The Miseducation of Joba Chamberlain, or How to Ruin a Potentially Elite MLB Starting Pitcher Without Really Trying

In light of Brian Cashman’s candid comments yesterday finally publicly confirming what many of us had suspected for quite some time — that Joba Chamberlain‘s shoulder’s never been the same since that fateful August night in Arlington back in 2008 — and due to that injury, his arsenal has also never been the same, leading to his permanent banishment to the bullpen, I started getting angry.

Not because, even though it was great of the Yankee General Manager to answer the primary question in the e-mail I sent to him in a public forum, Cash still didn’t provide an explanation as to why the Yankees bothered even having Joba “compete” in last spring’s rotation contest farce and how that somehow led to his being permanently branded as a reliever for the remainder of his career, despite the fact that in between the time of his conversion from a starter back to a reliever he didn’t throw a single pitch as a starting pitcher in a Major League Baseball game. While those machinations remain frustrating in their own right, they were not the primary reason for my growing ire.

Rather, the biggest reason for my displeasure was the fact that the Yankees may have made one of the biggest gaffes in the franchise’s 107-year history in the way they have apparently monumentally screwed up the player development of the man formerly known as Justin Chamberlain.

As we all know, Joba was drafted in the supplemental round in 2006, and likely would’ve been taken higher if not for conditioning concerns (initially laughable, this now appears to be somewhat prescient). Fresh off a strong two-season college career as a starting pitcher, Joba’s performance exploded as a rookie in the Yankee farm system, blazing through all three minor league levels in 2007 — posting 11.49, 14.52 and 20.25 K/9 marks, respectively, along with 1.55, 2.72 and -0.93 (yes, negative) respective FIPs in the process — and giving the Yankees no choice but to promote their 21-year-old flamethrowing strikeout machine to the Majors on August 7, 2007.

However, despite having been a starting pitcher during his entire amateur career — and a damn good one at that — the 2007 Yankees were six games out of first place and desperately in need of bullpen help if they were going to have any hope of catching a surprising Seattle Mariners team for the Wild Card, and so Chamberlain was immediately ticketed for the bullpen. More specifically, Joba was expected to fill the supposedly all-important eighth inning “bridge to Mo” mainstream media construct that no one in the Yankee bullpen seemed particularly interested in. The team’s most effective non-Mo reliever that season was Scott Proctor, and his woeful-for-a-reliever 119 ERA+. Not only was Proctor no one’s idea of reliable, but when the other options were Luis Vizcaino (105 ERA+), Kyle Farnsworth (95 ERA+) or Brian Bruney (97 ERA+), I suppose you have to get creative, and that’s what the team did.

And boy did Joba ever reward them. In his first career MLB appearance, he relieved Jim Brower (who?) and pitched two scoreless innings of one-hit ball to secure the victory for Roger Clemens. It would end up being the first of 11 straight scoreless appearances, during which time Joba’s blazingly-fast fastball (average speed 97mph) and devastating slider (5.9 runs above average, 13th-best among AL relievers had he had enough innings to qualify) absolutely electrified the Yankee Stadium crowd, leading Joba to become the team’s latest overnight sensation.

Joba ended up appearing in 19 games down the stretch in 2007, wound up surrendering only two earned runs and put up one of the most sensational debut lines in MLB history: a 12.75 K/9, 0.38 ERA, 1.82 FIP and 0.9 fWAR (good for a 1,221 ERA+) in a mere 24 innings.

While few Yankee fans would probably care to delete Joba’s astounding debut as a reliever from the record, as the team did ultimately catch Seattle and secure the Wild Card, I can’t help but wonder in hindsight whether the Yankees were incredibly shortsighted in rushing Chamberlain to the Majors the way they did. I was hoping to see if there was something alarming in Joe Torre‘s usage patterns that inadvertently led to Joba’s ultimate fall from starting grace the following season, but the team was as strict as could be that fall, never allowing Torre to pitch Chamberlain on consecutive days (except at the very end of the season) or for more than two innings at a time.

As fate would have it, while we could probably postulate that Joba being a young pitcher with questionable conditioning habits might have ended up injuring himself during the general course of things anyway, at least part of his starting career-ending injury could possibly be attributed to an Ivan Rodriguez-related accident. As Cliff Corcoran recalled yesterday in an excellent piece over at the Pinstriped Bible,

“Chamberlain saw the home plate ump rule the ball foul and came forward off the mound pointing to both Kinsler and the umpire. Ivan Rodriguez didn’t hear him, and Rodriguez’s throw to second base came directly at Chamberlain’s head. In ducking that throw, Chamberlain lept backwards off his feet and landed on his rump before tumbling over in a backwards somersault. Before Chamberlain’s body hit the ground, however, his right arm reached back and attempted to brace his fall. Chamberlain denied that the fall had anything to do with his injury.” 

While I’m loath to blame something as circumstantial as a miscommunication on a serious injury, it’s pretty crazy to think that I-Rod may be partially to blame for what has become of Joba today.

