The news that Joba Chamberlain suffered a severe, possibly career ending, ankle injury while jumping on a trampoline with his son is the latest chapter in what has become a very sad story of Chamberlain’s descent from top prospect to fringe player. One of the saddest things about the injury was not the foolishness on Chamberlain’s part for putting himself at risk by going to the trampoline facility, nor the seriousness of the injury itself, but the extent to which, despite the human interest angle, few Yankee fans seem to think this injury will have a significant impact on their team’s chances in 2012. As good as Chamberlain once could have been, the reality is that his unfortunate injury cost the Yankees their third, or possibly fourth, right handed arm out of the bullpen. That is rarely the type of loss that cannot be easily addressed or that costs a team a pennant.
Chamberlain has come a long way from when he made his big league debut for the Yankees in late 2007, During the tail end of that season, Chamberlain captured the attention of Yankee fans and much of the baseball world. He was a young dynamic pitcher, who gave up only one run in his first 24 big league innings, while striking out 34, for an aging and good, but otherwise not very interesting, Yankee team. His name, appearance and style were electric that fall-until he ran into a swarm of insects in the first round of the playoffs in Cleveland.
Those insects were only the beginning of Chamberlain’s bad luck streak. In 2008, he was moved between the bullpen and the starting rotation, but in 2009 assumed a role in the starting rotation. That year, as a 23 year old he pitched 157.1 innings, posted an ERA+ of 97, striking out 133 and walking 76. Those numbers were not great, but were very respectable for such a young pitcher. At that point, in his career, Chamberlain had pitched 281.2 innings with an ERA+ of 126. While he could not have been expected to maintain the level of play he had established in late 2007, it was easy to see how Chamberlain could have evolved into a very valuable pitcher. The Yankees, however, seemed to have little idea of how to handle a pitcher of Chamberlain’s potential. There approach to him appeared to be dominated by a fear of injury and overwork, with little attention to the import of regular work and a defined role for Chamberlain.
Accordingly, sometime in mid-2009 the Yankees began to get nervous that their prized asset, who was on track to pitch less than 200 innings that year was being overused. The “Joba Rules” in retrospect obviously erred too strongly on the side of caution, but always demonstrated that the Yankees were not quite sure how to handle their young pitching prospect. They were afraid to just let him pitch every fifth day as other young pitchers were doing; and as a result the Yankees undermined Chamberlain’s confidence which led to him feeling, and seeming, a little lost on the pitching staff.
By 2010, the idea of making a starter out of Chamberlain, for no obvious reason, had been abandoned. He continued to be an effective pitcher in 2010 and the first part of 2011, but was held to about 100 innings during those two years before his 2011 season ended early due to injury requiring Tommy John surgery. Chamberlain now has to come back from two serious injuries if he is to become a big league pitcher again.
Injuries, even avoidable ones, happen, so it is not entirely fair to blame the Yankees for that. It is, however, an unfortunate side effect of the silly “Joba Rules” that between injuries, Chamberlain only managed to have a partial career. Only briefly in 2007-9 was he allowed to simply be a pitcher. His time as a starter was limited to less than one full season because the Yankees were so worried about injury. The Yankees treatment of Chamberlain was baffling, and was baffling at the time as well. The team acted as if they had never seen a pitching prospect so had no idea how to use him. Now, sadly for the Yankees, but even more sadly for Chamberlain, they don’t have to worry anymore.