Why Joba Should Rule the Bullpen

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Why Joba Should Rule the Bullpen
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Although this young season has already led to uneasy grumbling from eager Yankee fans, the obligatory remarks, "It's a long season, don't worry" have not been far behind. 

The biggest dilemma facing the Yankees right now isn't an issue revealed in the first six games of 2009—it's been with the team since the arrival of one Joba Chamberlain.

 

Enter Sandman's Protege

Because of the top-level inexperience of Chamberlain, coupled with the increasingly annoying and anal Joba Rules devised by GM Brian Cashman and company, Joba started off his MLB career coming out of the bullpen in 2007. Effective and downright dominant, Joba's electric stuff tantalized fans and bolstered the Yankee bullpen during their playoff run at the end of that season. 

With hardly any professional experience at any level, coupled with Joba's young age, the Yankee front office and scouts around the league sensed that the sky was the limit.

The Yankees also had Mariano Rivera, the game's best closer in history, locking up the ninth inning. Shortening the bridge from starting pitchers to Rivera with a setup man in Chamberlain seemed like the perfect idea.

The Angels had seen much success with Scot Shields setting up K-rod, and overall the league has seen the designation of setup man become a legitimate and specifically designed role.

 

Put Me In Coach, I'm Ready To Start

Despite the success of using Joba as a short-relief/setup man, it seemed apparent that the goal of the Yankees was to ultimately make Joba a starter. After all, as Joba and sportswriters constantly reminded us, Chamberlain had always been a starter.

As a starter it seemed Joba could not reach the level he was meant for, or that fans wanted to see. Not that Joba was a bad starter—he looked the part of a number three or four, with occasional glimpses of "wow" type pitches. 

And yet, whether it was being removed in games too early or pitching without that fiery, attack-the-hitter mentality, Joba was a totally different pitcher as a starter.

 

Already A Bad Choice

When it was decided by Joe Girardi that Chamberlain would round out the final starting pitcher position in the Yankees 2009 rotation, most baseball fans agreed that the Yankees starting rotation seemed primed for much greater success.

The acquisitions of Sabathia and Burnett, as well as the return of a healthy Chien-Ming Wong and veteran Andy Pettitte, would all serve as mentors for the young star, and perhaps relieve pressure to perform.

However, there was still talk of innings limitations, off days, and careful observation of the number of innings and appearances from a season-long perspective. Joba Rules were amended, but never totally abolished.

And after a solid outing early this season against Kansas City was wasted by a Joe Girardi-led rotating door of bullpen maneuvers that backfired, questions were once again raised if whether the Yankees made the right decision to keep Joba on the road to starting in the Major Leagues.

It should not even be a question. Joba Chamberlain should pitch out of the bullpen forever and ever...amen.

The biggest critics of this viewpoint line up behind the popular theory that a starter is more valuable than a reliever.

Ask the Yankees during the playoff runs of the 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000 championship teams if they would rather have had one more solid starter OR John Wetteland ('96 World Series MVP) and Mariano Rivera ('99 World Series MVP, third place Cy Young '96, '99).

Maybe it's unfair to ask a team to give up the greatest relief pitcher in the history of the game, but look towards the trends of the game in general in recent years. The popularization of the term "quality start" has actually decreased the standards for what we might accept as a good performance by a starting pitcher.

Pitching fewer innings is acceptable. Within the definitions for quality start, it's absolutely possible to give up more runs, and receive a "quality start" when compared to somebody who gives up only one run more and pitches four more innings.

 

Help Me Now, Help Me Later

Think of it in terms of the bullpen.

If Joba pitches seven or eight perfect innings, he still has to turn that performance over to the bullpen to hold and save the lead. This is akin to what did not happen in his first game this year against the Royals. Joba did not pitch strongly against the young and lackluster Royals offense, nor did the bullpen hold up the lead.

If Joba's spot in the starting rotation was taken by somebody with less solid numbers or potential, it would place an even greater emphasis on the bullpen to carry on the game after their four or five innings were done--a bullpen where Joba can lurk.

Proponents for Chamberlain staying where he is claim that he gives the team a great chance to win every five or six games as a starter.

On the other hand, Joba could give the team a chance to hold onto a victory almost every game of the season by coming out of the bullpen.

As far as protecting Joba's arm, yes, it is important to watch the pitcher's progress carefully. Joba has already had tendinitis once in his young professional career, and had tendinitis in his arm earlier in college. 

At only age 23, the arm that Peyton Manning might describe as "Rocket-Cannon" needs to be protected. After all, last year's trip to the DL kept Joba from earning a decision after Jul. 30.

Starting pitchers do receive regular, routine periods of rest.  However, under any competent management, this can still be accomplished by a relief pitcher. It just requires discipline from the manager, and relying on his other coaches to monitor the situation.

Currently, this is the biggest obstacle for Joba pitching out of the 'pen, especially since Joe Girardi has proved he graduated with honors from the nefarious "Joe Torre School of Bullpen Management," where hot pitchers are rode to the point of great fatigue and even injury (see: Damaso Marte, Brian Bruney), and slumping pitchers with great stuff lose confidence to the point of no return (see: Scott Proctor, Kyle Farnsworth, and Edwar Ramirez under Joe Torre).

Joba attacked hitters with his maximum effort as a reliever. Regardless of rest days to come, Joba knew he had an inning, maybe two at most to get batters out.

He attacked the strike zone. He topped 99mph on his fastball. Batters swung and missed at over 75 percent of his sliders. He struck out batters at a staggering rate. He was very successful coming out of the bullpen.

He never had to save certain pitches or hold back his velocity to leave some tricks for an inning that might not come. 

As a starter it seems this naturally happens more often than not.

And as much as a Yankees fan would hate to show appreciation for Jonathan Papelbon, no one can question his success. For some reason he chose to remain the Red Sox closer rather than move into the starting rotation. Those reasons probably mirrored more than just a few of those mentioned above.

 

On-The Job(a) Training

Perhaps the greatest reason why Joba Chamberlain should move to the bullpen is the imminent departure of Mariano Rivera.

Although he seems back to top form—and never really was far from it—there have been some minor lingering arm/shoulder/elbow issues with Rivera. Because of his age (39), and the expiration of his weighty contract ($15 million per year) at the conclusion of the 2010 season, he is a gigantic piece to the Yankees' puzzle of success that will need to be replaced.

What better candidate than Joba Chamberlain? Who spent months following Rivera like a puppy dog follows his owner, and proved that his mentality and success out of the bullpen are as dominant as the best players in the game?

Why the Yankees continue to bide their time until Joba becomes an ace starter—on a team that already has up to four current and former aces is unfathomable. 

The Arizona Diamondbacks proved that even an expansion team can win championships with just two aces and a strong back-end bullpen.

In the shortest amount of time Joba Chamberlain electrified the world's largest baseball fan base and mowed down opposing hitters out of the bullpen.

How long are the Yankees going to wait and posture until he does this as a starter?  Why turn down a sure bet for the unknown?

What is known is that the Yankees bullpen has even greater pressure to perform now (as if the Yankees ever need any additional pressure to win 162 games).

As long as Joba starts, there will be one less safe bet before Mariano Rivera after the sixth inning.

 

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