Not Very Debatable To Me

Justin Sablich’s recent entry on the Bats blog at The New York Times has revisited the Joba: Rotation or Bullpen? question.  That this continues to get as much traction as it has somewhat surprises me, although it is early January and, with the Yankees’ very hot stove having recently cooled, I suppose some must finds things to discuss.  Then again, there are many Yankees fans who continue to think that Joba’s place should be as set-up man to Mariano in order to further strengthen the bullpen, and to enhance the team’s chances of winning by shortening games.  To this, Sablich adds the argument that Joba would stay healthier in the bullpen than in the rotation and would thus be of the best help to the team there, especially if Andy Pettite were to re-sign with the team for 2009.

I am not one of those fans.  I have felt that although Joba has made a terrific reliever and does indeed shorten games, his place is in the rotation when he’s ready to carry the innings load.  Particularly after last year’s mess, when the Yankees were forced to cobble together a staff that included Sidney Ponson and Darrell Rasner for significant lengths of time, the urgency for the Yankees to field a top-flight rotation is all the greater.  This has everything to do with why the team went into the off-season with such vigor, pursuing and landing Sabathia and Burnett to lock down two of the top three spots in the rotation.

Yet the back of the rotation is nearly as important.  Joba as the fifth starter can be skipped especially in the first three months of the season, when the Yankees have seven scheduled off days, thus reducing his innings early in order to mitigate the wear-and-tear and save him for later in the season.  Should he pitch an inordinately high amount of innings early, he could move to the bullpen for the duration of the season and–hopefully–to tune up for the playoffs.  There are ways around an innings cap–which will likely be around 140, from what Pete Abraham has surmised.  Should the Yankees not re-sign Pettite, then would I move Phil Hughes or Alfredo Aceves into the fifth spot.  While Hughes in the fifth spot would likely mean more work for Joba, and while I’m willing to give Hughes a chance next season, there is also the possibility that Aceves, should he shine in Spring Training, could be in the rotation and possibly even be the fourth starter in order to reduce Joba’s innings.  Aceves worked through the Yankees’ minor-league teams rapidly last year, pitching a combined 140 2/3 innings in Tampa, Trenton, and SWB with an 8-6, 2.62 ERA/0.98 WHIP before his first appearance with the Yanks August 31.  Including his 30 innings in six appearances with New York, in which he had a 2.40 ERA, Aceves pitched a total of 170 2/3 innings last year, a good indication that he can carry a decent workload.  Yet either way, the Yankees appear to have internal options with Joba remaining in the rotation.

I’ve said this before but it’s worth restating for any doubters that Joba should be in the rotation–his July 25 masterpiece against Boston last season should remove serious doubts as to where Joba’s place on the team is.  He allowed a mere three hits, a walk, fanned nine, retired the last ten batters he faced (five via strikeout), and outdueled Josh Beckett in a 1-0 classic of a pitchers’ duel.  Joba had everything working–fastball, slider, curve–and his most difficult test came in the fourth, when he walked Lowell to make it first and second, two outs before he fanned Drew.

Not to be overlooked, that win made it seven in a row for the Yankees out of the All-Star break gate, pulling them to within three of the Rays and two of second-place Boston.  It was when the Yankees fell apart in the 3-7 trip out west, an atrocious skid that included Joba’s shoulder injury against Texas and the utter inability to drive in runs, that the Yankees truly found themselves out of the chase.  At the time of his gem in Fenway, the Yankees were not only in the hunt but were also climbing, having cut the Rays’ six-game lead before the break in half.  In what was the biggest game of the year to that point, Joba was tremendous and clutch–never better in fact.

I am not unsympathetic to the argument that Joba would stay healthier in the bullpen than the rotation.  In all likelihood, so would anyone.  At the same time, the Yankees need quality rotation innings most of all.  The bullpen was the strength of the team even though Joba began to start June 3, was in the rotation until his injury August 4, and spent the last month in the bullpen when he returned.  Half of Joba’s calendar time with the Yankees last season was in the bullpen, yet the pen simply excelled.  Conversely, the rotation was in shambles–12th in the AL in starters’ innings logged with 898 1/3, 9th in rotation ERA at 4.32, 12th in batting average allowed at .285, and 10th in WHIP at 1.42.  Additionally, New York was tied with Detroit for fewest complete games in the AL least season–with 1.

