The Joba Chamberlain conundrum

Word spread like wildfire throughout the Yankee blogosphere yesterday that Joba Chamberlain will be officially relegated to relief work next season, presumably for the rest of his Yankee career.

If this declaration is indeed true (and let’s face it, most of us have assumed this decision inevitable), it will finally signal the ridiculous conclusion to an absurd saga. The table below demonstrates how The Joba Experiment has progressed thus far.

Year Age W L Win-Loss Percentage
W / (W + L)
For players, leaders need one decision for every ten team games.
For managers, minimum to qualify for leading is 320 games.” align=”center”>W-L%
9 * ER / IP
For recent years, leaders need 1 IP
per team game played” align=”center”>ERA
Adjusted to the player’s ballpark(s).” align=”center”>ERA+
(BB + H)/IP
For recent years, leaders need 1 IP
per team game played” align=”center”>WHIP
9 x H / IP
For recent years, leaders need 1 IP
per team game played” align=”center”>H/9
9 x HR / IP
For recent years, leaders need 1 IP
per team game played” align=”center”>HR/9
9 x BB / IP
For recent years, leaders need 1 IP
per team game played” align=”center”>BB/9
9 x SO / IP
For recent years, leaders need 1 IP
per team game played” align=”center”>SO/9
For recent years, leaders need 1 IP
per team game played” align=”center”>SO/BB
2007 21 2 0 1.000 0.38 19 0 3 1 24.0 12 2 1 1 6 34 1 91 1221 0.750 4.5 0.4 2.3 12.8 5.67
2008 22 4 3 .571 2.60 42 12 5 0 100.1 87 32 29 5 39 118 4 417 171 1.256 7.8 0.4 3.5 10.6 3.03
2009 23 9 6 .600 4.75 32 31 0 0 157.1 167 94 83 21 76 133 5 709 97 1.544 9.6 1.2 4.3 7.6 1.75
2010 24 3 4 .429 4.40 73 0 18 3 71.2 71 37 35 6 22 77 5 305 98 1.298 8.9 0.8 2.8 9.7 3.50
4 Seasons 18 13 .581 3.77 166 43 26 4 353.1 337 165 148 33 143 362 15 1522 119 1.358 8.6 0.8 3.6 9.2 2.53
162 Game Avg. 6 4 .581 3.77 54 14 8 1 115 110 54 48 11 47 118 5 495 119 1.358 8.6 0.8 3.6 9.2 2.53
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/26/2010.

We’re all guilty of reminiscing about 2007 when a young kid came up through the Yankee system and devastated hitters during the final stretch of baseball. His charisma and ability made him an instant fan favorite. The fever pitch grew so loud that many wondered whether we were witnessing the possible heir apparent to Mariano Rivera.

In 2008, Brian Cashman decided that Joba would best be best-suited for a spot in the starting rotation, which was really where he should have stayed all along, as that’s what he was in college, and that’s what he was drafted as. That’s where his abilities suggested he should be. That’s where the Yankees needed him to be.

At the time, this was the right idea and I absolutely supported it. Relievers are not as valuable as starters, plain and simple. If you have a pitcher capable of starting, that’s where he should be. Thus, the Joba rules were created during the transition to protect his future. Over the course of 100.1 IP, he posted a sterling 2.60 ERA with a 1.256 WHIP and 10.6 SO/9. Eye-opening numbers, to say the least. Unfortunately, the first hurdle arrived in early August as Joba experienced stiffness in his right shoulder.

In 2009, Chamberlain began facing significant difficulties as a starter. His ERA ballooned to 4.75 as did his WHIP (1.544). His peripheral stats weren’t as impressive, and it appeared as though he was laboring in each start. By this point, many Yankee fans were ready to jump ship. “Joba belongs/has always belonged in the bullpen,” they cried. He succeeded in 2007 as a setup reliever; ergo, he’d succeed in that role again.

Others claimed his injury had permanently ruined his electric stuff and explained his declining velocity and out-of-whack mechanics. It didn’t matter than nearly all pitchers face some decline as they transition to a starting rotation spot. It didn’t matter than a lot of young pitchers struggle with their mechanics at times (Roy Halladay, anyone?).
It didn’t matter, that for all intents and purposes, Joba was still learning how to pitch at the Big League level.

