By all accounts but his own, Joba Chamberlain had a lousy start Sunday. He lasted just five innings, and his four runs allowed hurt the Yanks, who couldn’t figure out rookie Doug Fister. That all of those runs crossed the plate with two outs hurt even more. After starts like this, fans tend to clamor. Joba is obviously a reliever, some might say. Others go to the already tired line that Joba is being babied. I ranted on the latter topic on Sunday, but Gary Armida of the recently resurrected FullCountPitch.com takes a sober look at the handling of Joba.
A man obsessed with pitching — he has regular talks with former A’s and Mets pitching coach Rick Peterson — Armida understands the trouble of drastically increasing a pitcher’s workload from season to season. It can cause undue stress, the effects of which might not show up until the season after the increase. We’ve seen it plenty of times, as Armida chronicles:
Fausto Carmona is an example of a pitcher pushed too far. In 2007, Carmona threw 230 innings (including the postseason) which was more than 100 additional innings from 2006. Since 2007, Carmona has posted ERA’s of 5.44, 6.66 (this season) and WHIP’s of 1.624 and 1.772. This was after his 3.06 ERA and 1.209 WHIP of 2007. Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels experienced the same drop off in production after throwing more than 50 additional innings in 2006. Weaver’s ERA climbed from 2.56 in 2006 to 3.91 in ‘07 and to 4.33 in ’08 with a disabled list stint thrown in for good measure. His 2009 season is remarkably better, but he even experienced shoulder trouble during spring training.
Perhaps the prime example of a pitcher being pushed too hard is Francisco Liriano. The Twins’ southpaw burst onto the scene in 2006 after throwing more than 40 additional innings in 2005. After a brilliant 16 starts, Liriano had surgery and is still searching for his dominant form of 2006. There are so many examples of teams just ignoring innings and getting burned. The Toronto Blue Jays have seen Dustin McGowan, Gustavo Chacin, Shawn Marcum, and Jesse Litsch all lose time to injury. They were all pushed through the organization at some point.
He notes that, according to the American Sports and Medicine Institute, fatigue and improper conditioning are the leading causes of arm injures. How does this fit into innings limits? Pitchers who experience a drastic increase in workload can become fatigued. Imagine running on the treadmill for 20 minutes three times a week, and then all the sudden increasing that to 35 or 40 minutes. Chances are once you pass the 25 or 27 minute mark, you’re going to be fatigued. Tired pitchers show the effects in many ways, including skimping on their mechanics. This can lead directly to injury.
Conditioning is the more debatable issue. As Armida notes, “One offseason conditioning program shouldn’t be enough for pitchers to throw 50 additional innings.” That might be true now, but as we discussed in the comments yesterday, Nolan Ryan is trying to prove that wrong. He wants to condition his pitchers to throw more, which means a more rigorous off-season conditioning program so that the pitchers can handle the increased workload. That might work out for them. At best, they could see a number of pitchers respond positively, though inevitably, because each pitcher’s body will respond differently to the stress, they’ll lose some talented arms to injury.
There are other issues, too. Armida notes a new study that examines pitchers who throw deep into the playoffs. While not every pitcher experiences this, a number of guys like John Lackey, Mark Buehrle, Chris Carpenter, and Josh Beckett have seen poorer performances, sometimes including DL trips, in the year following a World Series run. While teams should heed this factor, there’s not much they can do about it. Once you’re in the playoffs, all bets are off. The best use of this study would be to find out how to optimally use the shortened rest period to re-strengthen a pitcher’s arm after a seven-month season.
As it concerns Joba, the Yanks might not have handled him well initially, but I believe they’re doing a good job in 2009. While bringing him up in 2007 to help the bullpen gave the Yanks a push into the playoffs, it had some negative effects for his long-term development. Mainly, that he was essentially guaranteed a spot on the major league roster in 2008. Worse, because of his innings limits, that meant starting him in the bullpen and transitioning him to the rotation. That seemed to be a flawed plan.
Perhaps the biggest question here is of why the Yanks brought Chamberlain up so early in August. The idea behind it, said Brian Cashman, was that Joba was coming up against his prescribed innings limit, and that he could either finish out the season in the minors and pack it up, or he could come up to the majors and get those innings out of the pen. However, there’s a discrepancy here.
The Yankees are seemingly using 127 innings as Joba’s high water mark. Those would represent the 89.1 innings he threw in college in 2006, plus the 37.2 innings he tossed in the Hawaiian Winter League. Those were two greatly separated instances, where Joba’s college season ended in May, and his Hawaiian experience didn’t start until October. It would be tough to argue 127 innings as his high water mark, but since the Yankees are planning to use him in the rotation for the rest of the season, it would appear that is the case.
So if his high water mark was 127 innings in 2006, why didn’t he shoot for 157 in 2007? At the time of his recall he’d thrown 88.1 innings in the minors. If 127 was the precedent, he could have finished out the minor league season and then have come up in September, pitched out of the bullpen, and still have come in around 150 innings. Even with Joba’s 2005 high water mark of 118 innings, he could have still finished the minor league season and helped in September.
More and more, it seems as though the decision to call up Joba in 2007 related to the major league team’s woes at that time. For the team, it helped as they locked down the later innings and made the playoffs. For Joba’s development, it certainly hurt. His innings were significantly curtailed from where they could have (or even should have) been for the season. That led to a series of events in 2008 which culminated with his shoulder injury — which further led to a lower innings cap in 2009.
Before signing off, I want to note that none of this is necessarily causal. When it comes to pitcher development and injuries, it’s impossible to nail it down to one factor. Yet the evidence does point this way. It appears that the Yankees didn’t handle Joba in an optimal manner for his long-term development in 2007 and 2008. They’ve taken steps to correct that this year. All we can hope is that he responds well. As he’s demonstrated in flashes, Joba has all the tools to become a top-flight starting pitcher. It would be a shame to see that go to waste because of how the team handled him.