Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Joba Chamberlain 2010

Every year there are usually 1-2 Yankees whose performance am I particularly interested to see play out. Typically it's a player who is new, coming off an injury year, or could be an x-factor of sorts. Last year it was A.J. Burnett. This year, it's Joba Chamberlain and Javier Vazquez. I'm slightly more interested in Chamberlain because he is a definite part of the Yankees' future plans - or at least they'd like him to be - and this is a huge season for him. The innings limits are off, the Joba Rules are done, and his developmental process is essentially complete in terms of being at least prepared to start for a full season. He also has the ability to take the Yankees' rotation to another planet if he pitches anywhere near where he's capable.

Joba - and Hughes - sort of represent the culmination of the roller coaster ride that was general sentiment towards Yankees' prospects this decade. When the Yankees started spending and trading like crazy, losing draft picks and prospects in the process, there was an awareness that the farm system was barren but it wasn't a primary concern as the team just kept winning. As other teams put more and more emphasis on building their organizations from within, and the Yankees' roster got older, a want for more youth began. Cano and Wang gave the fanbase a taste in 2005, and also a want for more given their cost-effective success. As the focus on prospects began exploding amongst Yankees fans, Phil Hughes broke out in 2006, and was rated by some as the best prospect in baseball entering 2007. With Hughes seeing success early, Wang putting together his second consecutive 19 win season, and Cano putting together his third consecutive big offensive year, a 21 year old Joba Chamberlain was sped to the majors tossing 100 mph bullets and allowed one run in his first 24 innings while locking down games late. Joba in particular arrived at a time that was just a perfect storm for Yankees' fans. It was the height of a successful rebuilding period, and the Yankees could do no wrong with prospects. It seemed that everyone they brought up performed, and that just fed the hype machine even more.

2008 was more of the same. Joba successfully transitioned from reliever to starter mid-season, and posted a 2.60 ERA across 100.1 innings. Doing that in his first full season in the American League East, as a 22 year old, it seemed like the Yankees' had a no doubt star.

2009 was not at smooth. It was neither a success nor a failure in terms of production; rather, it was inconsistent. The one major plus was that Chamberlain made 30 starts and pitched 157.1 regular season innings 6.1 postseason innings, staying healthy and getting to a point where, after three years of Joba Rules, he could be a starter with no limitations. That is where he stands on paper entering 2010. From that standpoint, the season was a success.

However for many, the prospect cycle for the Yankees has now reached a point where everything is doubted, scrutinized, or second-guessed. What was once a hype machine where every prospect was the next star is now somewhat a situation where faults are highlighted more than ignored. There are plenty who believe, after one inconsistent season, that Joba is not capable of being a consistent starter. While that is certainly possible, and while it is also true that even if he can be a consistent starter he may better serve the team in the bullpen, the reality is we just don't know. Despite the move from prospect hype to prospect doubt, we still have to just wait and see.

Which is the major reason why 2010 is so big for Joba. For the first time the kid gloves are totally off. He just has to go out and pitch. We've seen a Joba that can absolutely dominate, that can potentially be a #1 starter. We've also seen one that can't consistently provide five innings. Either one remains a possibility, and while the Yankees clearly want the best they can get, I would imagine they'd be extremely pleased with something directly in between those two things: a #3 starter. If Joba pitches in that range this year he takes the rotation to another level.

In terms of arriving there, the keys for Joba are largely trusting his stuff and attacking with his fastball. He walked batters at a much higher rate than previously last year and there just isn't a whole lot of reason for it. His velocity was down about 2 mph, and while that got a ton of attention, his location wasn't right either. Not just the walks. Within the zone, he wasn't getting the ball to corners consistently enough. One of the most impressive things about Chamberlain when he first came up was his ability to put the ball where he wanted it despite the big velocity and movement. Last year that wasn't there.

I obviously have no idea, but to me these things are all potentially related. Joba seemed to his natural abilities enough at times. When he did, he seemed to have success. When he didn't - shaking off the catcher too much, throwing breaking balls out of the zone when he could have pounded the zone with a fastball, slowing his pace down too much - he seemed to struggle. Joba has been at his best when he's confident bordering on arrogant, aggressive, and animated. He went back to that approach in October and had success, and I think it was the approach more than the switch to the bullpen that resulted in that success. If that's what works for him, he should get after it that way all of the time. I certainly have the confidence in him to do so. He has the natural ability to just go out and pitch, and the extent to which he does that will impact both the Yankees' and where Joba goes from here.


jason said...

pf, who do you think will have the better season, vazquez or joba?

Anonymous said...


