When it comes to Joba Chamberlain and the Yankees, the phrase “star-crossed” comes to mind. On Wednesday, Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News quoted Chamberlain saying that he still believed he could be a starting pitcher. Joe Girardi and Brian Cashman responded with snark: Girardi said, “I’d like to catch one more game, too,” and Cashman said, “We’re down an outfield bat… see if he can play center.”
The next day, Joel Sherman of the New York Post slammed Chamberlain, criticizing him for “his look-at-me side” and called him “a 5-year-old,” and “a physical red flag.” “It seems very unlikely Chamberlain will be re-signing with New York after the season,” writes Mike Axisa. “That makes me sad.” How did it come to this?
Joba Chamberlain grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska, the son of unmarried parents who split up when he was an infant. His father’s family belongs to the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. Though he was born Justin Heath, as his mother battled drug addiction, his name was changed to Joba (a nickname his father liked) Chamberlain (his father’s last name). Joba was a good-not-great high school player at Lincoln Northeast High School. But he battled weight problems and after graduating high school he worked for the city’s maintenance department for a year.
From there, he went to University of Nebraska-Kearney, a Division II school in a town that takes its name from Fort Kearny, which you may remember as a stop on the Oregon Trail. Joba had an unsightly ERA that year, but began losing a lot of weight and gained velocity on his fastball, and the next year, he transferred to the flagship campus back home in Lincoln, where he took the team to the College World Series in 2005.
The Yankees drafted Joba Chamberlain with the 41st pick in the 2006 draft, a supplemental pick that they received from the Phillies after Tom Gordon departed as a free agent. They viewed him as a future ace, declaring him untouchable in trades along with two other prize pitching prospects, Phil Hughes (drafted in the first round in 2004) and Ian Kennedy (drafted ahead of Chamberlain in the first round in 2006). They refused to trade any of them for Johan Santana, or for Mark Teixeira. The reason, as Hank Steinbrenner said in 2007: “We’re going to have three No. 1’s three years from now.”
But while Chamberlain was a starter throughout college and the minor leagues, the Yankees saw their bullpen as a major weakness in 2007, and so they decided to call up Chamberlain as a
starter reliever. In retrospect, that moment appears to have been a major inflection point in his entire career. Brian Cashman hates being blamed for the rash of injuries that Chamberlain has sustained since then, though. “People are so [bleeping] stupid,” he raged to Joel Sherman in June 2012:
We only brought him up to relieve to finish off the innings he was allowed to throw while trying to help [the major league team]. And we probably don’t make the playoffs in ’07 if we didn’t put him in the pen. But he wasn’t bounced back and forth. And the debate only began because instead of keeping him in the minors hidden as a starter, we tried to win in the majors.
Wanting to win in the majors is an admirable goal. But it doesn’t make sense here. Trading for Johan Santana would have helped them win, too, but they decided to hold onto Chamberlain because they believed that Chamberlain had more value to the team as a starter than they would have been able to get in a trade. If Cashman was willing to prioritize Chamberlain’s development as a starting pitcher over trading him for Johan Santana, why did he arrive at a different conclusion when it came to filling out the back end of the bullpen in August of 2007?
When the New York Post asked Joba in August 2007 how he felt about switching to the bullpen, he said, “Any way I can help is something I’m willing to try. It’s been fun my last couple of outings.” Of course, Chamberlain was an instant sensation in 2007. He gave up a single earned run in 24 innings, good for the highest ERA+ of all time for any pitcher season with at least 20 innings pitched. (I’m assuming it’s the lowest ERA- of all time, but I wasn’t able to check.) To protect his arm, Joe Torre obeyed the team’s “Joba Rules“: Joba got a day off for every inning he pitched.
After the 2007 relief stint, the Yankees remained outwardly determined to make Joba a starter, but they opened the 2008 season with him in the pen and did not shift him to starting duties until June ’08. He missed a month in August with a rotator cuff injury. According to ESPN’s Wallace Matthews, Cashman now says that injury “convinced the Yankees that Chamberlain was more suited for relief work than starting.” He spent the 2009 season in the rotation, remaining healthy but only pitching 157 1/3 innings in 31 starts as the Yankees tried to limit his innings by rarely allowing him to go deep into games. He came out of the bullpen for his last game of the season, and he has been a reliever ever since.
He also has had more injuries. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011, and while still in recovery for that, he had surgery for a ruptured appendix. Then, in the 2012 offseason, he suffered a gruesome ankle injury while playing on a trampoline with his son Karter, at which point the New York Daily News openly speculated that his “career may be over.” In all, he has pitched just 49 1/3 innings in the past two years.
The Yankees are clearly frustrated by his injuries; just as clearly, Joba has been, too. But the Yankees and general manager Brian Cashman are disingenuous in their reasoning. It is simply inaccurate for Cashman to claim that Joba “wasn’t bounced back and forth.” He was a starter in college and early 2007, then a reliever in late 2007 and early 2008, then a starter in late 2008 and 2009, then a reliever on his last game in 2009, as well as in 2010, 2011, and 2012.
If Cashman believed that Joba’s 2008 shoulder injury meant that he could not be a starter, then why did he make Joba a starter in 2009? If Cashman believed that Joba’s greatest value to the team was as a starter, then why did he pitch in the bullpen in both 2007 and 2008?
Frankly, I find it distasteful to blame Joba for his injuries — it strikes me as blaming the victim. (Though it is certainly fair to hold Chamberlain accountable for his actual infractions, such as his 2009 DUI.) It’s not like he wanted to have a ruptured appendix or to get Tommy John surgery. And even Joel Sherman acknowledges the Yankees’ possible culpability in all of this.
[Y]ou can have a pretty good argument the organization has harmed Chamberlain as much as he has hurt himself. Did they rush him too quickly to the majors and let a cult of personality set in? Did the Joba Rules bring about future injuries? There certainly are questions of Joba being misused and miscast…
Like Axisa says, Joba is almost certainly headed out of New York after this season, just as Jacoby Ellsbury is likely headed out of Boston. I’m sure the Yankees initially had the best of intentions. But they let short-term tactics take precedence over long-term strategy on multiple occasions. The Yankees started with a high-ceiling starter and turned him into a middle reliever. They may have had a good reason for doing so. But it is hard to defend the process.