The Three Joba Chamberlains: The Legend, The Ace, and The Reliever

The Locations of Joba Chamberlain's pitches during his legendary 2007 season. Fastballs=Red Dots, Sliders = Blue Dots, Curve Balls = Purple Dots, Change-Ups = Yellow Dots.

Comments: One of the few college righties not considered to be undersized, he can throw three pitches -- a fastball in the low 90s, a changeup and a slider -- for strikes, though he struggled with his command a bit during his junior season, not fully capitalizing on his breakout sophomore campaign in 2005. Part of the issue has been a minor triceps injury that could force a slide.

-MLB.com's report on Joba Chamberlain at the time of the 2006 MLB Draft

Few pitchers have ignited as many debates about the value of a starter vs the value of a reliever as Joba Chamberlain.  Drafted with the 41st pick in the 2006 MLB Draft (using a supplemental pick gained from the loss of reliever Tom Gordon to the Philadelphia Phillies), it wasn't expected that he would make an impact so quickly; at the time, the Yankees star pitching prospect, and indeed one of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball, was RHP Philip Hughes. 

However, in the first winter after he was drafted, Joba put on a show in the now-defunct Hawaii Winter Baseball League.  Facing a mix of Japanese and American batters, Joba struck out 46 batters, while walking 3, and giving up 1 HR in 37.2 Innings Pitched.  As a result, he started 2007 as the #4 prospect in the Yankees' farm system according to Baseball America.  He soon justified and surpassed this ranking by tearing through all A+, AA, and AAA ball with a combined 13.8K/9 and a 5:1 K/BB ratio.  In August, after less than one year in the minor leagues, he was called up to the Show to perform as a reliever.  And thus, the legend of Joba Chamberlain begins.

It so happens that Joba's rise to prominence coincided with the first release of full Pitchf/x data, which was first released in 2007 and had it's first complete release of data as we know it today starting in 2008.  An examination of Joba Chamberlain's career reveals three different pitchers:

  • The Legend: The Pitcher with the insane stuff that dominated in 2007
  • The Ace: The #1 Starter that showed up in 2008
  • The Good Relief Pitcher: The pitcher that's left after an injury in Texas in 2008 changed his career.

To truly understand the divisive opinions about Joba, and to truly be able to understand what can be expected out of him further in his career, one needs to examine all three of these pitchers.  After the jump, we shall do so. 

Joba, The Legend

And you know what? There’s some truth to that. Joba Chamberlain will never be the pitcher he was in 2007 ever again, and if I had to bet money on it, the safe bet is that no one will. Because the numbers Joba put up in his brief Major League stint in 2007 are just mind boggling. If they had been over a full season instead of a mere 24 innings, it would have easily been better than any season in the career of Mariano Rivera himself.

-Brien Jackson, It's About The Money, Stupid!

Joba's performance in 2007, prior to the playoffs, was beyond incredible.  It certainly caught the media's attention (though it certainly helped that Joba was pitching for the Yankees, whom are always in the national media).  In twenty four innings Joba struck out 34 batters while walking only 6 and giving up 1 Home Run.  In fact, that was his only earned run (he had one unearned run.  The result was a 0.38 ERA, 1.82 FIP, and 2.42 xFIP, numbers that are all pretty damn ridiculous.

But of course, there was more to the legend than the results: Joba was said to throw a full repertoire of four pitches: a high-velocity fastball, a deadly slider, a fast curveball that would bedazzle hitters, and a change-up. Using Pitchf/x data*, we can see that the fastball and slider live up to the legend of Joba.  The curveball and change-up are where the legend seems to devolve into more myth than reality.

*We only have Pitchf/x data for part of his 2007 season (Pitchf/x data was not released for every park, if it was implemented, in 2007), but that comes out to 283 pitches (counting the postseason), which is plenty to take a look at these pitches.  

