The Joba Debate

At just 23 years of age, Joba Chamberlain has already proven himself to be an incredibly dominating force. In 124.1 big-league innings, the Nebraska native has posted a 2.49 FIP exceeded by a 2.17 ERA. He has been fanning batters at a rate of 11 per nine innings while keeping his BB/9 right around 3.2. Despite these gaudy numbers, where he belongs is actually discussed much more than what he has done.

The Joba camp is split: some want him in the rotation while others feel he best serves the team in a setup man capacity. As RJ showed not too long ago, outside of closers, most other relievers simply are not worth that many wins. Ryan Madson had a very solid season and produced no more than +1.3 wins. It’s tough to surpass the production of Hong-Chih Kuo, and he managed +2.4 wins.

Last season, Kuo posted a 2.28 FIP in 80 innings. Is Joba’s projection as a reliever really that much better than Kuo’s 2008 performance, even with the added leverage taken into account? Unless the level of important in his innings are absolutely off the charts, I cannot see Joba as anything north of +2.6 wins as a reliever.

For his best utilization to come as a reliever, his projection as a starter would need to be below that output. The projections on our site are quite low for Joba, but a compromise of 150 IP at a 3.68 FIPRA, in his 9.35 run environment, pegs him at +3.8 wins. In other words, if he suffers a vast decline in FIP with the added workload, Chamberlain still ends up over a full win more productive as a member of the rotation.

How would he produce below +2.6 wins as a starter in 150 IP? He would need approximately a 4.40 FIPRA in 150 innings, which translates to a 4.10 FIP, to be exactly +2.6 wins. Basically, the only way it makes any sense to use him out of the bullpen is if the Yankees think Chamberlain can really surpass Kuo’s 2008 season or if, for whatever reason, they feel his numbers will sharply dropoff to a 4.10 FIP. In other words, it would take an awful lot for his usage in the bullpen to make sense.

Just like Johan Santana in 2003, Joba is much too good to be used as a one-inning reliever. If he fails as a starter, fine, put him in during the eighth inning, but do not waste the electric stuff of this 23-yr old phenom without at least trying.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

26 Responses to “The Joba Debate”

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  1. Mick says:

    I think the wild card not being mentioned is whether Joba will be more injury prone as a starter or a reliever. All of the projections are meaningless if he spends significant time on the D.L. as a result of being pressed into the wrong role. I’m actually of two minds on the issue. Which is more damaging, the extra innings of a starter or the daily up and down, warm-up and cool-down routine of the reliever? I frankly don’t know. If injury risk is not a factor then it’s obvious that Joba’s value is maximized as a starter. If he can’t log a seasons worth of innings w/o going down, it might be safer to keep him in the bullpen.

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    • Nathan says:

      In that vein, has anyone ever done a study about whether starters or releivers are more injury prone?

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      • Ed says:

        I don’t think you could do a meaningful one. 99% of relievers are failed starters, sometimes due to pitching ability, and something due to stamina or health issues. I really think it comes down to the person. People react differently to different workloads and get thrown into the appropriate role accordingly.

        Then there’s the Joe Torre factor. Starters are given well regulated workloads, whereas relievers are left to the whims of the manager. Very few players can survive the workload Torre puts on his favorite relievers.

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  2. JC says:

    For the sake of making it complicated, who are the alternatives for the rotation? If there are 5 other starters around or above +3.8 wins, then Chamberlin looks even more attractive in the pen. Perhaps the decision of whether to use him as a starter or reliever should be made in conjunction with the makeup of the entire staff.

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      There aren’t. A healthy Sheets is close to +3.8 to +4.0 wins but that’s it. They are likely going to sign Pettitte, but he isn’t taking Joba’s spot, he’s just finishing up the rotation.

      If they sign Sheets and Pettitte, then they can split Joba’s time in/out of the rotation but I don’t see them signing Sheets.

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  3. rwperu34 says:

    Don’t the true eight inning guys have nearly the same leverage as closers?

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    • Eric Seidman says:

      All I’ll say is this… say he had the same LI as Mariano… Mariano in 2008 pitched 70.2 IP with a 2.03 ERA and a 12.83 K/BB… there is no way Joba matches that, and Rivera was still just slightly over +4 wins… the only reliever to reach that total.

