Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Great Joba Debate

Coming into the year, the Yankees drove their fans and fantasy players crazy by dropping hints that they were considering moving Joba out of his 8th inning setup role and into the rotation. Speculation increased further once they couldn't land Johan Santana in the offseason. Cautious of Joba throwing too many innings, they decided it was best to start the season with him as their primary setup man to Mariano Rivera. But, poor performances & eventual trips to the DL for their 4th & 5th starters, Ian Kennedy & Phil Hughes, created a void in the rotation and an opening for Joba that was just too tempting to pass up. So it was announced last week that super setup man Chamberlain would begin stretching out so he could enter the rotation. There are many opinions about this move in both the fantasy and real sports worlds. Even here at Pseudo Sports there are differing opinions. That could only mean one's time for an old-fashioned faceoff.

Mike - Bad Move
Last year's performance by Joba will never be matched. Let's get that out of the way from the start - what he did last year was off the charts in terms of performance and injecting life into a struggling Yankee team. In 21 appearances, he had a ridiculous 0.38 ERA and 34 Ks in just 24 innings. Opponents hit just .145 off him and he had great control (just 6 walks). Even with the high Ks, he only needed 14.3 pitches per inning. So far in 2008, Joba's thrown 23 2/3 innings and has racked up 30 Ks with a 2.28 ERA. Opponents are hitting .190 off him and he's required slightly more pitches per inning - 17.

While he's given up a few more runs, his numbers so far have been solid. However, the big difference this year is that he's been mixing in more of his pitches. Last year, he was strictly a fastball/slider pitcher. Since the beginning of May, he's been showing his curveball and a changeup. While it's rumored that these pitches are as good as his slider (more so for the curveball), he still doesn't have the feel for them like he does the slider and the fastball. Last year, hitters swung and missed at his slider nearly 75% of the time. He's not getting that same success rate with the other pitches just yet. He also can't throw his curve for strikes at the same frequency. This is evident in the fact that in almost the same amount of innings pitched, he's walked almost twice as many batters, 11, as he did last year.

So what does this all mean for the success of the Yankees and Joba's impact in the fantasy world? For one, he can't come out firing bullets the same way he does when he comes out of the bullpen, knowing that he only has to deal with 1 or 2 innings at most. He also has to deal with the fact that he will be facing hitters more than once a game. It's an obvious fact, but it goes a long way. Because of this, he will be forced to display more of his arsenal every inning to mix things up. And because these pitches aren't as dominant, it will lead to more overall pitches at best, and more contact/hits at worst. Combine this with the fact that he will be on strict pitch counts and it's hard to see Joba as anything more than a 5 or 6 inning pitcher. This is not something easily absorbed by any team, but this could be especially troubling for the Yankees. Without Joba's presence, the Yankees bullpen in front of Mariano is average, at best. Mike Mussina is already one 6 inning pitcher on their staff, and it's hard for any team to deal with 2 at the same time. Add to this that Mussina is scheduled to follow Joba in the rotation, and the Yankees have to hope that they have big leads in the games they pitch since the bullpen is going to have to throw a minimum of 3 innings a night for 2 nights in a row. This can also trickle down and have a negative impact on Wang, Pettite & Rasner.

A spent bullpen will lead to more blown leads and it's a hard trend to stop unless your staff as a whole can eat innings. The hope is that Joba will be able to ease into the starter's role & in short time, be able to get his strength up so that 100 pitches won't be an issue. All this while hoping he can bring his same dominating stuff to the role. This would allow him to be fresh in October and set them up for a post-season run. The failure of the Yankees in recent Octobers has been the lack of a dominant, frontline starter. They're making the move in the hopes that Joba can be just that. But this move is coming at the expense of the bullpen in more ways than one. And as we are about to post this, the new 8th inning man for the Yankees, Kyle Farnsworth, just took the loss against the Twins.

Chris - Good Move
The move to the rotation is a good one for both the Yankees and Joba's fantasy owners. The bottom line is that Joba is more valuable to all parties involved if he is getting 15+ outs per game rather than 3-6. Joba is no stanger to the starting rotation. In college Chamberlain made 32 starts. He maintained a 3.30 ERA and 1.17 WHIP with a 2.91 BB/9 and a healthy 10.07 K/9. In 15 minor league starts he posted a 2.45 ERA and 1.01 WHIP with a 2.76 BB/9 and an even healthier 13.79 K/9. The talent and ability to start games and pitch well is there.

Mike makes a good point regarding Joba's expected innings pitched per start. It will certainly take a few starts to get to the 6.0 inning range and there is no guarantee that he will pitch any deeper than that. This might limit his win potential, as it does with guys like Pedro Martinez and Chris Young. But from a fantasy perspective wins aren't the only valuable contribution from a starter. A K/9 rate over 10.0 is more useful over a larger number of innings, and the same goes for stellar ratios. This is a big win for fantasy owners.

As for the state of the Yankees 'pen, that's a different story. They will need to go out and get an arm to help out in relief. Brian Fuentes is the name that is spoken about the most. Fuentes would be a good fit but he would not be able to replicate Joba's numbers. But he wouldn't have to do that. Maybe Edwar Ramirez will step up and fill the 8th inning role. There is no requirement to have one specific guy for the 8th inning. A mix and match approach may work even better than having defined roles for one specific inning. The key here though is that it is much easier to find an arm for the bullpen than it is to find a potential front-line starting pitcher.

And the million dollar question - what if he fails? Well, if Joba fails as a starter, so what? He goes back to the bullpen and resumes 8th inning duties. If you have a talent like Chamberlain you need to extract the most value from him. The way to do that is to use him in such a way that he dominates over as many innings as he can. Stretching him out and trying him in the rotation is the logical move.

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