Joba the bust?
Just one day before the Yankees flew out to the West Coast for a three-game set at Angels Stadium, YES Network broadcasters David Cone and Ken Singleton had a conversation about a somewhat undervalued pitching statistic while calling a Yankees-Twins game at the Metrodome.
Cone made the point that the earned run average commonly used to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness versus batters can be deceptive in assessing his overall performance unless his unearned average is also factored in over an extended period. If a pitcher shows a tendency to give up unearned runs after a fielder commits errors behind him, it isn’t reflected in his ERA. But, those runs count nonetheless — as do the losses to which they may lead. Cone added that a high number of unearned runs over a season, or a career, may show a flaw in the pitcher’s makeup
Singleton agreed with Cone, adding that as a player with the Baltimore Orioles, he had a good idea which pitchers on his team’s staff would give up runs after a fielding error, and which ones would hang tough, pick up his team, and get out of the inning without letting the opposition score.
As the Yankees veered toward a 10-6 loss to the Angels on Friday night after their starter Joba Chamberlain blew a four-run lead, Singleton recalled that conversation, mentioning that the 23-year-old righty had the highest unearned run average in the Yankees starting rotation.
Chamberlain’s problems began with a thorny 29-pitch second inning in which he issued a walk, wild pitch and allowed two hits to give up his first run of the game. He’d had trouble putting away batters from the beginning of that frame, when the first Angels hitter at the plate, outfielder Juan Rivera, singled to center after a five-pitch at-bat. Joba then managed to induce a flyball out to first baseman Kendry Morales in two pitches. But he would issue a five-pitch walk to the next batter while Rivera took second on the wild pitch. Gary Matthews would then single and score Rivera after an eight-pitch at-bat. Two batters and nine pitches later, Chamberlain would at last notch his third out of the inning and leave the mound relatively unscathed, having given up only the one earned run.
But, his remaining 3 1/3 innings were a struggle against an Angels lineup that was without its key offensive players, the injured Torii Hunter and Vladimir Guerrero. The box score shows Chamberlain went through a scoreless third inning in 14 pitches, allowing only a single to infield Maicer Itsuris. It does not show that his first recorded out came on a hard-hit liner by Chone Figgins that fortunately wound up in Robinson Cano’s glove. It does not show that his second out was a flyball off the bat of Bobby Abreu that nearly went into the stands for a two-run homer. It does not show that the score could easily have been 4-3, or even 4-4 before Chamberlain left the mound.
It also doesn’t reveal that only an exceptional inning-ending play by Cano saved two runs from scoring in the fourth inning.
Of course, box scores are often deceptive. All pitchers rely on solid fielding and a little luck to make their final lines look better than they otherwise might be. But the good ones capitalize on the defensive plays behind them, the line drives that rocket directly into a fielder’s glove. The good ones know how to win.
In the fourth inning of Friday night’s game, Chamberlain crumbled over the course of throwing 26 pitches. After he surrendered a run on a single to Figgins, who would then steal second, there would be another stolen base behind him, and later a throwing error by Alex Rodriguez that put two men on base with one out.
As Kendry Morales prepared to take the mound, manager Joe Girardi left the dugout to encourage Chamberlain.
“Just get the hitter,” Girardi said. “Let’s make sure we concentrate on the hitter and not get caught up with anything else.”
Chamberlain’s next pitch was a hanging curveball that left the park to tie the score at 5-5. A volley of celebratory home-run fireworks later, Angels designated hitter Mike Napoli doubled off Chamberlain, who’d fallen behind him 2-0 in the count. That ended Chamberlain’s outing as he was replaced by Scranton call-up Mark Melancon and the Yankees’ night continued to unravel.
This is how Chamberlain evaluated his performance after the loss: “I’ve come up against some good ballclubs. There’s really nothing else to say. I threw all four pitches for strikes. They just hit the mistakes. That’s what they’re supposed to do.”
