World Famous StatSpeak Roundtable: June 9

This week on the roundtable, we have a treat for old school readers of StatSpeak.  David Gassko, the first writer here at StatSpeak, joins Eric and Pizza in a triumphant return to his old stomping grounds.  Since he left StatSpeak, David has been spending his time at the Hardball Times.  Come, let us read and discuss about Ryan Howard, Joba Chamberlain, and David Ortiz’s injury.
Question #1: Are the Yankees better off with Joba Chamberlain in the bullpen or the rotation?
David Gassko: The Yankees have three reliable starters right now in Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, and Chien-Ming Wang. After that, their rotation falls somewhere between ‘highly questionable’ and ‘a mess.’ Darrell Rasner has pitched great, but his THT projection before the season was a 5.29 ERA, and 38 innings isn’t enough to make me think that we totally missed. Phil Hughes projected very well, but he’s injured and I think it’s best not to place any expectations on what he might do when he returns. And Ian Kennedy just went back on the DL a little more than a week ago, and even if he were healthy, I am not convinced that he’s much more than number five spot filler. In other words, the Yankees rotation needs help.
And who better than Joba Chamberlain to provide it? Chamberlain has been the one Yankee pitching prospect that has thus far lived up to the hype, but I don’t think his value is maximized as a setup man. Certainly, there will be growing pains as he eases into a starting role. He’s not going to be a great starter right away, but he should be pretty good. Even if he’s average, Chamberlain will likely represent a serious upgrade over the rest of the guys at the back of the Yankees rotation. And if you’re really worried about what this does to the Yankee bullpen, well, Kennedy and Hughes could probably step into Chamberlain’s eighth inning role and do a lot better than they would as starters.
Eric Seidman: This is a tricky situation because we’re likely going to answer from an analytical point of view whereas everything we’ll see on television will be from the fans perspective.  From the latter perspective, Joba is going to be throwing a bit slower, likely with more variation, and without the extremely dominating results produced out of the bullpen.  From an analytical point of view, this is fine, as the Yankees are in need of a starter with his potential and, as our guest Senor Gassko mentioned in a recent article, even with the ERA increase of one run, he should fare quite well as a starter.
Now, on the other hand, having a dominant setup man is extremely valuable as managers are quick to the bullpen these days; having someone reliable there helps managers and fans feel more comfortable with the decision.  From a personnel standpoint it’s probably easier to find a #4 or #5 starter than it is a very reliable setup man; however, Joba will be much more than a #4 or #5 starters.  He’ll be a starter the Yankees need to seriously contend.  In that regard, he’s better for the Yanks as a starter.  His stats may get worse but it doesn’t mean he’s getting worse, even though I’d be willing to bet Steve Phillips and others on ESPN fall into this fallacy.
Pizza Cutter: Let’s for a moment tip the cap to one thing.  Is Joba Chamberlain himself more suited to pitch in the rotation or out of the bullpen?  I’ll assume that he’d be really really good at either one.  At the end of last year, he showed that he’s got the ability to be an elite reliever, and he has yet to show that he can be an amazing starter, but clearly he has the stuff.  In 2007, of the 35 pitchers who added the most WPA to their teams, the (slight) majority pitched out of the pen.  A reliever like Chamberlain would probably pitch in 60-70 games per year, and in 40 of them or so, it would be in a high leverage situation.  However, that supposes good starters to make sure that the game isn’t out of hand by the eighth inning.  As a starter, he would go 34 times per year, and in general, there’s nobody else on the field that controls the outcome of the game more than the starting pitcher.  So, I guess the question is “which one is easier to replace?”  I say that the reliever is easier to replace (at least the set-up guy is) for this reason.  The going price for a “decent” starter is around $10 million per year.  The going rate for a “decent” reliever is around $4 million.  Therefore, you can sign two decent relievers (and a fourth outfielder!) for the same money.  I know that the Yankees aren’t exactly known for being cost conscious, but even they can add.

Question #2: What would you do with Ryan Howard if you’re Pat Gillick or the incumbent GM (likely Ruben Amaro?  Sign him or go through arbitration each year or trade him?)
David Gassko: This is a tough one. The first question that needs to be answered is how does Howard’s start to this season impact both our evaluation of him as a player and that of other major league teams? About a month ago, Sal Baxamusa wrote about just that question, and concluded that our best guess of Howard’s “true talent” had changed from .288/.396/.584 at the start of the season to .278/.387/.564 on May 12. In other words, Howard’s cold start did knock down his projection, but he still looked like a very good hitter. Since, Howard has hit .258/.358/.570, astonishingly close to that updated projection, especially given that the sample size is just a month.

However, sabermetrically, Howard has a lot of things going against him. He’s a first baseman, he is not a good fielder, and he plays in a hitter’s park. In other words, he’s the kind of player that a lot of major league teams don’t really know how to evaluate properly and end up overvaluing. Baseball Prospectus thinks he’ll be worth a little under $40 million over the next six years, and I think that’s a pretty accurate guess. If the Phillies choose to keep renewing his contract and go through arbitration, they’ll get a good deal of value out of Howard over the next few years. If they trade him, they’ll have to find a team that thinks Howard is worth a lot more than he actually is—which I think is a pretty realistic possibility. The only way the Phillies can lose here is if they sign Howard to a contract extension, because there is no way that Howard is nearly as valuable as he thinks he is.

