A Final Call for Joba Chamberlain to the Yankees Rotation

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are it might have been.” -Kurt Vonegut

Think back to the excitement of Joba Chamberlain.  Here was a 22 year old pitcher pumping 100 mile per hour fastballs past prodigious power hitters and unleashing devastating sliders that seemed to disappear straight into the dirt.  Not only was he doing this on the biggest stage in baseball, he was doing so with an undeniable flair.

It had been a long time since the Yankees had a player quite as exciting as Joba, or a player that made such an instant mark.  With his high leverage strikeouts, and convincingly emphatic fist pumps, Jobamania took full effect.  It was so early in his career that his flaws had yet to be exposed at any professional level.  It seduced fans into thinking that he was the heir apparent to Mo, that his 0.38 ERA in 24 innings would be the norm for the next ten years of his career.

It was like no other Yankee prospect of recent memory.  Joba was signed out of college not even a year prior, and he proceeded to dominate the lower minors, earning quick callups to double-A, triple-A and then eventually the majors.

At the time, Joba was viewed solely as a starter.  He would be able to combine his power fastball, wicked slider, and curveball to get through 200 innings a season  He drew constant comparisons to pitchers like Roger Clemens or Josh Beckett, other heavy-set starters of the same mold.  Joba and fellow top prospect Phil Hughes were to be the Yankees answer to Tim Lincecum and Felix Hernandez.

Fast forward to 2011.  Not only is the once idolized prospect now recovering from Tommy John Surgery, he has become the butt of jokes.  He is often referred to as the poster boy for the mishandling of young pitchers.  How did this all happen?  How did the most exciting young pitcher in the game turn into an utter failure in the eyes of fans over the course of four years?

The story begins with the “Joba Rules”, and with the intense debate as to whether he should be a starter or a reliever.  It was a large consensus among statistically minded fans that Chamberlain should by no means be relegated to 70 inning seasons, that Joba was the Yankees greatest chance at a homegrown perennial Cy-Young candidate and strikeout king.

And then there was the group, led by the passionate voice of Mike Francesa, that had been mesmerized by the late inning fist pumps, the bases-loaded, two out strike outs to end the bottom of the eighth.  The idea that every game would turn into a 7 inning game for the opposing team with the two headed monster of Joba and Mo lurking deep in right field was enough to send Yankee fans into a dizzying dream.

By all analytic accounts, the starting rotation was the way to go.  It is nearly indisputable that a top-tier starter is more important than a dominating reliever.  It is the very reason that Mariano Rivera, the absolute greatest reliever of all time, is paid $15 million per year, while starters such as Johan Santana, Cliff Lee, and our very own CC Sabathia pull in well over $20 million per year.

What was never debated was Joba’s ability.  Anyone who watched an inning of the young right-hander’s pitching knew his vast potential in whatever role the Yankees placed him.  Before delving into the downfall of this young career, it is imperative to remember that any young pitcher carries the same type of risk, no matter how alluring the upside.

Many believe that Joba Chamberlain never once displayed his great promise as a starter, but this could be no farther from the truth.  Joba’s career can be split into four parts.  There’s his time as a reliever in 2007 and early 2008, his stint as a starter pre-Texas injury, his disappointing 2009 season in the rotation, and then his latest role as middle-reliever.

That first chapter is what set off this seemingly never ending debate.  There was of course the 24 otherworldly innings he pitched in 2007, and in 2008, as a means of keeping his total number of innings down, the Yankees placed Joba in the bullpen with the full intention of transferring him back into the rotation by mid-season.  Again, Joba impressed us all in 23.2 innings as he put up a 2.28 ERA with 30 strikeouts against 11 walks.

