Joba Chamberlain looked lost. That much was clear in his outing on Saturday in the Yankees’ 8-4 loss to the Tigers. Pitch after pitch failed to hit catcher Francisco Cervelli’s target, and with each hitter who reached base, his bewilderment appeared to grow. A line-drive single, a four-pitch walk, a ball that skipped to the backstop. At one point, after yet another four-seamer missed the zone, Chamberlain took a walk around the mound, looking to the sky as though the answer might be written there. Frustration was mounting, and all other paths to success seemed to have been exhausted.
And if that lost feeling on Saturday is any kind of apt interpolation of Chamberlain’s career, the Yankees might want to check the heavens, too. Maybe it could spell out exactly what might have been.
Baseball, by its very solitary nature, lends itself to questioning and reflection. With results sometimes contingent on inches, second-guessing becomes a natural part of the game. Still, some story arcs loom more regretfully than others. And in the case of Joba Chamberlain, the fall from can’t-miss hurler to unsettled footnote has become perhaps the Yankees biggest current disappointment.
Six years ago, the Yankees thought they’d hit pay dirt. With their supplemental first-round draft pick in 2006, they landed a flame-throwing righty out of Nebraska. Impressive in both his durable stature and his biting arsenal, Chamberlain hit the fast track to the bigs, and by August 7th, 2007, he was making his major league debut. With a dangerous slider and blistering fastball that topped out at 100 mph, Chamberlain immediately rewarded the Yankees for their loyalty, pitching 16 consecutive scoreless innings and finishing the year with a 0.38 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, and 34 strikeouts in 24 innings. Though eventually felled in the ALDS by Cleveland midges and what was likely a healthy dose of inexperience, Chamberlain looked to be the Yankees’ perfect solution to the effective setup man they’d been looking for since Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton both donned pinstripes. The excitement surrounding him was palpable.
But the Yankees had other ideas. In what became a well-documented and heavily scrutinized process, Chamberlain began transitioning to the rotation in May of 2008. Though claiming that the move was part of the team’s long-term plans for the righty, the Yankees’ hands were forced by injuries and ineffectiveness in their rotation–one that saw pitchers like Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson make starts for the struggling team. The switch was bizarre, as Chamberlain made starts that expanded by two-inning increments every five days, remaining with the big-league team and being forced to exit effective outings once he’d reached his limit.
Chamberlain did eventually slot into the rotation, but results were mixed. Though he finished the year with a 2.60 ERA and strikeout rate of 10.6/9, he won only four games for the Bombers in an injury-shortened season that saw the Yankees miss the playoffs for the first time in 14 seasons. Though Chamberlain’s role on the team wasn’t close to being the pivotal force in finding October success that year, the impact he had in his first full season was a let-down compared to the hype following his 2007 campaign. The second-guessing had already begun.
If excitement had marked the first phase of Chamberlain’s career, inconsistency would be the hallmark going forward. Though seeing flashes of effectiveness in the years following, including a 154 ERA+ to begin his 2011 season, Chamberlain never approached the success he saw in the first 24 innings of his career. After the excruciating process of converting to a starter, he would pitch only one full inconsistent season in the rotation before losing his spot to Phil Hughes, who went on to become an All Star in 2010. Over the following three seasons, in between missing significant chunks of time to Tommy John surgery in 2011 and a severe ankle break in 2012, Chamberlain would appear in 122 games, posting a 4.02 ERA and 1.281 WHIP and seeing his strikeout rate tick down slightly to 9.1/9. Though acceptable, especially in the AL East, the numbers are a far cry from what the Yankees envisioned from their Midwestern boy with the golden slider.
There are many checkpoints on the road of Chamberlain’s career that lend themselves to the “what if.” What if the Yankees had given in to the multiple trade inquiries that dotted his early success? The front office famously made Chamberlain untouchable during Johan Santana talks following the 2007 season, but they also saw interest from the Orioles, White Sox, and A’s, including by Billy Beane in a possible trade for Dan Haren. Because the Yankees never put Chamberlain on the table, there’s no way to know whom they could have received at the height of their power righty’s career, but with the relatively small impact Chamberlain has made on his team since that first season, it’s hard to envision a situation where an enticing trade prospect wouldn’t have been an upgrade.
Or what if the Yankees had never transitioned Chamberlain out of the bullpen? How far could his star have risen had he been allowed to pitch in short, high-intensity bursts for the next several seasons? Could he have achieved the allure and legend of an Aroldis Chapman, overpowering hitters with sheer firepower and a flawless specialty pitch? Though a pitcher’s trajectory can be difficult to predict, the way in which the Yankees shuttled Chamberlain back and forth, imposing unusual restrictions on his arm, didn’t lend themselves to consistent late-inning success.
The answers are neither simple nor clear. Pitching is always at a premium, and the value of a starter versus a setup man can be debated in circles. But the inconsistency with which the Yankees treated Chamberlain combined with the inconsistency he gave them set both up for disaster. Out of that perfect storm comes far more questions than answers, and makes for years’ worth of alternate scenarios. As it is, the 21-year-old has now hit his late-20s with a legacy of disappointment rather than glory. The slider doesn’t bite nearly as much as it did, and the fastball has slowed down considerably.
Still, there may be time for the Yankees and Chamberlain to write a new story. With a strong 2013 spring training (2.61 ERA, 0.774 WHIP, nine strikeouts in 10.1 innings), Chamberlain drew at least preliminary interest from the Rangers. And though the Yankees appear eager to unload their big righty, numbers similar to the ones he showed in March will put New York in a much stronger position to either use his success to bolster a thin bullpen or have a trade chip to fill a need elsewhere. Having already invested over $6.1 million into a pitcher who will become a free agent at the end of the season, the Yankees are likely hoping for the latter.
Ultimately, Detroit scored only one run off Chamberlain on Saturday. But whether he ever found the answer he was looking for won’t become clear until he pitches again. What is clear is that the Yankees and their formerly untouchable pitcher are approaching the end of the road. And all the what-ifs will become a very expensive regret unless they can somehow make magic again together. Because what baseball also lends itself to are second chances. Chamberlain and the Yankees have one more left.
(Photo by Flickr user BubbaFan).