On Thursday night the Yankee Universe got its first glimpse at the initial returns from manager Joe Girardi's decision to place Phil Hughes in the starting rotation and Joba Chamberlain in the setup role.
A spot once thought of an arbitrary point of interest on a loaded team has recently become more important due to the struggles of AJ Burnett and especially Javier Vazquez. Facing the nearly perennial defending AL West Champion Los Angles Angels, neither Hughes nor Chamberlain were without fault, but both performed effectively.
Given that it was Hughes' first start and Joba is still getting re-adjusted to the role, a few misteps are to be expected. But examining the stat line and the outcome of the game, the early returns look good on Girardi's investments
Hughes lasted only five innings because of wildness. But aside from his sporadic inability to find the strike zone, Phil pitched both proficiently and promisingly. Although he walked an inexcusable five batters, Hughes allowed only two runs on three hits while striking out six. The walks ran his pitch count up to 108 by the fifth, prompting Girardi to turn to the 'pen after Phil completed the fifth.
But the electric stuff Hughes showed last season as a reliever was present in over those five innings. As long as he can find the strike zone more consistently, Phil made it evident once again that he possesses all the tools in his arsenal to evolve into a dominating starting pitcher.
Joba Chamberlain was also strong over his 1 1/3 innings pitched, surrendering no runs on only one hit while both striking out and walking one. His velocity was better than last season as a starter yet still below the voracious power he displayed in his first two seasons as a reliever. Joba leaned hard on his slider, pitching effectively in the eighth. But after surrendering a hit with one out in the ninth, the game became a save situation and it was Mariano Rivera who would close the contest with one of his signature, sawed-off grounder-inducing cutters.
From a physical and mechanical standpoint, it is clear — even this early in the season — that both pitchers are in the roles in which they have the potential to achieve the greatest success. From a mental standpoint, Phil Hughes seemed far more focused in his duties than Chamberlain, which unfortunately should be expected on some level given the connotations of demotion when a starter
becomes setup men.
But if Chamberlain is having "mental" issues adjusting to his role setting up Rivera, he better solve them quickly. Because also appearing in the 6-2 win was David Robertson. While at times Robertson has been hit hard, his strikeout ratios make him a prime candidate to replace Joba if the latter proves unsuccessful. On Thursday David tossed an inning and a third, giving up no runs on no hits while striking out three. The performance held true to Robertson's ridiculous 12 K/9 career ratio in 76 2/3 innings over three seasons with the Yankees. So if Joba falters and Robertson continues on his path to improvement, a switch could be made.
In any case, the Yankees stand at 6-2, their lineup is hitting (even Curtis Granderson got two triples off lefty pitching on Thursday), and their pitching staff is slowly forming into the best rotation and bullpen combination in all of baseball. CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte have been dominant. Burnett (although by no stretch bad) and Vazquez will come around, and even that lingering fifth starter question seems to be solved with Phil Hughes.
Combined with a bullpen containing Robertson, Joba, Rivera, Alfredo Aceves, Chan Ho Park, and a seemingly revived Damaso Marte (stay skeptical) as their lefty specialist, there are very few holes in the overall makeup of the Yankees pitching staff. And given that their offense that needs no further analysis or accolade, a staff constructed this well can only mean a successful October/November in the Bronx.