Joba Chamberlain is having an atrophic season. There's no getting around it. With a 5.79 ERA at the All-Star break, the Yanks' appointed set-up man has implicated on himself like a collapsing star too many times this year. But ask the sports media what's wrong and they'll tell you he needs to show more emotion. He needs to have the pitcher with the football player mentality who performs on raw energy and pumps his fist whenever he strikes someone out. These of course are empty words vomited out from an industry that continues to grow in the business of talking a lot but saying nothing.
Go back to last year during the postseason. Most media experts were ecstatic over Joba's sterling 2.84 ERA out of the bullpen in the playoffs. They were captivated by his abundance of fist pumps. "See," they said. "He's back. This is the Joba we've been missing for the past year. Joba belongs here in the bullpen because he's a full-throttle, pedal-to-the-floor type pitcher." Appropriately, a grand total of 6 and 1/3 innings out of the pen confirmed this.
Forget the blown save in game 4 of the World Series. Forget the fact that in 4 of his other 9 postseason outings last year, Joba left the game with runners on base in the middle of an inning. 3 of those 4 times, he left with a runner in scoring position. And how many of those runners ended up scoring? None. That's right, through the entire plays, not one runner that Joba left on base when he exited the game scored. A tribute to whoever came in after Joba (Phil Coke, Damaso Marte, and Mariano Rivera) more so than Joba. But this is not what we were told. We were told Joba is back. A 2.84 ERA in the playoffs! Whooo! Yeah! Nevermind the fact that if just one more runner that Joba had left on base would have scored, his ERA in the small sample size of just 6 and 1/3 innings would have soared to 4.26. If two runners had scored, it would have climbed to 5.68. Surely no one would have been claiming Joba as a surefire bullpen stud, as was the case this off-season. The point here is that a 5.68 ERA in 6-plus inns pitched does not mean anything – and neither does a 2.84 ERA. But do not tell that to the New York Media. As long as Joba was pumping his fist on the mound, this meant he was performing at his peak.
Flash forward to 2010. Joba has a 5.79 ERA more than halfway through the season – and I've seen him pump his fist several times. So what's happening? Why is not Joba's fist pump making him the best set-up man in the league? What is not working? It must be his emotions, right? It must be that he needs to have the adrenaline-junkie on the mound that just throws the ball and uses superior velocity no matter what the location to get guys out. Again, this is what we are told by the media. It has nothing to do with Joba's inability to PITCH. Not to throw, but to PITCH. It could not be the fact that he leaves most of his pitches up and right over the middle of the plate way too often. Nor could it be that his mechanics are inconsistent. No, it could not possibly be anything so reasonable.
Joba Chamberlain does have tremendous talent. And that is why, in my mind, he could become one of the great tragedies in recent Yankee memory. Not that he will not be an excellent closer or middle reliever for the rest of his career – anything is possible with raw talent like his. And keep in mind, he is only 24. But again, go back to last season. Everyone's expectations were so high for Joba as a starter that we failed to see the big picture. We refused to settle for the fact that last year was a development year for Joba as a starter, not a year where he was invited to lead the team to a World Series Championship as the Ace of the staff. He had some great outings, some poor outings, some mediocre outings, and the inconsistencies that plague every young pitcher. But instead of acknowledging this, too many media members just pointed to Chamberlain's inconsistencies as confirmation that he's not good enough to be a starter.
Yet many forget where Joba was before he collapsed in the last two months of the 2009 season. After his July 29 win over the Rays, Joba was 7-2 with a 3.58 ERA. Let's give these numbers some perspective. At that point in the season, AJ Burnett was 10-4 with a 3.53 ERA; Andy Pettitte was 8-6 with a 4.67 ERA; And CC Sabathia was 10-7 with a 3.83 ERA. Now the counter-argument to this would go something along the lines of, "What really matters is how you do over the course of an entire season." And this argument is very true. But let's provide some more perspective here: Joba was a 23 year old kid last year, in his first full season as a starter, in the American League where there is a DH, and in the AL East, the best division in baseball.
Many things could have caused Joba to finish the season poorly. His routine was severely meddled with in terms of days off between starts and pitch count and so on. Maybe because he's young and has not pitched that many innings in the past, fatigue hit his body and his arm, and he unraveled from there. But late season fatigue is something that happens to young pitchers often, and it is certainly not a good reason to give up on someone as a starter.
This is why Joba's career could end up being a tragedy. Because any other team in baseball would have been thrilled to have a 23 year old pitcher with raw talent like Joba's. They would have seen his poor and mediocre performances last season and said, "So what? He's inconsistent as most young pitchers tend to be." They would have also seen his flashes of brilliance and said to themselves, "This kid has some serious potential." They would have developed their young pitcher. They would have given him the time to develop a third and fourth pitch, to work on location, to learn pitch sequences and approaches, to learn how to battle deep into games and without his best stuff. Simply, they would have given him time to learn how to pitch. There's no guarantee that Joba would have been a stud as a starter. Last season, there were signs that pointed in both directions. But at his age and with his talent, it would have been interesting to see how he could have developed as a starter.
I'm not knocking the Yankees' decision to put Joba in the pen. They had the resources to purchase four starting pitchers and develop just one young talent, Phil Hughes. The "win now" mentality has room for one young pitcher in a starting rotation, but not two. Believe me, most of the time this is a good thing for the Yankees. And it was the right move to put Joba in the pen. The only problem is that Joba was still developing. He was still learning to pitch, still working on adding a curveball and a change-up. When is he going to work on these pitches now? When is he going to throw these pitches in live game situations? Especially considering it is only used in important junctures of games where results are all that matter. Does anyone really think he's going to be pitching in a game against the Red Sox, up 3.2 in the eighth inning, and say to himself, "Well maybe I should throw a change-up here, just to get experience throwing the pitch . " Of course not.
When you're a starter, you are forced to really focus on pitching – accuracy, movement, pitch-sequence. You can not get deep into games if you do not. You are forced to throw all of your pitches. You are given more situations to throw all of your pitches. In the pen it's a much different circumstance. You do not need to rely on having more than two pitches. You can get away with not pitching well more often than as a starter. You can get away with only having one pitch work on a given day because by the time the other team figures out you can only control one pitch, you've already done your job and are sitting in the dugout. This is not true as a starter. The opposing hitters will be on to you by the third innning if they smell blood, and you'll be out of the game early as a pitcher if you can not correct yourself in a hurry. As is the case in any sport, the more exposure there is to an athlete, the more that athlete's flaws are revealed. The best athletes, and the ones who last over time, are the ones who have multiple facets to their game, the athletes that have more options to rely on in their repertoire.
What we're seeing right now with Joba is that he's getting away with nothing out of the pen. This really shows you how poor his ability to pitch this year has been. So the question must be asked; Has the learning stopped for Joba out in the bullpen? Has his growth been overthrown? Surely he could still become a great relief pitcher or closer in his career. But the thought remains that maybe Joba would have a greater arsenal had he given more time to develop as a starter. Maybe he'd have more options if one pitch was not feeling good in a particular outing. Maybe he'd be more precise with his pitches and have more ways to attack hitters. Ultimately Joba's development is a victim of circumstance in the Yankees' world of "win now." This world where fans and media members judge you based on 6 and 1/3 innings of baseball; And this world where Yankees management often responds to those judgments.