As the Detroit Tigers licked their wounds following an unsightly collapse against Boston in game six of last year’s ALCS, the front office went to work addressing the team’s major offseason needs. Prominent among those was the relief corps, which as a group had a less than stellar year. The resulting vacancy announcement composed by General Manager Dave Dombrowski and friends must have looked something like this:
Job Opening: relief pitcher(s)
Location: Comerica Park; Detroit, Michigan
Salary: to be negotiated
Benefits: four months paid vacation; free meals, lodging, uniforms; unlimited disability pay; possible endorsement income
Qualifications: must have: (a)own power tools (e.g., 95 mph fastball); (b)flexibility to report to work on short notice (i.e., “hurry-up” call to bullpen); (c)ability to work in noisy environments (Comerica Park)
Miscellaneous: though not required, World Series experience is a plus
Note: Job requires 50% travel
Shortly after the job posted, Joba Chamberlain applied for the position and was signed by the Tigers in December.
Chamberlain, a 6’2″, estimated 240 pound Native American from Nebraska, was a surprise signing. He has spent his entire career with the New York Yankees, arriving on the scene in Gotham in meteoric fashion in 2007. Alternately employed as both a starting pitcher and reliever in his seven years with the organization, Chamberlain had a checkered run with the Bronx Bombers.
A prototypical strikeout pitcher, Chamberlain quickly became the darling of Yankee fans in his first year in pinstripes. After two strong years as a reliever, he was converted to a full-time starter in 2009, at which point his effectiveness ebbed.
In 2010 he returned to the bullpen on a full-time basis and had a respectable year. The following year he was off to a great start before Tommy John surgery ended his season in June.
He sufferred an additional injury in 2012 when he broke his ankle in a trampoline accident and did not make his first appearance for the Yankees until August. He pitched ineffectively in the final two months of that year.
Healthy again heading into 2013, he posted the following numbers:
Avg. Ag’nst: .278
Viewed from any angle, these numbers are unattractive. The only positive to be gleaned from them is Chamberlain came close to matching his career average of one strikeout per inning.
Otherwise, the balance of the data, especially the very high BB/9 rate and HR’s allowed, suggests during many appearances Chamberlain probably needed to issue an APB to assist him in locating home plate.
The 28 year-old Chamberlain’s velocity has dropped a couple notches from the 97 mph he averaged while lighting up radar guns in his rookie season. He now sits around 94-95 with the four seamer, his fastball of choice, which he throws just over half the time.
His other main pitch is a slider, his “put-away” pitch. He throws it about a third of the time at an average velocity of 85 mph.
He also mixes in an occasional curveball at 80 mph.
Though the stuff on offer is more than adequate to retire major league hitters, in 2013 Chamberlain more often than not did not throw it where it needed to be thrown.
Which begs the question, why exactly did we sign this guy, anyway?
The rationale behind this contract, like any other, has to be assessed along a risk/reward spectrum:
Chamberlain is an accomplished major leaguer who has pitched in a pressure cooker (Yankee Stadium) throughout his career and has a World Series championship ring in his drawer. By his own admission, a dimming of the media glare upon his relocation to the Midwest may well play in his favor.
Since his premature christening in New York as one of the franchise’s saviors, Chamberlain’s personal reputation gradually receded along with his on-the-field performance (e.g., a DUI, the aforementioned trampoline incident, and last year’s highly publicized supposed “row” with Mariano Rivera).
In this sense the Tigers are hoping Chamberlain’s performance away from Yankee Stadium, which was significantly better in 2012 and 2013 than his record at home, represents a continuing trend. Judged by his newly adopted commitment to physical conditioning and his positive attitude on display during the January Tiger Caravan state tour, the early returns are favorable.
Another reason for his signing is that despite his series of physical setbacks, Chamberlain has retained his velocity. Dombroski’s near fetishistic affinity for power arms is again at play here. Short of steroidal persuasion, it’s simply not possible to manufacture gifted pitching arms such as the one attached to Joba Chamberlain’s right shoulder.
As always with high-level sports executives, hope springs eternal.
In a word, the fundamental argument for making Joba Chamberlain a Detroit Tiger is this. He pitched well in the past. He’s in his physical prime. He has a power arm. He can do it again.
While $2.5 million is not necessarily a prohibitive ransom to pay a player in today’s game, it’s still a sizable sum to commit to a relief pitcher with the kind of numbers Chamberlain has posted in the past two years. If he fails to fluorish as a late inning option in Detroit, it will obviously represent wasted resources the team could have spent elsewhere.
For example, the Tigers failed to exercise a reported $3.25 million club option on reliever Jose Veras this offseason, who has pitched to a much higher standard than Chamberlain in the past two years. Veras has since signed with the Chicago Cubs for $3.85 million and has been anointed as their closer. Should the 32 year-old Veras continue to outpitch Chamberlain by a significant margin in 2014, the Chamberlain signing will likely be viewed with a gimlet eye by Tiger cognescenti, who remain sceptical about the offseason patchwork applied to a needy bullpen.
The Bottom Line
This is a relatively high-risk signing by the Tigers.
In signing Joba Chamberlain, the Tigers are dedicating a significant portion of their “bullpen money” to a former high-flyer whom they hope will return to form in the relative obscurity of Detroit, Michigan.
For his part, Chamberlain has publicly embraced a new diet, a new look, and a new city. He seems genuinely ready to deliver on his half of the bargain.
Which is a good thing.
Because should he fail to re-discover his vintage self, and instead continue to pitch more like the degraded recent version, come 2015 he might find himself in the unemployment line, lending one more negative statistic to the Joba Report.