Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Yankees Do A Bad Joba Starting Joba

Joba Chamberlain
Joba Not In Kansas Nebraska Anymore

Joba Chamberlain made his highly-anticipated first Major League start on Tuesday for the Yankees. Hank "The New Boss" Steinbrenner argued with everybody for the first two months of the season, trying to convince everyone to shift the Native American kid with the 100 MPH fastball from the bullpen into the rotation. He finally got his wish.

Joba pitched 2.1 innings, giving up 1 run and walking four in what would eventually be a 9 - 3 Yankees loss.

Immediately, the press jumped all over Steinbrenner's decision. "Joba's 1st Start a Bust as Jays Top Yanks" ABC News declared. The NYPost called Joba "shaky," and "simply disappointing." WCBS New York went even further, declaring: "Joba Start Just Latest In String Of Disasters." called it "Joba's first-start disaster." Today, there's reports that several Yankees players are questioning the move.

Here's why they shouldn't.

This is what Joba Chamberlain did as a starter at the University of Nebraska:
207.3 innings, 3.37 ERA, 232 Ks, 67 BBs, 15 HRs.

This is what Joba Chamberlain did as a starter in the minors:
84.3 innings, 2.56 ERA, 125 Ks, 27 BBs, 4 HRs.

Those figures are pretty hard to top. What they show is a power pitcher with good command over his pitches, who doesn't give up the long ball. That's a recipe for MLB success. One blog, which uses a conversion chart called MLE to translate minor league stats into major league ones, came up with these major league numbers: 4.07 ERA, 83 Ks, 36 BBs, 10 HRs in 84 innings. That ERA would make him better than any starter on the Yankees other than Mike Mussina, and that strikeout rate would beat all of them.

What has Joba done lately to change this positive outlook? Only 33 Ks in 26 innings-- better than his predicted K rate, and only 1 HR allowed, better than his predicted HR rate. He's actually been better than advertised.

Take away the 4 walks he threw in Tuesday's game, and his control isn't too shabby either: 0.46 walks per inning vs. a predicted 0.42 walks per inning.

And I take away those four walks on Tuesday for good reason. The Yankees set up Joba to fail.

That's right. They made it very, very difficult for Joba to be successful.

By announcing a 65-pitch limit, they basically told the Toronto Blue Jays how to beat Joba. By being patient. Toronto knew Joba's start would end after 65 pitches. So Toronto players took pitches (refused to swing) the majority of the time. When they got ahead in the count, they watched the next pitch rather than being aggressive. They often didn't take the bat off their shoulders until there were two strikes. This game plan is typically used against a pitcher known for wildness-- see Daniel Cabrera-- but in Joba's case, it was simply a matter of Toronto hitters wanting to see as many pitches as possible. “We worked him good, we really did,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. Notice he didn't say "hit him" or "beat him," but instead "worked him." The red light was on for the Blue Jays, and on pitches they may have chased on a normal night, they laid off. They weren't trying to slug against Joba, indeed, no ball was hit significantly hard. The lone run scored on a weak dribbler through the 2nd base-1st base hole.

Toronto forced Joba to throw 38 pitches in the 1st inning.

Now imagine you're Joba. You know you have a limited pitch count. What do you do? You try to make every pitch an out pitch. When the pitches start adding up, you're trying even harder to make every toss count as a strike or ground-out. You start aiming pitches instead of letting them fly. This is not how a pitcher is successful. A good pitcher often purposely throws balls to set up strikes later in the count. A good pitcher is willing to induce contact that leads to ground-ball outs and pop flies. Joba wasn't able to do this. Almost every pitch had to be a strike in order for 65 pitches to last the minimum 5 innings required to be credited for a win.

Putting that much pressure on a 22 year old is a recipe for disaster. But Joba actually did well. 3 Ks in 2.1 innings is in line with his career strikeout rate. He didn't give up any big hits. The four walks were more the result of the Toronto strategy of waiting Joba out.

Not wanting to "waste" pitches, Joba threw his two "out" pitches-- a 100 MPH fastball and a wicked slider--90% of the time, almost completely ignoring his change of pace curveball and change-up. Without half his arsenal, he wasn't nearly as deadly as he could have been.

The Yankees mistake was not in making Joba the starter. It was making Joba the starter before his arm was stretched out to pitch at least 5 innings. Perhaps they should have given him a four-inning relief effort before inserting him into the rotation. The Pettite start on June 2nd would have been a nice time to do it. Pettitte could have easily been lifted after putting two on in the bottom of the 6th, with the Yankees clinging to a 2-run lead. Hell, he could have been put into the game after Pettitte already blew the lead. Had he pitched to the conclusion of the game, he would have pitched nearly 4 innings, which would have stretched out his arm enough to pitch this weekend against the Royals, the weakest hitting team in baseball.

That would have been an ideal first start for Joba. Without a 65-pitch limit, against the light-hitting Kansas City squad, it could have been a legendary start to what still promises to be a legendary career.

The good news? Joba will make his second career start Sunday against the Royals, with a somewhat normal pitch count (90-100 pitches). Plus he'll be pitching to Jorge Posada, who will be back from the DL. If you're in a fantasy baseball league, the time to trade for Joba would be now, before he throws the inevitable shutout/no-hitter.

So Yankees and the media. Cut the kid a break. The guy allowed 1 run in 2.1 innings. He retired the side in order in the 2nd. If he had been given permission to pitch a normal game, that may have been the only run he allowed.

Would he be better as a set-up guy? The Yankees are 23-15 in games NOT started by the number 5 combo of Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes (who are both personally on the hook for 7 losses). They needed someone to start winning those games every 5 days.

I'll be at Joba's start Sunday, and I don't expect to be disappointed. As T.O. would say, "Getcha popcorn ready."

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