Others claimed his psyche had been damaged from the shuffling of responsibilities. How any of these speculations actually correlate to the fact that he was (and still is) a very young kid trying to adapt to Big League hitters is beyond me. However, unlike Phil Hughes, Joba was never allowed to “find his way.” That he was unable to meet the unrealistic standards he established in 2007 (and even 2008) unfortunately also seemed to be his requiem as a starter.
As the Yankees entered the 2010 campaign, there was “competition” during the preseason for the final starting rotation spot between Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain. As we all know, you or I had a better chance of beating Hughes then Joba did. After the announcement that Hughes “won” the competition was made, it seemed apparent that the Yankees had already made their decision before Spring Training had even started.

While Hughes went on to have a fairly successful year, Joba was stationed back in the pen. Despite having good peripheral stats, he struggled in critical moments and eventually lost his setup role. Joe Girardi, it would seem, had lost complete faith in the young hurler. Was Joba Chamberlain broken? The same kid whose name was associated with several high-profile trade propositions was never surfacing in high leverage moments anymore. By the trade deadline, the Yankees even felt it prudent to acquire veteran hurler Kerry Wood to bolster their bullpen.

After contemplating Joba’s strange journey, I’m left with a few conclusions. First and foremost, the Yankees have seriously screwed up the development of one of their better young pitchers. I still have this fanciful idea that he’s capable of being a quality starter. As that path is no longer viable in New York, I have to believe he can also be, at the very least, a serviceable relief pitcher (maybe even an exceptional one).

However, he needs to continue to develop as a pitcher while reestablishing any lost confidence. He still has a few plus pitches in his arsenal and he should be able to achieve that objective. Who knows, perhaps the 2007 vintage of Joba may even return. However, this shouldn’t be the expectation — let’s aim for quality before superiority. That way, he won’t be judged against impossible odds.

Secondly, his value has never been lower. He no longer appears prodigious in any capacity and is about to hit his first arbitration case. If trading him is ultimately the right idea, at least wait until he could yield a worthwhile bounty. Meanwhile, let him compete for the setup role once again — the Yankees may as well take advantage of the fact that he’s still under team control. A trade shouldn’t be explored unless the Yankees have essentially given up on what was once a premier prospect (or they get an irrefutable offer).
I envision Joba improving in the bullpen now (for the first time in his brief career) that he has a defined role. Whether he can ever match the small sample-size results of 2007 is a complete mystery to me, but he absolutely should have the same opportunity as Phil Hughes has been given to reestablish himself. The general theory is that a pitcher who carries the tools of an effective starter is by default capable of quality relief work. This is clearly true in Joba’s case.

It’s also likely that Kerry Wood will no longer be with the team in 2011, which opens up a vacancy for an eighth inning pitcher. At this point, Joba should be the top candidate for the job. Hopefully, it pans out. If it doesn’t, the Yankees will probably be forced to cut their losses, which would only further underscore just how poorly managed Joba’s development has been. I hope that the Yankees learn their lesson going forward with the pitchers they have currently tearing up the minors, and chart their future respective paths a bit more intelligently.

2 thoughts on “The Joba Chamberlain conundrum

  1. It's so sad looking back and seeing all the potential greatness in Joba. Meh. I still think that he can be a good member of the starting rotation, but then again, I am an extreme optimist.I mean, unless they see a physical limitation that will prevent Joba from starting, I do not see why he is in the bullpen, pitching poorly nonetheless.

  2. I'm sorry to crush your optimism Alex, but I'd say there is about a 0% chance he'd be good in the rotation because there's a 0% chance he'll ever have the opportunity again.To your point, if he could be an effective starter, he should be. My only consolation is that the organization hopefully has better insight and there is a legitimate reason for this decision. What I suspect is that there is general consensus among Yankees Brass that Joba is screwed up already and any further tampering will simply make him a lost cause. But you're right, hindsight on this one is pretty sad.