Joba's fastball did indeed seem special.  The pitch did not have a lot of tail; in fact, it could be described as a straight fastball.  The pitch did have a good bit of "rise" as you might expect for a high-speed fastball.  But it wasn't the movement that made the pitch special, it was the pitch's velocity: the fastball averaged a velocity of 97.0 miles per hour and broke into triple digits (100 or over) six times during 2007.   The pitch's results oddly enough weren't amazing: the pitch got a swinging strike only 5.6% of the time (around average for a fastball) and was not a ground ball pitch (33% GB Rate in a very small sample size).  The pitch also was called for a ball 36.7% of the time, a not very good rate.  But while these results may seem underwhelming for the pitch's velocity, the pitch clearly served to setup Joba's lower speed offerings. 

In particular, it set up Joba's amazing Slider.  Clocking in at an average of 86.6MPH, the pitch has little horizontal movement (and not a great movement relative to the fastball), causing it to sometimes be confused with Joba's curveball (In fact, Joba's slider has been labeled an "11 to 4" pitch, mimicking curveball terminology).  The pitch doesn't have great drop or sink either...but it doesn't need to have much, given how much rise his fastball has.  Meanwhile the pitch was insane at striking batters out: 65.3% percent of batters who swung at the pitch WHIFFED!  This meant that the pitch resulted in a swinging strike 34.8% of the time, which would've made the pitch the best slider at getting swinging strikes in the whole league,  if Joba had pitched an entire season. 

Of course, Joba was spoken of as having four pitches, and here we see some disappointments.  Joba threw a few curveballs (Pitchf/x cameras caught 11 of them), which had promising velocity (78.4MPH) and movement (7.8 inches of horizontal movement, and 7.4 inches of drop).  The end result is that the pitch would appear to be an 11-5 curve, that could be an effective weapon.  Unfortunately, in 11 pitches, it's impossible to see how effective the pitch is, which was never put in play (6 balls, 3 called strikes, 2 swinging strikes).  Joba's change-up was even more scarce:  the pitch was only thrown 3 times at an average of 83.9MPH.  The movement on the pitch was odd, and it's hard to say anything about it given the limitations of Pitchf/x cameras at the time and the small sample size. 

All in all, Joba was really a two pitch pitcher during his period as The Legend; though they were really good pitches.

However, there were some cracks starting to be shown in The Legend:   Joba's velocity on all of his pitches seems to have dropped in his last few starts, as seen by Figure 1 below with the fastball: 

Joba07fastballvelocity_medium
Figure 1:  A graph showing the average velocity of Joba's fastball in each of his appearances in 2007.  Note that Start #13 is the game where he was facing a horde of angry insects, so don't take that drop too seriously.

This drop in velocity was seen in all of Joba's pitches, making it seem like his high velocities early in the season could've simply been a mirage caused by hot Pitchf/x cameras.  In other words: Joba's super fast pitches may have been simply the result of a hot radar gun, and part of the Legend may never have been truly reality.  In fact, his drop in fastball velocity would carry to his 2008 season, where Joba turned into The Ace:

Joba, The Ace:

At that point, it looked like the Yankees plans for their young phenom -- get him blooded with some relief work, then get him into the rotation -- had worked perfectly.

Rob Neyer, ESPN's Sweetspot Blog

Coming into 2008, there was a lot of debate in the VERY active New York Sports Media (WFAN, NY Post, and NY Daily News, etc.) about whether Joba should return to starting or be the bridge to Mariano Rivera.  The Yankees opted to keep him in the bullpen to start the season, with the Yankees openly still claiming that Joba's future was in the starting rotation.  Reports were that the Yankees may have planned to send Joba down mid-season to regain his form as a starter for the latter parts of the season.  However, the Yankees' hand regarding Joba would soon be forced, as young 4th and 5th starters Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy combined to go 0-8 with ERAs above 6.0, leaving them in desperate need of a starter.

