What happened to Joba Chamberlain, starting pitcher?

Per Marc Carig on Twitter yesterday, Brian Cashman was once again asked whether Joba Chamberlain would be given another chance to win a spot in the rotation. Cashman’s answer? “It’s [Chamberlain’s starting pitching repertoire] just not the same stuff.”

While Cashman has continued to assert the team’s stance that Joba will not be given the chance to start, it’s hard not to wonder whether the organization reassess the situation if spring training arrives, Andy Pettitte decides to retire, and the Yankees are faced with two glaring rotation holes heading into a season for the first time in a long time.

I fully understand the idea that the organization obviously knows quite a bit more about their own player than the fanbase does, and I know we all watched Joba struggle through his sophomore starting campaign in 2009, but doesn’t it seem incredibly premature to be pulling the plug on the idea of Joba-the-starter, especially in the Yankees’ time of need? Can the organization really have determined that Chamberlain can’t hold up to the rigors of a full season of starting pitching based on a season and a half of evidence?

I guess I’m having trouble reconciling the idea that the Yankees announced they were holding a so-called contest last spring for the fifth rotation spot — despite it later being revealed that they had already anointed Phil Hughes the winner prior to the spring schedule even starting — and that Joba “failing” has subsequently rendered any possibility of him returning to the rotation moot. I don’t understand why Joba — who turned in a solid 2010 peripheral-wise as a reliever though wasn’t entirely trustworthy in various key moments — can’t be given another shot as a starter, especially since he (a) is still young and only going to be entering his age 25 season in 2011; (b) hasn’t exactly reverted to the lockdown 8th-inning reliever proponents of Joba-to-the-pen salivate over; and (c) if the Yankees continue to solely view him as a reliever, why was his inclusion a dealbreaker in the rumored Dan Haren deal back in July?

Many point to the shoulder injury he suffered in Texas in August 2008 as the critical turning point in Joba’s career, and it appears that that event affected Chamberlain’s numbers in pretty much every key category the following season, although nowhere more notably than the missing speed on his fastball.

The chart below details Joba’s starting numbers from 2008 and 2009 (he threw one inning of relief in 2009, and I’m not going to bother throwing that out here). The first row contains his starting numbers in 2008, while the second row of 2008 numbers contains both his starting and relieving numbers, as starting splits for that data aren’t available.

It’s a pretty sad picture when laid out like this. Joba experienced decline from 2008 in nearly every category shown above, except for innings pitched, BABIP (oddly enough), FB%, percentage of curveballs thrown, average curveball velocity and curveball runs above average.

Big picture-wise, the 2.5-mile-per-hour decline in this fastball from 2008 to 2009, along with the accompanying fall from being worth 8.6 runs above average to -20.2 runs above average appears to be what really killed Joba the Starter.

Of course, the vast majority of Major League starting pitchers do not have a fastball that averages 95mph, and a 92.5mph average fastball should still be plenty fast to be able to maintain success as a starter provided it’s complimented with an appropriate off-speed arsenal. Unfortunately Joba’s slider and change-up were also less effective in 2009, leading to the overall stat-line decline.

Via Fangraphs, here are Joba’s plate discipline against percentages from the last three seasons. I’ve included 2010, even though he pitched out of the ‘pen, to provide additional context.

Along with the decrease in velocity, Joba clearly wasn’t spotting his pitches as well in 2009. In 2009, hitters swung at less pitches out of the zone but made more contact with the pitches they did swing at, and overall made contact 80% of the time, compared to 2008’s 73.5%. Joba also started less batters off with a strike, leading to more favorable hitters counts, and saw nearly a 3.5-point drop in swinging strike percentage. Can we also blame the deterioration of control on the infamous shoulder injury?

Additionally, Joe Lefkowitz has exhaustively comprehensive charts of all of Joba’s pitches by season, and if you follow that link you can filter by 2008 and 2009. If you scroll all the way down to the bottom of the page after performing a search you’ll come across four strike zone boxes (fastball vs. RHB and LHB, and offspeed vs. RHB and LHB) divided into nine quadrants, each color-coded in shades of red (depending on how strong the batter performed) and blue (depending on how strong the pitcher performed).

Joba’s fastball against right-handed batters w
ent from three solid blue quadrants, 4 medium-red quadrants and two solid-red quadrants in 2008 to two light-blue quadrants, one intermediate, two light red and four solid-red quadrants. Basically, Joba went from relative mastery of 7 out of 9 strike zone quadrants against RHB in 2008 to 2 out of 9 in 2009, with the most jarring increase coming up and in against righthanders — Joba went from holding RHBs to a .111 BA on 24 fastballs to that corner to a .455 BA on 37 fastballs to that corner in 2009. Righthanders also hit Joba far better up and away, improving from a .333 BA over 27 fastballs to .636 over 45 fastballs.

Though it’s not shown in the above chart, interestingly, Joba’s fastball numbers against lefthanders actually improved from 2008 to 2009 (5 solid red quadrants to two), as did his offspeed repertoire (six solid red quadrants to four). Does Joba have a reverse platoon split?

