It’s often easy to forget that Joba Chamberlain is still just 24 years old. He’s been with the Yankees at the Major League level, through thick and thin, for nearly three full years now, and the idea that veteran could be so young is often overlooked. Perhaps with that framework, we can better understand Joba’s struggles.
Two thousand ten has been a challenge for the right-hander. He “lost” the fifth starter role during Spring Training even though the Yanks seemed destined to hand the ball to Phil Hughes from the get-go, and although Joe Girardi handed him primary set-up duties for Mariano Rivera, that too is a job that has slipped through Joba’s fingers. Now, he’s just another bullpen arm, capable of throwing 97 with a devastating slider but also incapable of protecting a four-run lead.
On the season, most of his numbers aren’t terrible. Chamberlain has made 43 appearances and has thrown 42.1 innings. He’s allowed just 3.6 walks per nine innings and has struck out 10 per 9 IP, but opponents are hitting .295/.356/.422 against him. Despite allowing just three home runs, Joba’s ERA stands in at 5.95, and with a FIP of 3.01, Yankee fans and baseball analysts have been at a loss to figure out just what plagues Joba. Some say it’s a mental thing; others say it’s mechanical; still others say the Yanks have jerked him into and out of the starting rotation too many times for him to have a true sense of pitching at the Major League level.
Now, it’s all coming to a head. While Joba no longer has the set-up role, he’s not, says Joel Sherman, going to be dispatched to the minors. As he hits his three years of service time, we had long assumed that the Yanks wouldn’t send Joba down on the precipice of that anniversary. As Mike wrote yesterday evening, “The Yankees are doing what’s best not just for the team, but what’s best for Joba. They’re trying to fix him, and will now do so in lower leverage situations. There’s unquestionably a confidence issue here, he’s human, and after getting his ass handed to him basically all season it’s only natural that Joba would start to get down on himself.”
There’s more to Joba than just a confidence issue though. There’s also the fact that he’s just 24. Baseball history is not littered with 24-year-old aces. Since 1961 — the dawn of the Expansion Era — just 88 pitchers have thrown at least 324 innings through their age 24 seasons while putting up an ERA+ better than Joba’s 111 mark. On the other hand, 258 pitchers have thrown that many innings with worse results than Chamberlain through age 24, and that group consists of such pitchers as Rick Sutcliffe, Ben Sheets, Javier Vazquez, John Smoltz and Dan Haren. If Chamberlain could turn into any of those four, the Yanks would be ecstatic.
At the same time, Joba’s strike out rate — generally a good indicator of a pitcher’s success — places him in rarefied airs over the last 49 seasons.
For the Yankees, Joba Chamberlain remains a pitching conundrum. He works hard; he throws hard. He strikes out a lot of opposing batters, and he flashed his greatness at age 21 in the Bronx during a pennant race. The Yankees could forget about Joba. They could try to trade him in a blockbuster package for an Adam Dunn-type player or a top starting pitcher. They could let him wither away in the pen.
Or they could remember that Joba Chamberlain is a 24 year old, and like most 24 year olds, he’s still trying to get his bearings in the world. While most of us struggle with careers at that age, he’s struggling on the greatest stage America’s Pastime has to offer. While my Chamberlain 62 t-shirt hasn’t left my drawers in a few months, I’m not quite ready to give up Joba yet, and neither should the Yanks.