If someone happens to come up to you and mention Joba Chamberlain, the proper Yankee fan reaction is to drop one's head and let out and long and drawn out sigh. After Tommy John surgery and a freak trampoline accident, Chamberlain has been far from the same pitcher we witnessed in his rookie season. The velocity remains on his fastball, the movement as well, and he still has one of the best breaking sliders in the MLB. But Chamberlain has been flat out awful in 2013, where he's managed to lower his ERA to 4.21 in recent weeks, but maintained a 1.596 WHIP.
Something caught my eye in his recent outing against the Blue Jays on Wednesday. It was typical mop up duty for the reliever, who probably won't see another high leverage inning with the Yankees again. He went 2.0 innings with just one base runner on a walk. He worked relatively quickly, he was inducing ground balls, and most shockingly he was hitting his spots.
Perhaps the Chamberlain anti-hype has hit such a height that nobody has noticed how good he's actually been over the last two months. I certainly didn't. In the first 20 games of the season, Chamberlain went 19.1 innings with a 6.05 ERA, yet over the last 2 months, 18 games, 17.0 innings, the reliever is pitching to a 2.12 ERA with batters hitting just .219/.333/.344 against him.
In either scenario, the volatile nature of relief pitchers as a whole makes it hard to determine what even a season's worth of data means. A handful of innings representing first and second half sample sizes make it all that much harder to judge a reliever. Instead, when working with such a small sample size, I think it's best to go to the old techniques and actually look at how the player is performing. When I saw Chamberlain hitting his spots on Wednesday night, I figured something had changed for him, and sure enough it did.
Here are the average release points calculated by PITCHf/x from his first half and second half of 2013. You'll see that the release points from July and August are in a much tighter zone, and find themselves a couple of inches closer to the right-handed batter's side.
This would be why. Chamberlain has moved a few inches to the right of the rubber, as well as incorporating a slight drop in his arm slot.
Here is the animation in it's entirety. The pitch from the first half of the season comes on June 26th against the Rangers. This was yet another outing where the reliever showed a high 90's fastball and a swing and miss slider, yet struggled to retire anyone due to awful command. This four-seam fastball was 97 mph and set up down and away from the right-handed Adrian Beltre. Of course, the pitch ended up letter-high.
The pitch overlaid is from August 23rd against the Angels. The catcher set up down and away from the switch hitting Hank Conger, who's batting from the left side. This pitch wasn't nearly as fast as Beltre's four-seam, but at 93 mph, he hit his target perfectly.
In order to see which pitch is which, I've outlined each of them above. The pitch to Beltre is Blue, while the Conger earns red.
Overall, there are a number of changes in Chamberlain's mechanics, including improved momentum. The arm slot and placement on the mound seems to have helped him dramatically with replicating his release point though, and perhaps that's why we've seen such a vast improvement over the last two months.
He'll probably only be a Yankee for another year, but as a fan that watched Chamberlain in his minor league days and early major league domination, it's hard not to root for the guy. He's had such a bizarre set of health circumstances coupled with poor development. Rooting for him, even in another uniform, feels like rooting for the underdog. Even with his inevitable departure, he may be able to contribute in the last month of the season, though I wouldn't count on Girardi trusting him anytime soon.