I believe the Yankees will be fine with Mariano, Marte, Bruney, and Veras, with Robertson, Giese, Coke, Edwar, Jonathan Albaladejo, Humberto Sanchez, and Mark Melancon likely to get shots at the final three spots.  Sanchez returned from Tommy John surgery late last year, is big and throws hard. Albaladejo began in The Bronx and got hurt, but has torn up winter ball thus far, saving 13 games in 14 chances, not allowing an earned run in 19 innings, and fanning 16 while walking only 2–a 0.68 WHIP.  Melancon bears watching as well, and himself has the gas.  Like Aceves, Melancon buzzed through the Yankees’ farm system last year, posting an 8-1 record with a 2.27 ERA, 0.958 WHIP, and 89 K in 95 innings over 44 appearances.  Turning 24 late this March, he too deserves a shot in Spring Training, though it may be likelier that he begins 2009 in SWB, where he left off last year.  Thus, the Yankees do not lack hard-throwing bullpen options to build upon what excellent work they collectively performed last season.

Yes, Joba is terrific as a reliever, and I’d consider keeping him there should he suffer a string of injuries as a starter–consider it. Then again, should he suffer a string of injuries, there would be serious question about whether or not Joba would be an effective pitcher at all, not whether he should be in the rotation or bullpen.  Until then, this debate about whether Joba should be a starter or reliever really isn’t much of one, to me.  He and his 3-1 record, 2.76 ERA, and 74 K’s in 65 1/3 innings logged in the rotation last season should stay there this season, hopefully for a bit more than twice the innings that he logged while starting last year.

Published in: on January 3, 2009 at 12:32 am  Comments (10)  

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  1. No debate from me on this one either. Joba is ‘the man’ out of the bullpen and remains a great lethal setup for Mo and eventual heir to the closer spot.

    Hopefully he does not get hurt again as a starter but that remains a strong probability given his violent delivery mechanics.

  2. I cannot believe this debate is still going on. The most important thing a pitcher can provide is quality innings. As bad as I am at math I do know that 140 > 70. The only reason Mariano Rivera landed in the bullpen was because he could not cut it as a starter. Joba needs to be a starter. The Yankees need quality innings out of their starting staff. I don’t get why so much emphasis is put on the eighth inning. Oh my goodness we do not have a guy for TEH EIGHT INNING!!!!!!!!!111!!!!one!!. What will Mike Fatass Francesa say?

    Quality innings from starters shortens the game and keeps your worst relievers off the field. The Yankees had two pitchers throw 200 innings last year, Moose and Pettitte. Moose is retired and Pettitte might not be back. The Yankees need to replace those innings somewhere. Replacing them with garbage like Sidney Ponson is emphatically not the answer.

    In other news there is playoff football going on today. The no-name Falcons vs. the no-name Cardinals and ex-Arena Football League star and grocery bagger Kurt Warner. The Cardinals will beat the Falcons by a TD. Warner’s playoff experience is the deciding factor. He will make the big plays down the stretch and Matt Ryan will not.

    Peyton Manning and the Greatest Show on Turf Redux vs. Phillip Rivers and the Strangest Show on Grass. Most of their games have been decided by single digits. The Colts cannot run the ball but they do have Peyton Manning. The Chargers have had problems running the ball and have been injured. Still, Phillip Rivers had a great season (top 5 in passer rating I believe). The difference in the game will be Adam Vinateri. The man does not miss clutch FGs and he already drilled a game winner in SD this year. Vinateri does it again and the Colts down SD by a FG.

  3. During the “Hot Stove” show on the new MLB Network on Thursday, Harold Reynolds and Barry Larkin re-started the Joba debate (Al Leiter seemed mute on the subject), and both said he belonged in the pen. I understand both sides of the argument – his start against the Red Sox was truly a gem – and he’s been groomed to be a starter from the beginning. But Mo is 39. Granted, he had a great season in ’08, but he’s not going to last forever. Are we going to buy some free agent closer? No need. We already have one in waiting: Joba. Just like Mo was the closer in waiting for Wetteland. In this day and age when starters rarely pitch complete games or even go deep into games, set-up guys and closers are more important than ever. Sure, we have some interesting prospects in the pen now, but none with Joba’s lights-out stuff. I say we should sign Pettitte and use Hughes/Aceves in the rotation. That said, I’ll be thrilled if Joba stays healthy, is over the whole DUI matter, is comfortable with his newfound fame, and pitches well – in any capacity. In other words, I’ll be more than happy to be wrong about this!

  4. I am copying and pasting a comment posted from Swedski on a different post. It’s good–though we disagree, which is fine–and seems more appropriate here.

    Swedski: “Gotta disagree.
    1) Pitchers with the temperment to work out of the bullpen don’t come along often. Joba has shown that he can live up to that pressure.
    2)Innings, he will probably only pitch 140 150 this year. Pull the trigger and make a decision. Don’t redo what happened last year. Why not just go with making him the 8th inning man and groom him for Mariano’s job in 2 years.
    3)Give Pettite till mid Jan to decide then go after someone like Pavano for minimal money and incentives. Let Aceves take the 5th spot or Hughes if he has a ‘Special Spring’ if not give him another year in AAA.

