Once More With Feeling, or "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here"

At this point in time, it appears as though the last chapter of Joba Chamberlain's career has already been written - as a matter of fact, our own Brien Jackson elucidated such this past Monday. It was less than a week ago that Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman sarcastically dismissed the notion of Chamberlain joining the rotation out of hand and, with the stout right-hander a season away from free agency, essentially validated his parking slip. Despite the not so subtle lack of tact in the statements of Girardi and Cashman, it is difficult to find fault in their bluntness ... after all, Chamberlain has not started a game with the Yankees since September 30, 2009. In short, the "Joba to the rotation!" sentiment of the days of yore was dead and buried long before Chamberlain espoused his confidence in his ability to start. This is not going to be, for the sake of preemptive clarity, an exercise in second-guessing, as far too much of that has occurred. Rather, this is a quest for the reason behind Chamberlain's almost inexplicably short leash as a starting pitcher, as I cannot in good conscience assume that the Yankees set up the former elite prospect for failure.

When discussing Chamberlain's brief resume as a starting pitcher, there seems to be a prevailing thought that he simply wasn't very good over the season and a half in which he took his weekly turn in the rotation. This is, to me, either the product of unrealistic expectations (at best) or lazy analysis (at worst). Consider for yourself, then, Chamberlain's numbers as starter:

43 GS, 221.2 IP, 227 H, 101 BB, 206 K, 4.18 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 4.17 xFIP

For the sake of reference, you must also consider the following:

  • Chamberlain's final start came one week after his 24th birthday
  • Chamberlain's ERA was just about league-average
  • Chamberlain's strikeout rate was about 1 K/9 better than league-average
  • Chamberlain's K/BB was just about league-average

Yes, I may be construing this in a light that is favorable to Chamberlain. My defense to this, however, is fairly straightforward - Chamberlain was barely 24 years old when he made his last start in the Majors, meaning the vast majority of his starts came at the ages of 22 and 23. For comparison's sake, Gio Gonzalez (born four days before Chamberlain) had a 6.46 ERA as a starter over those two seasons, while making half of his starts in the friendly confines of the Oakland Coliseum. I cannot say with anything approaching certainty that Chamberlain's career path would have, or even could have mirrored Gonzalez's ... but I will note that, at their respective prospect peaks, Chamberlain (peaking at #3 on BA's top-100) was more highly touted than Gonzalez (#26).

A more apt comparison insofar as other pitchers are concerned lies in the tortured right arms of Brandon Morrow and Max Scherzer. Why? Both are power pitchers that rely on explosive fastballs and potent breaking balls, often at the expense of command and control. Neither mastered a change-up in their first few seasons, and both dealt with shenanigans regarding their ability to start. It may not serve as the most scientific comparison, yet it is demonstrative of the improvements highly-touted power pitchers can make with experience.

Neither Morrow nor Scherzer has reached their lofty ceilings, although both have showed marked improvements as they've grown into their "traditional" peak years. Morrow has cut his walk rate significantly in successive seasons, albeit at the expense of some strikeouts last year (a concern with Chamberlain, to many), and has the look of a strong mid-rotation starter. His injury woes may never be a thing of the past - again, a concern shared by Chamberlain. Regardless, Morrow has produced an average of 2.0 bWAR/3.2 fWAR over three full seasons in the rotation. Scherzer is more of a success story, as he found consistency early on, and ranked among the dozen or so best pitchers in the American League in 2012. And, unlike Morrow, his health concerns (most of which stem from his herky-jerky mechanics) have been all but forgotten.

Again, none of this serves as proof-positive that Chamberlain could have succeeded as a starter. It does, however, make one wonder what could have been, given the similarities at hand. At the very least, it is demonstrative of the patience often required for young power pitchers. With the consistently outrageous expectations placed upon the Yankees, many may argue that the team could not wait for Chamberlain to make such a leap, particularly where time and money could be invested in a sure thing. However, this is not to be confused with the team giving Chamberlain a fair shake as a starter, along the lines of ... say ... Phil Hughes or Ivan Nova.

I do not aim to criticize Hughes or Nova, as both have shown flashes of brilliance in their time in pinstripes. That being said, it is interesting to see the performances of the two in comparison to Chamberlain in an attempt to discern a reason for their prospective roles with the 2013 Yankees. I will do so without further comment:

Chamberlain - 43 GS, 221.2 IP, 227 H, 101 BB, 206 K, 4.18 ERA, 4.27 FIP, 4.17 xFIP Hughes - 103 GS, 578.2 IP, 583 H, 186 BB, 465 K, 4.68 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 4.44 xFIP Nova - 62 GS, 371.2 IP, 391 H, 127 BB, 275 K, 4.41 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 4.05 xFIP

At this point, it makes sense to delve further into the Yankees perspective. After all, the team has been working with more information with respect to Chamberlain's health, mechanics, work ethic, attitude, and the like than we (or, specifically, I) could dream of accessing. If there was something in Chamberlain's arm action that made it clear that he would not take much more bending without breaking, a fair argument could be crafted for keeping him in the bullpen to extract as much value out of his six years of team control as humanly possible. This fear may have well been recognized with 2011's Tommy John Surgery, though I am not comfortable suggesting such given his change in roles.

In the end, however, it is all but a certainty that we will never know what could have been, nor will we find out the actual through processes of the Yankees brass. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending upon your point of view, it will always serve as a reminder of the ups and downs of prospects, as well as the nature of the beast that is a Major League front office.