The next part is the most overlooked portion of Joba’s young career.  This is where he proved that despite the constant ramblings to the contrary, he could be a terrific starter.  It came time to place Joba in the rotation for good, and in 12 starts and 65 innings, Joba pitched fantastically.  His 2.76 ERA and 8-4 record sparkled, as did his 75 strikeouts to 25 walks. While he did not consistently reach triple digits, Joba would sit in the mid-90′s with the ability to occasionally reach for more.  He was every bit as effective as we could have imagined.  And then came that fateful start against the Texas Rangers.

Some blame Ivan Rodriguez and his misguided throw down to second base, and others blame the scorching heat.  Whatever the case, Joba ended up on the 15-day DL following this start and would not return to the rotation for the rest of the season, beginning his tormenting downfall.

After giving Yankee fans a taste of what they could hopefully expect over the next five years in that 12 start stretch, Joba was handed his spot in the Yankee rotation for 2009.  This was perhaps the most frustrating season imaginable.  In 157.1 total innings, Joba was merely mediocre.  His 4.75 ERA (97 ERA+) was just about league average, and his FIP was even worse at 4.82.

His fastball velocity diminished to 92.5 from 95.2 the year before.  His WHIP was astronomical at 1.544 as he walked way too many (4.35 BB/9) and hit a league leading 12 batters.  Moreover, he could not blow his way past his mistakes as his strikeout rate fell all the way 7.61/9.

But with every cloud, there is silver lining.  And in 2009, the silver lining of Joba’s season was his line through his first 20 starts.  Following an awesome three start stretch in which Joba allowed just two runs, his season ERA stood at a respectable 3.58.  And although he had his problems with control, his K/9 rate was above 8/9.

Had his season ended at this point, it would have been considered a success.  It was in the 12 subsequent games Joba’s season was truly ruined.  He was in a whole new territory in the amount of innings he had thrown and simply hit a wall, as evidenced by his 7.52 ERA during this time.  In the end though, things could have gone a lot worse.  After all, he was a young pitcher in the AL East experiencing growing pains in his first full season as a starter.

The fourth portion of Joba’s career was perhaps the most dismaying.  The Yankees decided that 2009 was enough reason to recommit Joba Chamberlain to the bullpen.  Many thought it was time to cut their losses and extract as much value as possible out of their wunderkind pitcher.

As had become the norm of the story, things did not go quite as planned.  In 71.2 innings out of the bullpen, Joba was no more than a garden variety middle reliever.  2010 was the absolute low point of Joba’s still young career.  And in 2011, Joba managed only 28.2 decent bullpen innings before succumbing to an elbow injury eventually leading to Tommy John surgery.  Oh, how far he had fallen.

And here we are now.  Joba is now poised to be at best the fourth man in line out of the bullpen when he comes back mid-2011.  Once a cornerstone of the Yankees future, he has become not much more than an afterthought in the Yankees plans. Is this how the Joba Chamberlain saga is destined to end?

He could have been so much more.  He could have been something special.  So why not take this opportunity to rewrite the book on Joba Chamberlain’s Yankee career? It is up to the Yankees to take advantage of the injury and rehabilitate Joba as a starter, returning him to his rightful place in the Yankees rotation.

Suggesting this has now become somewhat of a baseball faux pas, and perhaps this is an exercise in futility.  Maybe I’m just beating a dead horse.  But there are many reasons to attempt such a maneuver for what seems like the hundredth time.

Firstly, there is the current makeup of the Yankees.  At this point, the Yankees really have nothing to lose.  With a bullpen headed by Mariano Rivera, David Robertson, and Rafael Soriano, the Yankees are set in that regard.  Adding Chamberlain to an already stacked ‘pen midway through 2012 would be almost redundant.

The rotation, on the other hand, could use all the help it can get.  CC Sabathia is the only truly known quantity at this point.  Phil Hughes is a horror show, A.J. Burnett is, well, A.J. Burnett, and even Ivan Nova carries question marks.  Imagine how a healthy Joba Chamberlain could change the dynamic of the team.

