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June 4, 2008

Prospectus Today

Jobamania

by Joe Sheehan

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We all know that for a lot of people, things that happen in the minor leagues don't really happen. It's that blind spot that led to all the hype preceding last night's Yankees/Blue Jays game, or as it was labeled, "JOBA CHAMBERLAIN'S FIRST START!!!!"

The thing is, though, it wasn't. It wasn't close. Joba Chamberlain had never started in the majors, to be sure. Then again, he's been in the major leagues for less than a year. In 2007, his first professional season, Chamberlain made 15 starts in the minors out of 18 appearances, and in fact, was a full-time starter well into July, or until the Yankees decided they were going to need him in New York as a reliever and had him make some relief appearances in Triple-A. Using Chamberlain in that fashion worked famously, with the big righty striking out 34 men in 24 innings and posting a ridiculous 0.38 ERA, becoming a cult hero along the way.

Chamberlain was never a reliever, though. He was a starter being used out of the bullpen. Had Andy Pettiitte stayed retired this winter, had the Yankees traded multiple starting pitchers for Johan Santana, had anything happened to Mike Mussina or Chien-Ming Wang, Chamberlain would have come to camp as a starting pitcher. As it played out, though, the Yankees had five starting pitchers in addition to Chamberlain, a suspect bullpen and the memory of zero point three eight, and shipped the phenom back to the eighth inning.

With the two months and 20 appearances this year, the interval between Joba Chamberlain starts was 314 days and 41 appearances. For this, it was made out that the conversion of Chamberlain from reliever to starter was an undertaking somewhere between analog to digital and water to wine. It wasn't. Chamberlain was always a starting pitcher, and the 10 months between starts was not nearly enough to change that.

Forget how Chamberlain pitched last night. He didn't suffer a loss of control because he was pitching the first inning rather than the eighth. He didn't throw more balls than strikes because he was introduced with the starting lineup. He didn't burn through 38 pitches in the first inning because he was thrown by a new routine. He had a bad night because he's a 22-year-old power pitcher, and that's what happens to 22-year-old pitchers. He hadn't forgotten how to be a starting pitcher in the year since he'd done the job.

I have to give the Yankees full credit here. I insisted that once they started the year with Chamberlain in the bullpen, they wouldn't move him midseason. Given the dropoff from Chamberlain to the next-best reliever in that pen (Kyle Farnsworth or Edwar Ramirez or LaTroy Hawkins), I expected that the team wouldn't deny Joe Girardi his eighth-inning security blanket in the middle of a pennant race. I remain surprised by the decision. It's driven by the failures of Hughes and Kennedy (as well as Kei Igawa in a cameo role) to provide quality pitching at the back end of the rotation as much as it is by the desire to maximize the long-term value of Chamberlain. Nevertheless, the right decision for the wrong reasons has its appeal.

The move will work out for both parties. Chamberlain has the build and the repertoire to be a good starter, especially now that he'll be more than a fastball/slider pitcher. The Yankees have been extremely conservative with his arm and his workload-I actually wonder if some day we'll look back at the handling of Joba Chamberlain as some kind of peak in the handling of young pitchers, where the industry eventually backed away a bit from being quite so cautious with them. Chamberlain has thrown fewer than 800 pitches since being called to the majors last August, and he had a pitch count in last night's game of around 60 tosses. There's a wide, wide gulf between that and what Chamberlain can safely manage, and the Yankees have to start closing that gap to maximize both his potential and their chance of getting back into the AL East race.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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