Joba Chamberlain and the first pitch

The problems with runners in scoring position
2011 Draft: Tyler Goeddel

You’ve probably noticed that Joba Chamberlain looks a bit different this season. No, I don’t mean his new mechanics (hands at the waist) or his weight (nyuck nyuck), I’m talking about the way he’s using his pitches. Joba’s scaled back his fastball usage from last year, down to 56% from 65.3%, and is using his curveball exactly twice as often (10.6% after 5.3%). Throwing some more breaking balls is one thing, but it’s when he’s throwing them that’s really interesting.

The graph above, cut right from Joba’s various splits pages on FanGraphs, shows how much he’s used each offering as the first pitch of an at-bat. In his first full season as a reliever in 2010, Chamberlain threw a first pitch fastball more than seven out of ten times. He’s scaled it back a bit this year, instead mixing in some more first pitch sliders and curveballs. Joba’s first pitch strike percentage is essentially the same (58.1% in 2011 after 58.4% in 2010), so he’s not “stealing strikes” with this approach nor is he getting batters to swing at the first pitch more than he did last year (9.7% in 2011 after 11.8% in 2010).

Essentially all Joba has been doing is giving hitters a different look. First pitch offspeed stuff is just a friendly reminder that the pitcher is comfortable throwing any pitch at any time, which makes life that much harder on the hitter*. It’s probably not a coincidence that batters are swinging at 36.6% of the pitches Joba’s thrown them out of the strike zone, the highest rate of his career (it was 35.1% in 2007) and a top 15 mark among all relievers (Mariano Rivera is actually first at 44.2%).

Joba’s ERA is a full run better than it was last season because he’s walking fewer guys (1.85 BB/9 after 2.76) and getting way more ground balls (62.1% after 45.6%) than he did in 2010, making up for a decline in strikeout rate (7.40 K/9 after 9.67). A 17.6% HR/FB ratio is unusually high, so that will correct and help bring his ERA even closer to his 2.80 xFIP. How (or even if) the first pitch breaking balls are contributing to the overall improvement is not something I can definitively say, but Chamberlain’s pitching sequences and overall performance have been noticeably different.

* I remember hearing Al Leiter say that he threw a curveball on the first pitch of Game Seven of the 1997 World Series for that very reason, to show the Indians that he was going to make them guess all game long.

The problems with runners in scoring position
2011 Draft: Tyler Goeddel
  • Anchen

    Wonder if any of this at all is having martin behind the plate calling the pitches. Has anyone tracked if Joba is shaking off more/less this year? I know game calling in general is overrated but who knows.

    • the Other Steve S.

      I expect all of it is.

  • ethan jf

    I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill here. A 5% difference in FB percentage on 0-0 counts? Is that even statistically significant? He’s faced 93 batters this year–that’s a grand total of FOUR fewer first-pitch fastballs he’s thrown than he would have at last year’s percentages.

    That’s not such a difference that a batter is going to be thinking “I’m not sure what he’s going to be throwing: FB or offspeed” to a greater extent than otherwise.

    I’d look instead at the PitchFX data, compare the movement this year vs. last year.

    • CP

      I agree that the first pitch usage is not a big deal, but he does point out the bigger change:

      Joba’s scaled back his fastball usage from last year, down to 56% from 65.3%, and is using his curveball exactly twice as often (10.6% after 5.3%).

    • Anchen

      The specific table with first pitch fastballs I think may be as you say making more of it than needed, and we’ll see if it maintains for the rest of the year. However a 10% change in overall usage of his fastball (56% from 65.3%) seems like a good indication there is a real change his approach this year, whether caused himself or martin or whatever.

      • ethan jf

        Agree with you both. I don’t think there’s anything significant in his change on 0-0 counts vs other counts but I strongly suspect he’s thrown enough pitches that the 10% drop in overall FB usage IS significant.

        completely unscientifically: anecdotally, it looks to me like his slider is behaving much more like the Joba of old, sharper, nastier break. And he’s throwing it for strikes. which might explain the drop in FB%.

  • NJYankeeFan

    Very interesting. Maybe it’s part of his evolution from thrower to pitcher.

    In any case, he’s been pretty good this year so let’s hope he keeps it up, even if it is in a relief role that minimizes his overall value to the team.

  • Steve H

    Joba throwing his 3rd pitch that often is a clear sign he wants back into the rotation.

    • Clay Bellinger

      or that he’d like to just stay on the team in general.

      • The Big City of Dreams

        or that he’s doing what it takes to start somewhere else :)

  • Blubber Buns

    GS in MiL+ML: Joba 58, Paps 61.

    GS in D1 college baseball: Joba 32, Paps 0.

    • The Big City of Dreams

      Don’t take this in a rude way but what does that mean?

      • Blubber Buns

        I mentioned in a chat that Paps was tried in the rotation at his age 26 season. Joba’s age 26 season is next year.

        Mike said Paps started in the MiL’s, implying that made him a better SP candidate. I don’t think that is a valid reason because Joba has almost as much professional SP experience as Paps and at a higher level (Major League).

        He can point to other reasons why they are different (and they are), but the SP experience in the MiL’s advantage is a poor argument.

  • MikeD

    Joba to the Rotation!