Great Joba debate rages on
Yanks insist he's a starter; fans would like to see him in 'pen
It has replaced Yankees vs. Mets as the ultimate take-sides debate in the New York sports realm, having kept talk-radio switchboard operators busy pushing at the button for more than a year.
Joba Chamberlain takes the ball every fifth day as a starting pitcher for the Yankees, that much we know. But could they be better with him in the bullpen? It is a question that -- should you dare to answer it -- immediately classifies you.
The Yankees insist that Chamberlain will spend his future as a starter, and a successful one at that. Yet the debate rages on, crackling over the AM radio airwaves and spilling into the Internet blogosphere. There appears to be no end in sight.
"Whenever the topic is brought up, there is always a spirited debate on both sides, and it really can come up out of nowhere," said Mike Francesa, who hosts a popular sports talk show on WFAN in New York. "It's what you would call a hot-button issue. Everybody seems to have an opinion, and there are a lot of people who feel the way I do."
Francesa's view, as even casual listeners of his "Miked Up" program can recite, is that the Yankees would be best served by using Chamberlain as a lockdown eighth-inning reliever.
Those in position to make such a call have thus far taken the opposite viewpoint, and as for Chamberlain himself, he believes he is becoming a better starting pitcher each time out. It would be his preference to achieve success in the rotation.
"I guess it's a good conversation piece over lunch, and it gives people something to talk about," Chamberlain said. "I could win 20 games and people are still going to think I could save 50. No matter what happens, I just think it's going to be debated."
Chamberlain left an invincible impression from his 2007 debut. He jumped to the big leagues in August and proved virtually unhittable, posting a 0.38 ERA in 19 appearances while showcasing a blazing fastball and biting slider. The only thing that could stop him was a band of Lake Erie midges in the postseason.
"Anytime our bullpen has a hard day, they bring it up," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, with a hint of resignation. "Anytime the team is scuffling, they bring it up, whether it has to do with the pitching or not. I don't know why. I think that the way Joba burst on the scene brought so much excitement, and I think people still love talking about that."
But that move was made out of necessity, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said, as the club needed a boost to make the postseason. To do so, the Bombers converted a starting pitcher out of the 2006 Draft class into a reliever, crossing their fingers and hoping for the best. What they got was an unforgettable cult hero.
"The reason Joba is Joba was that he was electrifying," Francesa said. "He really showed some special qualities that he has never duplicated since. I think he has all the makeup of a standout reliever."
The plan had always been that Chamberlain would be returned to starting duty, and eventually he was. Few suggest that Phil Hughes, who is excelling in a similar role, should spend his career in the bullpen. Yet the Chamberlain talk continues; Cashman cannot understand the situation, and he has given up trying.
"Who knows? I've got no idea," Cashman said. "I really don't have a rational explanation, because I don't necessarily agree with the opinions out there. Anybody who is a good starter is going to be a hell of a setup guy, I promise you. Anybody who has a plus fastball and a plus secondary pitch would make a great setup guy or closer, in theory. But it's not the same."
Now 23, Chamberlain has made 26 Major League starts, going 7-3 with a 3.32 ERA, accompanied by a mildly swelled 1.362 WHIP. Despite decreased velocity and some growing pains, pitching coach Dave Eiland went as far as to call him one of the Yankees' best starters this season, high praise considering he shares a rotation with CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett.
"He's been as good as any starter we've had -- look at the numbers," Eiland said. "He's going to stub his toe from time to time; everybody does. But he's progressing well, he keeps us in virtually every game he pitches, knock on wood."
Much was made of Chamberlain's decreased velocity earlier in the season, though Eiland said that it did not catch him off guard.
"As a starter, your velocity is not going to be as high as it would be as a reliever," Eiland said. "I saw Jonathan Papelbon in the Minor Leagues as a starter and his velocity isn't what it is now. We've seen Phil Hughes' velocity jump up. Some guys pitch on adrenaline, some guys pitch on situations and emotions."
The movement to reinstate Chamberlain to the bullpen raged loudly this month, when the Yankees were without both Brian Bruney and Damaso Marte to injuries -- the righty-lefty tandem Cashman has envisioned as locking down the late innings to get the ball to Rivera.
"I think where the Yankees fail against the Red Sox is in two areas," Francesa said. "One is the proficiency that Boston can move through the seventh, eighth and ninth innings versus the Yankees, and the ability to get situational hits. That's why the Red Sox are 8-0 against the Yankees, those two reasons."
The Yankees have patched their bullpen together with help from contributors like Hughes, Alfredo Aceves and Phil Coke, while getting Bruney back. Yet Cashman said there has not been any talk of shifting Chamberlain to assist.
