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March 21, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Joba and the MISERs

by Jay Jaffe

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Wednesday's disclosure that the Yankees have decided to shift Joba Chamberlain to the bullpen to start the year didn't exactly qualify as news. Despite off-season denials of such a scenario, several pieces of data pointed to the inevitability of the decision, ranging from Chamberlain's success during last year's stretch run (pre-bug spray, at least), his age (22), his workload capacity based on the Rule of 30 (about 145 innings, based on the time he spent at four stops plus the postseason, though Will Carroll will tell you that only the major league innings count when it comes to parsing injury risk), and the current health status of Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Philip Hughes, and Ian Kennedy.

If you're a Yankee fan, you should knock on wood, since Opening Day is still ten days away, but if those five aforementioned pitchers are healthy enough to start the year in pinstripes instead of on the shelf, that rates as a much bigger surprise than the latest Joba Rule. As somebody who's spent the past decade watching the Yankees very closely, I've been fond of reminding anyone within earshot that for all of their perceived surpluses of capable starting pitchers, the Yankees are rarely forced to exile one to the bullpen. Injuries and ineffectiveness inevitably arise to make such decisions a moot point; to borrow a phrase from Chris Rock, that train is never late. (Particularly when you've got Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright on the payroll.) Even with Wright a distant, nightmarish memory and Pavano a rehabbing non-entity, the Yankees' Team Health Report has them as the only AL East team without a single green-light pitcher.

If recent history is any guide, the chances of the Yankees' five-man rotation making it through the season intact are pretty slim, whether due to injury or ineffectiveness. In fact, while their rotation as a whole has been serviceable over the last three years--ranking 19th, 15th, and 13th in team SNLVAR--it's been one of the least stable in the majors in terms of games started by the five busiest bodies:


Team  Year   GS5  Rank
NYA   2005   111   28
NYA   2006   136   10
NYA   2007   121   27
NYA   TOT    368   24

For the sake of comparison, the runaway leader over the three-year span is the White Sox with 461, with the Indians ranked second at 434. Dead last are the Rangers at 342, just ahead of the Royals, Nationals, Devil Rays, Cubs, Dodgers, and then Yankees. That's not exactly auspicious company; the six teams below the Yankees mustered just two post-season appearances (the 2006 Dodgers and last year's Cubs) in the three years in question. Suffice to say that if you're going to have an unstable rotation, it helps to put 900 runs on the board.

So, the recent Yanks have averaged about 123 starts per year from their top five, leaving 39 starts to be absorbed by the rest of the staff. Even if they were to play towards the high side of that time span, 136 starts, those extra 26 are more than one extra pitcher can be expected to absorb. Of that surplus, how many can we expect Chamberlain to make?

An aggressive estimate might put him at about 15 starts, leaving the Yanks to come up with another dozen or two from among the Jeff Karstens/Darrell Rasner/Kei Igawa/TBNL herd. Suppose Chamberlain pitches on a 180-inning pace as a starter for three months of the year, and takes the guise of a heavy-use 90-inning reliever for the other three months. In his starter phase, he could total 15 starts averaging six innings per start (90 innings) and as a reliever, he'd average an inning every other day (45 innings). That would put Joba at 135 innings, not far off from his Rule of 30 target. Of course, that wouldn't leave a ton of headroom for October, if the Yankees get there. One can't determine whether the team might want him to be part of their front four, or to return to the set-up role without knowing the rest of the staff's strengths and weaknesses at that point in time. Either way has its merits so long as he can usurp a greater percentage of innings than the regular season, but both have their drawbacks as well.

As for Chamberlain in the bullpen, on paper, the Yankees clearly have the need for a setup man of his caliber, given that the supporting cast of the bullpen in front of Mariano Rivera consists of LaTroy Hawkins, Kyle Farnsworth, and a few somebodies picked from a group of unprovens containing Brian Bruney, Chris Britton, Jonathan Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez, Ross Ohlendorf, Scott Patterson, Jose Veras, Billy Traber, Kei Igawa, and Sean Henn. Of that latter bunch, nobody besides Britton has completed even a 50-inning season in the bigs with an ERA better than league average. This is a problem, one compounded by the fact that the projected starting five still includes two youngsters whose innings will be closely monitored and a 39-year-old coming off a year in which he put up a career-worst ERA in a career-low number of innings. Somewhere, the Yankees need to absorb far more than Joba alone can handle.

