In the past three games the Yankees have blown a lead in the eighth inning. On Sunday it involved Joba Chamberlain loading the bases followed by Mariano Rivera walking in a run and surrendering a grand slam. On Monday Chan Ho Park took the ball and, after a scoreless seventh, failed to record an out before losing the lead. Tuesday it was back to Chamberlain, who allowed four runs, the last of which tied the game. It hasn’t been a great few days for him, with six earned runs in two appearances, but stretches like this will happen for a reliever.
For most of the season, and especially lately, commentators have declared that 2007 Joba is back. His velocity, which averaged just 92.5 last season, is back up, averaging 94 this season while touching the upper 90s. His slider seems to have a bit more bite, too. Combine that with eight scoreless appearances in which he struck out 11, walked only two, and allowed just two hits, and its’ easy to see why people started fawning over Joba again.
In his past two appearances, though, he hasn’t been quite as impressive. His two-thirds of an inning on Sunday didn’t appear to be cause for concern. He still generated three swinging strikes, and if not for a strangely struck ball by Michael Cuddyer he might have escaped the inning with the lead in tact. His velocity sat at the levels it has for most of the season, and his slider still had some bite. Bad things can happen to anyone in relief, and this was just a bad day for the Yankees.
Last night, though, was a bit different. Joba generated no swinging strikes. He faced three-ball counts against four hitters in the inning. A-Rod’s error hurt, but on most nights Joba can overcome that. Last night it was just bad timing. Joba’s command wasn’t at the level we had seen during his previous appearances this month. His velocity also took a bit of a dip, averaging and peaking about a mile per hour below the marks he has posted for most of the season.
No matter what commentators say, Joba is not a natural born reliever. That is, he wasn’t born with some divine purpose to grace the bullpen. Like all pitchers, he is subject to the wear and tear that comes with warming up, sitting down, warming up again, and eventually coming into a game. It’s not like starting, where you have set period to get loose and prepare for the game. The manager can call a reliever’s number at any time. After a year in the rotation, Joba just isn’t accustomed to this usage. His mind and body both must adjust.
Given the lack of velocity and command last night, we could be witnessing a simple physical adjustment. Girardi said that Joba was not available on Monday because he warmed up and sat down twice during Saturday’s game. That was in addition to his appearances on Friday and Sunday. We often judge a reliever’s usage by his appearances, but this doesn’t tell the whole story. Dry humps — warming up and then sitting down a reliever without having him enter the game — also play a part in a pitcher’s usage. Those pitches in the bullpen might not exactly simulate game-style pitches, but they certainly take something out of the pitcher’s arm.
Thankfully, problems like this have an easy cure. It’s only bad timing that Joba might need a couple of days off when the Rays come to town and the rest of the bullpen is struggling. Long-term, though, it will be to the team’s benefit. Joba is still adjusting to life back in the bullpen. He’s facing physical realities that few, if any, pitchers can avoid. In a few days I have confidence that he’ll be back out there throwing 95, 96, and making commentators swoon once again.