Until the small-market team from only the nation's 16th-largest media market signed John Lackey to an $85 million contract, I was arguing strongly that the Yankees should have made a run at him.
The counter to that point, that there are better pitchers coming on the market in 2010 so the team should wait, led nicely to the second pillar of my argument. The Yankees have a limited window of opportunity. Some day soon, dark though that day may be, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada will no longer be on the team. The Yankees may struggle to replace them smoothly. The team should therefore seize any present opportunity to win. Lackey seemed to offer the safest bet for the team to improve, and potentially repeat, in 2010.
That brings us to Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. As of now they are the Yankees' #4 and #5 starters. Will they succeed?
Fortunately, there is some hope in Joba's numbers. His season was strong until August and September, when he posted ERAs of 8.22 and 7.15, respectively. Prior to those months, he was having a solid but not spectacular season.
Joba's main problem is that he's inefficient. In 2009 Joba's strike to ball ratio was 1.75. He averaged 17.4 pitches per inning in 2009 and has averaged 17 pitches per inning throughout his career. Although some pitchers are worse, this pitch rate means Joba will almost always hit his 100th pitch in the 5th or 6th inning, if he's lucky.
Chamberlain averaged only 14 pitches per inning his rookie season. That's a difference of three pitches per inning. That may not seem like much of a difference, but it adds up to 18 fewer pitches through six innings. Chamberlain also struggles to reach his peak velocity when he starts, versus when he relieves. This may be related to why he is less efficient as a starter. For whatever reason, he may struggle to bring his A stuff. Being able to hit 96 or 97 mph as a starter may be the difference for Chamberlain.
Hughes, unfortunately, is actually less efficient than Joba. Continuing with this separated at birth string of similarities, Hughes has also averaged 17.3 pitches per inning in his career. Unlike Joba, that number doesn't budge when he's in the pen. Hughes averaged 17 pitches per inning this past season, even though he logged most of his innings in relief.
With no sure-thing starter left on the market (and at $17 million a season I'm actually glad Cashman passed on Lackey) and the position players staying the same in value so far, the Yankees may need one of these two to become a legit starter if the team is to get better in 2010. Both players need to work on the same problem, but in different ways. Chamberlain needs to throw more strikes while Hughes needs to get guys out just a little quicker. Because of this key difference in 2010, my money is on Hughes to make the jump to full-fledged effective starter.
Phil Hughes will always be linked to Chamberlain, at least in my mind, because they came up at the same time. Anecdotally, they appear to have similar repertoires. In 2009, Hughes may have proven once and for all that it is easier to relieve than to start. The Yankees sent him to the pen when Chien-Ming Wang came back, and he responded with an ERA of 0.84. His ERA as a starter is 5.22, worse than Chamberlain's.
The similarities don't stop there. I was shocked to see Hughes' fastball topping out at 96mph when he was coming out of the bullpen. Having only seen him start, I thought he was a control guy who mixed an average fastball with good breaking stuff. Part of that was because I hadn't done my research, but part of that was also because Hughes also struggles to hit his maximum velocity when he starts.
There is a silver lining for Phil, though. Watching Hughes pitch you may have gotten the sense that he induced a lot of foul balls before he got an out. That's because he did. Unlike Joba, in 2009 Hughes posted a strike-ball ratio of 3.43, which was the best of his career, and a bit better than what this guy put up.