Of course, before this occurred, Joba spent two months in the bullpen once again.  As mentioned above, while Joba would perform well during this span (30Ks, 11BBs, 1HRs), this was not quite the legend of 2007.  Joba's fastball and slider velocity were both down from 2007: with Joba averaging only 95.9MPH on his fastball and his slider averaging only 85.3MPH.  These numbers are more in line with those at the end of 2007 (not counting the Midges-game).  That said, the results of Joba's individual pitches were still great: his slider had over a 50% whiff rate against both righties and lefties and his fastball had a swinging strike rate of 13% against RHBs, while remaining at the same level as 2007 against LHBs.  Once again, the curveball was rarely seen, and the change-up showed up only four times (against opposite handed batters). 

But, as stated earlier, the Yankees would convert Joba to the starting rotation in June.  Oddly, they didn't send him down to the minors, preferring to convert Joba in the major leagues (resulting in starts of 2.1 and 4.1 innings pitched to start).  Meanwhile, as Joba made 11 starts in June and July, the talk in the media was not of how well he was pitching, but of how Joba was unable to put together a single long start (partially due to a pitch count limit), with Joba only reaching 7 innings pitched in a start one time during these two months.  This was a shame really, as Joba was REALLY REALLY good during this stretch and in fact was quite simply...an ace:

IP K BB HR ERA FIP
60.2 69 23 2 2.23 2.49

Table 1:  Joba's overall results during his starts in June and July in 2008. 

Meanwhile, while Joba's results were ace-like, his great stuff....remained great as a starter:

Pitch Type Number Thrown Average MPH Average Horizontal Movement Average Vertical Movement Whiff Rate Swinging Strike Rate Ground Ball Rate In-(Wide)-Strike-Zone Rate
Four-Seam Fastball
715 95.1 -4.72 +9.70 13.49% 5.73% 36.84% 65.87%
Slider 290 85.1 +0.69 -1.49 47.40% 25.17% 63.41% 52.07%
Curveball 99 76.8 +4.92 -7.04 17.65% 3.03% 77.78% 64.65%
Change-Up 13 81.8 -8.72 +4.80 0% 0% 50.00% 53.85%

Table 2:  The Velocities, Movements, and Basic Results of Each of Joba's Four Pitches as a starter in June-July 2008. 
Legend:
Whiff Rate:  Whiffs per Pitches Swung-At by opposing Batters.
Swinging Strike Rate:  Whiffs per Total Pitches Thrown
Ground Ball Rate:  % of pitches put in play (including HRs) that are ground balls.
In-Wide-Strike-Zone Rate:  % of pitches in a wide (2 feet wide) strike zone.

As you can see, Joba's basic pitches basically retained the same movement and velocity that Joba had as a reliever to start 2008, with his fastball losing around a mile per hour, but still hitting a very nice 95.1 MPH (this number is slightly higher than it should be, due to a really hot fastball during Joba's second start).  The pitch retained its surprisingly average swinging strike rate, however.  

Meanwhile, Joba's slider continued to get near 50% whiffs on pitches swung at, while increasing its ground ball rate to above 60%, making the pitch absolutely amazing (An expected run value of -4.12 per 100 pitches...an astounding number). 

We finally begin to see a little bit of the change-up from Joba against opposite (left) handed batters, but it wasn't very effective in its very small sample size.  Meanwhile Joba's curveball finally appeared to be used at a reasonable frequency, but had disappointing results: the ground ball rate was nice, but the swinging strike rate was lower than what would be expected from an average fastball, nevertheless a breaking ball.  Still, Joba didn't need this pitch, given how insane his slider was. 

So yeah, Joba was finally indeed a four-pitch pitcher, and though two of those pitches (the change-up and curveball) were not plus pitches, the other two would seem to be (even if the fastball's results weren't great, they certainly set up his deadly slider.)  

