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.