New York Yankees

Joba To ‘Pen Is Right Move

by Matt Wells

When Joba Chamberlain was called up from Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre last year to pitch for the New York Yankees, he took the baseball world by storm.  A pitcher in his early twenties who could make hitters look foolish with 100 MPH fastballs and then freeze them with wicked sliders was surely a diamond in the rough.  A pitching prospect like Chamberlain certainly doesn’t come around all that often.Chamberlain finished his rookie season with a 2-0 record and a 0.38 ERA.  He struck out 34 batters in 24 innings, while walking only 6 batters.  Those amazing stats did come with exceptions that were (and still are) lovingly known as the “Joba Rules.”  The rules were as such (stated simply by the New York Post):

“One inning pitched requires one day off. Two innings requires two days of rest. Three innings of work means three days on the pine. And he needs two days off before being asked to throw two innings.”

The Yankees did everything to protect their young superstar, though I’m sure many Yankee fans (like myself) wanted to see Joba pitch more.  Yankee fans already were anointing him the next closer, though they were all told he was a starting pitcher by trade.  After the Yankees lost in the ALDS to the Cleveland Indians last season, speculation about Joba’s role on the 2008 New York Yankees began to take form.

So, fast forward five months to Yankees spring training.  It was just a week ago when we were all intently wondering where Joba would start the season: in the starting rotation or in the bullpen.  Well, on March 20, manager Joe Girardi stated that Chamberlain would be starting the 2008 campaign in the bullpen.  Whether that role will change during the course of the season is at the discretion of Yankees management.  But, I am here to tell management to leave Joba in the bullpen!

The reasons are as follows:

1) Current Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is no spring chicken anymore.  The 38 year-old Rivera posted a losing record last year (3-4); it was the first time he posted a sub-.500 record since 2002, when he was 1-4.  Rivera’s ERA last season was 3.15.  That was his highest posted ERA since, get this, his rookie season of 1995, when he posted a 5.51 ERA.  Rivera, while still very good at the back end of the bullpen, just doesn’t throw as hard as he used to, which is understandable given his age and the wear and tear on his arm.  Hitters are getting their bats on more of Rivera’s pitches than they used to in the past.

Listen, I love Mariano Rivera as much as the next Yankee fan, but we all know he won’t be around forever.  Let Rivera finish his career as a Yankee, but not as the team’s closer.  He signed a three-year deal this past off-season, but that doesn’t mean he has to close for all three years.  Give the ball to Joba Chamberlain.  From the veteran fire baller to the young fire baller.

2) We all gush about Joba Chamberlain’s ability to throw 100 MPH fastballs and then follow that up with a dominating slider that keeps the opposing hitter guessing.  With a 1-2 punch like that, many people say, he’ll have no-hit stuff every time he takes the hill as a starting pitcher, right?

Guess again.  Chamberlain is throwing his 1-2 combo for one to two innings tops when he is coming out of the bullpen.  However, if the Yankees make him the starter, he’ll be expected to go approximately six innings every time he takes the hill.  That fastball will not be coming in at 100 MPH by the sixth inning.  Ninety-five MPH, maybe, but not 100.  Who knows, by the fifth and sixth innings hitters could be catching up with his pitches.

Here’s another thing to put under your cap: by the time Chamberlain hits the sixth inning, he will have faced each hitter in the opposing lineup at least twice (unless he has a perfect game through six innings every time he takes the rubber).  By the time he faces a Magglio Ordonez or an Ichiro for the second or third time, I guarantee they will have figured some of him out.   A strikeout in the first at-bat will translate to a fly out in the second at-bat.  The third at-bat, with Chamberlain throwing in the low- to mid-90’s could result in, oh let’s say, extra bases.

Mr. Girardi: would you rather have five to six potentially shaky innings every time Joba takes the hill, or would you rather have two dominant innings from him out of the bullpen?  I thought so.

3) There have been great closers in our time who were either A) starters who were better in the bullpen or B) starters by trade who never started a game and went straight to the bullpen…and dominated.

Goose Gossasge and Dennis Eckersley fall under category (A).  Gossage was technically a starter in his first five years in the big leagues, though he didn’t start a game in 1975 (62 appearances, 0 starts).  However, after the Goose’s 26-save season that year, the Pirates (for one season) and the Yankees made him a permanent closer.  His career stats: 310 saves, 3.01 ERA, and that 3.01 ERA includes his years as a starter where his ERA was well above 4.00.

Dennis Eckersley played baseball for 24 years.  His first 12 years were spent as a starter; however, in 1987, the Oakland A’s made Eckersley their closer.  Eckersley’s 1990 campaign remains one of the best full seasons ever by a reliever: 48 saves with a 0.61 ERA.  That is not a typo…0.61.  He would save 390 games in his career, and he owed it all to letting the A’s call him their closer, not their starter.

The modern-day pitcher who falls into category (B) would be the guy the Yankees fans love to hate: Boston Red Sox closer Jonathon Papelbon.  Yes, Papelbon is technically a starter; he started 24 games for AA-Sarasota in 2004.  Papelbon burst onto the Red Sox scene in late 2005, and by 2006 the flame-thrower was the team’s closer.

In two full seasons as the team’s closer, Papelbon has saved 72 games to the tune of a 1.35 ERA.  Here’s a fun fact: the “starter” Papelbon allowed seven earned runs in 68 1/3 innings in 2006.  You can’t tell me he’s a better starter than closer.

Just as an aside: I remember hearing rumblings about the Red Sox naming Papelbon a starter prior to the 2007 season, and I thought to myself “what a stupid move that would be.”  The Sox never found a good enough closer to replace Papelbon, he returned to the bullpen, and he was on the hill for the last out of last year’s World Series run.  Who knows how far the Sox would have gone with ‘ol Johnny in the starting rotation.

So, I say let Joba Chamberlain pitch out of the bullpen.  Have him set up Mariano Rivera in the 8th inning this year and name him the closer next season, whether Mariano likes it or not.  For this season, relax the restrictions on how much Joba is allowed to pitch.  Joe Girardi will not blow out Joba’s arm like Dusty Baker did to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.  But, Joe, you have to let Joba pitch a little more (again, less restrictions) and you have to let him pitch out of the ‘pen and become the next closer.

It’s the only logical choice at this point.


NY Post

By Matt Wells

27 years old. From New Jersey. I'm a fan of all four major sports, though I know most about football and baseball. Favorite teams: Sabres (NHL), Yankees (MLB). General fan of baseball and football, as well.

2 replies on “Joba To ‘Pen Is Right Move”

good points I agree with you completely, leave Joba in the pen.  Having Mo all of these years has proven just how valuable a dominant closer can be.  Joba clearly has the stuff, so why mess with a good thing?
One discrepancy though, Joba actually has 4 pitches.  While he uses mostly his fastball and slider as a reliever he would certainly not be limited to those 2 pitches as a starter.  Guys seeing him for the second time in a game would hardly have seen everything he has to offer because Joba is traditionally considered a starter thanks to having a fastball, slider, changeup and curve.
All of that aside though, I still say forget the gamble.  Go with the sure thing and groom him to replace Mo.
Nice article.

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