Then there is the running clock of Joba’s time as a Yankee.  He has two more turns through arbitration, and is slated to become a free agent following the 2013 season.  In effect, the Yankees have only ~100 quasi-high leverage innings left of Joba should he remain in the pen.

Sure, if he comes back and dominates, the Yankees could attempt to resign him.  However, I am not sure that Joba would even consider a Yankee return.  To this point, the team has failed him.  Joba’s greatest chance of personal success, both professionally and financially, comes out of the starting rotation, and some teams are bound to be interested in harnessing his once revered potential as a starter.

Joba Chamberlain’s value has pretty much escaped him to this point, the Yankees have every reason to try something different.  It is up to the Yankees to get as many innings out of Joba as they can over the next two seasons.

Perhaps the greatest argument for Joba’s return to the rotation is the fact that all things considered, Joba Chamberlain actually held his own as a starter.  He was fantastic in his first try, and solid for most of 2009.  Of course it is unfair to completely discount the last two months of 2009- they did happen.  Still, in 43 career starts, Joba’s ERA is 3.67.

No, this is not anywhere near the type of pitcher we were all expecting.  But this may be more telling of the unreasonable expectations which we placed on him than anything else.  After all, he was a 23 year old pitcher quickly thrust into the toughest division in all of baseball.

Just look at Red Sox phenom Jon Lester.  Through his first two seasons and 144.1 innings as a starter, Lester’s 4.68 ERA and 1.566 WHIP were ’09 Joba-esque. Nevertheless, the Red Sox did not give up on their young lefty, and are now reaping the benefits with Lester atop the rotation.

Brian Cashman has admitted that Joba Chamberlain’s stuff has not been the same since that muggy afternoon in Texas.  This is perhaps the greatest argument against Joba’s return to the rotation.

But many pitchers have experienced a similar early career decline in velocity, most notably Justin Verlander.  In 2008, Verlander experienced the worst season of his career.  Tigers’ fans were up in arms over the lack of his patented 100 mph fastball.  His average velocity on the four-seamer that season was 93.7.  Fortunately for Verlander and the Tigers, it magically returned the next season to 95.6.  Who’s to say that the same will not ring true for Joba?

Then there is the tendency of pitchers to add velocity following Tommy John Surgery, whether due to the year of shoulder strengthening exercises done during rehab, or the stronger ligaments placed into the elbow. Maybe the same will happen for Joba Chamberlain.  Maybe a year off from pitching will repair Joba’s shoulder and he can again blow away Kevin Youkilis with a 100 mph fastball.

Of course, the chances for Joba Chamberlain’s success as a starter are at an all time low. But the Yankees really have nothing to lose.  Just remember how exciting it was to have the trio of Joba, Hughes and Ian Kennedy being groomed to head the Yankees rotation. Remember the excitement.  Remember the possibilities.

The Yankees and their fans will forever sit back and imagine what could have been.  We can argue for days what caused Joba’s downfall.  Was it the Joba Rules?  Did the Yankees rush a top prospect in a “win now” move?  Was it the constant switching back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen?  Or was it inevitable that Joba would be ineffective and end up injured?

Joba Chamberlain is at the final crossroad of his Yankee career, and what the team ultimately decides to do with him will cap the relationship between the two forever.  Why not go for broke?  If the Yankees do decide to leave their once can’t miss prospect in the bullpen, he will forever be known as a complete bust.  If they do take the chance, he may harness his potential and heads the Yankees rotation for years to come.

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21 Responses to A Final Call for Joba Chamberlain to the Yankees Rotation

  1. Fred says:

    I'm all in favor of this logic. Its almost like having a young, internal Bartolo Colon. His career had peaked and crashed, and now you give him one more shot to see if he can help you out.

    My biggest issue with this is that I just don't think he's durable enough for a full season as a starter… As in 09 when he lost it at the end, or last year when his elbow gave out, its tough to imagine Joba making it through the year as a starter unscathed.