    He could be the answer to Mariano in 2 years. If you groom him then there will be no discussion when M’s contract is up and he can retire without the drama ala Bernie.”

  5. Before getting to the crux of the various posts which I’ll address for the most part en masse, thanks to Tom Wolfe and Swedski for their comments. Welcome to The Heartland and come back anytime. Though we disagree on this issue, I liked both your comments.

    I understand that Joba is already excellent as a set-up man; no question there. I also like his comportment, which many lack when setting up and closing. He’s tough, and I think his toughness is in part a product of his upbringing–a tough life at times that helped produce not just a great arm but a tough demeanor.

    But on whether or not he should start or relieve, to me there’s no question he should be a starter. Tim mentions the number of innings of quality pitching that would come from his starting–agreed. The Yanks desperately need this, as last year showed in often painful fashion. Plus, Joba has several good to excellent pitches–starter stuff–while other elite closers such as Mariano, Papelbon, and K-Rod have had two or fewer. His stuff merits the most use in innings, not the frequency of appearances, to me. Also, Joba doesn’t just have good starter stuff. He has the stuff to be a front-line starter, a real difference-maker in any rotation and especially if he were at the so-called back of the rotation where, by the way, he could have his innings reduced by being occasionally skipped.

    I’ll add two points here. The first is that I wouldn’t overlook the possibility that the Yankees could groom a set-up man from the various talented prospects and recent acquisitions filling the minors. Sanchez, Albaladejo (who began 2008 with the club, with which I agreed), and Melancon are three prime candidates to possibly make the club this year or, if not, to get regular work and likely excel at SWB. They throw hard and have been, to various degrees, already groomed to set up–certainly the case for Melancon and, to lesser degrees in 2008 because of injuries, Sanchez and Albaladejo. This winter, Albaladejo has done quite well in saving games–13 of 14 saves, 0.00 ERA, 16 K to 2 BBs in 19 innings. The Yankees are working on both stocking the bullpen–already a strength–at the major-league level and finding an eventual replacement for Mariano–no mean feat to eventually replace the greatest closer by far ever and, to me, the greatest reliever I’ve ever seen.

    That brings me to my second point. While I fully understand and appreciate the concern over Mariano’s age, he is one pitcher I wouldn’t bet against pitching for another few years if he so chose. He might not want to, but I wouldn’t bet against his ABILITY to do so. Yes, health could be an issue for him in the next two (or more) years. Yet look at his career overall. He’s had all of one so-called “bad year,” 2007 and even that was pretty good–3-4, 3.15 ERA, 1.121 WHIP, 30 saves (his third-HIGHEST WHIP in a season) in a year punctuated by periods of underwork and several tough outings amidst lots of terrific pitching from him. Additionally, there’s something about him that any reliever, including Joba, will find tough to replace because he’s just that great–his calm in the face of dire situations, his ability to knuckle down and get the toughest of outs in the toughest of situations. On this, I defer to my friend Frank the Sage’s classic characterization of Mariano–“When Mariano comes into the manager’s office, holding his right arm in his left hand and throwing it on the desk, THEN will I believe he can’t get someone out.” I couldn’t agree more. Not to be overlooked, Mariano has conditioned himself for the rigors of the season by resting him arm in the off-season until the few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, then starts throwing. This has kept his arm fresh but also his velocity up. Notice that even now in his late 30s, when Mariano’s velocity occasionally dips, it’s still in the low ’90s–just about what it was 10 years ago at its ebb. At his peak now, he still regularly hits 94-95–and he’s going to be pitching at age 39 this season! Should that rough range continue, I really, really wouldn’t bet against his continuing to pitch unless he really didn’t want to. The Yankees could always go year-to-year with a big salary. If he’s still very good, who could rightly tell him to walk away? Only Mariano and/or his family.

    I’m not saying not to groom guys, but the Yanks are doing that and, not to be ignored, Mariano’s ability to pitch at such a high level and velocity after all these years is in good part what has made him so special. People have waited for him to tail off and it just hasn’t happened, with 2008 being an incredible year–6-5, 39 saves, 1.40 ERA, 0.665 WHIP–at age 38.

    Sorry to go on for a stretch. I’ll consider it inspired by all the good comments. 🙂

  6. I think with guys like Robertson, Melancon, and who knows, maybe a Cox or Whelan, that the Yanks will be fine in the bullpen. I hope Coke continues to develop and that the Yanks could have not one, but TWO decent lefties in the bullpen to throw at people in Coke and Marte. That is a real luxury.

    But a look at the 2008 Yankees shows that Rasner was 3rd on the team in IP. God bless Rasner, who was put into a situation over his head (nice middle innings guy, nice spot starter, but injuries forced him into a higher role) but having him as your #3 guy in IP? Ouch.

