Joba Chamberlain’s Latest Obstacle

March hasn’t been too kind to some big-name relievers. For Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria, there were torn elbow ligaments. For Joba Chamberlain? Well, this one’s a bit rarer: Last week, he suffered an open dislocation of his right ankle while playing with his 5-year-old son on trampoline-like contraption at a children’s gymnastics center. Essentially, bone pierced skin and he’s reported to have had lost “a potentially life-threatening amount of blood.” Sadly, the incident happened while Chamberlain had been preparing for a return following ulnar collateral ligament replacement — aka, Tommy John surgery — last year. Here’s  Bill Madden and Anthony McCarron, of the New York Daily News, with more details:

“When the skin is intact, it’s much easier to heal,” [Dr. Steven] Weinfeld said. “This makes it not only a career-threatening injury, but a limb-threatening injury. There is a small percentage of people who end up with an amputation. There are a small percentage of people, if the skin envelope doesn’t heal, they are susceptible to infection and that can lead to amputation. These days, that’s less likely to happen because we have good antibiotics.”

Further testing showed no microfractures in Chamberlain’s injured ankle — according to Chad Jennings of the Journal News — and doctors were confident enough in Chamberlain’s ability to avoid infection that they released him from the hospital during the weekend. “Things are going as good as could be expected, as I understand it,” Yankees’ general manager Brian Cashman told Jennings. “There’s a limit of what we can give in terms of absolutes, and there’s a spectrum of risk to optimism …. We’re not in a position to give absolutes that this is going to be a definite one way or the other.”

It’s obviously a significant injury, but for what it’s worth, Chamberlain’s agent and his father have both denied the “life-threatening” blood-loss report. Harlan Chamberlain told Dan Martin and Kevin Kernan of the New York Post: “That’s [B.S.]”

For now, Chamberlain will spend the next six weeks in a cast before shifting to a weight-bearing walking boot. As Weinfeld explained in the NYDN report, infection is the most serious concern. The most optimistic scenario calls for him to be back on a mound in July — when he would also resume his rehab from elbow surgery. He was due back from that procedure in mid-June. In all likelihood, he will miss the entire 2012 campaign. We could spend all day moralizing, but the bottom line is that Chamberlain made a mistake. You know it. I know it. And he knows it.

* * *

Like so many people these days, Chamberlain grew up in a broken home. His mother battled substance abuse and left when he was three, so his father — who was stricken with polio as a child and needs a motorized scooter to get around — raised him. Chamberlain struggled with weight issues and injuries (triceps and knee) in college, though he showed enough during his junior year at Nebraska to be considered one of the best prospects in the country leading up to the 2006 draft. The Yankees grabbed him with the 40th overall pick and paid him a $1.1 million bonus.

The Yankees promoted Chamberlain late in 2007 to help their beleaguered bullpen, and he became an instant star. He posted a 1.82 FIP and 1,221 ERA+ in 24 relief innings. The “Joba Rules” — a phrase media and merchandisers coined — were put in place to protect his golden arm from notorious reliever-abuser Joe Torre. The Joba Rules were roundly mocked when Chamberlain blew out his elbow last summer because hey, they went through all that trouble to protect him but he got hurt anyway. Of course the other side of the argument is that the rules may have kept him healthy long enough to help the Yankees to the 2009 World Championship.

That instant success proved to be the worst non-injury to happen in Chamberlain’s career, as he’s now widely considered overrated and a disappointment because he’s never been able to repeat that initial dynamite performance. He’s been effective in any role, though, and the Yankees certainly have moved him around quite a bit. Chamberlain bounced from the bullpen (late-2007 and early-2008) to the rotation (late-2008 and 2009) and back to the bullpen (2010-present), though he was never sent to the minors to make the transition. Instead, the Yankees had him gradually stretch out in the big leagues. If we remove the short, pitch-limited starts he made in mid-2008 (when he was being stretched out) and late-2009 (when the Yankees were trying to limit his innings), we get what amounts to a full season’s worth of starts as a big leaguer:

Games Innings ERA K% BB% HR%
Starter (full starts)
33 183.1 3.88 22.3% 10.1% 2.4%
Reliever 150 160.1 3.03 27.6% 7.5% 1.7%

Like I said, Chamberlain has been a very effective pitcher for the Yankees — just not as hyper-effective as he was during those brief 24 innings in 2007. That was an unsustainable pace.

Chamberlain had a rough upbringing, and those ups and downs have carried into his playing career. He enjoyed the high of being a young phenom, then he dealt with the embarrassment of his DUI arrest following the 2008 season. He experienced the joy of a World Series championship in 2009, then he had to endure Tommy John surgery last year. And now he’s in the dumps again, the injured hurler who suffered a career-threatening ankle injury — and for what? For being a father who just wanted to play with his son.

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Mike writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues and baseball in general at CBS Sports.