Even after the Yankees put an end to the starter/reliever debate, Joba Chamerlain remains the most talked about player on the team. After the team signed Rafael Soriano the discussion centered not on what Soriano brings to the pen — we all knew that — but on what the signing meant for Joba. But that paled in comparison to the attention he has received since reporting to spring training.
It started last week, when Brian Costello of the New York Post, standing at a distance, observed that Chamberlain put on weight. An up-close look confirmed it, but there was an admission that it might not all have been lard. Chamberlain explained that he added a gym to his home that he used to work out all winter. That sounds good, and it speaks to a certain level of commitment to fitness. But the gut we can see, and therefore it is on the gut we will judge.
In his blog this morning, Joel Sherman discusses the loss of faith in Chamberlain, even as his results improved markedly in the second half of 2010. Of course, he opens with an observation about Joba’s weight. He’s above the level where the Yankees would like him, and apparently they don’t buy the added muscle bit. They apparently see a “wider girth.” Brian Cashman added fuel to the fire by repeating the term, “he’s heavier” this morning, without mentioning anything about how it affects the organization’s view of their once top prospect.
Yet I wonder how much Joba’s weight actually matters. Every year we hear about this player or that showing up to camp in the best shape of his life. Does it really mean anything? Last month at FanGraphs Dave Cameron examined the “good shapers,” i.e., players who showed up to camp last year professing their fitness. A few of them did beat expectations, but many others fell right in line or below. As Cameron concludes, “there doesn’t appear to be strong evidence that it is a significant predictor of a strong season on the way.” Why, then, is anyone worrying about Joba?
If Chamberlain is throwing well, how concerned can the Yankees be about his weight? Sherman addressed this point in his blog post this morning: “the early word out of camp is that Chamberlain is throwing the heck out of the ball…word is that the ball is coming out of his hand easy and hard, and if he can do that consistently than [sic] he could probably waddle around for all the Yankees care.” Chamberlain himself addressed the issue, saying he feels “awesome,” and that he’s in better shape than he was last year.
In the early days of spring, we’re all looking for something we can cling to.* With the Yankees, it seems to rotate by the day. On Monday it was CC’s out clause. Yesterday it was A.J. Burnett and his importance to the team. Today it is apparently Joba and his weight. They’re baseball related, and therefore we pay attention. But I’m not sure that this story in particular means much in terms of the 2011 season. All that matters is how Joba performs. One hundred percent of Yankees fans would prefer a fat Chamberlain throwing gas than a svelte Chamberlain serving up gopher balls. The temptation might be to focus on his weight right now, but in a little more than a month it won’t matter one bit.
*Fat joke resisted.