You can’t have too much pitching, as the old saw goes, and the weight of the evidence-a staff ERA of 4.88, 12th in a 14-team league-suggests that the Yankees don’t, despite their $200 million payroll. For the past year and a half, wags have pitched their solution: return Joba Chamberlain to the bullpen, clearing the rotation logjam while fortifying the bullpen with a top-flight set-up man. Superficially, the move makes sense; once Chien-Ming Wang demonstrates full health and command, he and Phil Hughes can round out the rotation behind veterans CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte, with Chamberlain resuming his late-2007 dominance as the bridge to Mariano Rivera, sans midges. But that notion rests on flawed assumptions.
That the bullpen is the Yankees’ bigger need is hardly all that clear. Though more expensive and better pedigreed than the staff’s other end, the Yanks’ rotation ranks seventh in the league in both SNLVAR and Fair Run Average. The bullpen is seventh in WXRL, and though their Fair Run Average is considerably higher than the starters’ (5.53 to 5.04, second-to-last in the league), much of the damage has been confined to low-leverage situations. Those 14 runs they yielded on April 18 once Wang departed trailing 8-2 meant little beyond mop-and-bucket duty for Nick Swisher in a game the Yankees could only lose once. Though a few of manager Joe Girardi‘s go-to guys-Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, and Jonathan Albaladejo-have been lousy, the skipper proved adept at weeding through his no-name relievers last year, and the team’s recent hot streak owed something to the emergence of similarly unheralded Phil Coke and Alfredo Aceves as viable late-inning options in the absence of top set-up man Brian Bruney.
Furthermore, Chamberlain leads the rotation in strikeout rate (8.6 per nine), ranking second in ERA (3.71) and third in Support-Neutral Winning Percentage (.532). Though he’s averaged just 5.3 innings per start (1.1 less than Burnett), that includes a line-drive-induced departure after just two-thirds of an inning. Excluding that jumps his average by a half-inning while nudging the Yankees above the league average in the percentage of innings thrown by starters (65 percent), so it’s tough to argue he’s putting an undue burden on the pen. At worst, he’s been the team’s third-best starter, far better than Hughes (5.45 ERA, .496 SNWP, and averaging a shade under five innings per start), all while being paced to toss around 150 innings to avoid the so-called Verducci Effect.
The shift also assumes that the set-up role is a better match for Chamberlain’s abilities-and his vulnerabilities. While he’s known no greater success in the majors than during his 2007 relief stint, the role is beneath him. Although he’s struggled with his command at times this year, in part due to difficulties in pacing himself, Chamberlain is the rare possessor of three plus pitches. According to the Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2008, scouts grade his fastball, slider, and curve at 70 or 80 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and consider his changeup solid to average as well. Rivera and his legendary cutter aside, most relievers survive on two pitches because they’ll only face each hitter once. With his deep arsenal, Chamberlain has proven his ability to retire hitters multiple times in one outing; those in their third or fourth plate appearance against him have batted a feeble .222/.306/.324, essentially equal to their first turn (.231/.299/.314), albeit in a smaller sample size.
The Jobaphiles assume the set-up role will keep him healthier, pointing out that last year’s shoulder injury came while starting. Deeper pitch counts certainly up the injury risk, but who’s to say that three straight days of heat and hard breaking stuff is any better? Thanks to the so-called “Joba Rules,” Chamberlain has only thrown back-to-back games four times, always with a maximum of handwringing by onlookers. Limiting his usage in that manner isn’t feasible if they commit him to the bullpen for a longer stretch, and his minuscule 1.45 FRA in that role would be unsustainable under a heavier workload.
