Posted by: mdegeorge | June 9, 2011

Elbow injury Rules Joba out for a while

They say the bigger they come, the harder they fall.

When that magnitude takes both the literal (a 240-pound frame) and the figurative (a 21-year-old straight out of the Nebraska carrying the hopes and expectations of a city and assuming the mantle of succession of the greatest closer ever to toe the rubber), each ascent and descent from favor is all the more pronounced.

That’s what made the right-handed reliever with a fastball regularly hitting triple digits on the radar gun and electric breaking stuff an instant hit, the subject for the rampant merchandizing only the New York Yankees’ machine could churn out on a first-name basis with a mere 24 professional innings pitched under his lengthy belt.

Courtesy of Creative Commons.

And that attention also magnifies the doomsday scenario the Yankees currently face with the one-time apple of the Big Apple’s eye Joba Chamberlain facing a year’s recovery from ligament damage in his throwing elbow that will likely require Tommy John surgery.

It makes the premature declaration that “Joba Rules” seem quite silly, and it brings into question the long-standing debate as to the second meaning of that term, the “Joba Rules” that sought to limit usage and preserve Chamberlain’s arm to prevent just such a situation as what the New York headlines are now coping with.

Chamberlain’s arm injury is hardly a death sentence for his career; countless other major leaguers have proven that major reconstructive surgery isn’t catastrophic, even for the most powerful of power pitchers. But it is a fitting conclusion to a phase in Chamberlain’s still young career from can’t-miss phenom to reliever on the verge of missing out on a once-bright promise.

It was once assumed that Chamberlain’s stuff was so good that he would mow down opposing batter for years to come. Care would need to be taken, yes, but eventually he would have the ability to be the logical heir to Mariano Rivera’s ninth-inning throne in the Bronx.

Chamberlain’s career started like a Yankee’s fairytale. He made 19 appearances after being called up in early August, recording two wins, eight holds, and a save without a loss or blown lead. He gave up one earned run in 24 innings (an ERA of 0.38) and started his career with 16.2 consecutive scoreless innings. But a postseason meltdown (I’m sure we all remember the infamous bug game in Cleveland) contributed to a division series exit for the Yankees and was the first blemish on Chamberlain’s record.

The following season was a year of turmoil for the club, the first in a decade and a half that playoffs commenced without the Yanks in the field. It was also the beginning of the great starter experiment with Chamberlain. After two successful months of bullpen work with an ERA hovering around 2 – which concluded with a gradual stretching in length of his outings to prepare him to jump into the rotation – Chamberlain made his first Major League start June 3 against Toronto. It lasted 2.1 innings and saw a wild Chamberlain chased after surrendering only one hit and four walks (those kid gloves again).

He settled down after that, going 3-1 in his next 11 starts, but was shelved with an injury while warming up for start number 13 that put him on the sidelines for most of August. When he returned in September, he was back in the bullpen, where he allowed only three earned runs in 11.1 innings while recording seven holds.

The starting journey began anew in 2009, with Chamberlain tucked in as the fourth starter behind newly purchased CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Things started off well enough, Joba carried a 8-2 record into the third week of August. Then things fell apart. He managed to go six innings only once more in his final nine starts, going 1-4 over those outings. When the playoffs opened, Chamberlain found himself out of a shortened starting rotation and back in the bullpen yet again. He made 10 appearances in the Yanks’ championship run, allowing nine hits but only two runs in 6.1 innings, including the win in Game 4 of the World Series in Philadelphia.

As the 2010 season dawned, logic reigned again and the starting experiment looked to be a thing of the past. It turned Chamberlain into one of the league’s most effective relievers, as he made 73 appearances with a 3-4 records, three saves, 26 holds, four blown leads and a 4.40 ERA. His number of holds put him tied for fifth-most in the majors.

He had picked up where he left of in 2011, with a 2-0 record, 12 holds and a 2.83 ERA in 19 appearances as the Yanks eighth-inning man in place of the injured Rafael Soriano. It was the first season in which the Yankees had taken a definitive stance on Chamberlain, despite trade rumors and the arrival of former closer Soriano indicated he might land back in the rotation or be trade bait. He’s become a solid stopper, though still something short of his advance billing and the high hopes many had for him when he burst onto the scene.

So for those keeping track at home, that means Chamberlain in his short five-year career has bounced from reliever to starter to reliever to starter to reliever. Whether his next stop in about a year will be the rotation or the ’pen is anybody’s guess. It may be that it gives other teams with electric arms playing their trades in the bullpen (that’s you, Cincinnati Reds and Aroldis Chapman) pause before tinkering with an otherwise good things.

At least it won’t leave Joba wondering when and where he’ll get his next call for a while.

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