) that causes injury, not frequency. But that’s a whole other article.

  • Tony

    Wow, I need to proof read my comments. That was brutal.

  • Tony

    Just a note: I don’t think its a zero sum debate. You’ve got:

    – Should Joba or Hughes be the starter?
    – Should Joba or Hughes be the setup man
    – The Yankees “6th” starter options aren’t strong and in a hyper competative division this can make a difference. I would rather rely on Clay Buckholtz or Tim Wakefield that freakin’ Sergio Mitre (Aceves may prove ok but who knows).
    – And finally Hughes’ success will be the ultimate declaration on whether Cashman was right to pass on Santana and keep Hughes off of the trading block.

    So even though MOST team have 5th starter issues this is the Yankees, they are in the toughest division in baseball that is consistently decided by a few games, and this is really the make or break year for Hughes and Cashman’s internal development strategy since I don’t think we’ll be seeing Ian Kennedy any time soon.