A Clue to the Joba Riddle

According to Brian Cashman, Joba Chamberlain hasn't been the same pitcher since this moment back in August 2008. (AP)

Brian Cashman was interviewed by Mike Francesa this morning at an event called "WFAN's Breakfast with a Champion" at the Times Square Hard Rock Cafe. ESPNW's Amanda Rykoff was there to tweet some of Cashman's more surprisingly candid comments, including this note on Joba Chamberlain:

Francesa: Any chance of Joba in the rotation? Cashman: No. He hasn't been same since injury in TX.

That confirms a long-held suspicion of many Yankee fans regarding the injury Chamberlain suffered to his right shoulder, at the time diagnosed simply as "stiffness," during his start against the Rangers in Arlington on August 4, 2008. I covered that game for Bronx Banter. Here's the relevant portion of my game recap, which was mostly about Chamberlain's shoulder:

Rangers third baseman Ramon Vazquez singled on Chamberlain’s first pitch of the fifth inning. Ian Kinsler then worked the count full. Chamberlain’s 3-2 pitch was a slider low and away. Kinsler checked his swing and drilled the pitch straight down into the dirt in front of home plate. The ball bounced once, then rolled forward just enough to enter fair territory. Ivan Rodriguez pounced on the ball and fired it to second base, where Robinson Cano turned an apparent double play.

Kinsler didn’t run the ball out, but he had a good reason. On its one bounce, the ball had hit him in the left thigh while he still had part of his left foot in the batters box. Thus, instead of a double play, the ball was ruled foul.

. . . 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.

I suspect Chamberlain was simply protecting Rodriguez here. The moment he took that spill, I was worried about an arm injury.

"I just got stiff," Joba said at his locker after the game. "It was a little tight in the fourth, and I came back out in the fifth and, it’s not necessarily even in my shoulder. It’s kinda in my deltoid below my shoulder, so my strength was fine and my velocity was fine, I just kind of got a stiff arm."

Asked to pinpoint the moment of the injury, Chamberlain said, "It was in the fifth. It was a little bit tight early, and in the fifth, I think I threw either a 2-0 or 2-1 pitch to Marlon [Byrd] and it got me a little bit. I threw the next one and it was okay, and then the two after that kind of got me a little bit."

Byrd's at-bat came after Kinsler's and the fall. Kinsler ultimately walked. Chamberlain then struck out Josh Hamilton and gave up a singled to Byrd, after which he was removed from the game due to the discomfort in his shoulder. Back to my recap:

Rewatching that inning, Chamberlain has some trouble locating his fastball, but he was throwing around 95 mph and mixing in his slider and curveball, both of which had their typically impressive break. In the at-bat prior to Byrd’s, Joba got Josh Hamilton to swing and miss three times on a fastball and a pair of sliders (though, as Ken Singleton revealed earlier in the broadcast, Hamilton leads the league in swinging and missing). Chamberlain’s first two pitches to Byrd are fastballs at 97 and 93 miles per hour. The 2-0 to Byrd is another 93-mph fastball, but after that one, Chamberlain shakes his right shoulder, looks into the dugout briefly, then takes a long walk around the mound and shakes his shoulder one more time before delivering the next pitch. After getting Byrd to swing and miss at a slider, he again walks around the mound and shakes his shoulder.

That’s what got Girardi’s attention. "We saw him shake his arm, so we ran out there," the manager said after the game. "I didn’t think it was anything serious just because the velocity was still there. If you see a large drop off in velocity then there’s a huge concern, but when I saw him shake his arm I said, ‘let’s go check him’ and we ran out there."

Girardi said that Chamberlain did not argue to stay in the game. He also said he didn’t think that the injury had anything to do with the 100-degree heat or cramping. "He’s got a little stiffness right here [touches right deltoid muscle]. We believe it’s muscular. He’ll have some tests tomorrow, but we don’t believe it’s anything serious. . . . I’m not really concerned that he’s going to be shut down for a while, but there’s a chance he’s going to have to miss a start."

Said Chamberlain, "It doesn’t hurt in the wrong places to really, hopefully, be concerned, so I’m just gonna go and get everything taken care of . . . just so they can rule out everything and make sure everything’s alright. This is just getting stiff a lot in a short amount of time. It’s a little stiff, but other than that’s why we go back and just rule everything out." Joba said he’d never had this sensation in his arm before, but when informed that Girardi intended to have him skip his next start, he said he’d, "hopefully just miss one if that’s the case"

Of greater concern is the Chamberlain quote that appeared on Peter Abraham’s blog last night in which Chamberlain said, "It was something where it grabbed and popped and got stiff." "Grabbed" and "stiff" I can deal with, but "popped" makes me panic.

Chamberlain was placed on the disabled list two days later with what was diagnosed by Dr. James Andrews as rotator cuff tendonitis. He missed roughly a month and returned as a reliever in September.

His September results didn't suggest a lingering problem as he struck out 14 men in 11 1/3 innings against just three walks and held the opposition scoreless in eight of his ten appearances, posting a 2.38 ERA and stranding three of his four inherited runners. Still, looking at the Pitch f/x data at TexasLeaguers.com, Chamberlain's fastball averaged 93.9 miles per hour during that brief return compared to 95.4 miles per hour prior to the injury. That was the year Chamberlain was transitioned to the rotation mid-year, but still the great majority of pitches he threw came in his 12 starts. If you isolate his pre-injury relief work that season, his average fastball was 96 miles per hour, two full ticks above his post-injury velocity. Also the swing-and-miss rate on his slider dropped from 31.5 percent to 23 percent.

Small sample caveats apply, particularly to that slider data. Here, then, are Chamberlain's key Pitch f/x numbers from the last two seasons, the first spent almost exclusively as a starter (all but nine of his 2,735 pitches thrown as a starter), the latter exclusively as a reliever:

FB MPH SL Whiff%
2009 92.6 18.0
2010 94.6 20.4

Comparing those numbers against that 96 mile per hour average fastball and 31 percent whiff rate on his slider from early 2008 (2007 data is not available though FanGraphs lists his '07 fastball as 97 miles per hour on average and memory marks his '07 slider as virtually unhittable), Cashman's assertion that Chamberlain is not the same pitcher he was prior to the injury holds some water.

If we go with Cashman's assertion and thus eliminate Chamberlain's pre-injury data from his record, his lifetime starting statistics look like this:

4.78 ERA, 1.55 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 4.4 BB/9, 1.74 K/BB, 1.2 HR/9, .317 BABIP

That certainly makes a less compelling case than his career line (which I used here). That said, I'd still rather take my chances on a 25-year-old who has a 7.6 K/9, a low-to-mid-90s fastball, some bad luck on balls in play, and is another year removed from that supposedly career-altering injury than on the likes of Sergio Mitre or the slop throwing free agent alternatives, and I'd still be loathe to trade any significant prospects for a rotation solution without at least giving that 25-year-old a look first. Still, it's nice to have a somewhat more substantial answer to why the Yankees won't use Chamberlain that way, even if Cashman's admission has likely diminished Chamberlain's trade value in turn.

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