Chamberlain would contend that he made “great” pitches throughout the game, including the one that Figgins hit for a leadoff single in the fifth. “It was my pitch that he hit, and you gotta tip your cap to him,” he said.
And the pitch Morales knocked out to center for his mammoth home run?
“Kendry swung the bat well. It was a curveball for a strike, a little up, but it was something we felt confident in throwing it, and he put a good swing on it.”
We felt confident? Chamberlain’s use of the first-person plural was presumably meant to refer to himself and his battery mate, catcher Jose Molina. But it wasn’t Molina who left that hanger over the plate.
Asked if he thought his pitching in that disastrous fifth was different than it had been in preceding innings, Chamberlain replied in the negative. “Not at all,” he said, noting only that the slider Abreu nearly hit for a homer in the third was also “a little up.” A moment later, he would insist to reporters that he’d pitched well overall. “Other than that we were in and out all day, up and down, so it was good,” he said.
Chamberlain would talk about putting the game behind him, learning from his mistakes, continuing to grow. It is a familiar run of baseball clichés that he has readily used when pressed about his struggles, even as he’s become visibly ruffled by suggestions that his performance this season has been disappointing.
And as to those mistakes — has he learned from them?
Chamberlain has only one win in April, one in May, and two in June. Chamberlain allowed 12 walks and 24 hits over the 22 1/2 innings he pitched in May, averaging four innings and change per game over his starts. Over his six June starts Chamberlain gave up 15 walks and 33 hits while averaging 5.8 innings per game. In July, as his ERA has climbed above 4.00, he’s not yet gotten past the fifth inning in either of his two starts.
More significantly, Chamberlain’s mound appearances have taken on an awful sameness characterized by his falling behind batters to rack up high pitch counts, failing to recover from errors committed behind him, and ultimately leaving games to be decided by the Yankee bullpen while contributing to its depletion.
“At the end of the day, we got the second half to get better,” he said near the conclusion of his post-game interview.
We, again. The Yankees began Friday night tied with the Red Sox for first place in their division. They had gone 7-2 in the month of July for a .778 winning percentage, and were a season-high 17 games over .500.
That’s a team that’s collectively done pretty darned well of late.
Perhaps, then, Chamberlain ought to start using the singular “I” when speaking of his own failures. There is something insufferable about his inability to take responsibility for them.
“This is not a guy that’s been horrible. Going into tonight he had an ERA of around four,” manager Joe Girardi would say in Chamberlain’s defense after the game. Girardi will always take pains to avoid publicly embarrassing his players.
But Chamberlain’s ERA has bee
n a transparent mask for his deficiencies. Simply put, the numbers lie in his case. And lie dramatically.
The equity Chamberlain once gained as a reliever is long since spent with Yankee fans. Gone are the days of Chamberlain throwing at speeds in the high 90 mile-per-hour range. His velocity is now average, his fastballs lack movement, and the speed differential between his fastball and breaking pitches has leveled off to make the latter less effective. For fans, watching him pitch is a nerve-wracking, arduous test of patience. One can only surmise what it must be like for his manager and teammates.
Unfortunately Chien-Ming Wang’s injury, just as he showed signs of a return to his past winning form, has complicated matters for the Yankees. Already short a starter, they cannot now remove Chamberlain from the rotation, even should they be so inclined.
So, what can be done?
For one thing, the Yankee organization, from the front office to his coaches, must hold Chamberlain accountable for his subpar and poor performances. It can only be hoped that Chamberlain’s self-assessments reflect a young ballplayer’s pride and bravado speaking before throngs of reporters and cameras, and not a real and profound blindness to his own shortcomings. If Chamberlain truly believes he’s been getting better, something is disturbingly wrong with his perspective.
This should not be considered an indictment of Joba Chamberlain, but a reasoned appeal to the Yankee organization. They must evaluate what they have with him over the long and short term, and then decide how to proceed moving on. Because there are undeniable signs that Chamberlain is not at all what they once thought they had, and may be rapidly turning into something they cannot live with.
Which is to say, a liability.