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Joba Chamberlain’s Move to the Bullpen May Save Career

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Joba Chamberlain is not happy to have lost the competition to be the Yankees' fifth starter. This goes without question. Chamberlain has taken the copacetic, company-man, high road approach, stating "You go with the flow. That's what I've done."

But any starting pitcher — especially one as highly touted as Chamberlain — sees a move to the bullpen as a demotion. It is an inevitable reaction. But with a little historical perspective, Joba may realize that a move from serving as an average fifth starter to a dominant setup-man/eventual closer may be a most fortunate turn of events.

Rich "Goose" Gossage started his career as a fireballing reliever like Joba. But in 1976 (a year removed from leading the AL in saves at only 23 years old), the White Sox decided to use the future Yankees' closer as a starter. After posting a 1.84 ERA in 141 2/3 innings of relief in 1975 (more work than either Chamberlain or Hughes have logged in a single season) Gossage saw a major drop-off in every statistical category as a starter. Working 224 innings in '76 Gossage posted a 3.94 ERA, went 9-17, saw his WHIP rise from 1.193 to 1.357 and his SO/9 ratio drop from 8.3 to 5.4. A glaring, if not perfect, example of an increase in workload coinciding with an increased and repeated exposure to opposing lineups resulting in a dramatic drop in total production.

The next season Gossage went to Pittsburgh, and reverted to a closer as well as his near-unhittable self. Gossage posted a 1.62 ERA in 133 innings, a 0.955 WHIP, and a 10.2 SO/9 ratio. The stats speak for themselves; Goosage was an average starter but a game changer out of the 'pen. And as history has noted, Goose would evolve into the game's most feared closer.

In his time as a Yankee Gossage notched one World Series Championship in two appearances (blame George Frazier for the loss to the Dodgers as Gossage had a 0.77 ERA in 1981 and didn't surrender a single run in 14 1/3 innings over the entire playoffs), 150 saves, a 2.10 ERA, and a 1.076 WHIP. As a starter Rich Gossage likely would never have been remembered as even a footnote in the pantheon of baseball history. As a closer, the "Goose" is a Hall of Famer and a beloved Yankee forever.

Then there's. Dave Righetti. The former starter was a New York sensation in the early 1980s, winning the 1981 ROY Award on the way to a World Series berth that season. He followed it up with an amazing sophomore season in which he led the league in ERA (2.01), H/9 (6.4), and SO/9 (7.6) and went 8-4 over 105 1/3 innings pitched. And to fully secure his favorable place in Yankee-lore, he even threw a no-hitter against the hated Boston Red Sox in 1983, on July 4 of all days.

After the '82 season, Righetti's workload increased quickly. The pitcher threw 183 innings the next season and 217 innings the year after that. The once dominant starter saw his ERA increase to 3.79 in 1982 and 3.44 in '83, uncharacteristically leading the league in walks in 1982. His H/9 ratio in '83 (his final season as a starter) rose from 7.6 in his standout second season to 8.0 and his SO/9 ratio dropped from to 7.6 to 7.0.

This was only two seasons removed from 1981. The only logical explanation? The increased workload — which included facing opposing hitters multiple times every game — turned a dominant hurler into an average pitcher, much like Gossage and Chamberlain's tenures in the rotation.

When Gossage left for the San Diego Padres by way of free agency after the 1983 season the Yankees were in need of a closer. They turned to Righetti, whose career was declining quickly. And how did said former prospect respond to the move? Only by establishing himself as one of the top closers in the game, registering 31 saves, a 2.34 ERA, and a 1.204 WHIP in 1984 (all improvements over his previous season as a starter).

Most tellingly and relatable to Chamberlain, his SO/9 ratio increased from 7.0 in 1983 to 8.4 in 1984. Eventually Righetti would become the premier closer in the game for a solid period of time, posting a league-leading 46 saves with a 2.46 ERA in 1986 and winning his first of two consecutive Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Awards, eventually retiring as the Yankees' all-time saves leader.

Until Mariano Rivera came along. And even he began his career in the rotation.

Rivera was a much ballyhooed starter in the Yankee farm system, starting 68 games at various levels in the minors. But as was the case with most Yankee pitching prospects at that time for the organization, Rivera's one season as a starter didn't go according to plan. In the Yankees' Wild Card year of 1995, Rivera started 10 games, posting career worsts in ERA (5.51) and WHIP 1.507. He also struck out only 6.9 batters per game — the second lowest total of his career — showing his decreased effectiveness over the course of a game, likely due to his limited pitch selection.