    Only four Yankees threw 100 or more innings last year. Pettitte 204. We don’t know if Andy is coming back or not. Moose 200 1/3. Retired. #3 Rasner as I mentioned. 113 1/3. The fourth? Joba, who barely made it with 100 1/3.

    Getting innings is imperative. Hopefully all stay healthy. Getting guys to go deep into ballgames (AJ, CC, Wang, etc) means so much. Healthy starters going deep. To me that is the important thing.

  7. I feel the same way, Mike, especially on the possibility of having both Marte and Coke. I was definitely impressed with Coke’s work at the end of 2008. It’s a very important reminder on Rasner you offer, Mike. I hate to dump on Rasner, since he did his best and really seemed like a nice guy. But we both–and others–know he’s a spot-start/long reliever guy in the majors. He was out of his element pitching that much, and the number showed. The more he pitched, the worse he fared.

    We’re certainly on the same page about the innings being the key for the rotation–quality innings.

  8. this is a really great debate, and unfortunately, there is really no correct answer to it…

    the sabermatician in me realizes that a team has to throw about 1400 innings for a season…and i realize that the key to winning games is to have your best pitchers throw as many of these innings as possible…if joba throws 150 innings as a starter (the yanks will most def put an innings cap on him in order to protect him arm), he be be infinitely more valuable than throwing 70-80 innings as a reliever…there is a reason that a mediocre starter (gil meche) gets 11 mill per season and the best closer of all time (rivera) only gets 10 mill…

    the former division 1 collge baseball player in me understands mechanics and the finer aspects of the game, and i try not to get caught up in stats all the time…joba has an extremely violent delivery, and i highly doubt that he will ever be able to throw 200 innings in a season as a full time starter…

    look no further than the cubs who had a young hurler with a violent delivery kerry wood…he got hurt all the time, then had to come back as a closer…

    mo is now an older pitcher and prolly has 2-3 seasons left…we can keep joba in the pen, have a dominant pen for the next 2-3 yrs and groom him to be mo’s replacement…

    while i realize that we will not be getting the maximum value out of our asset, we will be getting something, which is more than you get out of a pitcher on the DL

  9. You’re no doubt correct, Brendan, in saying that there’s no correct answer to this debate. I feel confident in saying that Joba should be a starter. Yet I must admit that the idea of Joba closing someday, and certainly of his setting up, is both an attractive and logical one. The guy has the moxie for it, no question. Should he encounter injury issues, I wouldn’t lose a lot of sleep if he moved to the bullpen. Yet I think he should be given a chance to start, in no small part because he’s very good at it and has several sharp pitches. He has ace stuff.

    On Mariano, clearly the greatest ever to close a game and the guy in whom I always have full confidence, I admit that what may be the weakest part of my argument about Joba is what I say about Mariano staying a while. It’s admittedly speculative and stems from a couple things. I genuinely think that, should he WANT to pitch for 4-5 more years, Mariano of all could make that happen. Whether or not he will, I don’t know and thinking clearly am skeptical. But it’s rooted in my belief that Mariano can accomplish anything he wants on the mound. Anything. Heck, regardless of Joba starting or relieving in the next few years, Joba could STILL move to close when Mariano decides to hang ’em up. I just believe Joba should get the chance to hone his craft starting, as long as he’s healthy. It’s early, and I don’t want to presume he’s injury-prone quite yet. To me, keeping him in the bullpen instead of the rotation for fear of an injury is de facto prior restraint. It also illustrates in me the utter unwillingness to let Mariano go, not just because of his great history but because the guy continues to get it done as well as anyone. I’d choose him right now to close a game over anyone, hands down.

    On Wood, it’s a good point, and his 3/4 motion with a hitch spelled trouble. You’re in a better position to determine its inherent violence than I am, Brendan. I always considered Wood’s delivery choppy–the antithesis of smooth. He probably threw batters off with it. It probably also cost him a lengthier, much more productive career.

    So did Cubs managers, from Don Baylor to Rene Lachemann to Dusty Baker, none of whom could manage a pitch count to save his life. After Tommy John surgery in 1999, Wood was worked back into the staff in 2000, then resumed a good workload in 2001. In 24 of his 28 starts, he threw over 100 pitches; in 17 of those 24, over 110. 2003 did him in, when in 25 of his 32 starts he threw over 100 pitches. In 20 of those 25 over 100, he threw at least 110. In 13 of those 20, he threw over 120, including five of six starts in the last month. Then in the playoffs, 124 and 117 in Game 1 and 5 starts against Atlanta, then 109 and 112 in Games 3 and 7 against Florida. Wood got overworked in Chicago, especially considering his history of arm trouble. Thus far, the Yankees haven’t pushed Joba and that’s a big plus.

  10. I don’t agree with all your thoughts, but you do have good point of view.

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