Coming into the 2011 season, the New York Yankees fully expected to have one of the best bullpens in the American League. With the signing of Rafael Soriano, the top free-agent reliever available this offseason, the Yankees were primed to dominate teams late with the duo of Soriano and Mariano Rivera closing out games.
However, the signing of Rafael Soriano has not panned out, at least up to this point in the season. As of today, Soriano has a 5.40 earned run average with a dismal 1.73 WHIP in just 15 innings. He has more walks (11) than strikeouts (10). For someone who has a career 3.35 strikeout-to-walk ratio, this was not the ideal start for Soriano in pinstripes.
It is clear that Soriano has not been comfortable all season, whether it be physically, mentally or a combination of the two. Last week, the former was confirmed: Soriano was placed on the disabled list with elbow inflammation. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks.
In most seasons, this would have been a harsh blow to the Yankees’ bullpen, which has struggled with finding a solid bridge to the best closer of all time.
But this year is different. Two young pitchers, 26-year-old David Robertson and 25-year-old Joba Chamberlain, both of whom have shown shades of greatness in recent years, seem to have finally come into their own.
Joba Chamberlain has perhaps been the most frustrating player on the Yankees roster over the past several seasons. Bursting onto the scene in 2007, Chamberlain quickly made a name for himself, posting a 0.38 ERA with 34 strikeouts in just 24 innings. With a high-90s fastball and one of the best sliders in the game, it seemed as if Chamberlain was next in line as the Yankees closer.
This was all before the Yankees’ questionable decision to move Chamberlain into the starting rotation. Seemingly overnight, Joba completely lost his fastball. While this is not entirely uncommon for pitchers moving from the bullpen to the rotation, the young right-hander went from a 98-mile-per-hour heater to a 91-mile-per-hour, straight as an hour fastball which took away from the effectiveness of his lethal slider.
To many, it seemed as if Joba Chamberlain would never become the pitcher most expected him to be. This season, however, Chamberlain seems to have found new life. With his fastball again returning to the upper 90s and control that has not been seen since his rookie campaign, he has been critical to the Yankees’ bullpen in Rafael Soriano’s absence.
Joba Chamberlain has certainly been a pleasant surprise this season, but it may be David Robertson who has been not only a bigger surprise, but a better pitcher at this point in the season.
David Robertson has been a fixture in the Yankees’ bullpen since 2008. With a live fastball and drop-off-the-table curveball, Robertson has been a steady presence for the Yankees.
This year, however, Robertson—like Chamberlain—seems to have matured into a dangerous weapon for the Yankees leading up to Mariano Rivera. Robertson has posted a 1.42 ERA with an eye-popping 30 strikeouts in just 19 innings of work. Manager Joe Girardi has become comfortable with using Robertson in situations where a strikeout was needed.
Neither David Robertson nor Joba Chamberlain have officially been announced as Mariano Rivera’s set-up man in Rafael Soriano’s absence. However, this young, dynamic duo may be better off splitting the duties.
While Soriano will most likely return to his role as set-up man when he returns—GM Brian Cashman does not want a $9 million middle reliever—it is certainly comforting to Yankees fans to know that David Robertson and Joba Chamberlain are maturing into one of the best young tandems in the American League.