"There has not been one situation all year long when, if you wanted to play around with Joba and put him in the 'pen, our rotation has been lined up with the depth and health and performance to even let that happen," Cashman said. "So there should be no debate, but it goes on anyway."
It does not hurt the argument that Chamberlain was an outstanding reliever during his time in the bullpen. He was 3-2 with a 1.53 ERA in 49 relief appearances in 2007 and 2008, compiling a WHIP of 1.000 while striking out 11.9 batters per nine innings. For comparison purposes, Mariano Rivera has a career ERA of 2.13 as a reliever.
No lesser an authority than Hall of Fame closer Goose Gossage has weighed in that the Yankees are wrong in projecting Chamberlain as a starter, while other voices like the YES Network's John Flaherty have wondered if Chamberlain might help the Yankees more in relief.
"The way starters are used today, now it's getting closer to five innings to being a quality start," Gossage told the New York Post. "I think they can get most anybody to be a starter today. With the emphasis on those setup guys, they've really been instrumental. Now, you don't win a world championship without a great, great bullpen. So I think he was more valuable in the bullpen."
Some have changed sides. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said in September 2008 that he believed Chamberlain should remain in the bullpen, noting that he suffered from tendinitis as a starter and owns a pockmarked injury history.
In that interview on the YES Network, Posada said that if the Yankees ever try to have the right-hander pitch 200 innings, "He won't be able to. You're going to lose him; he is going to get hurt. I don't see him as a starter." But by this spring, Posada had changed his tune.
"He changed my mind," Posada said. "He's done a great job turning into the starter's role. I saw him in Spring Training working, and it's the way he's able to control the game. He gives us a chance to win, using all of his pitches -- curveball, slider, change, very good sinker. As a reliever, it was mainly just four-seamer and slider.
"As a starter, Joba has done a great job. I think he did a hell of a job as a reliever and it just tells you how good his stuff is. It doesn't take away from the stuff that he's able to do in both roles. It just tells you how competitive he is and how smart of a kid he is."
Cashman has wondered aloud if the same pitcher even exists anymore. Chamberlain left an Aug. 4 game with tendinitis in his right rotator cuff and has since lacked explosiveness, in the first inning especially. That led the Yankees to experiment this year with having Chamberlain throw "fake" first innings before his starts.
"He has not shown the power from the first pitch since the situation in Texas last year," Cashman said.
Maybe it is Chamberlain's can-do spirit, but he believes that he could be successful if he does wind up back in the bullpen. It is a possibility, since the Yankees could at some point run up against an innings limit -- believed to be 150, but unconfirmed by the club.
"We do have a number in our minds that we don't want him to go above, and we're right on schedule with that," Eiland said.
Whatever the magic number is, through 14 starts, Chamberlain has logged 75 2/3 innings and thinks he could get close to 100 by the All-Star break. His preference would be that it doesn't happen, but if needed, he says that he could get his body back into relieving condition.
"No doubt. It's different because you prepare different," Chamberlain said. "As a bullpen guy, you come to the park thinking that you're going to pitch today, so you're always involved in the game. It's the adrenaline of knowing you might be in there within two pitches. People can say whatever they want to say, but if I had to go back into the bullpen, it wouldn't be hard at all."
It is a destiny that Francesa thinks Chamberlain will eventually fulfill, swapping inconsistent starting pitching for a future as a standout reliever. It could even come because the Yankees might suddenly have to fill a gaping void.
"I don't think there's any question in anybody's mind outside of the Yankees that if Mariano Rivera went down with a season-ending injury tomorrow, Joba would be the closer," Francesa said. "I don't think anybody doubts that for a second, because he would be thrown into that position of need. That's why it becomes a great debate."
Those last two words are one point the Yankees can agree on with the Joba-to-the-bullpen crowd.
"It is a great debate," Girardi said. "But our plan is for him to be a starter. I think he's a top-end starter in our rotation. I think he has that ability, if he stays healthy, attacks the zone and just becomes a little more mechanically sound."
While Chamberlain tries to stay out of the fights being waged on a regular basis, he said that he can't help but hear it from people "all day, every day," and tries to take it in stride. When a fan tells him that they liked him better when he was spending his evenings in the bullpen, Chamberlain just says, "Thanks."
"It's over for me, but obviously it will never be stopped," Chamberlain said. "It's fun for me. It's not a bad thing whatsoever, because they could be saying I shouldn't even be in New York -- I could be in Scranton or Trenton. It doesn't ever get old. We're playing the game of baseball and I get to do something I love every day. How many people can say that?"
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.