Switching gears, how good was Chamberlain coming out of the bullpen last year? Good enough to finish 30th in the American League in Reliever Expected Wins Added despite throwing just 24 innings. Among the 100 pitchers who accumulated at least 1.0 WXRL, Chamberlain ranked fifth in expected wins added per nine innings (WXRL/9). Here are the top 30 pitchers in that category (only relief innings are considered):


Pitcher             Team    IP     WXRL   WXRL/9
J.J. Putz            SEA   71.2   7.419   0.931
Takashi Saito        LAN   64.1   5.765   0.807
Jonathan Papelbon    BOS   58.1   5.143   0.794
Rafael Betancourt    CLE   79.1   6.845   0.777
Joba Chamberlain     NYA   24.0   1.848   0.693
Brian Wilson         SFN   23.2   1.708   0.649
Joe Nathan           MIN   71.2   5.077   0.637
Joakim Soria         KCA   69.0   4.774   0.623
Jose Valverde        ARI   64.1   4.269   0.598
Jason Isringhausen   SLN   65.1   4.202   0.579
Hideki Okajima       BOS   69.0   4.429   0.578
Mike Gonzalez        ATL   17.0   1.079   0.571
Francisco Rodriguez  ANA   67.1   4.259   0.570
Heath Bell           SDN   93.2   5.656   0.543
Brandon Lyon         ARI   74.0   4.357   0.530
Zack Greinke         KCA   53.1   3.114   0.525
Billy Wagner         NYN   68.1   3.751   0.494
Manuel Corpas        COL   78.0   4.158   0.480
Carlos Marmol        CHN   69.1   3.694   0.480
Mariano Rivera       NYA   71.1   3.699   0.467
Matt Capps           PIT   79.0   4.098   0.467
Rafael Perez         CLE   60.2   3.142   0.466
Rafael Soriano       ATL   72.0   3.713   0.464
Francisco Cordero    MIL   63.1   3.220   0.458
Pat Neshek           MIN   70.1   3.572   0.457
Trevor Hoffman       SDN   57.1   2.894   0.455
J.C. Romero          2TM   56.1   2.822   0.451
Todd Jones           DET   61.1   3.050   0.448
Bobby Seay           DET   46.1   2.303   0.448
Alan Embree          OAK   68.0   3.335   0.441

If we exclude the pitchers who saw significant time as closers last year by arbitrary ruling out anyone who had more than five saves, we get this list:


Pitcher             Team    IP     WXRL    WX/9
Rafael Betancourt    CLE   79.1   6.845   0.777
Joba Chamberlain     NYA   24.0   1.848   0.693
Hideki Okajima       BOS   69.0   4.429   0.578
Mike Gonzalez        ATL   17.0   1.079   0.571
Heath Bell           SDN   93.2   5.656   0.543
Brandon Lyon         ARI   74.0   4.357   0.530
Zack Greinke         KCA   53.1   3.114   0.525
Carlos Marmol        CHN   69.1   3.694   0.480
Rafael Perez         CLE   60.2   3.142   0.466
Pat Neshek           MIN   70.1   3.572   0.457
J.C. Romero          2TM   56.1   2.822   0.451
Bobby Seay           DET   46.1   2.303   0.448
Akinori Otsuka       TEX   32.1   1.566   0.436
Tony Pena            ARI   85.1   4.103   0.433
Ehren Wassermann     CHA   23.0   1.075   0.421
Henry Owens          FLO   23.0   1.051   0.411
Chad Qualls          HOU   82.2   3.608   0.393
Derrick Turnbow      MIL   68.0   2.752   0.364
Matt Herges          COL   48.2   1.927   0.356
Justin Speier        ANA   50.0   1.950   0.351
Scott Downs          TOR   58.0   2.260   0.351

