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August 20, 2007

Prospectus Today

Joba Chamberlain and Popular Madness

by Joe Sheehan

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"Joba! Joba! Joba!"

Five major league appearances.

"Joba! Joba! Joba!"

Twenty-four major-league batters faced.

"Joba! Joba! Joba!"

Eighty-seven career pitches.

Joba Chamberlain has fewer career strikeouts (11) than Johan Santana had just on Sunday afternoon (17), but he's already a folk hero in New York. At Yankee Stadium yesterday, the crowd reacted to him before he even entered the game, buzzing as he warmed up in the bullpen, and cheering wildly as he trotted in to start the seventh inning. The chants of "Joba!" grew throughout his nine-pitch, two-strikeout evisceration of the heart of the Detroit Tigers' order, and culminated in a standing ovation for the second-year pro as he walked off the mound after whiffing Carlos Guillen.

It's not unheard of for a crowd to get excited when a dominant relief pitcher comes into the game. It's crazy, however, for one who hasn't been in the majors long enough to inspire this kind of reaction in a knowledgeable fan base. The Yankee crowd yesterday reminded me of how Dodger fans responded to Eric Gagne's appearances during the right-hander's time in Los Angeles, a sense of joy that a win was imminent spiked with the thrill of seeing a favorite player who might not have played that day.

You can point to the 2005 White Sox, who alighted on Bobby Jenks in the second half and rode the burly righty to a championship. He became a folk hero in part because of his size, and Chamberlain has that same husky build. Gagne, too, seemed to garner his popularity in part from his physicality, his seeming more of a regular guy than athlete. Francisco Rodriguez was the 2002 Angels' version of Jenks, but is the physical opposite of these pitchers, and he became a postseason hero after making just five September appearances. Yankee fans, of course, remember Mariano Rivera's first season as a full-time reliever, which culminated in a World Championship.

I'm not sure even the opening chords of "Enter Sandman" inspire what I heard yesterday. Joba Chamberlain has been in the major leagues for two weeks, and he already has heard 50,000 people chant his name on the game's greatest stage. The energy that ripped through the ballpark during his appearance, the way the crowd embraced and enhanced the moment, the way Chamberlain rose to the occasion with his powerful right arm… a baseball season creates memories along the way, and this is one that I'll replay for years to come.

Chamberlain is perfectly suited for this role at this point in his career. He has two great pitches, a mid-90s fastball that moves and a slider that's tighter than, say, K-Rod's. His command of both has been excellent so far (he's walked just two men in those seven innings), and he hasn't had any problems adjusting to a relief role, albeit a well-protected one. It remains to be seen how Chamberlain will react if used in the middle of an inning, or to make three appearances over four days, the kind of usage that high-leverage relievers endure in the postseason. The Yankees are serving two masters right now, the demands of a pennant race and the need to recast their roster for the 2008-2012 seasons. Using Chamberlain in a way that is true to both is arguably Joe Torre's greatest challenge over the next six-or more-weeks.

Other notes from a cool and cloudy day at the Stadium…

  • Wilson Betemit got some love for his part in the 9-3 win, roping a single in the seventh and a three-run double in the eighth that helped turn a close game into the blowout. Betemit also had a good at-bat in the fifth that ended in a rope to right that Magglio Ordonez fielded.

    The upgrade from Miguel Cairo to Betemit is massive, even given the limited role the extra infielder plays in the Yankees' scheme. Betemit hasn't been terribly effective with the Yankees-yesterday's game bumped him to .258/.303/.484 in 34 plate appearances-in part because he's struggled with his approach. A patient hitter who works deep counts and is prone to swing-and-missed, Betemit has 14 strikeouts and just two walks as a Yankee, against 32/49 with the Dodgers this year. Even while working through that, he's been more effective at the plate than Cairo, and the defensive difference between the two is more reputation than performance.

