Commentary

Dos and don'ts of Joba's transition

Originally Published: June 3, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It's not as if Joba Chamberlain doesn't know what the first inning feels like.

It's not as if the Yankees have asked him to hit cleanup, right? It's not as if they're trying to convert him to a catcher or something.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Christopher Pasatieri/US PresswireJoba Chamberlain hasn't started a game since July 25, 2007, for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
No, when he heads for the mound Tuesday night for the first big-league start of his career, he's just going back to doing something he's been doing all his life -- or, to be technical, something he did for most of the first 21½ years of his life, anyway.

The job description: Starting pitcher. And Joba has been there, done that.

Just not lately. Not in the past 314 days, at least. Not in his past 41 consecutive trips to the mound. And not in New York City, with the whole nation -- not to mention the whole Steinbrenner family -- watching.

So there will be a transition. There will be lessons to learn. And to get a feel for what that transition, and those lessons, will feel like, we asked two prominent pitchers who have been down this tricky midseason bullpen-to-rotation highway -- Curt Schilling of the Red Sox and Tom Gordon of the Phillies -- to lend their insights into the dos and don'ts of navigating that highway.

Here's their fascinating assortment of memories, insights and advice for the newest member of the Ex-Relievers Club:

The Toughest Adjustment


Once upon a time, Flash Gordon was the Joba Chamberlain of his time. In 1989, Gordon was 21 years old, overmatching hitters out of the bullpen in his first full big-league season, and then was asked by the Royals to try life in the rotation.

Hershiser: Tricky Transition

First, the mind-set for Joba Chamberlain, who makes his first start tonight against Toronto, is the strikeout isn't as important in terms of getting hitters out because it takes more pitches. With a pitch count somewhere between 65-70, he should look to get first- and second-pitch outs. He needs to be very efficient, get ahead of hitters and not use as many set-up pitches.

The second thing to watch for is easier said than done. The Yankees want Chamberlain to bring along his curveball and changeup, but working on secondary pitches makes you throw more pitches -- so it's tough to develop pitches and be efficient at the same time, especially on a pitch count.

Third, he will need to back off the intensity a little bit. Chamberlain is animated as a reliever, but carrying that kind of energy for a long period of time can wear you down. There's a different mentality and pacing as a starter compared to hitting the microwave button and being ready to go from the bullpen.

I'd tell him he needs to be himself, use his fastball and slider and build his endurance and arm strength. Once he gets to where he can throw 100 pitches, then he can develop and bring along other pitches; you don't want to try and accomplish too many goals in the first outing, and the Yankees have outlined a lot of goals -- build endurance, develop the curve and changeup. You just can't do all of that in one outing. Chamberlain needs to be efficient, get ahead of hitters and not grind on having to establish his curve and changeup.

And, at least for this outing, he is going to put a strain on the bullpen since he's on a pitch count and manager Joe Girardi is likely going to have to go to a bullpen that no longer includes Chamberlain.

If he tires the second or third time through the lineup, then that will be something new for Chamberlain because he's going to have to learn how to get hitters out when he's fatigued. Still, he's done an exceptional job dealing with all the chaos surrounding whether he should start or set up Mariano Rivera. More importantly, he has exceptional stuff, has had a great deal of success in his brief time in the big leagues and pitches with such poise. And great ability brings great poise.
"For me," he said, "the easiest adjustment was coming from the minor leagues as a starter and going to the bullpen, because it didn't matter to me how I got to the big leagues. I didn't care if I was pitching middle relief or set-up or whatever. I think that transition was a lot easier because I didn't try to over-emphasize anything. I just went out there and pitched. But once they asked me to start, that was a tough transition."

What made it so hard, Gordon said, was that he discovered he didn't have enough pitches to be as dominating a starter in the big leagues as he'd been in relief.

"I had a lot of inconsistency because I was really only a two-pitch [fastball-curve] pitcher," Gordon said. "To find that third pitch -- a changeup -- was something I knew I needed to do, but I couldn't get a grasp of it."

But from what he has seen and heard about Joba Chamberlain, Gordon doesn't see a guy who should face the same obstacles he did. If Chamberlain's curve and changeup were as good once upon a time as they're reputed to be, he should be able to dig them out of his attic now, even if he has barely thrown them since last July.

"If he grew up doing it, those pitches are still there," Gordon said. "It may take him a little while to be as sharp with them as he was before. But as a starter, he'll need those pitches. And if he threw them before, they'll be there.

"He really doesn't even need three quality pitches," Gordon said. "He really just needs two. And the third pitch, he can use as a show pitch -- just something to show the hitters so they know he has it."

Knowing What You Are


It's hard to remember the bullpen portion of Schilling's career anymore. But in 1990-91, the first two full seasons of his career, he did nothing but relieve for the Orioles and Astros. It was only after he went to Philadelphia, where he eased into the rotation after 16 overpowering bullpen appearances in 1992, that his manager, Jim Fregosi, and his pitching coach, Johnny Podres, decided he was a guy with "No. 1 starter" written all over him.

