Know Your 40: Joba Chamberlain

The Joba. - Anthony Gruppuso-US PRESSWIRE

From weird rules to rotation controversies to trampolines, it has sure been a wacky six-year career for Joba in pinstripes. What will Year Seven bring?

Name: Joba Chamberlain
Position: Reliever (RHP)
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 27 (born 9/23/1985)
Height: 6’2" Weight: 250 lbs.
Remaining Contract: One year, $1.875 million (Free agent after 2013)
2012 statistics: (MLB) 22 games, 20.2 IP, 4.35 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 11.3 H/9, 2.6 BB/9, 9.6 K/9, 104 ERA-, 95 FIP-

And here we go down the rabbit hole that is the baseball career of Joba Chamberlain. Oh, what a ride it’s been on the Jobacoaster.

Jobacoaster Construction

One "Justin Louis Chamberlain" came into this world in the 1980s—a different time than today. The synthesizer became the most obnoxious part of pop music compared to the dubstep nightmare plaguing the radios today. Coke was "new," it was cool to follow old men into caves, and the Kansas City Royals were World Series champions. It was truly a bizarre time. Amid the chaos and the Oingo Boingo, Chamberlain grew up in a single-parent house with his polio-stricken father, Harlan, and the success of his upbringing in such circumstances is still really a great story (albeit one that began to lose its impact when the media beat us over the head with it).

In college at the University of Nebraska, Chamberlain came into his own as pitcher when he was a sophomore transfer student, going 10-2 with a 2.81 ERA, 9.86 K/9, and 2.50 BB/9 in 118.2 innings. Although he did not pitch quite as well the next year and was limited by triceps tendonitis, the Yankees chose him with their second pick in the 2006 draft. Reports on Chamberlain’s potential were glowing even though he did not pitch in the minors that year at all:

Chamberlain does not have problems with his stuff. He uses great arm action and a fluid drive towards the plate to hit 98, and sits with a plus control fastball at 93-95 on the gun. He likes to mix in an average to above-average changeup of 80-83 and has found success with the pitch at lower levels. His changeup will have to learn more fade to survive against top-tier hitters.

Chamberlain’s out pitch is his 10-to-4 plus slider that stays low and tempts hitters. Some reports from Hawaiian Winter Baseball have noted that the slider was declining into a loose slurve. He also throws an average curve that does more to change pace than change plain. He excels with the command of his pitches spotting them where he needs.

All Aboard

When Chamberlain began his first season in the pros at High-A Tampa in ’07, he was very clearly head and shoulders above his peers. He was promoted to Double-A Trenton on June 12th after only seven starts, wherein he maintained a sterling 4.64 K/BB ratio, a 2.03 ERA, and a 1.55 FIP. Even against superior hitters, he somehow improved his K/9 from 11.48 in Tampa to 14.52 in seven games with Trenton. The Yankees knew they had someone special—someone who could help the big-league club immediately. Their bullpen was an absolute mess behind Mariano Rivera, and even Mighty Mo was in the midst of his worst season in the bigs (even though "bad" Rivera was still better than most of his contemporary closers around the league).

Seeking a spark, the Yankees made a decision that would forever change the way fans viewed Chamberlain. They put Chamberlain in the bullpen at Triple-A to prepare him for a spot providing ’pen stability on the MLB roster. It was a smashing success, as Joba-mania took the American League by storm, pitching to a 0.38 ERA and 5.67 BB/K ratio in 24 innings as the new setup man. His exulting fistpumps and infamous "Joba Rules" restricting use on back-to-back days led to a cult following and adulation from many pundits while the Yankees finished their recovery from early-season struggles to capture the AL Wild Card. An invasion of midges and manager Joe Torre’s inaction during Game 2 of the ALDS led to Chamberlain’s downfall on a disgusting night in Cleveland, and the Yankees were soon eliminated.

Rises, Falls, and Sharp Turns

Chamberlain’s late-season success as the "eighth-inning guy" made people rethink Chamberlain’s position in the Yankees’ future. Some took the "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," angle and thought the Yankees should not mess with a good thing, thus keeping him in the bullpen. Others were quick to point out that Chamberlain was never considered a relief prospect until the Yanks’ bullpen woes necessitated his use in such a role, and that he held much more potential value pitching over 150 innings in a starting gig. Hell, even the Yankees weren’t sure what to do with him. It was a surprising state of confusion for a prospect rated as high as #3 in the game at the beginning of ’08.

Along with fellow prospects Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, Chamberlain was considered a big part of the Yankees’ future, but they decided to insert fellow ’07 rookie contributors Hughes and Kennedy into the rotation behind Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Mike Mussina. Chamberlain was relegated to the ‘pen, but by June, both Hughes and IPK were gone from the rotation due to injury and ineffectiveness. The Yanks decided to begin the process of moving Chamberlain to the rotation at the beginning of June, building up his stamina and pitch count in awkwardly stunted starts before he reached full strength by the end of the month.

Unfortunately, Chamberlain was only able to make 12 starts before going down with tendinitis in his right rotator cuff. He pitched well in this short time as a starter to a 2.76 ERA, 2.90 FIP, and 10.19 K/9, although he did not show control quite as well as previously, given his 3.44 BB/9. Chamberlain returned from the Disabled List after 27 days off, but the Yankees took no chances with him and put him back in the bullpen (where he suffered shoulder soreness anyway). They missed the playoffs and Joba’s future was no clearer than it had been at the end of ’07. His image suffered a hit when he was arrested for DUI in the offseason, but he still had a good reputation among most fans and many still wanted him in the rotation.