      Joba as a starter is likely to be right around +3.8 wins. Joba would have to have practically the greatest season for a reliever to be more valuable in the pen.

      Now, if they were to sign Sheets, it might not hurt the Yankees to put him in the pen, but if you are trying to determine if he helps the team more in the 8th or as a starter, it would take an awful lot for the 8th to be the answer.

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  4. Mike Ketchen says:


    Weighing the risk and the D’s behind them. Who is better in 2009
    Lester, Greinke or Joba?

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  5. Mike Ketchen says:


    Thanks for the speedy response. I am about to be on the clock in my dynasty pick. You made it easier : ) Thanks a thousand

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  6. rwperu34 says:

    I am going to challenge a major assumption you make when calculating pitcher win values. Frankly, the reliever values do not pass the smell test for me. There is no way there are 35 starters that were more valuable than Jonathan Papelbon in 2008.

    I don’t think you should use a different replacement level for starters and relievers.

    The issue with two different replacement levels is, you assume that all innings above replacement are equal. They are not. Reliever innings are more valuable. For example, if replacement was an FIP of 5.40 for a starter and 4.40 for a reliever, at replacement level, it wouldn’t matter who threw more innings, their total contribution would be equal. It should be obvious that in the case of replacement level, you want more innings from your reliever.

    180 SP + 40 RP=5.22RA
    140 SP + 80 RP=5.04RA

    It should also be obvious that Kuo’s 80 IP of 2.28 FIP is better than a starter who pitched 80 IP of 3.28. Using two different replacement levels, they end up the same!

    Pitcher value should be calculated in the same manner as hitter value. There should be a league average, a league replacement level, and then an adjustment for position based on difficulty between the two positions.

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    • dan says:

      The average reliever has a lower ERA than the average starter. Therefore, the relievers replacements will also have lower ERAs than the starter replacements. In other words, relievers are more easily replaced and easier to find than starters.

      Eric could probably provide a better explanation for that than I just did.

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      • Eric Seidman says:

        Dan, you hit it on the head pretty much. The replacement level for a reliever in the AL last year was 4.47, 5.63 for a starter. The issue here is that, say you put Joba in the pen, that means Hughes goes in the rotation.

        Say Hughes is +2 wins next year, you get +2 from him in the rotation and +2.3 or so from Joba in the pen, if that… meaning you are ranging from 3.9-4.3 wins.

        With Joba in the rotation you get +3.8 wins, and even if you have a solid 8th inning guy without Joba’s dominance, he could still produce +1 win… netting you +4.8 wins. And if that other 8th inning guy is worth +1.5 wins, then this scenario produced an entirely new win.

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  7. Mike Ketchen says:

    “There is no way there are 35 starters that were more valuable than Jonathan Papelbon in 2008.”

    At the end of the day one job usually requires getting three outs, never facing the same hitter twice in a game and potentially facing the bottom third of the lineup.

    The other job is expected to record 18-21 outs on avg, face the same hitters 3 to 4 times. Including the 1-5 hitters at least 3 times every time. So yea I would not be suprised if there were 35 more pitchers more valuable then every closer.

    How many number three starters do you not think could become lights out relivers? Go look at guys like Mo, Nathan, and Gagne when they started.

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  8. HuskerBadgerCav says:

    I’m betting that this is the year the Yankees stop babying him and let him pitch 175 innings or so.

    and Joba may have an amazing year with that offense and 175 innings.

    It’s shocking how effective Joba can be when his girlfriend isn’t pregnant and his father isn’t dying…

    Just trust the Husker fans on this one ;-)

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    • alskor says:

      Boy I hope they let Joba pitch 175 IP this year, too.

      That would be great news for the Sox in 2010.

      He hasnt shown the ability to stay healthy for anything much over 100 IP – so people draw the conclusion that the Yankees should probably push him harder? Nolan Ryan, is that you?

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      • BJ says:

        His career high is 118. in 2005. I agree that 175 is probably too much, but not much crazier than what the sawx did to Lester last year… let’s see how that works out for ya.