In other words, ignoring the small-sample caveats, Chamberlain had more of a per-inning impact on winning than any setup reliever in the majors besides Betancourt. In an effort to create a memorable acronym for something that seems worth exploring a bit more deeply, I'm going to christen these guys the MISERs (Maximum Impact SEtup Relievers). Here's a quick look at the leaderboards of recent years, using a somewhat more robust 40-inning cutoff that might let the occasional LOOGY, DL dweller, or mid-season call-up through:


Pitcher           Team   Year    IP     WXRL    WX/9
Cla Meredith       SDN   2006   50.2   3.762   0.668
Joel Zumaya        DET   2006   83.1   5.010   0.541
Rafael Soriano     SEA   2006   60.0   3.189   0.478
Scott Linebrink    SDN   2006   75.2   3.995   0.475
Taylor Tankersley  FLO   2006   41.0   2.133   0.468
Duaner Sanchez     NYN   2006   55.1   2.796   0.455
Juan Rincon        MIN   2006   74.1   3.202   0.388
Scot Shields       ANA   2006   87.2   3.728   0.383
Dennys Reyes       MIN   2006   50.2   2.145   0.381
Kiko Calero        OAK   2006   58.0   2.403   0.373

Pitcher           Team   Year    IP     WXRL    WX/9
Cliff Politte      CHA   2005   67.1   3.861   0.516
Scott Eyre         SFN   2005   68.1   3.709   0.489
Scott Linebrink    SDN   2005   73.2   3.707   0.453
Jesse Crain        MIN   2005   79.2   3.839   0.434
Mike Gonzalez      PIT   2005   50.0   2.391   0.430
Clay Hensley       SDN   2005   42.2   1.961   0.414
Dan Wheeler        HOU   2005   73.1   3.339   0.410
Juan Rincon        MIN   2005   77.0   3.367   0.394
Al Reyes           SLN   2005   62.2   2.717   0.390
Bob Howry          CLE   2005   73.0   3.112   0.384

Pitcher           Team   Year    IP     WXRL    WX/9
Tom Gordon         NYA   2004   89.2   6.438   0.646
Akinori Otsuka     SDN   2004   77.1   5.049   0.588
B.J. Ryan          BAL   2004   87.0   4.965   0.514
Todd Jones         CIN   2004   57.0   3.124   0.493
Ray King           SLN   2004   62.0   3.126   0.454
Kiko Calero        SLN   2004   45.1   2.271   0.451
Guillermo Mota     LAN   2004   63.0   2.920   0.417
Scot Shields       ANA   2004  105.1   4.728   0.404
Jesus Colome       TBA   2004   41.1   1.846   0.402
Scott Linebrink    SDN   2004   84.0   3.559   0.381

Pitcher           Team   Year    IP     WXRL    WX/9
Brendan Donnelly   ANA   2003   74.0   5.602   0.681
LaTroy Hawkins     MIN   2003   77.1   5.306   0.618
Rheal Cormier      PHI   2003   84.2   5.019   0.534
Octavio Dotel      HOU   2003   87.0   4.227   0.437
Scott Sullivan     CIN   2003   49.2   2.309   0.418
Luis Ayala         MON   2003   71.0   3.210   0.407
Tom Martin         LAN   2003   51.0   2.212   0.390
Brad Lidge         HOU   2003   85.0   3.661   0.388
Rafael Soriano     SEA   2003   53.0   2.160   0.367
Guillermo Mota     LAN   2003  105.0   4.107   0.352

