Joba Chamberlain: Five Reasons the New York Yankees Reliever Should Be Starting
By most accounts, the New York Yankees have mishandled Joba Chamberlain during his first four years in pinstripes. It's about time they make up for it.
When Chamberlain broke into the bigs as a reliever in late 2007, he immediately dominated headlines and opposing hitters alike.
In fact, he was so good in his role out of the bullpen—2-0, 0.38 ERA, 0.75 WHIP, 34 strikeouts and only 12 hits in 24 innings—everyone, from fans to the media to Yankees management, became so caught up in this shiny new toy and seemed to forget that the hard-throwing righty wasn't actually supposed to be a reliever at all.
Now, more than three years later, it seems silly—even flat-out wrong—to think of Chamberlain as a starting pitcher, doesn't it? Especially when he's started only about one-quarter of his games (43 of 166) while donning pinstripes.
Blame for this goes to GM Brian Cashman and the rest of management's enactment of the once wildly popular "Joba Rules." After all, if he looks like a reliever and throws like a reliever, by gosh, he must be, well, you get the idea.
Fact is, this Joba-as-reliever mindset has become so universally-accepted, the 25-year-old's career has already been defined not by his potential as a starting pitcher, but rather by his limitations as a bullpen arm.
But here are five reasons—for fun, let's call them the "Joba Jewels"—why the Yankees would be better off with Chamberlain in the rotation this year.
"Joba Jewel" No. 1: In Need of a Starter. Or Two.
Here's one of those word problems you might read in a first-grade math class: If you have a baseball rotation that consists of five pitchers, and only CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett are currently in that rotation, how many spots does that leave open? (Answer: Duh.)
To think that Chamberlain shouldn't even sniff an opportunity to make the rotation this year is either a heinous oversight or a complete lack of respect for the pitcher's capability on the Yankees' part. Or both.
This is a guy who spent much of last spring training competing for the final spot in the rotation before losing out to Hughes.
It only makes sense, then, that if he was behind Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, Burnett, Javier Vazquez and Hughes a year ago, and two of those guys have since moved on without being replaced, then Chamberlain should slide into the rotation, if only by default.
Can young Ivan Nova and grizzled (read: old) Freddy Garcia, the current favorites for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation, hold down the fort? Probably so.
Who knows, one of them may even wind up making the Yankees look smart in the end. But you'd have to be Charlie Sheen-crazy to think both can stick it out for 150-plus innings all season.
And then, the Yanks are left with what? Hector Noesi? Please. Adam Warren? Really? Bartolo Colon? What, did Sterling Hitchcock already turn them down?
Chamberlain would be better than any of these options, including Garcia and Nova.
"Joba Jewel" No. 2: More Than Just a Reliever
As mentioned earlier, Chamberlain has actually pitched as a starter in the big leagues. As recently as two years ago, in fact, when he managed a respectable, if inconsistent season: 9-6, 4.75 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 7.6 K/9 in 157 and 1/3 innings.
Tracing all the way back to his college days at Nebraska, the righty started each of his 27 games over two years. From there, during his lone minor-league season, he made 15 starts in 18 appearances in 2007 and only transitioned to the bullpen because Cashman and Co. gave the directive.
The goal—an understandable one at the time—was to hasten Chamberlain's path to the majors so he could jumpstart a Yankees team that had spent all summer playing catch-up to the Red Sox in the AL East and was in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 seasons.
It worked, but we know now that while the accelerated timetable may not have permanently stunted Chamberlain's development, it was certainly stalled temporarily.
So this idea that he cannot handle a starter's workload doesn't hold up against his personal history. Don't misunderstand: There is most certainly risk that comes with making this switch, especially since he suffered rotator cuff tendinitis in 2008 when he returned to the rotation full-time.
But that is the only real drawback to this plan. Yet the risk is just as great with the 24-year-old Nova, who will have to endure in his first real extended exposure to major league hitters, or the 35-year-old Garcia, who before last season had thrown all of 129 total innings over the previous three years due to injury.
Remember, though, to plug Chamberlain in the fifth slot makes it much easier for Joe Girardi to monitor his innings and pitch counts, allowing Chamberlain to pitch no more than 150 innings as he re-acclimates himself to a starter's workload.
"Joba Jewel" No. 3: Bullpen Is Already a Strength
This offseason, when the Yanks inked former Rays closer Rafael Soriano—a guy who led the AL in saves last year with 45—they did so to make him their top setup man for Mariano Rivera, which stripped Chamberlain not only of his primary bullpen role but also of much of his value as a reliever.