The shame of Chamberlain's 2009 is that the organization is really to blame for his hiccups here and there. I know there is concern about Tom Verducci's theory about young pitchers with high inning counts (as an aside, Verducci is to the Yankees as Peter Gammons is to the Red Sox), but if it's innings you're worried about, pitch the guy in his slot every day until he hits that number then shut him down. But that's not what they did. Instead, they jerked him around. Pitching three innings here and there, skipping starts, etc. If they had just let the guy pitch he would have had another excellent year.

I'm fully convinced Joba Chamberlain will be a top-notch starter this year and will certainly outperform any number 4's in the American League.

--the Gunn

Ross Kaplan said...

I completely agree with Gunn there, I still get enraged when I think about how the Yankees would broadcast to everyone in the world Joba's pitch count for the day and move him back and forth between the rotation and bullpen.

I think another thing to consider is the fact that either Joba or Hughes were going to be traded for Santana, a non move which most people blasted at the time, but with Santana spending a significant amount on the DL and when he is healthy, handling, but certainly not dominating the NL is looking better every day.

Patrick said...

jason -

i think vazquez will have a better season but would not be at all surprised if it was joba. i say vazquez now because of the consistency but i think joba has more upside. he just also has a greater chance of not doing much. 16 wins and an era in the low 3's - pitching like a top of the rotation starter - would not surprise me, and 7 wins with an era in the high 4's - pitching like a 5th starter or worse - would not surprise me. i think vazquez is likely to be somewhere in the low teen win range with an era in the high 3's or low 4's - like a mid-rotation starter - a much smaller range.

the gm at work said...

I agree with the Gunn: there has to be some point where the organization has to realize that the player should just sack up and pitch. Chamberlain didn't deserve what happened to him the second half of last year. Just another reason that irrational overreliance on numbers in baseball is out of freaking control. Does this "science" mean he's going to be a better pitcher when he's 38 years old and he's got a 4.5 ERA in Washington instead of being flat-out retired? Maybe. But as an athlete myself, I'd probably rather blow it out in my twenties and be retired when I'm 35 than be conservative and mediocre when I'm 25 and be mediocre when I'm 35.

the gm at work said...

Should have said "STILL be mediocre."

Patrick said...

gunn -

as anyone who was reading here last season knows, during the season i agreed with you 100%. i thought the way they handled him was not good. as i've pointed out a number of times, i have no idea if there is any relationship but the facts are that around the time joba was hitting his innings level from the previous year, he was 7-2 with a 3.58 era through 20 starts, and the yankees were 14-6 in those starts. while there were certainly some inconsistencies within those starts, that's going to happen to any pitcher, let alone a 23 year old still finding his way. at the end of the day production is production, and that is pretty good production.

it was a few starts later that the yankees started limiting his innings. which, as i've always held, i totally agree with. that's a necessity in my eyes. i just didn't like the way they did it. i was with you - i thought they should have let him pitch until he reached this limit and then shut him down. however, by spreading those innings throughout the rest of the season, they kept him ready for the postseason. at the time i didn't consider this. joba got some big outs in the playoffs and contributed to a championship. so in that way, while i don't think it was at all the right thing for his development (which is what we are primarily discussing here), it did allow him to make a contribution at the most important time and that matters.

regarding the innings limit concerns that you mention, it is important to note - after the attention we gave it last year - that jon lester pitched all season last year despite being an injury risk. that is just further evidence of something verducci himself admits - it's a general gudie, not a rule. each pitcher is going to be different. chamberlain is on that list this year, so you just have to hope that he goes out and is able to take the ball every fifth day and stay healthy.

Patrick said...

ross -

not making the santana move has become an absolutely critical move for this organization. there is no way around it. they would have had to give up prospects that are contributing to the team (hughes/chamberlain) or were used to get another contributor (melky for vazquez) to get a pitcher (santana) who isn't as good as sabathia and cost only slightly less money. you do the math.

Patrick said...

gm -

i agree with you to a point. in some cases the constraints may be too strict/careful. but there is overwhelming evidence that should at least serve as a guide for teams. ignoring that guide is sort of reckless at this point, especially considering the premium on young starting pitching. if you can develop quality starting pitching from withing you are saving yourself millions and millions of dollars. so you have to be cautious in developing them. but as you said, you can only take that so far, and i agree with that.

Patrick said...

and one more thing to add on to my comment to ross: as the yankees were making a run to the 2009 world series behind sabathia, santana was out with elbow surgery. i'm a believer in the fallacy of the predetermined outcome, but if the yankees have santana instead of sabathia chances are they do not win the 2009 world series. that alone, even with all of the other important elements listed above aside, makes the non-santana move followed by the sabathia move huge.