And so, much like Joba, Schilling didn't need to be talked into changing jobs or mind-sets. He wanted exactly what his team wanted.

"The mind-set was never an issue for me, I guess," he said. "I just never thought about it. I always knew I was a starter, and that's where I wanted to be anyway. Plus, on the first day with the Phillies, Pods told me that I was born to start and that's where I'd end up."

Gordon, on the other hand, took a long time to figure out what he was -- and wasn't. As the Royals yo-yoed him through four seasons in which he made at least 10 starts and 15 relief appearances, Gordon increasingly understood that even when he was passing through the rotation, he was really a relief pitcher masquerading as a starter.

"When I looked in the mirror, I saw a reliever," Gordon said. The more he watched teammate Bret Saberhagen dominate with three pitches, he said, the more "I realized I needed another pitch." But he never did find that pitch. And after he went to Boston and experienced what it was like to be a closer, "if you'd told me then I had to go back to the rotation, I'd have said no way."

So the fact that Chamberlain envisions himself as a starter has a chance to be an important piece of this equation.

The Midseason Shuffle


In a perfect world, no pitcher would want to make a transition this way -- relieving for two months, then dropping into the rotation in June. Nobody has to explain that to Gordon, because he bounced back and forth so many times -- and never liked it.

"To me, it always felt like coming back from rehab [after an injury]," he said. "You've got games where you feel real good, where everything comes easy, and then you've got games where you fight yourself. … He's going to find he's going to have two starts where he feels good, and then one or two where he doesn't feel as good. So once he learns he has to pitch in those games where he doesn't feel as good, and not try to overpower guys all day, he can be a Cy Young candidate."

Joba's Role Models

Other young relievers who went into the rotation in midseason:

Tom Gordon 1989 (age 21)
• Relief: 33 games, 10-2, 3.14 ERA, 1 save, 66 IP, 39 hits, 78 K
• Starting: 16 starts, 7-7, 3.99 ERA, 97 IP, 83 hits, 75 K
Curt Schilling 1992 (age 25)
• Relief: 16 games, 2-2, 1.83 ERA, 2 saves, 28 1/3 IP, 18 hits, 29 K
• Starting: 26 starts, 12-9, 2.27 ERA, 198 IP, 147 hits, 118 K
Johan Santana, 2003 Twins (age 24)
• Relief: 27 games, 1-1, 3.56 ERA, 48 IP, 44 hits, 60 K
• Starting: 18 starts, 11-2, 2.85 ERA, 110 1/3 IP, 83 hits, 109 K
John Wetteland, 1989 Dodgers (age 22)
• Relief: 19 games, 3-2, 1.83 ERA, 1 save, 39 1/3 IP, 25 hits, 40 K
• Starting: 12 starts, 2-6, 4.97 ERA, 63 1/3 IP, 56 hits, 56 K

Carlos Zambrano, 2002 Cubs (age 21)
• Relief: 16 games, 0-0, 3.52 ERA, 15 1/3 IP, 17 hits, 14 K
• Starting: 16 starts, 4-8, 3.68 ERA, 93 1/3 IP, 77 hits, 79 K
Kelvim Escobar, 1998 Blue Jays (age 22)
• Relief: 12 games, 0-2, 12.66 ERA, 10 2/3 IP, 19 hits, 12 K
• Starting: 10 starts, 6-2, 2.35 ERA, 69 IP, 53 hits, 60 K
But Schilling has a different take. His suggestion is …

Don't Go Changing


"The formula that made you successful is what you go with," Schilling said. "There will be changes for sure, but he'll still be a power guy relying on power stuff. His command is so good that, in my opinion, the transition will be a lot smoother for him than it might otherwise be. Not to mention he's got very good makeup and mound presence."

Chamberlain has undoubtedly heard warnings that he's not going to have the same premium unleaded on his fastball as a starter that he had coming out of the 'pen to face three hitters. But both Schilling and Gordon had the same warning for him: Don't abandon that fastball, no matter how you feel.

"Even once you develop your other pitches, you've still got to pitch off the fastball," Gordon said. "You may not throw 98 [mph], but you'll have more command of your fastball in the zone by throwing 96."

"Above all else," said Schilling, "if you cannot command your fastball to both sides of the plate, against right-handed and left-handed hitters, don't work on your breaking stuff. On nights you have iffy breaking stuff, a power pitcher can still win throwing mainly fastballs. … Regardless of how hard you throw, from [Jamie] Moyer to [Josh] Beckett, fastball command is and always will be the most important weapon for any pitcher. If you can hit your spot eight out of 10 times, you can win a Cy Young."

Save That Fastball


The one aspect of Chamberlain that's especially reminiscent of the young Schilling is how easily he seems to be able to light up the radar gun and still throw strikes. Even Gordon said of him: "He doesn't appear like he's forcing the ball. He just lets it go, and it's 97-98."

