Joba Chamberlain: Throwing Fuel in the Fire

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Joba Chamberlain: Throwing Fuel in the Fire
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

To tell you the truth, I loathe to even broach this subject. It has been debated to death by every fan, writer, media pundit, and cab driver with even a modicum of interest in the New York Yankees. Unfortunately, the issue must be addressed, and the time is now.

What do the Yankees do with Joba Chamberlain?

This isn't a re-visitation of the tired discussion of whether Joba is best suited for the starting rotation or the bullpen. Sure, plenty will still ask that question, but not me—not this time. The stakes are greater than that now.

Many are wondering if Joba Chamberlain has a future in any capacity with the Yankees or even in Major League Baseball in general. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Unfortunately, after another meltdown of epic proportions, Joba is forcing the Yankees to ask some difficult questions in the best interest of the ball club. This time in Seattle, Chamberlain's consistent inconsistency denied a well-deserved victory for another oft-maligned Yankee hurler, Javier Vazquez.

Javy had just pitched a brilliant game, but made it through only seven innings, having to depend upon the bullpen. Joba was the first reliever called.

Joba's case isn't one of a struggle here and there, giving up a key base hit or walk to blow a game on occasion. Every pitcher you've ever heard of, even the seemingly divine Mariano Rivera, has days where the stuff just isn't working or the command is off.

This was different, and it is becoming a disturbing trend. Joba Chamberlain has been displaying a bizarre tendency to fail spectacularly.

Javy Vazquez had just gone head-to-head with Seattle's Felix Hernandez, besting the young ace through seven innings by shutting out the Mariners, while allowing only five base runners.

The Yankees, having been utterly dominated by King Felix just 10 days ago, were looking to exact a little revenge. Thankfully, recently elected all-star Nick Swisher had provided the lead with a second inning solo shot to deep right center.

Chamberlain, charged with protecting the fragile 1-0 lead, came in breathing fire. He was fresh off a three-game stretch in which he looked like the Joba of old, throwing heat and feeling confident. Indeed, Joba brought the flamethrower with him last night, throwing fastballs all in the 94-97 range, but sadly he spilled the fuel all over himself and was burnt to a crisp.

The first pitch, a straight 97 mph fastball, was lined into center for a single by Jack Wilson. Ichiro, the Mariners' best hitter, traded places with him on a force out. Another first pitch fastball was laced into left by Chone Figgins, leaving runners at first and second.

Joba then tried to mix it up with a first pitch slider to Russel Branyan, but threw it in the dirt for a wild pitch, moving the runners both up a base. After finding the strike zone difficult to locate, Joba was forced to intentionally walk Branyan, loading the bases for erstwhile slugger Jose Lopez.

By this time, a slightly shaken Joba didn't know what to throw, so he went with two sliders out of the strike zone. Forced to throw a strike, he returned to the fastball, blazing a 96 mph heater belt high, which Lopez promptly crushed into the left field seats for the eventual game-winning grand slam.

Of course, this wouldn't be an issue if it were an isolated incident. Relievers blow games, but then bounce back to dominate the next night. Something has happened to the Joba we fell in love with in late 2007.

Remember how the kid from Nebraska burst onto the pinstriped scene in late summer of '07?

Chest thumping and exuberant, he was nearly unhittable, dispensing blazing fastballs and filthy sliders, racking up 12 dominant appearances before finally allowing a run. I remember feeling the buzz in the stadium just seeing him begin to warm up in the bullpen.

The roaring ovations when he stepped through the gates gave goosebumps as he then proceeded to blaze his way through American League hitters, setting up flawlessly for Mo.

That earned run he gave up in his 13th appearance would be the only one he allowed during 24 innings in his stellar rookie debut. If Joba were to remain a reliever, he was the heir apparent to the incomparable Mariano Rivera. As a starter, he was the next Roger Clemens.

That all feels so long ago.

Some of Joba's inconsistency over his four-year career can be rightly attributed to his handling by the Yankees. Pitchers thrive on a routine, and for parts of his first three seasons, it didn't seem that anyone was sure of what his role was.

Though in 2010, Joba didn't have this excuse anymore. During spring training, he was beaten out for the fifth rotation spot by Phil Hughes and given a definite bullpen role. Joba was assured by Yankee brass that he would remain in a relief role throughout the duration of the 2010 season.

Joba seemed to relish the stability of a clearly defined role with the Yankees. He wanted to start, but embraced the challenge of being the primary setup man for Mariano and possibly, his eventual successor.

For the first six weeks of 2010, the plan worked exquisitely. Chamberlain bridged the gap to Mariano in expert fashion, racking up 16 2/3 innings in 17 outings, only allowing 12 hits, a 2.16 ERA and a WHIP only a fraction over 1.00.

