July 25, 2014

The Joba Rules…What?

September 2, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

After spending a few weeks out of the country, Josh Deitch returned to find his Yankees at the top of the AL East, but the airwaves buzzing with angry condemnations of the organization’s handling of Joba Chamberlain.

As I write this, the Yankees rest comfortably atop the American League East, six and a half games ahead of the Red Sox.  Their offense ranks first in the AL in runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging, and OPS; while their pitching stands in the top five in opponents’ batting average and OPS, WHIP, and saves.  Everything should be gravy in the Bronx, right?

Not quite.  In order to save Joba Chamberlain’s arm for the future and possibly prolong his career, the Yankees have decided to drastically reduce his innings in each start and ultimately move him to the bullpen for the first round of the playoffs.  Ideally, the plan culminates with Chamberlain returning to the starting rotation should New York reach the ALCS.

At first glance, I incredulously attacked the Yankee brass along with everyone else.  “Let him pitch,” I shouted to anyone willing to listen.  In the face of the success the Texas Rangers’ pitching staff experienced due to team president Nolan Ryan’s decree to send pitch counts to the same place that missing left socks and DVDs of Two and a Half Men go, it’s hard to accept the fact that the Yankees are unwilling to fully commit to Chamberlain as a starter.

Then I looked in the mirror and noticed the two tiny scars in my left shoulder that remind me of my collegiate days as a starting pitcher.  Remember the Alamo.  In baseball, it’s more like “remember the Cubs.”

Seven years ago, the future of Chicago Cubs pitching was so bright, fans had to wear shades.  In 1998, a 21-year-old Kerry Wood had burst upon the scene, striking out 20 Astros in one game and finishing the year with a 3.40 ERA and 233 strikeouts.  Four years later, a 21-year-old Mark Prior shot through the Minor Leagues, eventually making 19 starts with the big club, and finishing 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA and 147 strikeouts.

Between 2002 and 2003, Wood and Prior combined to throw 752.2 innings.  Flash forward to 2009.  Mention Wood and Prior to a dyed-in-the-wool Cubs fan and expect to see a few tears shed over a pint of Old Style and a deep-dish pizza.  Both experienced arm problems between 2004 and 2006.  Wood is now a middling closer in Cleveland, Prior hasn’t thrown a pitch in a major league game since August 9th, 2006, and the Cubs lag 10 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central.

Like corpses of co-eds in the yard of Jason Voorhees, the dead arms of overused young pitchers litter the landscape of Major League Baseball.  Remember the 1995-1996 Mets’ Generation K, comprising Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher, and Paul Wilson?  Of those three pitchers, Isringhausen had the best major league career—as a closer.  In his thirteen years following 1996, he only made 11 more starts.  After debuting with the Mets in 1996, Paul Wilson didn’t throw another major league pitch until 2000.  In 2001, Bill Pulsipher retired, having pitched 327 innings in six seasons and amassing a 5.15 ERA.

These days, organizations sink so much money into these number one picks.  Stephen Strasburg signed for $15.1 million!  Why should they be penalized for trying to maximize their investment?  It does nobody in New York any good to blow Joba Chamberlain out after his first full year as a starter.

That being said, the Yankees still dropped the ball.  The fact that Joba would be shut down did not come as a surprise.  It was an organizational decision.  Thus, the fact that the Yankees now find themselves without a fifth starter is akin to a poker player confidently going all-in with a king-high straight only to realize afterward that he only holds four connecting cards.

In his last start, after three innings and 35 pitches, Chamberlain left.  The Yankees had to use five relief pitchers to nail down the win.  Knowing that Chamberlain will only go three innings a start handicaps Joe Girardi not only every fifth day, but also the days before and after a Joba start.  The Yankee manager must hold pitchers in reserve to pick up the slack after a three-inning start and then those same pitchers will need extra rest after being stretched further than they are accustomed.

Also, let’s be clear, Joba Chamberlain is about as mature and consistent as Stifler from American Pie.  In just three years with the Yankees, Chamberlain’s bad-mouthed New York, been called out for showing up opposing hitters, and been arrested for a DUI in Nebraska.  Do you know how hard it is to be arrested for a DUI in Nebraska?  Your blood must be in the process of transforming to alcohol!

Yet, the Yankees expect Chamberlain to go two-and-a-half weeks without starting a game, and take the ball in the fourth game of the ALCS.  A possible pivotal swing game.  On the road.  This seems like a plan concocted by Wile E. Coyote—just without the ACME supplies.

Ultimately, protecting a young pitcher’s arm is one thing.  Doing so without a plan is similar to planning a romantic evening around an episode of Two and a Half Men:

It’s destined for failure.

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  1. [...] now, despite the precautions taken (or, as some think, in part because of them), Chamberlain finds his career at a crossroads as he [...]

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