That ability to launch those electric, seemingly effortless smoke balls is a rare talent. And if Chamberlain can harness that talent anything like the young Schilling did, he can channel it into one of his most formidable weapons.

"I had very simple, very easy mechanics," Schilling said. "I don't think I taxed myself physically throwing a baseball. That was, in my mind anyway, the thing that allowed me to 'reach back' in tight spots in the late innings and throw 3-5 miles an hour harder. If he can manage that, you'll have a starter with 92-94 [mph] stuff that will reach back for 97-98 at crunch time, basically having another pitch in the biggest spots. Not many guys can do that."

Maximize Your Pitches


The best lesson Johnny Podres ever taught him, Schilling said, was this:

It isn't wins or strikeouts or ERA that are the real measure of a starting pitcher. It's innings.

"Innings are what pitchers define their value as," Schilling said. "The more innings, the more valuable, since you have to be good to pitch innings. An ace throws more innings than anyone else. At least that was the mind-set I was taught with."

Joba's Splits

Starting (minor leagues)
15 starts, 9-2, 2.56 ERA, 84 1/3 IP, 61 hits, 125 K
Relief (minor leagues)
3 games, 0-0, 0.00 ERA, 4 IP, 1 hit, 10 K
Relief (major leagues)
42 games, 3-2, 1.32 ERA, 1 save, 47 2/3 IP, 28 hits, 64 K
But that's a problem for Joba, because the Yankees will be monitoring his innings more carefully than they monitor which Red Sox have shirts buried under their stadium. So Gordon has this advice:

"Maximize your pitches, and use them in a way that you don't try to overthrow. Try to get ahead of hitters and maximize. I was always a strikeout guy like him. So I'd get to 70 pitches in four innings, and 100 pitches in six, and I'm out. But if I get one- or two-pitch outs, then I've saved my pitches for when I need them. When I've seen him pitch, guys take a lot of pitches, and they're going to because he throws so hard. So he's got to throw a lot of strikes and make them swing the bats."

Attend Study Hall


Relief pitchers like Joba stomp to the mound, fire up their most unhittable stuff and dare hitters to touch it. But top-of-the-rotation starters can't operate that way. And that might be the biggest difference between the life Chamberlain is leaving behind and the job description the Yankees are depending on him to assume. To make it to acehood, though, he needs to master the art of preparation.

"I never wanted to get beat because I threw the wrong pitch," Schilling said. "I could live with -- barely -- getting beat on a mistake, only if that mistake was physical. To think I could have won a game I lost if I'd known more about a hitter was something I couldn't accept. And early on I made it my goal to know every hitter as well as, or better than, he knew himself.

"I always believed that level of study -- which [Tony] Gwynn, [Greg] Maddux and others already did -- meant to me I really only had to get 12 to 18 outs a night, because I already knew three or four guys' weaknesses were ones I could exploit, and those guys could not hit me. So I game-planned around the five or six guys I knew I would have to work each at-bat on. Very different mentality than three up, three down, night over."

Don't Pace Yourself


So when a short reliever becomes a starter, how should he approach the first inning? The same way he did as a reliever -- let it fly? Or does he need to pace himself so there's gas in the tank when he needs it later?

He's already pitched in front of the best closer in baseball, and there's just as much pressure there. ... So if he's as mentally tough as he looks ... he can be the next Cy Young.

--Tom Gordon

Many a converted reliever has tripped himself up trying to figure out that answer -- maybe because there is no answer that works for everyone. But Schilling says a starter can never forget this gigantic lesson: The first inning matters as much as the ninth.

"The hard mental part was 'easing back,'" Schilling said. "That first inning, at first, was where I tried to set tempo and assess my stuff. What I learned was, I could lose a game in that first A.B. in the first inning.

"As a starter, early on, my bullpens carried immense weight in how I 'felt,' only to learn they really meant nothing. Not one pitch I threw in the pen had any impact on anything I did on the mound, and that took some getting used to. So I then started the game with the light switch on, and dialed in, without being over-amped or overthrowing. The game came to me on my terms."

Embrace The Pressure


The final hurdle Chamberlain faces is that he isn't going to be expected to be just another arm in the rotation. Hank Steinbrenner himself has already said he expects Joba to be "our Josh Beckett." And two trillion Yankees fans expect exactly the same. So imagine being 22 years old, with under 50 big-league innings on your permanent record, having to deal with that.

"It will be very tough," said Gordon, who spent two years doing just what Joba has been doing -- setting up Mariano Rivera. "But I like this kid. I like his stuff. His fastball ranks with anybody I've ever seen. So if it's me, I think I'd take it in a good way. The things you do there are going to be scrutinized. That's just part of it. And you have to take some bad with the good. But with him, there's going to be mostly good.

"He's already pitched in front of the best closer in baseball, and there's just as much pressure there. Trust me. I know. And this kid has already shown he can handle that pressure. So if he's as mentally tough as he looks, if he's really got it up top, he's got nothing to worry about. He can be the next Cy Young."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com