Thursday, April 2, 2009

Wallace: RP more important than SP

Wallace Matthews, a favorite to be sure, has a general theory: A great 2 inning RP is more valuable than a 6 inning SP. He uses this theory to support claims that Joba Chamberlain would be better off (and more valuable) at a set up man to Mo than as a starter.

The Yankees, who have an abundance of guys to start their games this year, think it's a good idea to take the greatest two-inning pitcher since Mariano Rivera, circa 1996, and turn him into just another starter.

I think they're nuts.

The reality with starters is that they are six-inning pitchers on most days, seven- and eight-inning pitchers on their best days.

In four out of every five starts, they are going to need a guy to come charging out of that bullpen in the seventh inning to hold the game until the closer gets there.


With all due respect, I think Matthews is nuts. There are so many ways to dissect this, but I will stick to my basic mantra: Follow the money.

Top starters signed this off-season:

  1. CC Sabathia, NYY, 7 years, $161 million
  2. AJ Burnett, NYY, 5 years, $82.5 million
  3. Derek Lowe, ATL, 4 years, $60 million
Top closers/set-up men signed this off-season:
  1. Frankie Rodriguez, NYM, 3 years, $36 million
  2. Kyle Farnsworth, KCR, 2 years, $9.25 million (sorry, I had to include him)
Follow the money. If closers (or, gasp) set-up men were so valuable, they'd be signing the big contracts. But it's the horses in the rotation that pull the sled and are paid accordingly. The Yanks have developed/found a solid bullpen this year that could do the job at least as well as Joba could. Maybe not better, but close to on par. The total cost of the entire bullpen, minus Mo, is less than they are paying for Andy Pettitte, by far. And by all accounts, they are a pretty darned good bunch. Their 2008 bullpen was among the best in the game and they return largely intact. K-Rod set the all time record for saves in a season last year and had to settle for a contract half the value as he imagined. Blame it on the economy if you wish, but the truth is, closers are not as rare as true ace pitchers. Perhaps Joba won't evolve into an ace, but if he can be a solid #2 or #3 for a decade, to me, that's worth more.

At some point in the not-to-distant future, Mo will retire. Could Joba elevate himself to closer at point? Absolutely. But what if, in the course of the next 2-3 years, Joba really finds himself as a starter? What if he becomes the pitcher many think he can become? Would Matthews then think moving him to a closer role would be better solution for the Yanks? What if farmhands like Mark Melancon continue to develop and become the logical heir apparent to Mo? If Joba does mature well, I think he has significantly more value as a starter than a closer.

I say that's like hiring Picasso to paint your garage door or asking Mozart to come up with a toothpaste jingle. Many can start; few can finish. Joba can finish. He was a great setup man, and someday he'll be a great closer. Those commodities are a lot scarcer on the market than starting pitchers.
No!!!! Many can set-up, few can be an ace starter. Mo Rivera and guys like Trevor Hoffman are the exceptions, not the rule. Closers generally last a handful of years then flame out. Rare are the guys who can do it as well and for as long as Mo and Hoffman.

All of this said, my stance will change if Joba proves that he can't handle the rigors of making 33 starts a year. If he's more fragile than the Yanks envision, I will change my tune. But if he is simply in the learning process of what it takes to be a consistent and reliable starter, we have to at least find out, don't we? Simply taking a small sample from the yo-yo 2008 season and applying it to the balance of Joba's career life expectancy is foolish.
Last year, freed from the stifling caution of The Joba Rules, he broke down about 90 innings into his first year as a starter. Even before the injury, he went beyond six innings only once in 12 starts. This spring, his velocity has fluctuated from the mid-90s down to the high 80s.
Joba has the tools and the mindset to start and to close. His greatest value to the team and to himself is as a starter. I think the Yanks are correct in giving Joba the chance to find himself as a starter before panicking and dumping him into the 'pen.


UPDATE: Several others had good takes on this today, either linked directly or not:

14 comments:

Ditmars1929 said...

Oh dear Lord, when was this published? I thought we were past this nonsense. I can't believe this guy's a professional sports writer.

Pete Abe said it best (I'm paraphrasing), "Wow, Albert Pujouls sure would make a great pinch hitter, wouldn't he? Let's do that!"

Jason @ IIATMS said...

Wallace Matthews
10:44 PM EDT, March 31, 2009

Jake said...

