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Joba Chamberlain: Not So Fast, Yanks' Choice of Phil Hughes To Start a Smart One

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IMarch 25, 2010

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 04:  Joba Chamberlain #62 of the New York Yankees throws a pitch against the Philadelphia Phillies in Game Six of the 2009 MLB World Series at Yankee Stadium on November 4, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City. The Yankees won 7-3 to win the series 4 games to 2.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

With the announcement Thursday that New York Yankees right-handed pitcher Phil Hughes will be the team's fifth starter, a firestorm has arisen over what many now call the misuse of fellow right-handed flamethrower Joba Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, 24, was kept on strict pitch and innings limits last season as part of what Yankees brass claimed would be a permanent transition to a starting role. Chamberlain pitched on more than four days of rest in 13 of his 31 starts, and threw only 157.1 innings due to pitch limits that kept him from reaching the sixth inning in nine of his last 11 outings.

Now relegated back to the bullpen for his first regular stay there since 2008, Chamberlain will have to readjust his program yet again. This has sorely angered a number of Yankees bloggers and even some of their professional beat writers—not to mention injury and pitching guru Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus:

"Joba may be remembered as the nadir of the 'save young pitchers' movement," tweeted Carroll Thursday. "Everything they did was to keep him healthy. Well, he is."

Whatever criticism the team may get for it, however, Chamberlain's switch to the bullpen looks like a very astute, and potentially permanent, move.

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It should not be viewed as a demotion. Chamberlain, a hard thrower but not a complete pitcher, has little more than third-starter upside in New York's vaunted rotation, which already includes aces CC Sabathia and Javier Vazquez.

In the bullpen, however, his upward mobility is considerably better. Mariano Rivera, although a future Hall of Famer as the Yankees' closer for the last decade and a half, is 40 years old, and his contract expires after 2010. Chamberlain ought to be groomed for Rivera's position, beginning next season.

In the meantime, he can shadow Rivera and provide extremely good value in a setup role along the way. That may be an unsavory notion to Yankees fans who had their hearts set on a three-headed monster of Sabathia, Hughes, and Chamberlain atop the team's rotation for the next 10 years, but it much better suits Chamberlain's skill set and the Yankees' needs.

In 50 career appearances in relief, Chamberlain struck out nearly 12 batters per nine innings, while walking just three per nine frames. He has surrendered only two home runs in 60 innings of relief work and has a WHIP of 0.98.

As a starter, his stats crumble across the board: roughly four walks and only 8.4 whiffs per nine innings, 25 home runs allowed in a little more than 220 innings of work, and a 1.48 WHIP.

This discrepancy does not merely reflect a transition to the different demands of starting. Rather, it exposes a weakness in Chamberlain's game that he would need another year of minor league tinkering to correct it strongly enough to become a starter.

The problem is that Chamberlain's fastball simply is not half as effective when he cannot throw it at full strength.

In 2008, when Chamberlain pitched predominantly out of the bullpen, his heater averaged 95 miles per hour, according to FanGraphs.com. But in 2009, the need to pace himself brought Chamberlain's average fastball velocity down to 92.5 mph. Corresponding to that loss of velocity, FanGraphs shows an alarming loss of potency in Chamberlain's fastball: after saving 0.79 runs per 100 fastballs thrown in 2008, the native-Nebraskan actually lost 1.26 runs per 100 such pitches in 2009.

Chamberlain's slider, while still a plus second pitch, lost over 0.90 runs of effectiveness per 100 thrown in 2009, this too due to the fact that Chamberlain threw it at roughly the same velocity he had before, making it less different from his fastball than it had previously been.

With two very good strikeout pitches and an arm that still has plenty left in it, Chamberlain projects as a top-end closer in the very near future. New York would have been foolish to keep coddling him in the rotation, especially because of the obvious problems he had maintaining effective use of his two go-to weapons in that role.

Chamberlain might best be compared to Boston Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon, whom Red Sox brass had once pegged for the starting rotation but who became an All-Star relief ace after losing out on a starting job in spring training of 2006.

GM Brian Cashman and manager Joe Girardi made the right decision by moving Chamberlain to the bullpen, though it might be fairly argued that they did so a year later than would have been ideal.

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