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June 2, 2009

Prospectus Today

The Debate Continues

by Joe Sheehan

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After a lull, I'm doing spots for ESPNews again, and I'll be on this afternoon at 5:15 p.m. This is actually a phone interview, not a video spot, which I have to think will be a bump for ratings and a salve for weary HD viewers.

One of the questions—we usually discuss topics during the day leading up to the spot—will be about Joba Chamberlain. The Yankees' right-hander made the longest start of his career last night, going eight innings and facing 28 batters in shutting down the Indians on four hits and two runs. The inning and batters faced totals are the highest of his career, and the 106 pitches the fifth-most he's ever tossed as a Yankee.

The question I'll be asked is, "How much was Chamberlain's start a gauge to see if he'd stay in the rotation or return to the pen?"

Now, I completely understand why I'm being asked the question. Chamberlain pitched last night, so he's in the news cycle. Talk about the possibility that he could be sent back to the bullpen seemed to accelerate with each event in the Yankees' world. Philip Hughes has been effective enough to warrant a spot in the rotation; Chien-Ming Wang has returned from the DL and is best-suited for a starting role; the Yankees continue to get inconsistent work from their relief corps, most recently losing Sunday's contest when Phil Coke and David Robertson combined to allow the winning run in the ninth.

Moving Joba Chamberlain to the bullpen seems to solve all of these problems. Hughes can stay in the rotation, Wang can get his job back, something he seems ready for based on a 2.25 ERA in three appearances, with seven strikeouts in eight innings since his return. Chamberlain, based on his skill set and track record, would be the Yankees' second-best reliever after Mariano Rivera and presumably help the team protect leads and tied games in the seventh and eighth innings better than the other options have.

There's just one problem with all of this: Joba Chamberlain is a fantastic starting pitcher. He's the team's second-best starter right now, and there's a chance that he'll be the best starter by 2010. His SNLVAR of 1.3 is just a fraction behind Andy Pettitte's mark of 1.4 for second on the team, a gap that would likely not exist had Chamberlain not been knocked out of his May 21 start against the Orioles by a line drive. Used exclusively as a starter this year, Chamberlain has a 3.71 ERA in 53 1/3 innings. Last night was his fifth quality start in ten, with one of the others being that injury-shortened outing. Durability is an issue, but it's as much a created one-the Yankees continue to be hypercautious with Chamberlain-as it is a weakness in his game.

In his career, Chamberlain now has a 3.19 ERA in 22 starts, averaging a little more than 5 1/3 innings pitched per. He has 125 strikeouts, more than one per inning, and a K/BB of 2.6. There's never been a team in MLB history that could afford to move that guy to the bullpen. Even if you were to say that Chamberlain is a six-inning pitcher, something that isn't clear yet, getting 192 innings of 3.19 ERA ball in a season would make him a top 40 starter in baseball every season, a six-win pitcher in line to make tens of millions of dollars a year.

The conversation on whether to move a starter to the bullpen begins with whether the pitcher can be a successful starter in the majors. Chamberlain has proved that he can prevent runs with the best of them, so that's not a problem. While he's suffered nagging injuries on occasion, he hasn't had the kind of durability problems that, say, Rich Harden has. By pitching standards, Chamberlain has a good health record, and the kind of record that doesn't warrant a role change.

The argument that the Yankees need Chamberlain in the eighth inning, that he'd be more valuable there than as a starter, holds no water at all. Pitchers who can throw 190 innings of good baseball are more valuable than pitchers who can throw 75 of somewhat better, somewhat better-leveraged baseball. If the argument was to get 110 innings of high-leverage relief from Chamberlain, I'd be on board with it, but that's not the job in play. The job in play is throwing 15 pitches in the eighth inning of games where the Yankees are tied or have a 1-4 run lead, without much regard for the opposition, and eventually a job as a save accumulator. The usage patterns of modern relievers don't allow them to close the gap in a way that makes it logical to convert an effective, healthy starting pitcher to the bullpen.

Proponents of changing his role, including one highly visible and vocal one in New York, are fond of citing Chamberlain's success as a reliever. Like many pitchers, Chamberlain took well to the simpler task of relief pitching, and has a career ERA of 1.53 in that role, with a 78/19 K/BB in 59 innings. The lesson to take isn't that Chamberlain is a better reliever than a starter; the lesson is that everyone is a better reliever than a starter. The Yankees bullpen nine months ago was effective with a cast of no-names; there are many, many pitchers who can succeed in the hyperlimited role of the modern relief pitcher, and the Yankees themselves have more candidates than they can count. (This is, to some extent, the problem.) There are precious few who can do the other job, the more important one, which is to start games and throw close to 200 effective innings. The game pays middling starting pitchers what the best relievers get. The game locks up starting pitchers and churns through short relievers. The game drafts starting pitchers and eventually converts some to relief. Relief pitching, by and large, is still the realm of the failed starting pitcher.

Joba Chamberlain isn't a failed starting pitcher. He's a very good starting pitcher.

So I'll answer the question today, and the next time it comes up, and the time after that. Maybe I'll be answering it on the day Chamberlain wins a Cy Young Award, or helps his team win a championship, or signs a massive free-agent deal. The level of investment some people have in this idea—in the face of the available evidence—will keep the story alive. For now, though, let's stop focusing on the work Chamberlain did in 2007 as a rookie for a desperate team, and start looking at him for what he's always been: a starter.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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