Unfortunately, Joba would make one more start that season, a start in Texas on August 4th...where Joba had to leave the game in the 5th inning with stiffness in his pitching shoulder.  Joba would later be diagnosed with rotator cuff tendinitis.  This injury would end the reign of Joba Chamberlain, The Ace. 

Joba would of course return in September to pitch in the bullpen in 2008, and had pretty good results (14Ks, 3 BBs in 11.1IP).  However he would not be the same pitcher, as his pitch velocity was down all around, with the biggest drop being seen in his fastball.  Figure 2 shows the average fastball velocity of Joba's fastball as a reliever per each appearance in 2008 and it clearly shows how Joba's fastball dropped in velocity (it averaged only 93.9 MPH in Septemer):

Chamberlain_fastballs_medium
Figure 2:  The Average velocity of Joba's fastball in 2008 during Joba's relief appearances.  The gap in the middle of the chart is when Joba was a starter.  You can clearly see how Joba's fastball velocity plummeted post injury. 

Joba, The Reliever:

More than anything, Joba is a victim of a narrative, or multiple narratives, that are just completely impervious to fact. Look at the widespread belief that he had such a bad year last season, despite the fact that his final numbers were quite good; striking out over 9 batters per nine innings and posting an FIP of 2.98. Yeah his ERA was high, but so was his BABIP at .342. But he did start the season out horribly, and after that no one noticed that he finished strong, the narrative was already cast.

-Brien Jackson, It's About The Money, Stupid!

Joba would start again; in fact, he spent the entire season of 2009 as a starter in the Yankee rotation.  But he was clearly no longer an ace, as you can see from his results.  Even worse, his fastball velocity was down even further from the end of 2009, not even averaging 93 MPH, as you can see from his pitch results shown in Table 3:

Pitch Type Number Thrown Average MPH Average Horizontal Movement Average Vertical Movement Whiff Rate Swinging Strike Rate Ground Ball Rate In-(Wide)-Strike-Zone Rate
Four-Seam Fastball
1729 92.5 -4.28 +9.89 8.66% 3.30% 43.04% 61.25%
Slider 612 84.5 +1.91 -0.41 41.67% 20.42% 46.39% 57.68%
Curveball 235 77.4 +5.41 -5.72 24.24% 6.81% 50.00% 57.02%
Change-Up 123 82.2 -9.20 +5.41 29.63% 13.01% 47.83% 39.02%

Table 3:  The Velocities, Movements, and Basic Results of Each of Joba's Four Pitches as a starter in 2009. 
Legend:
Whiff Rate:  Whiffs per Pitches Swung-At by opposing Batters.
Swinging Strike Rate:  Whiffs per Total Pitches Thrown
Ground Ball Rate:  % of pitches put in play (including HRs) that are ground balls.
In-Wide-Strike-Zone Rate:  % of pitches in a wide (2 feet wide) strike zone.

As you can see, Joba's results were down across the board.  His fastball's average swinging strike rate dropped to badly below average, and the pitch missed the zone more frequently (resulting in a greater amount of walks). The slider started to get less whiffs and less ground balls, making the pitch still a very good pitch...but dropping it's effectiveness almost in half (the pitch's expected run value per 100 pitches dropped from -4.12 runs per 100 to -2.22 runs per 100).  The Curveball and change-up did seem to improve somewhat (the change-up finally being thrown a decent amount of the time), but the change-up was still below average for that pitch type and the curveball's swinging strike rate was still way below average. 

All in all, except for the fact that he still did have a good slider, Joba did not resemble Joba the Ace at all in 2009.  Feeling the Yankees did not need an average 5th starter, and noting that Joba DID pitch well (or at least had good results) after his injury in relief in 2008, the Yankees put him back in the bullpen in 2010. 

