“Other guys helped create that mess,” said Joe Girardi of last Saturday’s disaster in which the Yankee relief corps blew a 10-5 lead to the Cleveland Indians in a 13-11 loss. “But he just didn’t make the pitches when he had to … Joba is our eighth inning guy, and he needs to get it done for us.”
Suzyn Waldman read those words during the Yankees’ broadcast last night as Joba Chamberlain took the mound to a smattering of boos in the eighth inning. He was in support of Javier Vasquez in the Yankees’ 3-1 victory over the Baltimore Orioles. This time Chamberlain had that rarity of rarities, for him: a perfect 1-2-3 inning. But his performance didn’t erase the memory of Saturday’s disaster; it’s going to take several more 1-2-3 innings from Joba to do that.
Yes, a lot of people contributed to the Yankees’ ugliest loss of the season — one of them was C.C. Sabathia, who has been draining the bullpen with one mediocre start after another — but none of the relievers responsible were named Joba and none of them were regarded only a short time ago as the hottest young righthander in the game and heir to Mariano Rivera.
Joba Chamberlain will be 25 in September, and though fans and media seem reluctant to say it, it’s beginning to look as if greatness has passed him by. Before last night’s game he’s been absolutely terrible this year with a 5.82 ERA in 22 games and more hits allowed, 23, than innings pitched, 21.2. In fact, it’s now been nearly two years since Joba showed flashes of his early brilliance.
In 2007 he pitched in 19 games and looked phenomenal: a 0.38 ERA in 24 innings with 34 strikeouts. He seemed so valuable that the Yankees’ front office made a set of rules for him which governed every aspect of his pitching but one: whether he was going to be a starter or reliever. In 2008 he was far from terrible, but the Yankees seemed puzzled and indecisive as to how he should be used. He started 12 games, pitched 30 more in relief, and ended up with a more than respectable 2.60 ERA but with a messed up head. No one seemed to know what his role on the team was supposed to be. If the Yankees wanted him to be a starter, why not get him going in spring training with stints designed to beef up his endurance? If a reliever, why not concentrate on a simple combination of fastball/slider?
Last year he was an ineffective starter in 31 games with a 4.75 ERA and more hits allowed (167) than innings pitched (157.1). He also hit 12 batters. The lingering image one has of Joba in 2009 is of a beleaguered young man standing on the mound shaking off Jorge Posada more times than he had pitches in his arsenal. What happened to the near-98 mph rising fastball and the hard slider of which former pitching coach Ron Guidry said “feels like hitting a bowling ball with a broomstick”?
If you take Chamberlain on the basis of last year’s starting and this year’s relieving, there seems to be nothing left to offer any hope. From 2009 through yesterday, he’s a combined 10-13 with an ERA of nearly 5.00 and more than 275 batters allowed to reach base by hit or walk in just over 190 innings.
A year ago everyone was asking whether Joba or Phil Hughes should come out of the bullpen and be given a shot at the starting rotation; now Hughes has made a tremendous leap in development while Joba has slipped so badly he ought to be relegated to mop-up duty — which he would be in the Yankees didn’t so desperately need someone to step up into that set-up man role.
The Yankees’ front office created this mess themselves with their indecisiveness, but if there’s one talent Joe Girardi has definitively shown as Yankee manager, it’s his ability to shape a bullpen. It’s up to Girardi to take Joba in hand, give him a solid Zen slap, and get him back to the fastball/slider pitcher he was when he was so intimidating. On a rapidly aging team with a starting rotation whose average age is on the wrong side of 31 and whose ace reliever has recently shown signs of advancing age himself, Joba’s turnaround could be all important to the Yankees season. But if he puts in a couple more performances like the one against the Indians last Saturday, it’s far from unlikely that the Yankees brass will cut their losses and make the term “The Joba Rules” a poignant memory.