Three years later and we’re still having the same Joba Chamberlain debate. Amazing. The reasons for the argument have changed — and in many cases, the participants have switched sides — but the essential question remains the same. In January of 2008, Jay could have written more or less the same guest post and been just as relevant.
How in the world did we get from there to here without ever changing the conversation?
Chamberlain breezed through the Yankees system in his first pro season. As he approached his innings limit — a safety measure enforced on a lot of young starters — the Yankees decided not to shut him down, but to move Chamberlain to the bullpen and call him to New York. He pitched 24 big league innings in the regular season, striking out 34, walking six and allowing just 12 hits. He was remarkable. Absolutely remarkable.
Understandably impressed by his bravado and dominance, some fans and reporters called for the Yankees to keep Chamberlain right where he was. He was the heir to Mariano Rivera in the ninth inning. A once-in-a-lifetime talent out of the bullpen.
Understandably convinced that a top-of-the-rotation starter would be more valuable than a closer, the Yankees stuck with Chamberlain’s development plan but added one modification. Instead of getting his final development innings in the minor leagues, Chamberlain would open 2008 as a big league reliever and gradually move into the rotation. Unorthodox? Sure. But it was the best way to let Chamberlain develop without wasting his immediate talent in the minor leagues.
The Joba Rules might have been frustrating, but they were effective. Chamberlain opened the season as a force out of the bullpen, and when he got himself stretched out as a starter, he was similarly dominant. Through his first two months in the big league rotation, Chamberlain went 3-1 with a 2.23 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 60.2 innings.
A shoulder injury in Texas changed everything. On August 4, Chamberlain left a game after 93 pitches and didn’t make another start that season. He returned to pitch out of the bullpen down the stretch and the results were more or less the same as they had been in the first half.
The Yankees did not immediately give up on Chamberlain as a starter. He was in the rotation from the beginning of the 2009 season. He again had an innings limit, which was not unusual for a pitcher… 1. Less than three years removed from college, 2. Who had never pitched as many as 115 innings in a season, and 3. Coming off a shoulder injury the previous year.
The Yankees gave Chamberlain a full year as a Major League starter, and the results were not good. Based on everything the Yankees had seen — and everything the fans had seen — a 4.75 ERA and 7.6 strikeouts-per-nine innings were solid indications that something wasn’t quite right. Chamberlain was not the same guy.
The Yankees elected not to guarantee Chamberlain a spot in the 2010 rotation. They had four starters in place, and an open competition for the fifth spot. Technically a five-man competition, it was realistically a battle of two 20-something prospects, each proven in the bullpen but yet to establish himself in the rotation.
Phil Hughes won. He won because of his results, and he seemed to win because of his raw stuff. Although the Yankees never said Chamberlain was a lesser pitcher, they were quick to praise Hughes for the improvement of his changeup and the development of his cutter. At the end of spring training, pro scouting director Billy Eppler said his personal opinion was that Chamberlain would remain a reliever in 2010 and beyond.
Chamberlain had plenty of bad outings, but he was generally an effective reliever, probably better than his overall numbers indicated. He was not, however, the lights-out reliever we witnessed in 2007 and 2008. Lower velocity. Not the same sort of slider. At the trade deadline, when Kerry Wood was available for pennies on the dollar, the Yankees made the move and Chamberlain moved easily into a middle-inning role. He was very good in that spot, and there were moments when he showed flashes of his old velocity.
Three years ago, those who questioned the Yankees decision to develop Chamberlain as a starter did so because of what they knew to be true. The Yankees had seen Chamberlain dominate out of the bullpen, why would they take him out of a role that so perfectly suited his talent and his demeanor. For the record, I was fully in the Joba-should-be-a-starter camp.
Today, those who question the Yankees decision to keep Chamberlain in the bullpen do so because of what they think might happen. The Yankees need a starter, and Chamberlain might very well find that old dominance. Why in the world would the Yankees not give it a shot?
My guess is that the Yankees don’t want to give it a shot because they know more than we know.
I firmly believe that a young starter is more valuable than a young reliever. Cashman, Eppler and the rest of the Yankees decision makers believe the same thing. They proved it three years ago when they kept developing Chamberlain as a starter. They proved it last year when they moved Hughes back into the rotation. They prove it every year in the minor leagues, developing nearly all of their top young pitchers as starters until they stumble their way into the bullpen.
What the Yankees see in Chamberlain is a pitcher who is not what he was four years ago. He doesn’t have the same “physicality” is the way Cashman explained it to me. The fact Cashman won’t waver at a time when he’s desperate for a starting pitcher tells me all I need to know: The Yankees staff — their scouts, their coaches, their player development gurus — look at Chamberlain see a pitcher who is better suited for the bullpen, plain and simple.
We can play the what-if game with anyone. Boone Logan throws pretty hard from the left side, and he has a quality changeup. Why isn’t he a rotation candidate? Mark Teixeira has a great glove and came up as a third baseman. Why not give him a shot as the guy to spell Alex Rodriguez occasionally at third (it is, after all, much easier to find a first base stand-in). Dellin Betances was brilliant last year in the minor leagues. Why not put him immediately into the big league rotation? It can’t hurt to try, right?
The Yankees make their decisions based on something more than a hunch and a hope. They have scouts and advisors and decision makers who overwhelm themselves with information. In Chamberlain, they once saw what we saw — a young pitcher with top-of-the-rotation stuff — but now they see something different.
“I don’t think that equipment necessarily exists now,” Cashman said.
Is it possible the Yankees are wrong? Absolutely. But they do what they do, they see what they see, and they make a decision. For the Yankees, the Chamberlain debate is over.
Associated Press photos