Is Joba Really Messed Up?

More than anything, Joba is a victim of a narrative, or multiple narratives, that are just completely impervious to fact. Look at the widespread belief that he had such a bad year last season, despite the fact that his final numbers were quite good; striking out over 9 batters per nine innings and posting an FIP of 2.98. Yeah his ERA was high, but so was his BABIP at .342. But he did start the season out horribly, and after that no one noticed that he finished strong, the narrative was already cast. The Yankees had “screwed him up,” and he was never going to be the pitcher he was in 2007 ever again.

And you know what? There’s some truth to that. Joba Chamberlain will never be the pitcher he was in 2007 ever again, and if I had to bet money on it, the safe bet is that no one will. Because the numbers Joba put up in his brief Major League stint in 2007 are just mind boggling. If they had been over a full season instead of a mere 24 innings, it would have easily been better than any season in the career of Mariano Rivera himself. Don’t believe me? Here’s a side by side comparison of Joba’s 2007 numbers to Mo’s spectacular 1996 season:

ERA FIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 LOB%
Mo 2.09 1.88 10.87 2.84 0.08 78.10%
Joba 0.38 1.82 12.75 2.25 0.38 99.60%

And that was the only season Mo ever cracked a double digit strikeout rate.

Look, we all remember what Joba was like in 2007, and we all remember the Great Joba Debate. There was a not unsubstantial number of people, who were probably overrepresented in the MSM, who watched Joba pitch 24 innings in 2007 and decided he was “made for the bullpen,” even though he was a starting pitcher, and starters are more valuable than relievers. Well now Joba is in the bullpen, and predictably, he isn’t as dominant as he was in 2007. So someone just must have messed him up, and it’s easy to blame the Yankees for it, given the unusual pattern Joba has followed over the past 3 seasons.

But that simply doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Joba, his 2007 performance simply wasn’t sustainable. For anyone. If he had been able to repeat that dominance, you can forget any talk about being the “heir apparent,” we’d be arguing over whether Mo even deserved to keep his job.

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And the follow-up on Joba: More on the “messed up Joba”

Born in Southwestern Ohio and currently residing on the Chesapeake Bay, Brien is a former editor-in-chief of IIATMS who now spends most of his time sitting on his deck watching his tomatoes ripen and consuming far more MLB Network programming than is safe for one's health or sanity.

17 thoughts on “Is Joba Really Messed Up?

  1. moooose

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but before that ridiculous 2007 spree, wasn't Joba a solid but not major prospect? I seem to remember him as #3 in the organization at best, behind Hughes and Kennedy. That being the case (if it's even true), then the numbers we saw last year line up fairly reasonably.

    Maybe some new pitching coaching will make a difference.

    • Well like I said, he had an unusually high BABIP. Assuming some regression there, the ERA will come down. But his FIP and peripherals were more than adequate.

      • Pete

        Enough with people thinking they can draw all these strong inferences from high or low BABIP. You know why Joba had a high BABIP? Because he got smacked around! People were hitting him!

        It isn't luck. His stuff has *very obviously* diminished since 2008. He was topping out at the start of 2009 at around 89-90 MPH. As a starter in 2008 I remember him sitting around 94-95, into the 5th or 6th inning. You know what's an older and more transparent stat than BABIP against? MPH!

        If you strikeout players at a high clip, and give up a lot of hits otherwise, you are going to have a high BABIP against you. It doesn't necessarily mean you were unlucky. There are plenty of short relievers in the league that have high strikeout rates. What separates the good ones from the bad ones is more than luck. B elieve me, if I were pitching for the Yankees, the BABIP against me would be plenty high.

        Joba has had problems ever since he showed up to spring training in 2009. Not sure what they are, but putting him back in the bullpen didn't help.

        • billybeaneismyhero

          While I agree that you shouldn't draw a strong inference from a high or low BABIP alone, you can do it when you compare a pitcher's BABIP to his expected BABIP (xBABIP). Last year, Joba had a .342 BABIP versus a .291 xBABIP. That difference accounted for 12 hits over the course of the season. While that might seem like a lot, when you only face 305 batters, it's huge. In all likelihood, that may've accounted for an additional 7-10 runs on this ERA depending on the situation.

          Also, Joba didn't get "smacked around" this year. His line drive was 17.4% last year, which was his second lowest LD rate of his career. While he did have a few games where he gave up multiple line drives, those games were few and far between. Based on his game log on B-R.com, Joba went through a two week period in May where he was abysmal (14 baserunners in five innings, 18.00 ERA, 6/3 K/BB). Outside of those two weeks, his ERA was 3.37 with 71/19 K/BB ratio in 66.2 innings. Do you start to see how fluky ERA is, especially when it comes to relief pitchers? Three poor outings in mid-May completely clouded your view of Joba's performance for the entire season.