The Yankees decided to go forward with Chamberlain as a starter in ’09, and he made 31 starts, pitching a career-high 157.1 innings. The results were underwhelming—Chamberlain struggled with control more than ever with a 4.35 BB/9 and his strikeout rate dipped to a 7.61 K/9 with a 4.75 ERA (104 ERA-) and a 4.82 FIP (106 FIP-). He would have some starts where he looked brilliant (three-hit ball over eight innings against the Tampa Bay Rays on July 29th), some where he looked awful (3.2 innings, eight runs, nine hits against the Toronto Blue Jays on July 5th), and some where he was just a completely mixed bag (5.2 innings, four runs, but a career-best 12 strikeouts against the Boston Red Sox on May 5th).

Toward the end of the season, the Yankees again awkwardly decided to limit his innings by making him pitch stunted starts, and he only pitched more than five innings once after mid-August. It was miserable to watch. Ultimately, Chamberlain returned to the bullpen for the playoffs, and given the resulting championship with the three-man rotation of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Pettitte, it was a prescient move. Over 10 games and 6.1 innings in the playoffs, Chamberlain pitched to a 2.84 ERA (albeit with an unsightly 12.79 H/9), and the Yankees won their 27th World Series title. In 2010, the Yankees broke camp with Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, Hughes, and Javier Vazquez. Chamberlain was relegated to the bullpen and has not started a game since then. Even when Vazquez bombed out of the rotation, the Yankees never seemed to seriously consider moving Chamberlain back to the rotation and instead called up Ivan Nova from Triple-A. They made their decision on Chamberlain and it has been final, for better or for worse.

Veering Off Track as the Kid Next to You Gets Sick

2010 ended up being a struggle for Chamberlain in the bullpen anyway, where many people had just assumed he would excel again. He did considerably cut his walk rate to 2.76 BB/9 in 73 games and double his K/BB ratio to 3.50 in 71.2 innings, but his ERA- was exactly the same as ‘09: 104. By the Trade Deadline, the Yankees decided they needed to improve from Chamberlain in the setup role, and they traded for Indians closer Kerry Wood. Since they did not feel entirely comfortable with him in the bullpen anymore, it is unclear why they would not even give him a chance at starting again, even in the minors (do not forget that he only made 15 starts in the minors in ’07 before his call-up). Perhaps they worried that he never truly recovered from the rotator cuff tendinitis or there were other reasons.

Regardless, staying in the bullpen did not keep Chamberlain from injury anyway. 2011 offered a promising start for Chamberlain, as he maintained a 2.83 ERA (67 ERA-) and 3.43 K/BB through his first 27 games and 28.2 innings, but he thought something felt weird. Stunningly, Chamberlain needed Tommy John surgery on his right elbow even though he did not have any pain. His season was over. Chamberlain’s bizarre career took an even stranger turn in Spring Training of 2012 when he suffered an ugly dislocation of his right ankle in a trampoline accident that seemed more suited for The Simpsons than real life. It delayed Chamberlain’s return to the team last year, but he was able to come back earlier than anticipated, on August 1st.

The first month back was a struggle for Chamberlain, as he was batted around to a 8.59 ERA in eight games over 7.1 innings, but he seemed to return to form in September. In his final 13 innings (and games) of the season, he surrendered just one earned run and held opposing hitters to a .188/.204/.313 triple slash. Like the majority of his pitching compatriots, Chamberlain was not the reason the Yankees lost in the playoffs—he pitched 2.1 scoreless innings. Of course, Joba being Joba, he suffered a freak injury when a Matt Wieters broken bat struck him during extra innings of ALDS Game 4. He only missed a couple games, but it just felt like nothing new for him. Don't let Joba near your ladders.

Dare Another Ride?

Chamberlain’s been throwing his fastball less often each year since 2010. It’s still his pitch of choice, but the percent difference between fastballs and sliders was closer than ever last year (48.0% to 37.5%). He’ll occasionally throw in a curve or a changeup with some success—curiously, FanGraphs rated the change as his best pitch last year. His fastball was negatively rated for the first time since ’09, and his slider suffered a negative rating for the first time ever. This might simply have been a byproduct of both small sample size and the bad first month back following his recovery, but he was throwing at the same velocity he had before the injury (mid-90s). When it comes to Chamberlain, it is difficult to be certain about anything anymore.

In 2013, we may be entering the final chapter of the Chamberlain saga. He will be in a free agent after this season. Does he even want to come back next? Expectations were set so unbelievably high after his ’07 breakout that it has been nigh-impossible for him to live up to them, especially since the Yankees gave him only 43 starts at the major-league level before deciding that he was not worth trying any longer. Alas. Maybe someone will sign Chamberlain in a final attempt to see if anything can be made of the promise he showed as a starting prospect and rotation rookie. Maybe he comes back because he likes New York and actually prefers the relief role. If so, it is unclear if there will even be room on the $189 million target payroll for him.

So sit back, try to relax, and let’s see where the last leg of the ride takes us with Chamberlain. If it goes as planned, he will join David Robertson as dangerous late-game weapons for Joe Girardi as he preserves leads for Rivera or simply keeps games close. If it’s anything like it has been so far though, it will be unexpected.

Pray we avoid trampolines.

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