  2. gary hughes says:

    great article and analysis. nothing better than home grown talent.

  3. Daniel M. says:

    Alex, I normally don't comment but I want to say that I really enjoy your articles on this site. And I agree, Joba should have been a starter this whole time.

  4. Jack's English mate says:

    Yes Alex, great piece. The main point of the article is that Cashman and co have nothing to lose in trying to reinvent Joba once again. you say the organisation have let him down a little and that may be true to an extent but like Hughes, Joba has to take responsibility for his conditioning and get that work ethic going this winter.
    An early warning of last chance saloon, I hope Joba "gets it" whilst still in pinstripes. The rain forests used up on Yankees + starting pitchers and here is a fella who has it in his palms.

    • Alex Taffet says:

      Appreciate it, thanks all.

      And yes, while it's tough to make an educated opinion as to any players work ethic, it does seem that Joba has not properly trained in offseasons past. It would be a damn shame if his lack of responsibility leads to him never fulfilling his potential, and in the end, he would cost himself a fortune.
      It would be fantastic to see him pull it together sometime down the line, but a whole lot sweeter if he does so in New York.

      • Gil says:

        If he does turn it around it will probably be in another market. The Yankees seems to have no interest in starting him again.

  5. Tanned Tom says:

    I really don't understand the "joba rules". Seems needlessly over-protective. Also looks like a case of over thinking. In any case he's proved he can flat out pitch, the team's rotation bites, kinda no-brainer to put him in the rotation. CC, Nova, Burn-it, junk-ball Freddy and Hughesed-up are not going to take this team to a WS title. Chamberlain has a ceiling far above any other internal choice.
    here are your steps to fix the Yankee rotation: 1) admit the mistake of signing Burnett and trade him AWAY, even if we have to make a deal ala the Lowe trade, enough is enough 2) realize the team needs a #2 starter and go out and get one, trade or free agent makes no difference. 3) re-sign Garcia for 1 year, he's better than Jackson and almost as good as Buehrle, but a lot cheaper. 4)give Hughes a final chance at the rotation, if he can't stay in shape send him to AAA and let him ponder things. 5) keep Warren/Phelps/Noesi nearby and warmed up if and when the back 3/5ths of the rotation implodes.

  6. Tanned Tom says:

    So your rotation would be
    Sabathia
    Wilson/Buehrle
    Nova
    Garcia
    Chamberlain
    Hughes if a decent #2 cannot be obtained

    • Fred says:

      Basically Hughes as a spot #6/long relief/sub if anyone gets hurt, assuming we do bring in a front end pitcher.

  7. Bernard Sandow says:

    Excellent article Alex. Makes a lot of sense. Let's not forget Bartolo Colon. In the first part of 2011, he was as good as any pitcher in the league, throwing 97mph coupled with excellent control and stuff.. His velocity faded in the 2nd half of the year. He had not pitched in the majors for years. Bring him into camp, check out his velocity and if it matches the first half of last year sign him before anyone else does.

  8. Kyle says:

    This would actually be smart since Hughes has shown so much regression, but Yankee fans will freak out first time he has a bad outing. Many pitchers get late starts in their careers(look at Randy Johnson, Schilling, Wainwright, and a few others…), and they need to fix what they broke now.

    As long as he can throw in the upper 90's still and produce 145 innings, he'll be able to go for around 185 the next year and so eventually be a guy who can be good for 200 innings. He's cheaper than the free agents, and he was once a prized prospect and rookie. He just has to get in better shape, and maybe have a better pitching coach.

    • Daniel M. says:

      He's not gonna come near 145 innings this year. He's coming back mid-season.

      • Joe P says:

        I like Joba and have always felt the YAnkees mis-handled him. I agree he should be given a chance as a starter, which he said in the past was his preference. However, Joba does need to get into, and stay in, better physical condition. I suspect the rehab for the current injury may help him get into shape, but how long will it last? Joba also needs to find complete confidence in all of his stuff as a starter, something I think he lacked at times. He needs to used that slider and other secondary pitches if his fastball is not up to speed.

