Monday, August 31, 2009

Joba Plan Just Getting Silly

The Yankees continued their amazing second-half surge by sweeping the Chicago White Sox this weekend, and Sergio Mitre, of all people, deserves all the credit.

That's because the Yankees' latest plan for Joba Chamberlain has crossed the border into the utterly absurd.

Mark Teixeira homered and drove in four to surpass 100 RBI for the season as Joba pitched just three innings before five relievers closed out an 8-3 victory Sunday. That the Yankees didn't completely burn out the bullpen was the result of Mitre's brilliant start Saturday, in which he allowed one hit in 6-1/3 innings in a 10-0 victory.

The Yankees remain six games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East with a magic number of 28.

But the buzz this morning is about Joba and his three-inning, 35-pitch outing, leaving many, including me, to wonder why the Yankees just can't come up with a plan that makes sense.

Joba was below average in his abbreviated start, allowing two runs on four hits with one strikeout.

The bullpen that followed, though, was brilliant, allowing one run on five hits in the remaining six innings. Alfredo Aceves (9-1) was credited with the win after pitching three scoreless innings.

Thank goodness Mitre's strong start was able to preserve the 'pen the day before.

But I have to wonder if this new version of the Joba Plan will accomplish its goals.

Whether you believe in an old-school philosophy about pitching, or follow a new-school philosophy, the one question you have to ask is how far you push a young pitcher whose previous season high in innings pitched is all of 100 innings?

I understand those who say Joba is young and strong, but we have also seen numerous examples of young pitchers whose innings were rapidly jacked up from one season to the next and ended up either getting injured or being much less effective.

The Verducci Effect puts that risky jump at 30 innings. The Yankees are currently planning on jumping Joba by 60 innings in the regular season, and then more in the postseason. Can they really reasonably push him much more? Does anyone in all seriousness really believe Joba is physically capable of pitching say 200 innings, including the postseason, without putting him at risk?

But it's not enough to just protect Joba's arm. They Yankees need to produce wins, not just on the days Joba starts, but in the days before and after.

The first plan tried to limit Joba's innings by spacing out his starts. That didn't work too well as Joba, well, sucked.

The new plan is to start Joba every five days, but limit him to three or four innings before rebuilding his arm strength toward the end of the season. Under this plan, he has five or six starts remaining this season. The hope is that he'll also be able to rediscover that rhythm that made him so dominant coming out of the All-Star break. There's no guarantee of that, though.

But this plan also guarantees the bullpen with have to pitch five or six innings in a game every fifth day. Now, you never want your bullpen to pitch that much, but you also know that it can happen. The thing is that by having Joba pitch just three or four innings in a start, the Yankees are also putting a premium on the starts directly before and after him. They need depth in those games in order to avoid over-taxing the bullpen.

Yes, the expanded rosters in September will help, but if pitchers such as Jonathan Albaladejo, Edwar Ramirez and Mark Melancon were that good and reliable, they wouldn't be September callups.

This go around, things worked out because of Mitre.

Look, I'm not going pretend to suddenly be a big Mitre fan. I've been hard on him and I still don't believe he's a major league-caliber starter. He still has a long way to go to prove that.

But I also won't deny that he was simply great on Saturday. No one can take that away from him. Maybe it was all that rest he had between starts (a new application for the original Joba Plan???).

Mitre (3-1, 5.65 ERA) allowed a run and a walk in 6-1/3 innings. He struck out two and threw 48 of 73 pitches for strikes. The only reason he didn't go deeper into the game was because he took a liner off his forearm. Chad Gaudin pitched the remaining 2-2/3 innings allowing a walk and striking out four.

The lineup also provided plenty of support, pounding Jose Contreras, forcing the former Yankee out of the game one out into the fourth.

Alex Rodriguez went 2-for-4 with a homer, and Johnny Damon, Robinson Cano and Jerry Hairston Jr. each drove in two runs. Derek Jeter, meanwhile, continued his hot hitting by going 3-for-4.

Imagine what might have happened Sunday had that game been close or Mitre been forced from the game earlier. It could have been ugly.

Fortunately, the Aceves and the bullpen were brilliant Sunday and the bats continued their onslaught, scratching out three runs against Freddy Garcia before pounding the White Sox's bullpen.

Johnny Damon had a two-run homer in the third to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead, Melky Cabrera smoked an RBI double in the five-run seventh and Mark Teixeira delivered a three-run blast to put the game away.

Teixeira has now surpassed 30 homers and 100 RBI in six straight seasons.

But imagine what might have been had Mitre been even mediocre ... or the offense not outstanding.

The Yankees are going to try to continue with this new plan because they believe it is the right thing to do.

I think it is foolish.

If Joba was in the minors, the Yankees would let take his regular turn in the rotation and then shut him down when he hit his innings limit.

But he's in the majors and the Yankees want him to contribute and want him to be their fourth starter in the playoffs.

The reality is that Joba just doesn't have the innings to be a full-fledged major league starter ... yet. Just let him get normal starts on regular rest in the rotation until he hits about 150 innings. At that point, he can continue to contribute out of the bullpen.

And given the way he's been pitching of late, there is no guarantee he'll be any better than Gaudin or Mitre in the playoffs anyway.

Runners In Scoring Position
6-for-17 (.353)
3-for-6 (.500)
326-for-1,208 (.270)
First Half
217-for-819 (.265)
Second Half
109-for-389 (.280)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
261-for-935 (.279)
Vs. Red Sox
36-for-163 (.221)

Up Next
Monday at Orioles, 7:05 p.m., YES
Andy Pettitte (11-6, 4.18) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (9-12, 5.26)

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