New York Yankees: How Joba Chamberlain's Injury Benefits Phil Hughes

Steven GoldmanMLB Lead BloggerMarch 23, 2012

Joba Chamberlain: That sling isn't even his worst problem now.
Joba Chamberlain: That sling isn't even his worst problem now.Al Bello/Getty Images

Joba Chamberlain is cursed to be killed with kindness. In the 2009 Baseball Prospectus annual, I wrote:

Chamberlain was sent to the bullpen out of spring training with an amorphous promise that he would transition to the rotation; the idea was to prevent injury by minimizing his workload. The highly anticipated move came on June 3, and Chamberlain pitched quite well as a starter, but he got hurt anyway, missing most of August with rotator cuff tendinitis.

There are many causes of pitcher injuries; some can be mitigated, though not all, and until medical technology reaches a point when coaches can get live-action film from inside a pitcher's shoulder as he's working, it's very difficult to know which of the dozens of injury-causing variables is in play, or even if supposedly helpful things aren't actually harmful.

Chamberlain was probably no safer in the pen than he was in the rotation, and his injury may have actually been caused by an awkward spill he took trying to get out of the way of a Pudge throw to second that came at him head-high earlier in the same inning that he was hurt.

Nonetheless, upon his return he was back among the relievers. The Yankees intend to restore him to the rotation this spring, but they have now set themselves up to be second-guessed anytime he has so much as a hangnail, as all manner of observers, qualified and un-, keep trying to assign blame.

In the 2010 edition, I followed up:

What a mess. It's possible that no pitcher in the history of baseball has suffered through as many team-inflicted head games as Chamberlain.

Though not pitching up to expectations, he was nonetheless the club's most successful starter in the early going, posting a 3.89 ERA in 15 starts that were often shortened due to a combination of strikeouts and nibbling eating up the pitcher's strict pitch counts. A couple of rough starts heading into the All-Star break raised anxiety levels, but Chamberlain came roaring out of the hiatus, allowing just two runs in three starts comprising 21 2/3 innings.

At that point, the Yankees initiated the Joba Rules 2.0 in order to hold the young pitcher to no more than 160 innings on the season, skipping starts and then shortening them, which had the effect of turning Joba's starts into bad relief appearances. From the New Rules' imposition on, his ERA was 7.52, as he was so clearly rattled by the constant threat of being pulled about two minutes into the game and then not pitching again for a week that he was unable to concentrate.

If the Joba Rules are in conflict with the goal of developing Chamberlain into a consistently successful major-league pitcher, then it isn’t clear what the Yankees are accomplishing. The Rules were supposed to be out the window for 2010, but the acquisition of Javier Vazquez likely pushes Chamberlain back to the pen—perhaps the best role for Joba after all, perhaps a tacit admission that in their eagerness to spare him injury, the Yankees killed a potentially great starter with kindness.

And finally, in this year’s book:

Philip K. Dick wrote, "There is no perfect defense. There is no protection. Being alive means being exposed; it's the nature of life to be hazardous." The Yankees spent years trying to deny this truth where Chamberlain is concerned, crafting one plan after another to keep him healthy.

Instead, he underwent Tommy John surgery in June, and neither we nor the Yankees will ever know if their efforts delayed the inevitable, hastened it, or were (most likely) completely irrelevant. All we know for sure is that their machinations meant that they got less out of Chamberlain than they otherwise could have.

As for what they will get now, we won't begin to know until midseason. Nowadays, pitchers often come back from the TJ procedure ready to pick up where they left off, but Chamberlain was moved around so much it's hard to identify exactly what that would mean in his case. He's just another sore-armed reliever now.

It turns out I was wrong; as of today, “sore-armed reliever” has proved to be too optimistic.

As you probably know by now, Joba was playing with his son (another act of kindness) on a trampoline and somehow—it’s not hard to imagine the scenario—suffered an open dislocation of his right ankle. While we have yet to get an official injury estimate, the 2012 season is almost certainly a total loss.

Chamberlain, who last pitched in the majors on June 5, 2011, could end up missing almost two years. When next you see him, whether in the ‘13 Yankees camp or elsewhere, it will be anybody’s guess what should be made of him. Any previous possibilities, including top starter, dominating setup man or closer, are now inoperative.

In the short term, this latest injury shouldn’t change much about the Yankees’ staff alignment.

Chamberlain wasn’t going to be ready to pitch until midseason anyway, so the team had planned without reference to him; he might have been a valuable midseason addition, but he would have been a nonentity until then.

The open questions about the staff, particularly whether Phil Hughes is bound for the rotation or the bullpen, should not be affected.

Hughes has showed renewed velocity this spring and seems capable of taking on a starting role once again. Given that there are no high-leverage roles remaining in the bullpen, placing him in middle relief would be a waste—why limit him to 75 or 80 innings when you might get 180 good ones?

For a reliever to be more valuable than an above-average starter in less than half an inning, he has to be dominant and used in high-leverage situations. That almost never happens, and would not happen for Hughes just by virtue of his being stuck behind Mariano Rivera, David Robertson and Rafael Soriano in the bullpen pecking order.

The main alternative, Freddy Garcia, pitched well last season after several seasons mixing adequate and subpar performances, but there was a great deal of luck involved in his results, luck that was starting to revert as 2011 was ending.

In addition, as a 35-year-old on a one-year contract, Garcia’s future is in his past. As disappointing as Hughes has been, this is only his age-26 season. He retains great value, both for the Yankees and in the eyes of other clubs. If his stuff is back, and it seems to be, there is no argument for pushing him to the ‘pen, whether Joba has one working leg, or two. Three, even.