Pitcher           Team   Year    IP     WXRL    WX/9
Buddy Groom        BAL   2002   62.0   4.384   0.636
J.C. Romero        MIN   2002   81.0   5.531   0.615
Mike Remlinger     ATL   2002   68.0   4.215   0.558
Cliff Politte      TOR   2002   57.1   3.424   0.537
Arthur Rhodes      SEA   2002   69.2   4.022   0.520
Gabe White         CIN   2002   54.1   2.765   0.458
Chris Hammond      ATL   2002   76.0   3.812   0.451
Scott Sauerbeck    PIT   2002   62.2   3.061   0.440
Steve Reed         SDN   2002   41.0   1.898   0.417
Luis Vizcaino      MIL   2002   81.1   3.737   0.414

Pitcher           Team   Year    IP     WXRL    WX/9
Felix Rodriguez    SFN   2001   80.1   5.445   0.610
Arthur Rhodes      SEA   2001   68.0   4.122   0.546
David Weathers     MIL   2001   57.2   3.098   0.484
Steve Karsay       CLE   2001   43.1   2.321   0.482
Jeff Nelson        SEA   2001   65.1   3.438   0.474
Chad Fox           MIL   2001   66.2   3.409   0.460
Mike Jackson       HOU   2001   69.0   3.109   0.406
Jeff Tam           OAK   2001   74.2   3.273   0.395
Kyle Farnsworth    CHN   2001   82.0   3.429   0.376
Mike Stanton       NYA   2001   80.1   3.333   0.373

It's interesting to see the names that pop up repeatedly. The only three-timer here is Scott Linebrink, whose pre-trade stint with San Diego would have placed on the 2007 leaderboard as well at 0.414. Clearly, Kenny Williams beat me to the punch in discovering this stat, but it's really Kevin Towers who deserves the applause; Linebrink, Cla Meredith, Akinori Otsuka, Heath Bell, Clay Hensley, and Steve Reed give the Padres impressively consistent representation here. Other repeaters in this millennium--using the more stringent criteria for 2007 as well which eliminate Chamberlain and Gonzalez above--include Kiko Calero (2004, 2006), Guillermo Mota (2003, 2004), Cliff Pollitte (2002, 2005), Arthur Rhodes (2001, 2002), Juan Rincon (2005, 2006), J. C. Romero (2002, 2007), Scot Shields (2004, 2006), and Rafael Soriano (2003, 2006).

Meanwhile, it's also worth noting that Rafael Betancourt's 0.777 in 2007 is the highest of any qualifying MISER in our database. We'll close things out with an "all-time" top 20 that really only goes back to 1988. The combination of the five-save qualification and the changing usage patterns keep pre-Eckersley relievers from making much of a dent here; only two pitchers, both in the 40-50 inning range, would have placed:


Pitcher           Team   Year    IP     WXRL    WX/9
Rafael Betancourt  CLE   2007   79.1   6.845   0.777
Brendan Donnelly   ANA   2003   74.0   5.602   0.681
Cla Meredith       SDN   2006   50.2   3.762   0.668
Tom Gordon         NYA   2004   89.2   6.438   0.646
Buddy Groom        BAL   2002   62.0   4.384   0.636
Mike Jackson       SFN   1994   42.1   2.966   0.631
LaTroy Hawkins     MIN   2003   77.1   5.306   0.618
J.C. Romero        MIN   2002   81.0   5.531   0.615
Felix Rodriguez    SFN   2001   80.1   5.445   0.610
Troy Percival      CAL   1995   74.0   4.974   0.605
Akinori Otsuka     SDN   2004   77.1   5.049   0.588
Dan Plesac         TOR   1998   50.0   3.240   0.583
Hideki Okajima     BOS   2007   69.0   4.429   0.578
Mariano Rivera     NYA   1996  107.2   6.876   0.575
Jeff Zimmerman     TEX   1999   87.2   5.576   0.572
Mike Remlinger     ATL   2002   68.0   4.215   0.558
Bob Patterson      CAL   1994   42.0   2.564   0.549
Arthur Rhodes      SEA   2001   68.0   4.122   0.546
Heath Bell         SDN   2007   93.2   5.656   0.543
Joel Zumaya        DET   2006   83.1   5.010   0.541

Rest assured, I'll be keeping an eye on the MISERs this year.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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