Has there ever been a more bizarrely polarizing player than Joba Chamberlain? Don’t get me wrong, there have certainly been more polarizing athletes than Joba, but in general you can understand why these players produce the strong reactions in people that they do. To break it down, there are two main categories of really polarizing athletes. Your first group, best embodied by such luminaries as Barry Bonds and Ray Lewis, are the all-time great caliber players who are absolutely beloved by their own fan base, but pretty roundly disliked by everyone else. The second group consists of obscenely talented, almost always extremely young, players who seem to absolutely dominate their competition without even breaking a sweat, causing some people to admire them and other to buck the crowd and despise them. Lebron James and Alex Rodriguez are the two examples of this group that immediately come to mind.
But by and large, there’s one nearly unfailing thread that binds all of these players together as a group: they’re really good! Like, somewhere in the range from perennial All-Stars to “in the conversation for best [whatever] ever” good. And then you have Joba. A good player, sure, and yes, for one brief period of time he was downright spectacular, but as of right now he’ll be lucky to get even a token Hall of Fame vote, let alone inspire a debate over where he ranks amongst the all-time great pitchers. And yet, I think it’s safe to say that no one on the Yankees at the moment produces the sort of mixed (and passionate) feeling among Yankee fans that Joba does, and really has done since he hit the scene back in 2007.
Of course, once upon a time that was perfectly understandable. Back in those early days, when debates were raging over whether Joba should be developed as a starter or a reliever, the debate was over whether the Yankees would benefit most from having him as a frontline starter or dominant reliever and heir apparent to Mariano Rivera (which, incidentally, wouldn’t have worked out well given how long Mo continued to play, would it?). Now, however, Joba is a fairly generic middle reliever set to hit the free agent market, but he still produces an almost comical level of love/hate emotions amongst a certain set.
And let’s not soft peddle this: people absolutely hate Joba. If they didn’t, Joel Sherman wouldn’t write a hatchet job on the guy that included an insulting reference over an injury sustained playing with his kid in the Post, all for having the nerve to matter of factly say that he thinks he’s capable of being a starting pitcher. If they didn’t, ESPN New York’s lead Yankees writer wouldn’t think of making fat jokes directed at Joba on Twitter (funny how he didn’t pick the even larger C.C. Sabathia or the not-exactly-svelte Hank Steinbrenner, huh?). Heck, even the Yankees’ management is getting in on the act. When asked about Joba’s scandalous comments, Joe Girardi (a manager known for always sticking up for his players as much as anything) replied by saying, “Yeah. And I’d like to catch, you know, one more game, too.” Brian Cashman dialed the snark up even higher, noting that he was still looking for an outfielder.
Get it? A pitcher who was developed as a starter in the minor leagues and made 31 starts just four seasons ago saying that he thinks he can be a starter might as well be saying he can play the outfield and bat clean up. A 27 year old reliever who thinks he’s capable of starter is just as fanciful as the thought of Joe Girardi, who retired three years before Joba made his professional debut, thinking he could an MLB game again. Hardeeharhar.
At this point, I think it’s a safe bet that we’re poised to see Joba Chamberlain’s last season as a Yankee. Given the team’s bullpen depth and budget realities, I think it’s unlikely that the team will make a significant attempt to keep him this winter and, frankly, I wouldn’t be the slightest bit shocked if Joba was counting down the days until he was officially a free agent. When he can get away from the barbs from the media, from the fans who were fooled by an unsustainably good small sample of tightly managed appearances back in 2007, and away from an organization that spent three or four years screwing up his development just about every way they could, and now seems to go out of their way to take every attempt to try to peg all of Joba’s problems solely on him and him alone.
But don’t be fooled: the Yankees deserve a lot, and probably most of the blame for Joba’s career path. Joba didn’t “fail” as a starter, and any claim that he did is absurd on it’s face. We’re talking about a guy who made 43 starts at the MLB level, pitching to a 4.18 ERA with 206 strikeouts and 101 walks in 221.2 career innings. No, those numbers aren’t terribly impressive on their face, but keep a couple of things in mind. First, Joba made his last start at the ripe old age of 23, so those numbers have to be taken in the context of a very young guy breaking into the A.L. East. Secondly, Joba never had anything like a normal development pattern in the two seasons in which he made starts. In 2008 he started the season off a a major league reliever and made 20 relief appearances before getting his first start in June. In 2009 he began the season as a starter, but ended it with a string of goofy and embarrassing abbreviated starts that were designed to stretch out his allocated innings, but likely did more to distract and humiliate him, to say nothing of opening the floodgates of media criticism, both of the team and the pitcher.
If there can be a standard of mishandling a prospect that could be referred to as “criminal,” it would be the way the Yankees handled a young Joba Chamberlain. Brian Cashman can claim that he didn’t yank Joba around all he wants to, but the actual history of the situation says otherwise. The Yankees handled Joba in a remarkably reactionary fashion; shoe-horning him into whatever role the team needed plugged at the big league level at a time when he should have been focused on developing himself as a pitcher and carving out his own role as a professional. Did that lead to his injuries and unfulfilled potential? We’ll probably never know that, but considering how professionally he’s handled all of this even as the organization has become increasingly defensive and accusatory in recent years we certainly know this much: it’s not Joba Chamberlain who needs to be more mindful of what he says when reporters are around.
And who knows, maybe next year we’ll even find out if he actually can start. And, if so, Yankee fans and their general manager will have even more reason to dislike the guy.