  9. john says:

    Yankees let him down in 2009 with joba rules.he was making 2 or 3 inning startsand was not allowed to get in any kind of rhythm

  10. shavager says:

    Thought Girardi mishandled Joba, was even worse in handling other starters whether pulling them too soon in some instances to pulling relief pitchers too soon just for one batter in one situation. Give Joba a chance to start in rotation, let Rothschild work with him. Yankees problem is starting pitching, Sabathia gets tired in second half leaving Nova as the only production. Trade Hughes and Wade, throw in Cervelli and maybe get a quality starter. Burnett has a big contract to get out from under but his last four starts were quality work–and he's proven in past he can pitch-let's hope he's straightened out location and movement.

  11. David K. says:

    Alex, you say Joba should have been kept as a starter because of the flash in the pan before the Texas injury. At that time I too wanted Joba to be a starter. But that's just not enough innings to go on. You have to do it at this level for at least a year before they can pencil your name in as dependable. I have watched Joba and Phil Hughes since they came up. I think both of them are much better suited for the bullpen. I'm not overly impressed by either's velocity or movement or location. They both have much better fastballs out of the bullpen, with more movement. Neither of them know how pitch. Neither of them have great location. These guys are middle relievers with the potential to be set up guys. I have a problem with fans who think they are busts. They're not busts, they helped us win a World Series in 2009. There's nothing wrong with having four or five guys in the bullpen who you can call on to throw smoke. In fact, that's the way you want it. It's not superfluous.

    • Alex Taffet says:

      Any pitcher will look better in the bullpen. CC Sabathia sits 94ish in the rotation, and would probably average 96 or 97 in the bullpen, with a harder, sharper slider. That does not mean that he is best suited in the bullpen. If a pitcher has the potential to be a starter, then he should be given every opportunity as a starter until it's apparent that it is not going to work anymore. It is not just the 12 game stretch that makes me think he should be a starter. He was signed as a starter, and really only failed as a starter for two months in 2009. He was not given enough of a chance before the Yankees gave up on it.

      Also, no, it is not superfluous to have a bunch of really strong relievers. But the addition of a good Joba to a bullpen already boasting Mo, D-Rob, and Soriano would not be nearly as valuable as the addition of Joba to the rotation. Also, how many pitchers in their early 20's do boast plus command and pitching wisdom. The list of pitchers who develop such traits deep into their 20's is long, as Kyle said earlier (Randy Johnson, Schilling, Wainwright, Cliff Lee, Halladay, etc).

      • David K. says:

        I have a lot of patience when it comes to starters, and like I said, at one time I agreed with you, but I've seen enough now of Joba as a starter. I just don't see it, I don't see any consistency with location or velocity. With Ivan Nova, on the other hand, you saw the first time he came up, he can locate and he's consistently around 93-94. So even though he struggled at times and especially the second or third time through the order, I saw something in Nova. But with Joba and Hughes, I think they are middle relievers. And especially now, coming back from Tommy John surgery, there's no way you can ask him to throw a lot of pitches, so short relief it's gonna have to be for Joba.

  12. Alex Taffet says:

    I understand where you're coming from, but I think that Joba's time spent as a starter in the majors was a lot shorter than you remember. It was not even a year and a half, and for much of that time, he was fantastic, or solid. His only truly bad stretch was the last 60 or so innings in 2009, his one full season as a starter. Plus, in as small a sample as it was, he always had better stats than Nova in the minors, both strikeouts and walks.

    I don't see what you mean with the Tommy John statement. Many starters before him have come back and been asked to throw a lot of pitches. Of course, he'll have to be eased into it, the same as he would if he were to rehab as a reliever. Over time, I don't see how TJS should affect his ability to throw a lot of pitches.