What Exactly Has To Happen For People To Accept Joba Chamberlain As A Starter?

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This is, I believe, the first time I’ve talked about Joba Chamberlain with respect to his role on the Yankees’ pitching staff. As you undoubtedly know, much has been said about Chamberlain’s optimal usage on a baseball team. Many people – and sometimes it sure seems like most people – believe that Chamberlain should be a reliever. This is because he made his major league debut in this role and performed exceptionally well. Others believe that he should be a starter. After all, he was a starter both in college and in the minor leagues before changing roles to fit an immediate need in the Yankees’ bullpen. I’m firmly in the latter camp, but I’ve refrained from publicly taking a side on this issue because, quite honestly, I didn’t even want to dignify the opposing argument with a response. Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I must make a few things very clear. 

Joba Chamberlain was a starter in college, and was drafted to fill the same role in the major leagues. In 2005, he started 18 games and threw 118 innings for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He struck out 130 batters, walked 33, and allowed only seven home runs. The result was an ERA of 2.81. In 2006, he started 14 games and threw 89 innings. He struck out 102 batters, walked 34, and allowed eight homers. His ERA was 3.93. After being drafted by the Yankees, Chamberlain started 15 games and threw 88 innings in the minor leagues. He struck out 135 batters, walked 27, and allowed four homers. His ERA was 2.45. He’s thrown 100 innings as a starter in the major leagues. He’s struck out 108 batters, walked 42, and allowed eight homers. His major league ERA in this role is 3.15. These numbers indicate two things: Chamberlain has been conditioned to be a starting pitcher, and he’s been very good at actually doing it. If one of those statements were false, then perhaps there would be an argument for him becoming a full-time reliever. But neither is false. 

At first, the Chamberlain-to-the-bullpen argument centered around his electric performance as a reliever in 2007. Reporters, analysts, and fans alike recognized Chamberlain’s single-inning dominance and saw no way he could sustain it over the course of a five, six, or seven inning start. This was, of course, true. Two hundred innings of sub-2.00 ERA pitching just doesn’t happen. But rather than see what Chamberlain could do as a starter, seemingly everyone was content to just leave him in the bullpen and have him pitch 80 innings a season instead of 200. At the time, I could sort of, kind of, maybe accept him being a reliever, but only if he failed as a starter. It seemed like a fair assessment to me.

Well, Chamberlain has not failed as a starter. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And yet there is still an insatiable clamor to put him in the bullpen. When asked about Chamberlain in today’s chat, ESPN’s Jayson Stark said the following about why he should be a reliever:

Two reasons: For one thing, I think his ERA alone is misleading because he really hasn’t gotten deep enough in games to make a significant enough impact for me. He’s made it beyond six innings once this year. So he’s causing the bullpen to get a ton of outs every time he pitches. The other reason is, I see him as the obvious heir to Mariano. He has the stuff. He has the temperament. He has the love for that big moment. Those are invaluable qualities in the town he pitches in. 

I can’t wrap my head around this. Initially, Chamberlain becoming a starter was a bad idea because there was no way he could be good enough to justify his removal from the bullpen. Now, after 100 innings of 3.15 ERA ball, his ERA is “misleading”? I think his ERA is more “good” than “misleading.” Also, there’s a reason Chamberlain hasn’t gotten deep into games. It’s because he spent time pitching out of the bullpen, thereby sidetracking his development as a starter. It’s unfair for Stark to insist Chamberlain be a reliever and then qualify his success as a starter by saying “he really hasn’t gotten deep enough in games.” I also object to the notion that Chamberlain hasn’t given the Yankees enough innings in his starts. On average, starting pitchers have thrown 5.82 innings per start this season. Chamberlain has thrown 5.72 innings per start. For a 23-year-old pitcher that’s still refining his skills, that’s absolutely acceptable. The “not going deep enough into games” argument is garbage. It’s a cop out that reveals stubbornness more than useful insight. 

I don’t know if Joba Chamberlain will become a good starter. He’s thrown 100 innings in that role, which is nowhere near enough to draw any firm conclusions. It is, however, enough information to decide whether or not to abandon the idea. An ERA of 3.15 and 108 strikeouts in 100 innings is enough to convince any rational and impartial person that Chamberlain should continue as a starter until he proves he can’t do it.

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