He burst onto the scene with a terrific performance as a set-up man to one of the game’s greatest closers. He came up well into the season and was used with great care. He gave up a total of four hits in his first twelve appearances, struck out better than 12.5 men per nine innings in his rookie year, and took a surprising loss as his team fell in the first round of the American League playoffs. Since then, he has had some injury woes and been unable to achieve the levels of success suggested by his debut.
I am referring, of course, to Pat Neshek.
Fans of Men in Pinstripes will have had someone else in mind, someone they believe was derailed from sure stardom by mismanagement and either too much caution or not enough. Joba Chamberlain’s 2007 emergence was spectacular, but in the seasons since he has been increasingly enigmatic while moving from the bullpen to the rotation and back.
Since the start of the 2009 season, Joba has thrown 177 innings, has an ERA of 4.72, a strikeout/walk ratio under 2, and has allowed more than 1.5 base-runners per inning. Maybe his arm isn’t sound. Maybe his head is spinning from the twists and turns of his young life on the diamond. But athletes live in the now, and reputations within the game reflect current performance rather than perceived potential. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Joba Chamberlain was voted the most overrated player in the game in an ESPN The Magazine poll of major league players this spring.
Did the Yankees ruin Joba? Should they never have tried to make him a starter? Should they not have restricted his innings as a rookie by making manager Joe Torre follow “The Joba Rules?” (Anyone who saw how Torre worked Scott Proctor, Tom Gordon, Paul Quantrill and others who served as set-up men in New York will understand why the front office wanted to set explicit limits.)
The questions take Chamberlain’s future greatness as a given, always a dicey proposition. Gaudy as Joba’s rookie stats were – 0.38 ERA, one hit every two innings, nearly 13 strikeouts per nine – they came in a small, 24-inning sample, and as the Neshek example above suggests, they were not unprecedented.
Using Baseball-Reference.com’s invaluable Play Index, I looked for pitchers who, in their first year in the majors, threw at least fifteen innings, and allowed six or fewer hits and struck out eleven or more batters per nine innings. There have been nine such pitchers besides Joba, all but one of them since 1995: Karl Spooner, 1954 (18 innings); Hideo Nomo, 1995 (191.1); Troy Percival, 1995 (74); Armando Almanza, 1999 (15.2); B.J. Ryan, 1999 (20.1); Jose Valverde, 2003 (50.1); Pat Neshek, 2006 (37); Takashi Saito, 2006 (78.1); and Neftali Feliz, 2009 (31).
Of the group, Percival, Valverde and Saito came closest to maintaining this level of excellence in the year that followed. Most fell victim to the pitcher’s curse of fluctuating performance and intermittent injury. It’s not for nothing that the solons at Baseball Prospectus remind us that “there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect.”
When a hot young pitcher comes along, we fall in love. Pitchers more than hitters hold out the dream of near perfection – that combination of heat, movement, control, and variation that can make a pitcher unhittable for an extended period of time. Dwight Gooden looked like that for a while; Kerry Wood had it until his shoulder shut him down in his rookie year.
Only forty-five pitchers have ever had a season that met the elevated criteria set for the group above at any point in their careers. Three, impressively, were starters: Nomo, Rich Harden in 2006, and Pedro Martinez in 1997 and 2000. But the list also includes Kyle Farnsworth, John Rocker, Derrick Turnbow, Ryne Duren, and Skip Lockwood. A great year, abbreviated or otherwise, doesn’t mean a place in Cooperstown awaits.
It’s not Joba’s fault that he captured the imagination; some people just have names that stick in the mind. “Darryl Strawberry” was never going to be overlooked or underrated. If your name is “Phil Hughes,” it’s going to be easier for you to fail quietly and then come back stronger than if you’re “Dontrelle Willis” or “Joba Chamberlain.”
The words of a football coach come to mind: not Dennis Green’s, “They are who we thought they were,” but Bill Parcells’s: “You are who your record says you are.” Joba Chamberlain is a struggling set-up man on a team that counts on its bullpen to get it deep into the postseason. As with any ballplayer, what he might have been isn’t as important as what he’ll become from here.