Mood Music - Bron-Yr-Aur by Led Zeppelin
Bronson Arroyo made thirty-two starts last season, Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland, and Tim Wakefield started important games down the stretch for the Red Sox, and the Yankees are going to give Phil Hughes every opportunity to cling to the rotation. Starting pitching is hard to find. Competent starting is even harder to find.
I might not always agree with the mantra of pitching being the key to a championship or ninety percent of the game or whatever else, but it's certainly apparent that starting pitching is a scarce resource. And scarce resources have inherent value. If Phil Hughes gets booted from the rotation to the bullpen, he would figure to slot somewhere into Cory Wade territory, behind Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, Rafael Soriano, and, if things continue to progress, Joba Chamberlain.
The fifth right handed option in your bullpen is close to worthless. The third right handed option in your bullpen might be worthless too. Can anyone justify to me that Rafael Soriano is currently playing a major role on this team?
Giving up on Hughes the starter is a last resort, not something to do when you get frustrated with his mouthbreathing bullshit and just want to see someone else. And while he is still showing some flashes of being able to hack it (he has) and there are no obviously superior replacements (there aren't, yet), you have to keep rolling him out there.
While it's acknowledged that it's easier to pitch out of the bullpen for a few reasons -- the fastball plays up, you can limit yourself to one or two different types of off-speed pitches, and batters only see you once or twice instead of three or four times -- the strategy component is often overlooked. Lineups are set and batters are prepared to face the starting pitcher, not anyone out of the bullpen.
When Freddy Garcia takes the mound, the batters in the opposing lineup will likely be loaded with lefties, guys who hit breaking balls well, and guys who have hit Garcia well. Whatever the manager can do to make his lineup harder for Garcia to navigate through is what he is most likely to see. And the batters themselves will watch tape and go over scouting reports in preparation for facing Garcia.
This doesn't happen when David Phelps or Cory Wade come out of the bullpen. No one is building a lineup or focusing their pregame preparation on facing a bullpen long man. There are a few moves that can be made and scouting reports that can quickly be read from a binder(!), but Phelps and Wade are still essentially facing Garcia's lineup. I'd have to think that matters too.
So, I have a hard time buying into the results of long relief. Someone looking good in long relief in the majors carries about as much clout as someone pitching well in the AAA rotation. It's promising, but it's not always a fair indication of what will happen in the major league rotation.
Freddy Garcia has planted himself pretty firmly under the bus and doesn't seem likely to surface soon. With good reason. Even in only a four start sample, a 12.51 ERA and 42.3 line drive% are enough to see that batters have not been thrown off balance by his mix of pitches, the key to his success in 2011. Even if about half of those line drives are really more like solidly hit fly balls -- which is the reason to always be wary of LD% -- those results are still shockingly terrible.
But, even with all of that, Freddy's 5.51 FIP / 3.94 xFIP looks a lot like David Phelps' 5.66 FIP / 4.09 xFIP. While, at this point, neither is a true indication of their talent levels and it makes sense for Freddy to figure out what the hell is going on somewhere else, I have to wonder how much better the Yankees really are going to be going forward. It's pretty close to inevitable that Freddy would start to figure things out and improve; it's pretty close to inevitable that Phelps will take a step back in his new, more difficult role.
Which is not to give a vote of no confidence in Phelps or to rain on the recent Phelps parade - which I have long felt was overdue given his consistent success in the minors. Phelps has flashed pitches of major league starting quality and, given the opportunity, I think he has a solid chance to eventually stick in the rotation. If not here then somewhere else. But I also think that the growing pains of a rookie starting pitcher being thrown into the rotation in the middle of the season might start to look a lot like Freddy Garcia's aging pains.
At this point, I'm fine with giving Phelps a shot and hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. It hasn't been working with Freddy and it might work with Phelps. The Yankees don't need Phelps to be particularly great, they need him to be a non-disaster. He can probably do that most times out. But, just this once, let's try to keep our expectations grounded with a rookie making his first starts in the major leagues.