In 2008, Joba held lefties to a 2.72 FIP/3.31 xFIP and righties to a 2.59 FIP/3.05 xFIP. However, in 2009 his numbers against lefties ballooned to 5.22 FIP/5.01 xFIP and righties tagged him for a 4.38 FIP/4.06 xFIP. That 4.38 FIP against righties in 2009 would have been the sixth-worst mark by an AL righthanded starting pitcher that season had Joba had enough innings to qualify. The only righthanders who fared worse FIP-wise against same-side batters that season were Edwin Jackson, teammate A.J. Burnett, Scott Baker, Carl Pavano and Jeremy Guthrie.

So in addition to Joba’s decrease in velocity from 2008 to 2009, his control apparently disappeared, and he had far more difficulty retiring righthanded batters than one would expect from a previously dominating righthanded starting pitcher. However, Joba seemed to get his righthanded batter problem under control in relief in 2010, pitching to a 2.90 FIP/3.64 xFIP against righties in 39.2 innings.

Clearly the Yankees saw something in Joba’s velocity and location problems in 2009 that led the team to believe he’d never be able to handle starting duty ever again. Unfortunately I just can’t buy the idea that one year of struggles as a 23-year-old in the Yankee rotation — in the toughest division in baseball — in which he still put up a barely below-average 97 ERA+ means that he’s not cut out to be a starting pitcher. I don’t know if it’s a mental thing — perhaps the Yankees feel his personality is better-suited to higher-energy relief appearances, where he can regularly unload that 95mph fastball that occasionally approaches 100mph — or physical, and that the team is convinced his body simply can’t hold up to the rigors of throwing 180 innings, but either way I’d like to know why.

What changed since Joba was told to show up to camp as a starter last offseason and was treated as a potential rotation candidate? I know he didn’t pitch all that well out of camp last season, but it was spring training. And furthermore, what’s the harm of giving him another shot to see if he can start this spring? No better time to see what the team has on its hands than during games that don’t count. Phil Hughes spent most of 2009 in relief and was able to successfully transition into the rotation in 2010. Why can’t Joba be afforded the same opportunity in 2011?

It’s hard to rectify the idea that a pitcher that has put up the following numbers:

And who came up through the Yankee system as a starting pitcher after wowing the team as a starting pitcher in a college could so easily be discarded into the relief bin. If the other rotation options are Ivan Nova and/or Sergio Mitre, how can the Yankees tell the fanbase with a straight face that Joba won’t even be considered? Brian Cashman is telling me that Nova’s and Mitre’s starting “stuff” is better than Joba’s? Mitre (career 83 ERA+; essentially replacement-level) hasn’t experienced any period of sustained success as a starting pitcher; and while Nova has promise, he hasn’t done anything of significance at the Major League level either. Joba has.

Unless Joba has some sort of permanent physical ailment that literally prevents him from throwing a starters’ workload of innings, one year of somewhat less-than-ideal starting pitching shouldn’t permanently close the book on a starting career many of us dreamed could one day blossom into something very special.

3 thoughts on “What happened to Joba Chamberlain, starting pitcher?

  1. Awesome post. It is truly sad how he has fallen from potential ace to middle relief guy. A quick look at pitchfx shows that he lost some mph on his fastball, and his slider flattened out, though we all knew that already. I wonder what it is that made it "just not the same stuff." And is it possible that he somehow regains that stuff? If so, will he get a chance to start?

  2. You and I have discussed this issue ad nauseum, and I've fallen on both sides of the fence at different times. At this point, I happen to agree with your sentiment wholeheartedly. If he's not going to be a valuable member of the pen (i.e. the lockdown 8th inning beast who transitions into Mo's job), his upside is extremely limited – so you have to give starting one more shot to try to get back some of that huge upside we saw back in 2007. You might as well, the downside is you lose a middle reliever – which I never imagined he'd become when I railed for 'Joba to the pen.'

    I also think it's worth extending your excellent metric analysis into something a bit more qualitative…….does this guy even have the mental make-up to be a successful big leaguer? The over-brimming confidence that made me think he was wired for back-of-the-pen duties is gone, and now all I see is a little bit of a lost, distracted, undisciplined hick without any fire in his belly. Is this the result of how the Yanks have handled him? Is it who he really is? Some combination? There's no reason that a guy with his pitches, even if his fastball is sitting in the low 90's, can't succeed – it's his confidence and make-up that are questionable. Maybe Rothschild fixes him. Either way, I agree – Joba the starter should be reawakened.

    On another note – every time I see AJ Burnett's name mentioned as a huge question mark, I want to scream "I told you so." I know, I know, they won a title with him. But this is what AJ Burnett is, unfortunately. No one should be surprised.

  3. Great article but the reason and you said it its his personality its better for a relieve he can come in and throw his 95 100 miles fastball and get out and throw his arms in the sky.