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  9. YankFanDave says:

    Joba in the bullpen bla, bla, bla…: For all those that keep the Joba in the bullpen argument going and repeatedly ask “how will we get to Mo?”, FanGraphics stats regarding team relief performance last year (just sift through them) show that the Yankees bullpen was one of the most effective, clutch bullpens in the majors last year. When will folks see this as a Yankee strength rather than complaining about a non problem.

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  10. Matt B. says:

    I read a piece a while back saying scouts were scared of this kid due to his husky build and they were quoted as saying his knee is nearly ready to explode with his delivery…

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    • Ed says:

      When the Yankees drafted Joba, the first thing they did was alter his delivery. Then they told him to lose weight, which he did. Those problems are no longer a concern.

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  11. Tom B says:

    Can’t find anything about this knee thing anywhere, he’s had 2 bouts with tendonitis in his career, and that’s… it. Where does this injury history come from?

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  12. Matt B. says:

    It was either on BA or BP, it was even sited as the reason he dropped in the draft apparantly. Scouts felt his knee was a ‘blowout’ waiting to happen… I’ll see if I can track the source down…

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  13. RollingWave says:

    the only reason you use someone as a RP instead of a SP is because.

    a. he’s A LOT better as a RP than SP … see Mo, Hoffman, Gagne
    b. he’s too fragil , see Kuo
    c. you happen to have 5 SP better than him healthy in the lineup.

    a and c are pretty much proven to be untrue, b might be, but it’s hard to see him as possibly benig worse than Kuo, and even in Kuo’s case they tried numerous time to use him as a SP.

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  14. rwperu34 says:

    If the difference in replacement level is 1.16, shouldn’t that represent the exchange rate between the two positions? In other words, moving Joba to the rotation should add 1.16 to his expected FIP, but have him the same number of runs below replacement per nine. In that case, the formula to figure out the ratio of value should be fairly simple;


    If Joba’s expected leverage is 1.5 in the 8th, and you expect him to throw twice as many innings as a starter, then his relief value should be 75% of his starting value. If Joba is a 3.8 win starter, then he should be a 2.9 win reliever, not 2.4.

    Here are a couple of issues I have with the formula you use to determine value.

    1. Why aren’t pitchers done like hitters? It seems inconsistant to compare LF/CF one way and SP/RP another.

    2. Why do you use .470 as the winning% for replacement relievers? It seems to me that a replacement reliever should have a winning% of .380, compared to an average reliever of .500.

    3. What is the true exchange rate between the two positions? 1.16 runs seems awfully high. The only other time I’ve ever seen anybody mention the exchange rate between SP and RP it was stated at like 0.20 or something. That’s too low for me to swallow. There is a big enough sample of guys that have done both in the same season that we should know just how much harder it is to start than relieve.

    4. How do you calculate leverage? My guess is you do it when the pitcher enters the game, which seems inherently incorrect. It should be done on a batter by batter basis. Just because a guy created his own high leverage situation doesn’t mean the game is any less on the line. At the very least, I’d like to see the results. My guess is a starter will have an average leverage of something like 0.90…certainly under 1.0.

    5. Say you pitch to two batters, one is a 0.50 leverage (half) and one in a 2 leverage (double). Is your average leverage 1 or 1.25?

    With Joba, you estimate 150 IP, but don’t tell us how he’s going to get those 150 IP. There are three ways, and all have different value and risk;

    1. He could start 32 games and throw 150 IP, an average of 4.7 per start. The average major league starter throws ~5.8 per start. So you want to replace those innings with 1.1 of replacement level relief. The issue with that is, there is a bullpen tax. Guys who can only go 4.7 IP/start end up in the pen. If they didn’t, the replacement level for starter would be much better.

    2. He could start 23-25 games with a normal workload, getting to 150 IP. This makes a lot of sense, although it does push us one step closer to a six man rotation. The real issue here is, if the plan is for 150 IP, he’s still going to get injured some % of the time, so his true EV would be less than 150 IP.

    3. He could start 32 games with a normal workload getting him to 200 IP, and he loses about 25% of his innings to injury. If it were a one year thing, this would be the route I’d go. When you have to account for five years, loss of future effectiveness is a big concern.

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