          • Pete

            He gave up lots of hits, which, of course, is a fact. That is what I meant by "smacked around." I do recall him having a couple tough luck blooper type outings, but I also recall him giving up his fair share of sharp ground ball base hits on low sliders…

            I've watched him as intently as anyone since he came up in '07, so I don't need you to "decloud" my assessment of his performance. I saw him sitting at 97+ when he came up in '07 and even making the likes of Vladimir Guerrero look foolish on sliders. I saw him consistently throw 95+ during an impressive stint as a starter in '08, even into the middle innings. Then I saw him serving up 89 mph fastballs at the beginning of '09 and cement mixer sliders out of the pen in the playoffs that same year. I saw him regain some velocity over the course of '10—but with inconsistent command. And anyone could see that hitters weren't swinging and missing at that low slider as much as they used to…

            The story of Joba's career is no mystery that requires esoteric statistics to decode. Perhaps a psychologist, perhaps a surgeon, but not a statistician.

            In 2010, he did seem to show some improvement after May—when he started to get some zip back on his fastball. Which is what I brought up in my post, the fact that perhaps the most revealing stat to look at when it comes to Joba isn't BABIP but MPH. You did neglect to mention that he was just as bad in July. The seasons 6 months long, so when you're completely awful in 2 of them, it's fair to say you've at least had a pretty inconsistent year. As much as I love Joba and have always defended him, there is no getting around that he had a mediocre '09, and no statistical magic can change that. And it's hard for me to shake the notion that, if the Yankees had handled him somewhat differently, his career might be on a better path…

            I see that toward the end there you turned this into an opportunity to more generally extol the virtues of newer sabermetric stats versus the old ones like ERA. Keep in mind I never mentioned ERA once in my post, so you must have just let basic contempt take over toward the end of your post. Turning what I wrote about Joba into me stubbornly defending ERA as a statistic is a straw man argument.

            I will conclude by brandishing my own, more general axe to grind. Which is that everywhere I look these days, I see bloggers of wildly varying levels of statistical sophistication making all sorts of claims about players based on BABIP. In my opinion, this stat is easily the most abused of the newer sabermetric statistics.

            I will also make a general complaint about posters on sites like these throwing up 600 statistics in a 2 paragraph space, while at the same time calling me a rube in the subtext.

          • billybeaneismyhero

            Pete –

            I never meant to give you the impression that I thought you were a rube. Nothing could be further from the truth. Originally, I started out as agreeing with you regarding your assessment regarding BABIP. While there is a typical rate, most assume that any BABIP not within that range is entirely abnormal. While it is in most cases, it's not in all. The only way to know for sure is to calculate his xBABIP and compare the two stats. In my opinion, BABIP is only useful when used in that manner. It's not an end-all-be-all statistic, and like most others, it too has flaws.

            My goal in providing you the information was not to show you up, but to let you know that sometimes perception does not jive well with reality. While I respect the fact you have watched Joba intensely since 2007, I don't really see how that has any bearing. The human memory is incredibly flawed. Typically, we only store the memorable moments (extreme highs and lows) and forget the rest. Additionally, one's memory tends to change over time. A red car can become blue, and beautiful brunette can become a redhead. It's useful, but only in limited capacities.

            As for Joba's velocity, I think there is some truth to the correlation you pointed out between his velocity and performance. Based on the velocity charts I looked at on Fangraphs, his velocity did appear to increase as the season went on. That said, I don't know how well his velocity correlates to his BABIP; in particular, prior to June 1. His May BABIP was .433 despite having batted ball rates that didn't support it. Most of that damage likely came during that two week stretch from May 16-29, but it still doesn't explain why he seemed to pitch just fine both prior and after that stretch.

            As for your comment about Joba needing either a surgeon or a psychologist, I don't really see how you're actually qualified to make that distinction. (Nor am I for that matter.) I think fans go to the "head case" issue too quickly because they don't really understand how variance and luck can play into the game of baseball. I think sometimes fans (myself included) forget that the pitcher isn't the only player out in the field when he's pitching. He has a catcher, four infielders, and three outfielders who are charged with converting batted balls into outs. Sometimes poor routes, footwork, shifting, and just plain bad defensive players can have a significant impact on a pitcher's performance. A pitcher little control over what happens once the ball gets put in play.

            If you haven't seen it yet, I highly recommend watching the You Tube video titled FIP: A New ERA. It's short, informative, and pretty entertaining.

  2. dondbaseball

    The thing that really irritates me is that Joba has 4 pitches, 3 of them "plus" pitches and was thought of as a top end of the rotation guy coming up in the Minors, yet here we sit without any "quality" back-end pitchers and the Yanks management is refusing to even consider giving him a shot at the rotation. I wish someone from Yankee management could explain that as it makes no sense. What is the harm is giving him another shot? Can anyone explain why not?

    • No argument there. Joba should absolutely be getting a shot at the rotation, and it's a perplexing matter to say the least that the organization doesn't want to give him so much as a shot. I'm not happy about it in the slightest.

