Has Phil Hughes’ 2010 been significantly better than Joba Chamberlain’s 2009?

When Joba Chamberlain came out of the bullpen on Tuesday night Larry asked me if I thought we’d ever see Joba in the rotation again. We both felt that the answer was probably not, regardless of the fact that we both endorse the idea of Joba getting another shot as a starter. The bottom line is, the Yankees aren’t treating Joba like a reliever who may eventually be used as a starter. The team has seldom allowed Joba to pitch more than one inning at a time. Converting him back to a starter in Spring Training may not only further damage his confidence, but possibly his arm as well.

That question has since motivated me to return to a topic that was heavily debated before the season began. For those who remember, there was some uncertainty as to whether or not the 5th spot in the Yankee rotation would fall to Joba Chamberlain or Phil Hughes. At the time, I voted for Joba. He was better as a reliever in 2007 than Hughes was in 2009, and until this season he had also been better as a starter than Hughes had been. But Joba wasn’t bad last season; he just wasn’t great. Isn’t that exactly the same thing we’d say about Hughes’ 2010 season: not bad, but not great?

The data in the table below are taken from Baseball Reference and Fangraphs. The data are what you’d expect, except I’ve added a rough estimate of how many innings each pitcher gave the Yankees per start. This will overestimate the number slightly because it ignores one-inning relief appearances, like the one Hughes gave recently, but it still works as a serviceable estimate of each pitcher’s efficiency.

The numbers show that in 2009 Joba was a somewhat inefficient, but largely average starter. (For those who don’t know, ERA+ is adjusted so that a score of 100 is league average. This means that a 100 in 2009 may be different from a 100 in 2010, the “Year of the Pitcher”.) He didn’t give the Yankees much in the way of length in his starts, which is probably related to his high WHIP, but he was still better, younger and cheaper than either A.J. Burnett or Javier Vazquez has been this year.
Phil Hughes has been a better pitcher in 2010 than Joba was in 2009, but the difference isn’t the slam dunk that it has become in the media narrative. ERA+ is designed so that each point represents a 1/2 percentage of improvement. Hughes in 2010 has been about 1.5% better at keeping runs off the board than Joba was in 2009. If Hughes has won a role in the team’s rotation for the foreseeable future why, then, didn’t Joba’s 2009 at least keep him in the conversation?
The answer may lie in WAR. According to Baseball Reference Phil Hughes has a bWAR of 2.4 this season (which is just a hair above the 2.1 he accumulated in 2009). Meanwhile, Joba was replacement level in 2009 according to his bWAR, registering a 0.1, which is bad.
Hughes’ WAR is about average, which aligns nicely to his ERA+ this year. Joba’s 2009 WAR is replacement level, which should translate to an ERA+ of 80-85, yet his actual ERA+ was 98. An analysis meant to point out that Joba was at least good enough in 2009 to warrant mentioning for the rotation again in 2011 has also uncovered one of the issues with WAR and other advanced stats. WAR penalizes pitchers with poor peripherals, regardless of how those peripherals translate to actual runs allowed.

With a K/BB ratio in 2009 of 1.75 Joba had poor peripherals (Hughes’ K/BB ratio in 2010 is 2.59, just about the same as CC Sabathia). While I don’t believe the Yankees were looking at WAR when they made their decision about which pitchers would start and which would not, they may have been examining the raw data that influence WAR. Those data confirm that Joba in 2009 was far from great, and that the Yankees probably made the right decision in selecting Hughes over Chamberlain this season.

However, given that Joba was far from a complete and utter failure as a starter last season, one might think that 160 innings of 98 ERA+ ball pitching primarily in the AL East would merit further consideration as a starter, but that’s an argument for another time.

9 thoughts on “Has Phil Hughes’ 2010 been significantly better than Joba Chamberlain’s 2009?

  1. I, too, wanted to see Joba remain in the rotation this year, and looking back, I absolutely have to believe he could have held down Javy Vazquez's 4th slot much more efficiently than Javy did. If the Yankees moved forward with that plan, they could have found a replacement for Joba in the pen. That all said, it's easy in hindsight to recognize this would have been a good plan. No way the Yankees were going to allow both Hughes and Chamberlain to man 2/5ths of their rotation in 2010. If Pettitte retires and they sign Cliff Lee, I'd like to see them give Joba back his rotation spot, but I think it's unlikely.

  2. Mike D,I completely agree with every single word you wrote. I'm actually not sure if that's ever happened with a commenter in the history of this site. Please come back often.Best,Larry

  3. While it is absolutely true that no one would have predicted Javier Vazquez being so bad that he was actually worse in 2010 than Joba was in 2009, it is still puzzling that the Yankees were so quick to demote him. They must have seen something that many fans didn't see, because starters are more valuable than relievers not named Rivera. If there is any need or opportunity to give Joba another chance, finances alone say it is worth it.

  4. Interesting article. I think Girardi wanted to move Joba back to the pen and Hughes to the rotation, regardless of how spring training went. They seem to feel Hughes has the mental makeup for the job, and that Joba isn't mature enough yet, and I agree. Plus, after seeing Joba pitch the 8th inning in 2007, they have to harbor hopes he can return to that form…after all, Mo is very near the end. As for other pitching issues, they should sign Lee, bring back Pettitte (tho it's his decision), cut ties with, ahem, Vazquez. And…trade Burnett. He has 19 teams that he can be traded to, and I'd start by looking at Burnett to the Mets for Beltran and prospects. This would allow the NYY to trade Granderson (.250 doesn't cut it), move Gardner to CF (highest OBP on the team) sign Crawford (even tho he's overrated, look at HIS OBP) and use Beltran as a 4th outfielder, 1/2 time DH. What are your thoughts?

  5. I agree with most of the moves you suggest, except the trades. Burnett is untradeable. The only way the Yankees could move him is if they agreed to pay virtually all of his salary. That would defeat the purpose of moving him. I also feel that the Yankees should absolutely hang onto Curtis Granderson. While his season has been a bit of a disappointment, he has still hit 20+ home runs, played excellent defense, and put together a solid year, one of the best for a Yankees Center Fielder in god knows how long.

  6. Mike, I just can't see it your way about Granderson. His OBP is terrible, he can't hit lefties a lick, and his salary will be escalating. And his stats show a clear downward trajectory. Plus, if the NYY want Crawford someone has to go. And both Gardner and Swisher have had career years. As for Burnett, the thing is to find someone else's untradeable headache and swap them. If you send him to Washington, then yeah you're gonna have to eat a big part of his salary. But if you swap him to a high payroll team with a similar bad contract, then you won't have to. And the jury is in on Burnett, one mediocre year and one horrible year.

  7. Tanned Tom,Granderson's overall season line is clearly not where any of us want it to be (.251/.327/.471), though he has hit .276/.367/.586 over his last 42 games since reworking his swing with Kevin Long, and that's not an insignificant sample. I think we'd all have been thrilled if Grandy posted that slash line for the entire season. Not sure why you're ragging on the player who's been the Yankees' second-best hitter (.442 wOBA) this month after A-Rod, other than that Grandy's been an easy target for much of the season and we're all frustrated because the team's played like crap the last four games.