Commentary

Lowering the bar for Joba Chamberlain

There's still time for 25-year-old ex-phenom to save his career -- but not much

Updated: January 26, 2011, 6:13 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Did the Yankees ruin Joba Chamberlain?

Did Joba Chamberlain ruin himself?

Is Joba Chamberlain, in fact, ruined at all?

Of the many questions that face the New York Yankees as we head into spring training 2011, "Whither Joba Chamberlain?'' is one of the most confounding of all.

It was just over three years ago that Chamberlain was among the most exciting, and excited, pitchers in all of baseball. Few players have electrified Yankee Stadium the way the right-hander did in August of 2007.

Today, the very thought of Joba Chamberlain coming into a game is more likely to agitate and aggravate. Just as he once raised the energy level of the place, now he does the same to the anxiety level.

What went wrong? Who was to blame, if anyone? And most importantly, is it possible to get Chamberlain back, if not to the levels he achieved in his jaw-dropping first season, at least to the point where it will be safe to watch again without a hand over your eyes?

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireA look inside the numbers says Joba's 2010 might not have been as bad as it seemed.

The question of what went wrong with Chamberlain is one that drives the Yankees, and particularly their GM, Brian Cashman, absolutely nuts.

The Joba Rules, always derided as excessive but also grudgingly respected for the team's attempt at preserving a precious young arm, are now blamed by many for the fate that has befallen Chamberlain. Once as close to a sure thing as a relief pitcher not named Mariano can get, his name has become a synonym for erratic and, at times, ineffective.

Some say he hasn't been the same since the night a swarm of midges caused him to unravel in a playoff game in Cleveland in 2007. Others hold that the Yankees' inconsistent treatment of him -- he's a reliever one day, a starter the next, the eighth-inning guy on Thursday, the sixth-inning guy on Friday -- left scars on his psyche that he has been unable to shake off.

Lately, the Yankees are pointing to Aug. 4, 2008, the day he left the mound in the fifth inning of a game in Texas with a sore shoulder and didn't return for a month. Is that when it all changed for Joba Chamberlain?

All everyone can agree on is that at the ripe old age of 25, he is not the same pitcher he was in 2007, and probably never will be again.

But how good can he still be?

With the arrival of Rafael Soriano as the anointed set-up man for 2011 and possibly the successor to Mariano Rivera in 2013, Chamberlain's role has changed. He could be even more marginalized than he was last year, when he lost his eighth-inning job -- first to David Robertson and then to Kerry Wood, who was considered a retread until his resurgence.

Now, the predictions for Joba -- once assumed to be the natural successor to Rivera as the Yankees' closer -- are a lot more cautious, a lot less ambitious.

"I expect him to get important outs for us,'' manager Joe Girardi said in a telephone interview this week. "His role will probably be similar to what it was last year. It could be the sixth inning, it could be the seventh inning, sometimes it could be the eighth depending upon how much we've used Soriano. The bottom line is the better he pitches, the later in the game he'll get to pitch.''

In other words, he has to prove himself all over again.

Girardi and Cashman have unconditionally ruled out a return to the rotation, in spite of the Yankees' dire need of starting pitching.

"Listen, he had a full chance to make a run at it [in spring training 2010], and he failed at it,'' Cashman said. "His stuff does not play the same way as a starter anymore since the injury in Texas. He's pedestrian as a starter but he still has pretty wicked stuff as a reliever. So his job is just to get outs when Joe calls on him. It's as simple as that.''

Nothing, of course, is simple when it comes to Joba. His bottom-line numbers in 2010 were mediocre at best -- 3-4, 4.40 ERA, .253 BAA -- but he struck out batters at a high rate (9.7/9 IP), walked them at a low rate (2.7/9) and allowed fewer line drives than at any other time in his career, according to FanGraphs.com. And his BABIP (batting average on balls put in play) was an inordinately high .327, indicating he might have been the victim of some bad luck. His velocity, which took an alarming dip midseason, was consistently back around 96 by the end of 2010.

And in truth, if you remove a half-dozen truly bad outings from his 73 appearances, his season looks a whole lot better. But the reality for Girardi is that those outings did exist, and just about every one of them cost the Yankees a ballgame.

So where does Joba fit now? Is he trade bait, attractive because of his youth and the promise that still resides in his arm? Or insurance for a roster that can't be sure Soriano will stick around more than one season because of the trap doors in his player-friendly three-year contract?

Girardi, an eternal optimist, believes Joba is about to have a bounceback season. (He believes the same about A.J. Burnett, another of the key questions facing the Yanks.) But Cashman, a realist at best, believes the same thing.

Both agree that Chamberlain pitched better in 2010 than his numbers would indicate. Cashman thinks it is because Joba was still recovering from the rotator cuff tendinitis that drove him from the mound in Texas in 2008, and points to his fine August and September as evidence.

Girardi, sounding as if he is rating a Cabernet, says Chamberlain 'lacked finish'' on his slider.

Both believe new pitching coach Larry Rothschild will unlock the key to making Joba an effective reliever again.

The one area in which they disagree is the effect the Yankees' management of Joba's early career has had on him, and perhaps continues to have.

"Those people are stupid,'' Cashman said of critics of the Yankees' handling of Chamberlain. "It's just an easy, stupid, idiotic thing to say. There's no screwing anything up. That's how Andy Pettitte came in, that's how guys have been broken in for years. They're starters in the minor leagues, they come up and we use them in the 'pen, and eventually they break into the rotation. So what's the problem? I just think it's na´ve."

Girardi is not so sure. "I think there can be some confusion for a player when you're bounced around like that,'' he said. "But last year, he knew he was going to be a bullpen guy from right after spring training. And this is the first season he's going to be doing the same role two years in a row, so that shouldn't be a factor.''

Girardi thinks Chamberlain's failure as a starter was due more to psychological makeup than any physical problem. "Joba seems to me to be an adrenaline guy,'' he said. "That works better coming out of the 'pen. I think we were asking him to do a lot more as a starter, to use all four of his pitches. Out of the bullpen you can get by with only two. I think that suits him a little better.''

And both defended Chamberlain's work ethic, although he is clearly not in the kind of physical condition many of his older teammates are, and his 2009 conviction on a DUI charge has given rise to the belief that Joba likes to have as much fun away from the park as he does on the field.

"I have no complaints with how hard Joba works,'' said Girardi, a physical fitness fanatic.

"He works his tail off but I think he parties his tail off, too,'' said a Yankees insider who insisted on anonymity. " I think he wastes a lot of his work ethic because he burns the candle at both ends.''

"I've heard that,'' Cashman acknowledged. "But I've never seen it. As far as I can tell, he works as hard as anyone here.''

The reality is, after the seemingly incorrigible Burnett, Chamberlain is the No. 1 project on Rothschild's to-do list for 2011. With Mariano, Soriano and a resurgent Joba in the 'pen, Girardi said he thought the Yankees could have their own version of the Nasty Boys. Cashman said that, published reports to the contrary, he neither wants to trade Chamberlain nor is trying to.

And as incredible as it may seem, with only three full seasons of major league service under his belt, there is still time for Joba Chamberlain to have an excellent, and even better than that, career as a New York Yankee.

"Our eighth and ninth innings are secured, so now he's in the battle to get those vital outs after the starter and before Soriano and Mo,'' Cashman said. "His job now is to find his niche, focus on it, and look to improve it any way he can.''

Meaning that the rest of the Joba Chamberlain story, still in its early stages, has yet to be written. And the way it ends is almost entirely up to Joba Chamberlain.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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