He struck out 21 in that stretch, allowing a .197 opponents batting average and only 8 percent of his inherited runners to score. The Yankees were ecstatic that their guy had reclaimed the eighth inning in such triumphant fashion.

Then something happened. On May 16, during the Twins' first trip to New York this year, Joba faced five batters, walking one and giving up two hits, needing to be rescued by Mo. This time though, things didn't happen according to plan and Mariano allowed a grand slam to Jason Kubel, saddling Joba with a shocking loss.

His manager showed faith in him, hoping to help him shake off the poor outing, and called on him two days later to face the Red Sox with a four-run lead in the eighth. Joba promptly melted down again, allowing four hits and four runs, giving away the lead CC had turned over to him.

With two abysmal appearances in three days, Joba allowed seven runs, six of them earned, more than doubling his earned run total for the entire season. Girardi understandably shied away from using him for a few days, using him sparingly over the next week.

Joba responded with two very good outings, slightly restoring some of his manager's confidence in him. This lasted a few days until Joe used him again—an outing in which Joba recorded only one out, allowing four hits and four runs, helping to blow a game to the Indians that the Yankees led 10-4 in the sixth inning.

Now this is where things get strange in the twisted saga of Joba Chamberlain. After that atrocious outing, Joba established a pattern in which he has rattled off several sets of three straight solid, scoreless appearances with one meltdown performance.

Three good, one bad, three good, one bad...you get the picture. If not for two bad outings in a row on June 27 and July 2, his 16 appearances since that disaster against Cleveland would follow that exact bizarre pattern.

Like I said earlier, consistently inconsistent, an apt description if I've ever heard one.

Unfortunately for Joba and the Yankees, this latest episode in Seattle might have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. With a tenuous grasp on the AL East lead and the July 31 trade deadline just weeks away, Joba's most recent failure may force the Yankees to attempt to make a move for a reliable eighth inning reliever.

There is simply no way the team can hope to duplicate last year's success with such an erratic and unreliable pitcher manning the critical setup role. The Yankees were fortunate that in the 2009 postseason, the inconsistent setup efforts of Joba and Phil Hughes didn't sink their ship. Robertson, Marte, and Mo stepped up to fill the void, but the Yankees cannot rely on fortune if they hope to repeat as World Series Champions in 2010.

Bringing in a new arm seems to be the obvious move for now, but that doesn't answer the riddle that Joba has become. The Yankees thought they had figured out what to do with the former relief standout, but that hope has come crashing violently to the ground.

Trading him doesn't seem prudent as he has recently destroyed much of his trade value. Selling low on such a once highly-touted pitcher before he is even 25 years old doesn't make a lot of sense. He has improved his walk rate from last year and he still has a K ratio of nearly 10 per nine innings, proving that he hasn't completely lost his stuff. The Yankees just need to find out why he has become so predictable and hittable.

If they insist on continually sending him out there like management has suggested, it could potentially shatter his confidence for good, ensuring that he never returns to prior form. Yankee Stadium is not the optimal venue for a struggling pitcher to rediscover his path to redemption.

The course of action that I find most intriguing and potentially beneficial would be to send him to the minors and start him over. Send him to Scranton or further down if necessary. We are not concerned with the immediate future, as he may very well have pitched himself out of those plans. Joba has been highly touted for a reason and the Yankees need to help him rediscover that ability.

This is hardly an unprecedented maneuver. In 2000, Roy Halladay struggled much worse than Joba is right now, and the Blue Jays sent him all the way to A ball to restructure his entire approach to pitching. He spent half of 2001 in the minors before eventually returning to Toronto halfway through the year.

Doc figured out how to pitch once again and never looked back, progressing the very next year into a standout pitcher and eventually one of the best in the game.

Interestingly, the ace pitcher involved in the trade that brought Halladay to the Phillies, Cliff Lee, also experienced a similar fate. During his first several years with the Indians, Lee began developing into a top notch left-handed starter.

After a breakout 2005, he leveled off slightly in 2006, but was still a success for Cleveland, winning 14 games. In 2007, his career took a detour as he struggled mightily and was eventually optioned to the minors to work out his issues.

He returned to the big league club in 2008 a changed man. Cliff Lee dominated the AL, winning 22 games and claiming the Cy Young award as the league's best pitcher. Lee has continued his success over the last two years and after this season will be the most sought-after free agent available.

The fact that two of the top pitchers in the game were sent back to the minors after experiencing success at the big league level offers hope to Joba Chamberlain. We have two Cy Young winners excelling in baseball after experiencing very similar fates to what Joba may have to.

Whichever direction the Yankees head in regards to Joba, decisive action must be taken soon. He cannot be allowed to flounder in a role he is clearly not performing well in at the moment. Continuing down the current path isn't healthy for anyone—the fans, the Yankees, and especially young Joba himself. Do the right thing—send him down, let him become the pitcher he was meant to be, and we may all reap the rewards.

 

 

 

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