I just took a quick look at the numbers, and a good starting pitcher throws 150-200 innings a year. A good reliever throws about 70. I dunno about you, but I'd much rather put my best pitchers in the position that has them throwing two to three times as many innings. Jaba was INJURED last year and he still threw 100 innings, probably 30 or 40 innings more than he would in an entire season of setting up.

The Common Man said...

My favorite part of the article is when Matthews opines, "Greater baseball minds than mine have analyzed this situation at great length and determined that Joba for the first six innings every five days is better than Joba out of the bullpen five times a week." Five times a week? FIVE TIMES A WEEK? FIVE...TIMES...A...WEEK???

You know, because the best way to keep a young, hard-throwing pitcher with a history of arm trouble out on the mound FIVE DAYS A WEEK. Teams usually play six game a week, so that would put Joba on track to appear in somewhere close to 135 games. Good idea, Wallace. As a Twins fan, I heartily endorse your plan.

However, if by some miracle Joba was able to pitch 135 games with little to no additional risk to his long-term health, I'd say this would be an incredibly efficient use of his talents. Again, I encourage the Yankees to try it.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

TCM,

I just read it and had the exact same reaction. Most teams try to keep you at 2-3 games a week. Maybe he meant 5 IP a week? That would still be too much I would think.

Scott Ham said...

Amen, indeed. As much as I don't want to see newspapers completely go away, I object a little less with each Wallace Matthews article I read.

Anonymous said...

Before everyone throws dirt on Wallace Matthews:

Of course, Joba would be much more valuable as a starter than as a set up guy, or even a lights-out closer. It's not a question of Joba taking the most valuable role, it's a question of how much he can pitch without blowing up.

Joba's career at Nebraska was interrupted numerous times with arm and shoulder problems. With the new biometric technology perhaps he can avoid repeating the motions that led to those problems. Certainly the Yankees would have a pretty good idea.

But if I were a betting man, I'd wager Joba turns out not to be a workhorse like C.C., but more of an A. J. Burnett or Mike Hampton. Lots of time in the shop.

The Common Man said...

Whoa there, anonymous. Let's stop throwing dirt over the career of Mike Hampton, who came up as a 20 year old and managed to put together five straight years of 200+ innings, then followed it up with seasons where he started 30, 31, and 29 games. That's when we started to see the epic cascade of injury after injury. Hampton was a definite workhorse before the fail that was his move to Colorado and the fallout.

Anonymous said...

I apologize for using Mike Hampton as an example of a pitcher who has spent an inordinate amount of time on the disabled list. I allowed his tenure with the Atlanta Braves to distort my perception of what, as you so skillfully point out, has been a career that Cy Young could envy.

The Common Man said...

And like that, my bubble has been burst. Well played, my anonymous friend.

riverascutter said...

George King just wrote similar insanity that I just commented on today: http://riverascutter.wordpress.com/2009/04/01/george-kings-passion/

But this might even be worse. He disproves his own argument in that section you quoted - starters throw 6IP on average and 7 or 8 on good days. Relievers do not throw close to that many innings in 5 days unless they're Scott Proctor and you want their arm to come off.

Scott Ham said...

Anonymous,
You're also assuming that Wallace's argument would be different if Joba hadn't gotten injured last summer. I have a strange feeling that it wouldn't given that most of his argument is based on the value of Joba as a reliever.

tHeMARksMiTh said...

If Joba had dominated and stayed healthy, there wouldn't have been a debate, period, this off-season. It would have been assumed that everything was going according to plan for him to stick in the rotation. His injury is the reason we're still arguing over this.

dinologic (Dean D) said...

I think what's happening here is we need to separate the importance of a good bullpen as it relates to team's success from the the starter vs reliever importance comparison. That's not quite clear so let me try to explain it a different way. Look at the 2008 Mets. The are Exhibit A for how a bad bullpen can destroy a team's season. If you put Joba on that team as a starter, they probably still don't make the playoffs. You put him in the bullpen, and maybe they do. But that has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH the decision to give Joba the chance to be a starter. They are completely separate arguments.

I know I'm not really hitting the point home (and I'm probably just stating the obvious) but I hope the subtle difference between the two is clear to someone who can put it into words better than I.

I'll just say this - if Brian Bruney could start, he would. But he can't, so he pitches 1 or 2 innings each time he goes out there and that's his job. Joba *CAN* start and that what he should do until he can't.