All signs pointed to Rivera as another Yankee pitching bust. Granted, workload was not the issue here as Rivera hurled only 67 innings in that rookie season. But like Joba, it was clear early on that Mariano's "stuff" was better suited for the bullpen.

And while his circumstances may be different than those of Righetti and Gossage, the statistical outcome of the move was the same. Serving as the setup man for closer John Wetteland, Rivera was an integral part of the Yankees' 1996 championship team. Actually seeing an increase in his innings pitched to 107 2/3 — all in relief — Rivera's ERA dropped to 2.09, his WHIP to 0.994, and his SO/9 ratio rose four batters per game to a ridiculous 10.9 ratio.

The rest of the story is well documented history. Rivera has become arguably the greatest closer that has ever lived, winning five World Series Championships, leading the league in saves three times (on teams that doesn't participate in many close games), garnering Five Rolaids Relief Awards, and accumulating career stats that put him in another stratosphere when it comes to discussing and comparing closers.

And to think, if the Yankees had insisted that this obviously talented prospect maintain his role as a starter, the totality of baseball history since 1996 could be totally different.

So while Joba stays PC with his comments, it is time that he truly embraces his role and future and buys into his own BS lock-stock-and hopefully-smoking-barrel, because it is a move that might save his now floundering career. After bursting onto the scene in 2007 in highly limited action (striking out 34 batters in 24 innings and posting a 0.38 ERA) Joba backed up the hype the next season, continuing his impressive success of out of the bullpen.

In 2008 Joba took on full time duties as a setup man, throwing 100 1/3 innings while posting a 2.60 ERA, a 1.256 WHIP, and a vicious 3.03 K/BB ratio (that's 118 Ks to only 39 walks). While Chamberlain did start did start 12 games that season, those outings were typically short, with his innings and pitch counts limited and regulated closely (who could forget the "Joba Rules"). He started the season as a reliever, finished as a reliever, and saw his greatest success as a reliever without a doubt.

But in 2009 the Yankees felt it was time to elevate Joba into the rotation. And like his Yankee predecessors, the results — without being overally figurative — were simply an overall decline in every important statistical category.

Throwing 57 more innings that in the previous season and obviously facing lineups the second and sometimes third times through (for the first time ever with the Joba rules now totally pulled back), Chamberlain watched his ERA balloon to 4.75, his WHIP elevate to a disgusting 1.544 and his SO/9 ratio drop from 10.6 in '08 to to 7.6 in '09. The once burley, intimidating reliever with the 100 MPH country fastball and the Guidry-like slider was all of a sudden wild, hittable, and essentially ineffective.

Will Chamberlain's return to the bullpen work out as well as it did for Righetti, Gossage and Rivera? Time will only tell. But if history is any kind of an indicator, the success of these former starters-turned-relievers simply can't be ignored, especially by Joba himself.

He will be successful in his setup role without question, as long as his head doesn't sabotage his arm. Chamberlain's ultimate legacy is in his own hands now. He can embrace his new role as Righetti and especially Rivera did, or he can stubbornly keep fighting to be a starter until the Yankees inevitably let him go to linger as an average and eventually forgettable pitcher for a team like the Padres or Pirates. (Is Ramiro Mendoza still around these days?)

General manager Brian Cashman and company are refined at recognizing talent, but if Joba has any question as to the quickness of the Yankee trigger as it relates to not meeting expectations, he need only ask new teammate — and former one-time Yankee — Javier Vazquez about how fast one can lose their pinstripes, no matter how much potential they supposedly possess.

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About Anthony Tobis

  • I was curious, so I looked at the top ten savemongers of all time. They neatly fit into four categories:

    Started in the minors
    Lee Smith
    John Franco
    Billy Wagner
    Jeff Reardon
    Randy Myers

    Rarely/barely started, but drafted as a position player
    Troy Percival
    Trevor Hoffman

    Failed MLB starter
    Mariano Rivera
    Rollie Fingers

    Declining MLB starter
    Dennis Eckersley

    I’m sure if I go down the list they’d all fit neatly into one of these. That’s because nobody drafts closers. Everybody wants to be the starter because one can affect more units of baseball. So this is another list Joba may want to see so his bravado can be channeled properly.