Eric Seidman: This question delves into the idea of teams having a certain window with a group of guys to succeed.  For the Phillies, they are in quite an awkward situation in that this may very well be the last year this core group plays together.  Pat Burrell says he really wants to return and will take a discount, but from what I’ve read and heard, the Phils might not have enough to give him what it would take to lure him away from other suitors.  On top of that, Cole Hamels will need a salary upgrade, and they’ll have to decide (in-season probably) whether or not to sign Lidge to an extension.
Put together with regards to Ryan Howard, the team needs to decide where they see themselves going.  It’s going to be very hard to sustain this core group beyond this year, financially, so they may have to decide which player is best for the team’s future.  Keep in mind Howard is no young gun either as he was held down in the minor leagues for quite some time.  He’s approaching 30, not 25.  Depending how long they see this window staying open they could sign Burrell to an extension and trade Howard for pitching; or they could go year to year with Howard at arbitration and give him exorbitant sums.  It might actually be easier and more fiscally responsible to sign him long term since the aggregate of the arbitration years could add up to more per year anyway.
As a Phillies fan I’m somewhat torn; I’m used to the routine of having him at 1B and, despite the low rate numbers, he’s still got 15 HR and 45 RBI at this juncture.  Burrell has been extremely consistent for the last few years and there are not many leftfielders that can do what he does offensively on a consistent basis, while there are other 1B that can do what Howard does; of course, if the Phillies acknowledge they think certain other first baseman are more valuable than Howard it will likely take more to sign or trade for the player.
I ultimately think their best bet is to sign Howard long-term after this season when he may have less leverage and hope you have enough to bring back both Burrell and Lidge. 
Pizza Cutter: Well, let’s see.  Ryan Howard is a big, slow, strikeout machine who hits a lot of home runs.  (And this year, he’s been getting very unlucky with his balls in play, although he’s been beating the ball into the ground more and walking less… hmmmm)  He has one skill, raw power, but he is what he is.  Howard has also quickly become the code word for amazingly high arbitration awards.  (Teams are now worried that their arby guys will ask for “Ryan Howard money.”)  He’s also 28. (Howard is older than I am?)  So, by the time he gets out of arbitration elgibility, he maybe has one giant contract to cash in on.  If the Phillies signed him right now at market rate ($16-18 million per?), he might be able to squeeze a second contract in there.  I suppose then it’s a mind game.  Taking Howard to arbitration will only make for antagonism between him and the Phillies and as soon as he could, he’d be on the market and out to Anaheim/New York/Atlanta/Hiroshima.  The Phillies are thus in a position where it’s either sign him now and probably commit to the next six or seven years or cut him loose.  So, is Howard a sound investment for the next six or seven years (at age 34 and 35?)  If he could stay healthy, he could probably pound the ball out of the park for years to come, but his body type will take a toll on his knees.  It’s a catch-22 for the Phillies.  Howard will probably be a pretty good player, and better than the first baseman that the Phillies would bring in.  But, the resources that would be spent on Howard are probably best used elsewhere.  If Pat Gillick wants to have a run at the playoffs now, keep going to arbitration.  If not, trade Ryan Howard.
Question #3: With Boston sans Big Papi for the next 2-3 weeks (maybe more?), are we looking at Tampa Bay in first place at the All-Star Break?
David Gassko: I don’t think so. Ortiz is a very good hitter, but even without him, the Red Sox still have a formidable offense. Maybe instead of being a 95-win team, they become a 90-win team, but that’s still a little better than the Devil Rays. As much as I hope the Rays continue to contend, I still have a hard time seeing them keeping up a 3.78 ERA the whole season. Edwin Jackson and Scott Kazmir are in for a nasty decline. Kazmir will still be good; Jackson not so much.

While I don’t think the Rays are going to sink into Bolivian, I do think that the Sox—even without Ortiz—are the better team.

Eric Seidman: I wouldn’t be surprised if the Rays are in first but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Papi’s absence doesn’t have that much of an effect on the Red Sox for the next couple of weeks.  Ortiz is a talented offensive player but he has not exactly been lighting the league on fire this year; his OPS of .839 is the lowest it’s been since 2002; his WPA is non-existent; and his Clutch score is -0.61…IE…what makes Papi be Papi ain’t happenin’ this year.  I’m not sure which team will be in first come the all-star break but I’m pretty positive it won’t be a true indicator of who will finish on top at season’s end.
Pizza Cutter: That would be soooo cool.  However, there are a few signs that it might not happen.  The Rays have played a lot of home games so far (and done well in them), while the Red Sox have played the majority of their games on the road.  Guys like Hinske and Floyd have been playing over their heads.  But… The adjusted standings over at Baseball Prospectus say that the Rays have been slightly unlucky and about as much as the Red Sox, meaning so far that the teams actually match up well (on paper) with the Red Sox being a little better.  Take out Ortiz, and suddenly, the Rays could very easily end up as the best team in the East.  Actually, what interests me more is the following idea: suppose that the Rays are in first place at the break.  They could go into “buy” mode.  Imagine that team with a couple of guys in the “pretty good” range added to it.


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