  3. jay_robertson

    Dang. I hate it when you're reasonable and logical, Brien. Was all ready to disagree with you, but sadly, I can't.

    Only reason for not starting Joba I can see is Craig (and other's) question about his injury/health/stamina. Because if there ARE doubts about the sustainability of his pitching skills, then I'd much rather have him as an acceptable and trustworthy middle reliever for an entire season, than to have him start 10 games, win 6, and then blow out his shoulder, missing the rest of the season.

    As obvious as the need to have his Start is to the entire Blogosphere, as obvious as the Yankee's need for another starter (or two) is – unless the entire Yankees management team has suddenly become braindead (tho they did try to sign Pavano) – then one must admit that there is more to the picture than we currently know.

  4. HIM

    I agree that he should get the shot as a starter if for no other reason then he is already here and needed but I have always subscribed to the theory that no teams management ever tells us the whole truth or even all the full injury reports…

  5. I don't think its so much of comparing his stat line to his 2007 numbers, it is comparing the type of pitcher he was in 2007 to the type of pitcher he is now.

    In 2007, he displayed an aura of confidence that resonated in the minds of the hitters. His stuff was simply better. His mind is in a different spot than it was three years ago, and I believe that is one of the huge keys to Joba.

    • Well I would make two other observations that run counter to that:

      1. He was throwing much harder in 2007. Not just faster, but throwing the ball much harder. You can't keep that up for long without hurting your arm, so some regression in velocity was inevitable.

      2. Those were his first 24 innings of big league ball. The hitters hadn't seen him yet, there wasn't tape or scouting reports on him, etc. So naturally his stuff looked better.

      • Pete

        Seems to me like he kept throwing plenty hard through '08. Somewhere between '08 and '09, something just "happened." Who knows, maybe he got scared after getting hurt in '08 for a bit, and he was afraid to just let it rip. Or maybe the problem was physical.

        Most people seem to think that the transition to being a starter somehow made his fastball pedestrian. That, I think we can say with confidence, is not the case. He was throwing 95 mph as a starter in '08, then showed up in '09 and could hardly touch 90 mph. When they put him back in the pen at the end of the year, and everyone expected him to magically start throwing 98+ again like he used to, he reached back and could only find 94 mph. Bottom line is—starting or relieving—velocity was missing, and to this day it is a mystery where it went. 2010 provided a glimmer of hope that it might not be gone for good…

  6. KennyH123

    Joba needs to continue to develop his command, secondary pitches, etc. In short, he needs experience and innings. But he's not going to get that in short relief. He should be starting.

    The short attention span of New York fans, writers, etc. really irritates me. God forbid a young pitcher is given time to develop. Ian Kennedy is going to be every bit the pitcher he was projected to be, but of course not for us. We gave him a half year and dubbed him a flop.

    Joba is 25 friggin years old, for Pete's sake. I wish they would just leave him alone and let him develop.

    • Pete

      How Joba has been handled, especially by the casual fan, is nothing short of a sin. Arguments about why Joba could never become a good starter range from the completely circular ("Joba simply 'is' a reliever") to the irrelevant ("He had early success out of the bullpen, and thus should be left there") to the completely unfair ("He only has command of two polished pitches").

      The second class of argument is ridiculous. According to these people, Pedro Martinez and Johan Santana should have never left the bullpen. After all, they had early success in relief…

      To anyone out there who doesn't realize why the third class of argument is unfair—people were making this argument when he was 22 years old. Show me the 22 year old pitcher who's got pinpoint command of 4 pitches!! That doesn't happen overnight, you have to develop it. And, like Kenny says, you aren't going to develop a 3rd and 4th pitch in short relief. So he's 25 now, and Joba's promising curveball and changeup have been stunted a bit in their development—Probably a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      People will actually tell you with a straight face that Joba's intense and energetic temperament dooms him to the bullpen. For crying out loud, Mariano Rivera—the greatest of all time—is sitting 3 feet away from him down there, and he looks like he's in some kind of Buddhist meditative state when he's on the mound. But according to these people, I guess Mo doesn't have the right temperament to be a reliever…

      • I remember an article I read in ESPN magazine sometime after the John Rocker incident whose premise was basically that you HAD to be a neanderthal to "handle the 9th." That you had to be some crazy fire breathing idiot like Rob Dibble (nevermind that Dibble didn't have much sustained success of course). Now, a decade or so later, when Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman are pretty much unanimously considered the 2 best relievers of all time, how utterly ridiculous does that look?

    • Mike

      I don't remember the projections on Ian Kennedy, but he isn't much more than a middle rotation, or more quantitatively, a league average starter in the NL West. Not that I use this to evaluate or project skill, but he also had several instances of attitude problems. He clearly mishandled himself in response to some starts he had and came off as immature, entitled, and not a team-first player.

      This is hardly major loss from the yankees standpoint, especially because he was a key piece in the Granderson deal.

      You're right joba should have stayed in the rotation the whole time.

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