September 23 – Happy Birthday Joba Chamberlain
As the Yankees try to get in the playoffs for the seventeenth time in the last eighteen years, Yankee fans like me have had a lot to be thankful for. It certainly is nice to have your favorite baseball team still competing every October. But I can’t help but think how many more World Series trophies would now be on display in the new Stadium’s Yankee Museum if the team’s front office were better judges of pitching ability and more efficient developers of pitching talent. Today’s Pinstripe Birthday celebrant provides a good example of the fabled franchise’s ongoing deficiencies in both areas.
Six seasons ago, Joba Chamberlain burst into the big leagues with some of the most impressive relief pitching I have seen in my fifty years as a fan. He didn’t just get opposing hitters out, he abused them. His ERA in 19 games, all played during pennant race crunch time was 0.38. Most of his outs were K’s and he seemed to have Mariano-like control of the strike zone. The Yankee front office promised us he would be an even better starter and I for one was sure they were right. But then the playoffs came and those stinking bugs swooped in off of Lake Erie and started swarming in Jacobs Field and consuming Joba that night on national TV, right in front of all our eyes. Chamberlain has not been the same pitcher since.
I was lucky enough to see Koufax pitch in his prime. In addition to great stuff, what made him so special was his ability to focus on what he needed to do and wanted to do with every single pitch he threw. Even when the pain in his left arm felt like a chain saw cutting through his flesh, Koufax was never distracted from focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the hitter in front of him and what the mission of his next pitch had to be. When Joba first came up and things were going so well, I let myself think that maybe, just maybe I was looking at the next Hall of Fame Yankee pitcher. Even when the bugs attacked him, I figured any pitcher, even Koufax would be unnerved by such an occurrence. But since then, I’ve watched Joba walk too many bottom of the order types and make too many bad pitches when he’s ahead of the hitter.
It took the great Koufax a full six years at the beginning of his big league career to hit his stride. This season is Joba’s sixth in the big leagues and I was really hoping it would be the year this guy began to master the art of pitching at the big league level. But instead its been pretty much another lost season for the Lincoln, Nebraska native following his freak trampoline accident in Florida during the Yankees’ exhibition season. Chamberlain did dedicate himself to recovering and rehabbing both his arm and ankle quickly enough to get back on the mound in time for the Yankees’ 2012 stretch run but I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that he will never be the dominant pitcher I and thousands of other Yankee fans hoped he would. I’m ready to admit New York should have traded Joba instead of Ian Kennedy.
You remember Kennedy. He was one of the Holy Trinity of young Yankee hurlers that included Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, who were supposed to resurrect and anchor the Yankees starting rotation for the next decade. None of the three pitched well in their 2008 debut as starters but it was Kennedy who was banished from the Bronx while Chamberlain and Hughes kept getting new chances to redeem and redefine themselves.
I’m not sure who has been making the pitcher acquisition decisions or who’s in charge of young pitcher development for the Yankees but neither has done their job too well over the past decade. From Jeff Weaver for Ted Lilly, the signing of Kevin Brown, giving up on Contreras, getting Jared Wright, Denny Neagle, Karl freaking Pavano, Randy Johnson with a bad back, spending the farm on a second go-round with Clemens then trying to go save money on your eighth inning set-up slot with names like Veras, Vizcaino and Proctor, giving AJ all those years and all that cash, going after Igawa and Vazquez II. Those moves cost millions of Yankee dollars and helped facilitate several quick exits from postseason. Then there’s the whole Joba Rules thing and the “Who’s the real Phil Hughes” game show being played out the past few seasons. How come there were no “Ivan Rules” being enforced? And what on earth has happened to the three Killer B’s who were supposed to anchor the Yankees’ starting rotation for the next decade? I love Curtis Granderson but it sure would have been nice to have both him and Ian Kennedy in pinstripes the last couple of seasons. The Yankees could really use a bottle of Windex to clean that crystal ball they’ve been using to see the future of their pitching personnel, but hey, 16 postseasons in 17 years, I got nothing to complain about.