And Joba did recover somewhat, as you can see from table 4:

 

Pitch Type Number Thrown Average MPH Average Horizontal Movement Average Vertical Movement Whiff Rate Swinging Strike Rate Ground Ball Rate In-(Wide)-Strike-Zone Rate
Four-Seam Fastball
756 94.6 -3.95 +9.96 12.39% 5.42% 45.93% 67.20%
Slider 308 87.2 +1.72 +0.96 36.78% 20.78% 56.82% 56.82%
Curveball 88 80.4 +5.00 -5.44 34.78% 9.09% 50.00% 40.91%
Change-Up 2 87.5 -9.70 +7.51 0 0 0 0

Table 4:  The Velocities, Movements, and Basic Results of Each of Joba's Four Pitches as a reliever in 2010. 
Legend:
Whiff Rate:  Whiffs per Pitches Swung-At by opposing Batters.
Swinging Strike Rate:  Whiffs per Total Pitches Thrown
Ground Ball Rate:  % of pitches put in play (including HRs) that are ground balls.
In-Wide-Strike-Zone Rate:  % of pitches in a wide (2 feet wide) strike zone.

As you can see, the velocities of all of Joba's pitches were up across the board; in fact, his slider clocked in at its fastest average speed EVER.  The fastball velocity was still not up to pre-injury 2008 levels, but Mike Fast reported that at least at the start of September that Yankee Stadium's Pitchf/x velocity readings were 0.7 MPH below normal, meaning that the pitch's velocity is probably understated by a little (of course, this bias could've existed in previous years as well, so don't read too much into this).  And with the improved velocity came improved results:  the fastball's swinging strike rate returned to its normal average rate, and its accuracy improved to a pre-injury rate. 

Meanwhile Joba's faster slider improved its ground ball rate while keeping its swinging strike rate constant.  Oddly enough, the whiff rate on this pitch did drop, which is a glaring sign, but the pitch was swung at more frequently, resulting in the same swinging strike rate as in 2009. 

And the Curve ball, which was basically non-existent when Joba was a reliever in 2008 finally had some reasonable results...the swinging strike rate increased yet again, though it was still below average for a breaking pitch.  Meanwhile, the change-up disappeared, as Joba doesn't seem to use it as a reliever. 

Now Joba's great year as a reliever was obscured by some bad luck on BABIP and in a bad strand rate.  Still, it would appear that post-injury, Joba has been able to find success as a reliever and not as a starter.  This would support the Yankees' decision to keep Joba in the pen.

Joba, Going Forward:

Of course, this isn't quite so clear: Joba's pitch velocity as a reliever in 2010 was clearly up from it as a reliever post-injury in 2008.  This might indicate that Chamberlain might deserve another shot at starting, as he may have recovered somewhat from the injury or at least his arm may be stronger now than it was in 2009, the year immediately following the injury.  In fact, this may be the case, given that Joba's pitches did seem to increase in velocity over the course of 2010.  If that's the case, Joba may be able to find a place in the starting rotation as a pitcher who is not quite The Ace, but is not quite as bad as the mediocre starter of 2009, either.  With the other choice for a fifth starter being Sergio Mitre (and a bullpen solidified by the addition of Rafael Soriano), the Yankees may want to try this. 

But Brian Cashman has said no, as he thinks that the injury in Texas has forever changed Joba so that he's not worth starting.  And, you know, he could be right...clearly Joba's results as a starter post-injury have been much worse than his results as a reliever.  Certainly, one would expect another good year from Joba in the pen next year, whereas his results in the starting rotation would be near impossible to project. 

Yet, this seems like a risk that would be worthwhile for the Yankees to take, given their available options.  And it would certainly seem like one that could be beneficial for Joba to figure out what pitcher he truly is.

Joba, the Legend is certainly gone.  Joba, the Ace is almost certainly gone.  But Joba may in fact be better than Joba, the Reliever.  I would think it's time for the Yankees to give Joba a chance to find a fourth version of himself and see if the 25 year old former top-prospect can become Joba, the Solid Starter, a guy who can give them a big boost in the tough AL East.

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