Sure, with Rivera, Soriano and Chamberlain, the back of New York's bullpen is arguably the best in baseball. But having Chamberlain share duties with David Robertson and Boone Logan as the sixth- and seventh-inning relievers would be a waste. And overkill.
Of course, as the company line goes, the Yanks need all those arms in the pen if they're going to shorten the game so that their already shaky rotation can hold up as well as possible.
But if Chamberlain can actually fix the bigger problem (i.e. the rotation) more directly and effectively by starting, isn't that a better, more efficient use of his individual abilities, not to mention the entire 25-man roster?
To paraphrase Confucius: Don't use a cannon-armed pitcher to kill a mosquito or pitch low-leverage bullpen innings.
As soon as Cashman signed Soriano in January, the best course of action for the team as a whole would have been to alert Chamberlain to prepare to enter spring training as a starter.
At least that way, if he had trouble stretching out in time, putting him back into the bullpen would not have been a problem.
And if he looked strong during March and stuck in the rotation, the bullpen would still have the arms to get the job done.
"Joba Jewel" No. 4: Impressive Precedent.
While daunting, the reliever-turned-starter conversion has been done before. It's significantly more common for a starter to become a reliever for a few reasons.
For one, there's a logic chain that goes like this: Fewer innings per appearance means fewer pitches per outing, which means fewer pitches to master, which means less work to become a reliever, who can often get by with one plus pitch or two solid ones.
Secondly, because it's harder to be a starter, those who fail can change course to become relievers; in fact, nearly all big-league relievers were starting pitchers at some point in their pro career, either in the minors or majors.
And third, considering rotations comprise five starters whereas bullpens typically consist of six or seven pitchers, there are simply more relievers than starters in the majors.
Not surprisingly, then, we hear often about those who flamed out or got injured as starters only to turn into great relievers—Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley and Eric Gagne to name a few—but there are quite a few who took the other route.
You might remember that Johan Santana, before becoming a two-time Cy Young winner, pitched as a long man for the Twins. Some others in recent years? Adam Wainwright, Jorge de la Rosa and C.J. Wilson.
In fact, this spring, former Yankee lefty Phil Coke and Rangers' flamethrower Neftali Feliz, who closed games for the AL champs last year, are following suit.
There's even precedent in the Bronx: Hughes, a starting pitcher as a prospect, spent the 2009 season in the pen before his breakout 2010.
While it takes a certain kind of pitcher to take this less-traveled road, a payoff is almost guaranteed. Obviously, an ace or front-of-the-rotation horse can be the result.
But even with a lesser outcome (i.e. a No. 4 or 5 starter), the value of pitching 150-180 innings with even league-average numbers cannot be ignored. Take Scott Baker of the Twins, for example.
Not a pitcher anyone would call "special" by any definition (12-9, 4.49 ERA, 1.34 WHIP in 170 and 1/3 innings), yet he earned 2.5 wins above replacement (WAR) a year ago.
Basically, that stat says he was worth between two and three more wins to Minnesota than if the Twins used, say, a Triple-A pitcher or a readily available free agent in his place.
Doesn't seem like much until you consider only—count 'em—two relievers surpassed Baker's 2.5 WAR total: the Cubs' Carlos Marmol and Giants' Brian Wilson.
Chamberlain produced a 1.4 WAR last year in relief, so if he can approximate Baker's 2010—the innings would be the biggest obstacle—he would be adding more than a win to his value, not to mention the Yankees' tally.
In the AL East, where the Red Sox are already considered the head of the class and the Rays are the reigning champs, well, one win could be the difference between getting to the playoffs and missing out.
"Joba Jewel" No. 5: Getting Back to "Joba Rules"
Remember the electricity a few years ago that followed Chamberlain everywhere he went and whenever he threw a baseball? Didn't matter whether he was entering a tight game in the late innings as a reliever or gearing up for a big start—no Yankees fan could take their eyes off him, even for one pitch.
Well, it's been a while since those days. The buzz has faded. The hype has died down. That's what happens when the Next Big Thing, even without hitting rock bottom, struggles with injuries, yo-yos between roles and battles with consistency.
Things tend to go bad in a very big and very public way. But as precipitous as the downfall can be, a successful turnaround would be even more rewarding. For Chamberlain, the Yankees and the fans.
This is Chamberlain's best opportunity for getting back in the good graces of the Bronx. Sure, he could have a fine season as reliever, but when you're a backup setup man pitching seventh innings, it's hard to garner momentum.
But as a starter? Even if he pitched reasonably well with the occasional flash of brilliance and that familiar—some would say obnoxious—fist pump, he would be coming to the Yankees rescue by filling their biggest need. And the fans and the team would love him for it.
And the best part is, there would be no need for this same debate during spring training 2012.