For a third point, the shift assumes that a top-flight setup man can be more valuable than a frontline starter. Our win expectancy-based pitching metrics (SNLVAR, WXRL, and the associated Leverage score) allow for direct comparison of each role’s impact in terms of wins above replacement level. In what we’ll call the Eckersley Era (1987 onward), 67 starters have finished the year with at least 8.0 SNLVAR, while just six relievers have reached 8.0 WXRL, all closers-and remember, Chamberlain won’t be closing. Lower the bar to 6.5, and the ratio is 225 starters to 30 relievers. Only two of those 30 saved fewer than 29 games, and thus worked in lower-leverage situations: Rivera in 1996, and Rafael Betancourt in 2007. While the former is obviously the Jobaphiles’ model, the latter has been a disaster since that season, underscoring the risks of a heavy-duty relief usage pattern. Expecting Chamberlain to live up to the best reliever in baseball history is a ridiculously tall order.
Moving a moderately established and successful starter such as Chamberlain to a key set-up role in-season-without being triggered by injury or ineffectiveness-is unusual, but not entirely unprecedented. In the aforementioned Eck Era, 49 pitchers with at least 20 career starts and eight on the season, as well as an SNWP above .500, have also relieved at least 20 games in vaguely set-up-style roles (defined as roles in which they had Leverage scores above 1.0, but fewer than five saves) in the same season. Just 24 of them posted lower Fair Run Averages in the latter role, and only 15 wound up in more typically set-up-oriented roles (leverage scores above 1.3). Untangling the sequence of role changes and screening for higher leverages eliminates the decade’s biggest names-Kelvim Escobar (2001), Johan Santana (2002), and Chad Billingsley and Zack Greinke (2007)-leaving us with this list of 10 “best fits,” none of whom represent ideal:
Pitcher Year IP/S IP/R FRA/S FRA/R LEV SNLVAR WXRL Mark Davis 1987 61.1 71.2 4.57 3.52 1.25 1.1 1.9 Kevin Gross 1991 52.1 63.1 4.12 4.68 1.91 1.2 0.4 Tom Gordon 1991 88.2 69.1 5.10 2.91 1.38 1.5 1.8 Greg Harris 1991 120.2 52.1 4.73 3.03 1.33 2.0 2.0 Luis Aquino 1993 80.1 30.1 3.48 2.81 1.51 2.5 0.4 Ramiro Mendoza 1998 88.1 42.0 4.19 3.39 1.27 2.2 0.9 Scott Schoeneweis 2002 90.1 27.2 5.35 4.21 1.56 1.6 0.4 Dennys Reyes 2004 64.0 44.0 5.85 5.27 1.33 1.3 -0.3 Jorge Sosa 2007 80.1 32.1 4.57 4.57 1.23 1.9 0.6 Joe Kennedy 2007 89.1 21.1 4.20 11.76 1.16 2.3 -0.8 IP/S and IP/R: IP as a starter and as a reliever, respectively FRA/S and FRA/R: Fair Runs Allowed as a starter and as a reliever LEV: Leverage
Seven of the 10 improved in run prevention, but leverage and fewer innings left only three as valuable in relief over the course of the year, and none of them pitched recently. Gordon, Mendoza, and Schoeneweis were the only ones to make such a move during the first three seasons of their career, with Flash-the sole power pitcher among that trio-doing so only after being tagged for a 7.01 ERA in his previous 10 appearances, further reinforcing how extraordinary moving Chamberlain would be, given his success as a starter.
Bruney’s elbow woes leave the Yanks needing another power arm for the pen, but while Brian Cashman works the phones, it’s Hughes, not Chamberlain, who should relieve once Wang is up to speed. Such a move could help a heralded but erratic (5.22 ERA through 28 career starts) pitcher better acclimate to the challenge of facing big-league hitters. Already blessed with swing-and-miss stuff, Hughes’ velocity could reach the mid-90s in relief, just as it pumped Chamberlain’s into the high 90s.
Meanwhile, Monday’s performance provided fans of all pinstripes with the long-awaited sight of Chamberlain pitching the eighth, illustrating that the best solution to the Yankees’ current quandary is to erase the chance of any damage done by the bullpen’s middlemen by riding the horses who can take them all the way to Rivera. Wang’s proven his ability to do so, and now Chamberlain has as well.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .