Joba Chamberlain has always been coddled, but that wasn't enough to keep him from succumbing to an elbow injury.
It seems as if no amount of planning or careful use can stop a pitcher who is meant to be hurt from getting hurt. Joba Chamberlain knows this firsthand, better than arguably anyone else in the game right now. Saying the eponymous "Joba Rules" are at fault for what many believe will be Tommy John surgery isn't fair, but it is safe to say that they did not have their intended effect -- keeping Chamberlain on the mound in whatever role New York decided fit him (or them) best.
Chamberlain's story is well-known because of those famous rules. In 2007, despite a strong year as a starter in the minors, the 21-year-old right-hander was moved to the bullpen soon after his promotion to Triple-A. The three relief appearances he made were successful, with Chamberlain hitting 100 mph on the radar gun multiple times, and he ended up in New York before season's end. In his 19 appearances and 24 innings, Chamberlain struck out 12.8 per nine and posted a 5.7 K/BB ratio while holding opponents to just two runs.
This temporary shift to the bullpen bolstered the Bombers' relief corps (when insects weren't assaulting him on the mound, anyway), and the Yankees kept him there to begin the 2008 season. He was once again great, punching out 11.4 batters per nine innings -- compensating for his 15 free passes in 26 innings -- while keeping the ball in the yard. The Yanks switched him back to the rotation, as planned, at the beginning of June, and he excelled in that role, too, punching out well over a batter per inning and posting a Run Average of 3.17 over his 12 starts.
That stretch may have very well been the best pitching we will see out of Chamberlain as a starter. He lasted just 4-2/3 innings on August 4 in Texas, throwing 93 pitches in the process, thanks to a pair of homers and five runs allowed. This was his final start in 2008, as Chamberlain landed on the disabled list with inflammation in his throwing shoulder two days later.
When he returned, he was once again in the pen. Outside of a higher homer rate, he looked no worse for wear following the injury, although he re-aggravated the shoulder right before the season ended.
The 2009 season was a new year for Chamberlain, and the Yankees made him a starter again. He made 32 appearances, 31 of them starts, but it was his worst year as a professional player to that point. While not bad by any means -- Chamberlain posted a 97 ERA+ in 157-1/3 innings -- he was nowhere near the dominating force he had been in the previous two years. He struck out 7.6 per nine and increased his walk rate, giving him a career-worst 1.8 K/BB ratio.
Injuries may have slowed him down, as a blood vessel tear in his hand in May cost him a day, and he injured his knee just a few weeks later (and again in August). There was also the matter of the shoulder injury the year prior, and what it may have done to Chamberlain long-term: his average fastball in 2009 was 92.5 mph, after averaging 95-plus with his heater the year before. Even accounting for the fickleness of unadjusted PITCHf/x numbers, that's a large difference.
The Yanks put Chamberlain in the pen full-time for the 2010 season, and while his 4.64 RA didn't show it, he at least was effective in the role. His strikeouts were back up, his walks were down, and the long-ball problem disappeared. He also avoided the injury bug, arguably more important than his performance.
This past winter, the Yankees were in need of another starter, but Chamberlain wasn't really considered. General Manager Brian Cashman said again and again that the 25-year-old wasn't an option for the role -- the signings of retreads like Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Kevin Millwood only served to strengthen his stance that Joba Chamberlain: Starting Pitcher was not in the cards. Finally, at WFAN's "Breakfast of Champions," Cashman explained that Chamberlain had not been the same since he suffered that 2008 injury in Texas, and therefore could not start.
While it's lovely to not have to worry about who is throwing those middle innings, the promise Chamberlain showed as a prospect and in his brief stint as a starter in 2008 makes the idea of him as a full-time reliever tough to accept. Going under the knife may not solve all of his woes, either, as the injury is in his elbow, and his shoulder was the initial problem. While there may have been a cascade effect from the shoulder ding, if there are any residual problems in there, they would still exist post-TJ. The Joba we have recently seen may be the Joba of the future as well.