    Having Betemit allows Joe Torre to rest both Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter (he sat yesterday) while taking a minimal hit to his lineup. Along with Shelley Duncan and whichever expensive veteran has the day off, Betemit gives Torre his best bench in years, perhaps his best as the Yankees manager. Brian Cashman hasn't always done a good job with the bottom five spots on the roster, so credit him with building a good bench and bullpen in-season this time around.

  • A bit lost in the heroics by Chamberlain and Betemit were two terrific baserunning plays by Bobby Abreu that helped set up Yankee runs early in the game. Abreu opened the third with a single to right, then stole second easily off of Jeremy Bonderman. Alex Rodriguez then chopped a ground ball about 15-20 feet to the left of second base. Despite there being no outs and the ball arguably in front of him, Abreu used a good secondary lead and an excellent read to break for third. Guillen got the out at first, and the Tigers brought the infield in on Hideki Matsui, who singled past a drawn-in Ryan Raburn at second base to drive in the run.

    If Abreu holds-a defensible decision-on Rodriguez's ground ball, Matsui's ball would have been a 4-3 out that advanced him to third base, and the inning would have ended a batter later with the Yankees not scoring.

    In the fifth, Abreu built another run with his legs. After he singled to start the inning, Rodriguez hit a double-play grounder to Brandon Inge at third, who let the ball through his legs for an error. Abreu rounded second hard and, reading Cameron Maybin as slow to the ball, took off for third base, making it in safely ahead of the throw, with Rodriguez advancing to second. Think about how rarely a player goes first to third on a single to left field, and be impressed by Abreu's decision and speed. Once again, the extra base led directly to a run that would not have scored otherwise, as Matsui's sacrifice fly scored Abreu, and the inning ended harmlessly after that.

    I have a hard time reconciling the player I watched yesterday with the Bobby Abreu who was run out of town by Phillies fans. He had a terrific game on the basepaths, using both his mind and his body to help generate a win for the Yankees.

  • The Tigers get Joel Zumaya back this week, and with Fernando Rodney already back and pitching well, will have their top three relievers on hand for the first time all year. That will help, as the relievers who have been used in their stead, especially from the right side, have not filled in well.

    The Tigers' real problem now is their offense. As Brad Wochomurka detailed in today's Rundown, the Tigers in the second half have seen their power slip to the middle of the league and their plate discipline to last. I attended the game with an old friend, Mike Cha, a Tigers fan from Michigan in to see Yankee Stadium for the first time, and he was frustrated by how many bad at-bats the Tigers had, especially later in the game. When you're hitting .290 with great power, you can get away with that, but when the average slips and takes the OBP with it, you're left with not enough runners on base and not enough runs. And a game-and-a-half deficit in the AL Central.

  • One note on the park, which as you know is scheduled to be vacated after the 2008 season. I'm conflicted about the decision. Yankee Stadium II, as it's listed to in the reference books, is where I learned baseball, where I came to love it, where I watched countless great Don Mattingly moments and showed up when the gates opened to watch batting practice and saw doubleheaders (kids, ask your parents) for my belated birthday present each year.

    Having gone to a couple of games this year, though, I have to say that the building simply isn't equipped for the kinds of crowds that come through it each day. Despite a seating capacity north of 56,000, there aren't enough entranceways, exits or corridor space to accommodate that many people. Attending a Yankee game is such a different experience now than it was in my youth that I begin to question my own memories. The team's success, the spike in popularity of baseball in general and the growth of the New York market have all turned Yankee games into teeming masses of humanity, a situation complicated by the heightened security measures deemed necessary when dealing with crowds of this size. (Admittedly, I have no idea what a half-second glance at my Blackberry adds to the safety of the general populace.)

    I'm curious as to what Yankee fans have to say about the situation. Do those of you who go to games with some regularity feel like the new park is something to look forward to, or something that will diminish your enjoyment of the game? I was disappointed by the decision at first, but with each game I attend, I come around to the idea that this old building has reached the end of its natural life.

Chat's been pushed back to 2 p.m. today. I'll explain why over there.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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