Monday, July 13, 2009

How Reactivating Chien Ming Wang Messed With Phil Hughes

Recently, I've been seeing a lot of posts suggesting that to solve the rotation problems, the Yankees should move Phil Hughes back from the bullpen to the rotation.

On the surface, it's hard to disagree with this.

As a starter, Hughes this season was showing improvement outside of one disastrous Baltimore start. He was gradually becoming more efficient, less tentative and better at keeping a bad inning from imploding.

Things, in short, were going well.

Then the Yankees panicked in re-activating Chien Ming Wang from the DL, and things got hairy.

After a time it became clear that the Yankees couldn't keep Wang in the bullpen, or else risk losing all the arm strength that he had built up. Long story short, Hughes got sent to the bullpen.

And here the problem begins.

Hughes, out of the bullpen, has primarily been a one inning, and rarely a two inning pitcher. Since he's been so efficient out of the bullpen--he's had more than one nine pitch inning--at most, right now, I'd say he could throw about thirty pitches.

What does this mean?

If you were to tell Hughes tomorrow that he was starting again, he could probably pitch about two innings before tiring.

Now, some have suggested that the Yankees use the All Star break to stretch Hughes out, but here they are missing something: it takes longer than just a week to stretch a pitcher from a reliever to a starter.

There are two players to look at as models: Alfredo Aceves and Joba Chamberlain.

Aceves made a spot start last Thursday, which on the surface would seem to be a reliever-to-starter transition without a period of stretching. There are, however, two caveats: 1) Aceves was already a long reliever. Him pitching four innings the Sunday previous was not a terrible strain because he has already spent much of this season giving the Yankees two or three innings at a time, and 2) he only did pitch into the fourth inning--65 pitches on the nose--which ended up taxing the bullpen that day and bleeding into the next three.

The better example to look at is Joba Chamberlain.

Chamberlain had, in '07 and the first two months of'08, been an eighth-inning short reliever, but the Yankee plan was always for him to be a starter, so, towards, but not at, the end of May 2008, they announced plans to turn Chamberlain into a starter.

They had him first pitch longer stints out of the bullpen, and then, in the beginning of June, he made his first start--limited in pitch count, he did not get out of the third inning.

By the time Chien Ming Wang had gotten hurt, Chamberlain had stretched out not quite enough to pitch a complete game, but enough to pitch himself into the sixth-or-so inning, so that instead of the Yankees looking for another one starter, they looked instead for a five starter and found Sidney Ponson. You can debate the merits of this idea at your leisure, but that's not our concern here.

It took nearly a month for Chamberlain to go from set-up man, a role similar to what Hughes is doing now, to a full fledged starter--and it was not long afterward that Chamberlain hurt his shoulder. While the back-breaker was likely a fall Chamberlain took in Texas, the injury was likely building for some time--whether or not it had to do with the pitching transition, we can only guess, but it's highly doubtful that the Yankees would overlook it.

If Hughes took the same trajectory, in that the Yankees started to stretch him out now, we would be looking at the middle of August before he would really be a full-fledged starter. One needs to forget that Hughes started the season as a starter; after so long in the bullpen the arm strength and endurance that was there has likely gone.

Waiting until mid-August in the thick of a division race that will likely be decided by one or two games at most is not in the Yankees' best interests, especially when one considers how burnt out the bullpen would get covering for Hughes in the first few innings when a pitch count would prevent him from going more than four or five innings.

Should Hughes be in the bullpen long term? Absolutely not. Next season, he should come to Spring Training a starter and then remain a starter all through the season.

If the goal, however, is winning the World Series in 2009, the Yankees can't afford to muddle with Hughes for a month and risk exposing the bullpen even more. We saw the trouble that comes when Aceves is removed from the bullpen this week; any time the bullpen has to pitch more than two or three innings, especially in a row, it resists over-exposure--and then it gets hit. With Chamberlain and Andy Pettitte already so inefficient, Hughes on a limited pitch count is exactly the thing the Yankees don't need.

There's no one to blame on this one but the Yankees themselves.

The Yankees, for whatever reason, appeared to have not thought it through entirely in bringing Wang back before coming up with a plan for Hughes.

In an over-used cliché, "it is what it is", and the Yankees will have to make their peace with it.