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Joba Chamberlain

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Joba Chamberlain
born Justin Louis Chamberlain

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Joba Chamberlain was a top prospect in the New York Yankees system before making his major league debut in 2007, his first pro season.

After high school, Chamberlain went to Nebraska-Kearney, where he was 3-6 with a 5.23 ERA but had the best ERA and most strikeouts (49) on the team. He was 4-4 with a 1.36 ERA that summer in American Legion ball while batting .505 with 11 home runs. In 2005, Joba transferred to the main campus of the University of Nebraska and had a 10-2, 2.81 record with 130 K in 118 2/3 IP. He led the #5 team in NCAA Division I in strikeouts and was second in wins. He was one strikeout behind Big 12 Conference leader Max Scherzer and tied for third in the Conference in wins. He made the All-Conference team and was named the Newcomer of the Year. Collegiate Baseball ranked him as a third-team All-American.

The hefty hurler slipped to 6-5, 3.93 his junior year with 102 strikeouts in 89 1/3 IP. Originally considered a top-10 pick, his stock dropped due to injuries. He was selected with the 41st pick in the 2006 amateur draft by the New York Yankees, compensation for the loss of Tom Gordon to free agency. Scouted by Tim Kelly, Joba signed for a $1,100,000 bonus, but did not pitch in the minors that year. It was the highest a Native American player had gone in the history of the MLB amateur draft.

He was 2-2 with a 2.63 ERA for the West Oahu CaneFires in the 2006 Hawaii Winter Baseball season. Chamberlain ranked fifth in the league in ERA and his 46 strikeouts were second to Rick van den Hurk. He made the league All-Star team, joining van den Hurk, Atsushi Nohmi and Kanehisa Anime as the pitchers. Baseball America rated him the top prospect in the league, right ahead of John Mayberry Jr. and 7 spots ahead of Ian Kennedy, picked by the Yankees earlier than Chamberlain in the 2006 draft. Baseball America also rated him as having the best fastball in the system.

Joba got off to a quick start in his first season in the minors in 2007, going 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in seven games for the Tampa Yankees, allowing 25 hits, walking 11 and striking out 51 in 40 IP. He pitched the third inning for the US in the 2007 Futures Game. He walked Michael Saunders, who stole second and scored on a Chin-Lung Hu single before Chamberlain settled down to finish the inning without further damage. He was then promoted from Tampa to the Trenton Thunder and had a 4-2, 3.43 record for them, striking out 64 in 39 1/3 innings. He then was moved up once more, to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees. In his AAA debut, he pitched five scoreless innings and whiffed 10 to give him 125 strikeouts in 84 1/3 IP through July 26th. Chamberlain was 1-0 in 3 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, fanning 18 in 8 innings while allowing no runs and five hits. That made him 9-2 with a 2.45 ERA and 135 K in 88 1/3 innings in his first year as a professional, allowing a .198 average. He was called up to New York to replace Brian Bruney.

In his first major league game on August 7th, Joba relieved Jim Brower against the Toronto Blue Jays in the 8th inning and struck out his first major league opponent, Ray Olmedo. He went two scoreless frames, walking two, whiffing two and allowing one hit. Through his first three major league games, he had allowed no baserunners in three more innings, while striking out six more. The Yankees' top brass enacted special "Joba rules" to prevent him from being overused in spite of his success. His fairy-tale first season ended on a strange note, when in the ALDS, he was bothered by an invasion of midges in Cleveland, OH, losing a game to the Cleveland Indians.

The big story then became whether Joba should start or relieve, the controversy lasting for the next two seasons. He began 2008 in the bullpen, but when the Yankees' starting rotation was beset by injuries, the pressure to have him start became relentless. He was eased into the job, pitching well, but not picking up many wins, and then being shut down at the end of the season. He ended the year 4-3, 2.60, in 42 games, including 12 starts. He spent most of 2009 as a starter, but had trouble going deep into games and seemed to lose velocity when compared to his performances out of the bullpen. He was 9-6, 4.75 in 157 innings. Manager Joe Girardi put him in the bullpen when the Yankees reached the postseason, deciding to go with only three starters, and he pitched well in relief as the Yanks conquered the World Series. In 10 appearances, he gave up only two earned runs and won one game in the World Series. Then in 2010, he was in contention to become the Yankees' fifth starter, but lost out to Philip Hughes and returned to the bullpen, to be Mariano Rivera's set-up man. Over the period, he had pitched well as a starter, but had been simply outstanding as a reliever, keeping alive the controversy over what his optimal usage should be. Things changed in 2010, however, as he experienced problems with his mechanics and was hit hard, in spite of throwing his fastball at a much higher velocity than when he was a starter. In late July, Girardi moved him away from the set-up role in order for him to work out his problems in less stressful circumstances. He finished the season with a record of 3-4, 4.40 in 73 games with 3 saves but pitched all right in the ALCS, giving up a single run in 3 1/3 innings facing the Texas Rangers.

Joba was back in the bullpen at the start of 2011, and was not seriously considered for a starting spot even after the Yankees were left thin in that area when Andy Pettitte decided to retire. He was pitching much better than in his previous two seasons, with a 2-0 record and 2.83 ERA in 27 games as one of two set-up men for Mariano Rivera when he was placed on the disabled list on June 8th with what was originally described as "discomfort" in his pitching elbow. The issue turned out to be much more serious though - a torn ligament requiring season-ending Tommy John surgery. He suffered a further and potentially much more significant setback on March 23, 2012 when he dislocated his ankle while playing on a trampoline with his five-year-old son at a kid's center with athletics activities. He underwent surgery for an open dislocation, but lost so much blood that there was concern for his life. The injury seemed to preclude any return this year, and may well have turned out to be career-ending. However, Chamberlain was released from hospital three days later and told media that while the injury was serious, his life was never in danger and no bones were broken. He stated he was still planning to return to the mound before the end of the season. True to his word, he made his first appearance on August 1st, giving up 2 runs in 1 2/3 innings in a 12-3 win over the Baltimore Orioles. He went 1-0, 4.35 in 22 relief appearances the rest of the way and struck out 22 batters in 20 2/3 innings. In the postseason, he pitched one scoreless inning of relief in extra innings in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Orioles, then made three more scoreless appearances in the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, although he only worked an inning and a third as the Yankees were swept in four games.

Chamberlain started the 2013 season in the Yankees' bullpen and made 10 appearances in April, picking up his first save since 2010 along the way, but on May 2nd, he was placed on a crowded disabled list retroactive to April 28th, with a strained muscle in his side. He came back at the end of May, then was healthy the rest of the way, logging 45 appearances. His record was 2-1 with the one save, with an ERA of 4.93 in 42 innings. He had now fallen well down the Yankees' bullpen totem pole, and was rarely used in key situations. Seeing his future with the Yankees blocked, on December 12, he decided to move to the Detroit Tigers as a free agent on a one-year deal.

Sources: University of Nebraska bio, Minorleaguebaseball.com, Hawaii Winter Baseball website, 2006-2007 Baseball Almanacs, The Baseball Cube

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