However, I’m more inclined to think that the Yankees’ erratic handling of Joba — from requiring him to adapt immediately to the bullpen after starting once every five days in 2007; to starting him out in the Major League ‘pen in 2008 before slowly transitioning him in a seemingly ill-advised pitch-limited fiasco (he only threw 12.2 innings over his first three “starts,” although to his credit he still managed a 2.84 ERA) into the rotation; then keeping him in the rotation for an entire year in 2009, but still trying to limit his innings through another series of poorly conceived innings-capped starts late in the season (Joba actually had a 3.98 ERA through August 16, his 23rd start of the season; he threw 30.2 innings of 7.92 ERA ball the rest of the way); then bouncing him back to the bullpen for the 2009 postseason; and once again asking him to stretch back out to being a starting pitcher for the supposed contest between he and Phil Hughes in Spring Training 2010, only to lose the competition and go back to the bullpen — would have eventually led to an injury anyway, and the team is ultimately at fault here.

At the culmination of the Spring Training “contest,” Cashman was quoted in USA Today on March 28, 2010, as saying “He’s going to be a starter pitching out of the pen.” Of course, Joba didn’t throw a single pitch as a starting pitcher in the 2010 season. He also turned in a decent — if occasionally frustrating — year in relief, at least peripheral-wise, giving hope that his career-high BABIP might regress to the norm in 2011. So I guess what I still don’t understand is, what did Joba do between last March 28 and yesterday (Mike Francesa: Any chance for Joba in the rotation? Cash: No. He hasn’t been the same since his injury in Texas) that so completely altered Cashman’s evaluation of his starting capabilities? A 2.98 FIP in 71.2 bullpen innings is nice, but it’d be even nicer at 100 additional innings even if it likely would be a full run higher.

So did the Yankees screw things up royally way back when by rushing Joba up to the Majors in 2007 and installing him in an initially unfamiliar role that allowed him to throw harder than he ever had before, potentially undermining his future arm strength, pre-game preparations and overall mental fortitude? Maybe, though I’m certain there’s no definitive answer to that particularly loaded question.

In hindsight, sure, you could probably make the case that the Yankees should’ve given Joba more than one start in AAA in late 2007 and waited to bring him up until some point in 2008, but on the flip side for a team that’s historically been slow to get its prospects up to The Show, it was probably a welcome change to finally see such immense promise actually delivered on in such immediate fashion.

Had the Yankees handled Joba even slightly differently, and been willing to concede that perhaps the 2007 team, for all its offensive might — an AL-leading .362 wOBA — couldn’t pitch its way out of a paper bag (4.50 ERA/4.51 FIP/4.83 xFIP), and not even inserting a minor league phenom into the bullpen could’ve helped the starting pitching staff overcome its issues, perhaps the Joba story would’ve had a happier ending.

Unfortunately there’s no way of knowing; all we do know is that through a variety of mostly circumstantial evidence with a freak accident thrown in for good measure, the Yankees have managed to successfully squander one of the most exciting pitching products their minor league system has ever generated. And thus, the dream of Joba Chamberlain as elite, front-of-the-rotation starting pitcher for the New York Yankees is finally and officially dead.

6 thoughts on “The Miseducation of Joba Chamberlain, or How to Ruin a Potentially Elite MLB Starting Pitcher Without Really Trying

  1. As Joe P. astutely reminded me on Twitter, the Yankees had already traded Proctor away for Wilson Betemit a few weeks prior to calling Joba up, so the bullpen was in even more dire straits in August 2007 than I remembered.

    At the end of the day it's admittedly pretty hard to fault the team for electing to call Joba up when they did; I just wish the end result (and bouncing back and forth between the bullpen and rotation) had turned out differently.

  2. I think part of why it happened was because of the insane hype around Joba because he did so well in 2007. Non-baseball management jumped on it really quickly and participated in selling things like those JOBA RULES t-shirts.

  3. Anonymous

    my brother is a baseball coach and he said very early on that Joba should be in the pen instead of starting. This was during the 2008 season when he was starting

  4. Anonymous

    Goes to show that conditioning and physical fitness are NOT over rated.
    To a large extent Joba is to blame here.

  5. [...] – Joba Chamberlain debuted a slight mechanical adjustment — setting his glove closer to his waist than up by his chest right before his delivery — and looked spectacular in his one inning of work. I know it was one inning and only 10 pitches, but he was dialing it up to 94 and looked confident, comfortable and in control. He also spoke with Kim Jones after his outing and acknowledged his penchant for running full counts on batters last season and that his goal for 2011 is to finish guys off once he gets ahead in the count. Sounds like a smart philosophy to me. I can’t wait to watch Joba stymie hitters every five da–oh wait, he’s still in the bullpen. I will once again refrain from comment. [...]

  6. [...] for Joba, I’ve spent more words than I know what to do with questioning why the Yankees have decided he’ll never be a starting pitcher again, but given [...]

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